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Poblacion reloaded: Discover how this Philippine nightlife hive adapted during COVID

What’s left of Poblacion is fighting to stay alive — despite stacked odds against the re-emergence of late-night revelry

  • Samantha Nicole
  • 23 August 2021
Poblacion reloaded: Discover how this Philippine nightlife hive adapted during COVID

Between strip clubs, massage parlours and long-time residential complexes, Poblacion’s backstreets are gloriously brimming with just about every nightlife entertainment possible. There’s a stark-striped listening room where local selectors play records on bespoke speakers, a three-story building covering mixed genres until the wee hours of the morning, art galleries shifting into snug clubs when dark falls, rooftop bars welcoming the sunset, and so it goes.

What Poblacion used to be was a reminder of how Malate was in the nineties: assortments of people hopping from one spot to the next, each finding their way into their right kind of night. However, a walk around the neighbourhood now is a grim look at the current state of the local nightlife. Clubs trying to operate at this time are left with chains around their locks only the government has access to. Spaces unable to survive are being torn down to turn into standard sights.

But this isn’t about losing. It’s about fighting to stay alive.

Numerous establishments have shifted their energy towards daytime pleasures. Tucked somewhere inside an apartment building lies PLAY Record Stop, a record store heavy on the electronic music sleeves. “Everyone knows Poblacion but if they haven’t been, it becomes their first trip to the area which is pretty cool,” co-owner and DJ Jason Soong shares. “I feel like it’s our little way of showcasing the community.”

Businesses like Agimat at Ugat, Buccaneers and Dr. Wine, who were known for a mix of their cocktails, food and music selections, have put all their efforts towards reminding their regulars that early drinking and feasting could be a semblance of what we used to enjoy late at night.

“Unfortunately, the virus is here to stay for good. It's all about how we can adapt and survive first, then we can start thinking about bigger events. I think personal health and getting the vaccine is the best thing we can do,” Martin Ledesma, co-owner of the listening room and craft cocktail bar, OTO, explains. The space, which has welcomed countless vinyl DJs and guest bartenders dedicated themselves to their love of coffee, cocktails and just keeping the music playing. “There hasn't been any real solution from the Philippine government, and I don't expect any good news from them. So, the only way right now is to go online or do small pocket events.”

In between fending for themselves and pulling each other up, one can’t help but miss how things used to be. For events proprietor and DJ Emel Rowe, it’s about working together towards a singular goal and trusting one’s community to be as resilient and eager as they have always been when gigs are happening.

“There are so many moving parts that need to be considered for any attempt to have an impact and even if we hit all of those points perfectly, if the timing is off then the whole thing fails. The simple answer would be for everyone to get vaccinated. Once that happens then we can explore the next steps,” he says.

With strings of bars, restaurants and clubs taking steps to keep their heads above water comes to a constant invitation for continuous support and dangling anticipation of how resounding Poblacion’s comeback can be.

“I get excited for what’s gonna come! How the habits of the people will change, and the adjustments of bars to meet those punters’ needs,” Rowe gleefully notes. “I’m banking on the idea of the roaring 2020s so whatever peace and quiet I’m experiencing now is a form of rest before Poblacion is back better than ever. Hopefully, we don’t have to wait much longer for that return.”