[Uncle Bob] No whores at the Oarhouse

Roberto Coloma

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[Uncle Bob] No whores at the Oarhouse
The Oar was once a journo bar. Nowadays, the Oar is populated by medical students, doctors and undergraduates from the UP Manila campus and the Philippine General Hospital just a short walk away.

This is not the Malate I was born and grew up in.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was a laid-back, leafy district of churches, Catholic schools like mine, small businesses and low-rise wooden houses served by buses with wooden sides and clanking jeepneys.

First came the Japanese sex tours. Busloads of Japanese salarymen would park outside brothels, emerging later with girls to be brought to their hotels. As a kid in San Andres, I would watch the rituals wondering what sex was like.

Then girlie bars blossomed in the area shared by Malate and Ermita during the 1980s.

What happened at girlie bars? For about one US dollar for a bottle of beer that you bought them, girls would sit and chat with you, stroking your thigh and hoping you’d take them to your house or hotel.

If you want to date her, you pay a “bar fine” to the establishment.

The Firehouse was a popular bikini dancer joint favored by foreign correspondents and, I suspect, spooks from the nearby US embassy.

The influx of foreign journalists after the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. in 1983 by the minions of the first President Ferdinand Marcos was a boon for the bars.

Apart from the Firehouse, another bar called Spider’s Web drew in the visiting hacks. Sources tell me an upstairs room featured a service called On The Rocks administered by toothless women with mouths filled with ice chips,  but it might have been an urban legend – and of course I did not check.

Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim tried to clean up Malate and Ermita but it was a futile effort.

Now Malate is called Korea Town in street signs.

The police station at the once hip Adriatico Circle has a Korean Help Desk but I seriously doubt the cops can speak Korean.

There are 24-hour massage parlors. I guess some Koreans want hand jobs – also known as “happy endings,” according to my sources – before breakfast.

But amid all the sleaze, there is a refuge in Malate for people who just want a cold drink and excellent food and it’s called the Oarhouse pub. Or the Oar for short.

Make sure you pronounce it correctly. It’s not a whorehouse.

The Oar was once a journo bar. 

News bureaus used to cluster around the US embassy, 10 minutes by car from the Oar, for some reason that’s still unclear to me. Some news bureaus were located in the  nearby Manila Hotel.

I was the chief reporter of Agence France-Presse under the legendary Francophone bureau chief Teddy Benigno. We were on the third floor of the VIP building, right across Roxas Boulevard from the embassy. 

Student and labor protests were held at  Plaza Ferguson just outside the VIP Building, a very convenient arrangement for AFP.

News agencies including AFP eventually migrated to Makati. The pandemic accelerated the hollowing out of the news community in Malate and Ermita as home offices became the norm.

Nowadays, the Oar is populated by medical students, doctors and undergraduates from the University of the Philippines (UP) Manila campus and the Philippine General Hospital just a short walk away.

These kids can drink!

They favor colored cocktails with names like Weng Weng, which roughly translates as giddy or stoned.

I wouldn’t want to be treated by a young doctor who had just spent the night at the Oar.

Owner Ben Razon, a former photographer from a famous restaurateur family in food haven Pampanga province north of Manila, is like a bearded sage sitting at the bar with his near-freezing San Miguel Pale Pilsen  beer. 

I gave him a framed poster of the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane years  ago and it still occupies a strategic spot at the far end of the bar.

“I’m the only non-whore bar in these parts,” Razon, 64, told Rappler.

Adult, Male, Man
Oarhouse owner Ben Razon and the author.

For one brief, shining moment on May 31, the Oarhouse was once again a journo bar. The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP, sometimes fondly called Fuck Up) celebrated its 50th anniversary that night.

After the gathering at the Manila Hotel (the food was the usual bland banquet menu) about 15 of us drove to the Oar to feast on pork barbecue, sisig (diced pig cheeks sizzling on a hot plate) and other Pampanga delicacies.

That night was just like old times when my FOCAP gang – including the late master photographers Romeo Gacad and Melvyn Calderon – congregated at a long table near the entrance on Friday nights, swigging San Miguel like marines on shore leave.

Architecture, Building, Dining Room
Journos at the Oar House. With them are the late photojournalists Romeo Gacad and Melvyn Calderon.

After retiring as an international correspondent based in Singapore in 2022 and relocating to Manila a year ago, I now go to the Oarhouse on Friday nights, usually the only journo customer present, watching the young UP crowd slowly get drunk and rowdy till their parental allowances run out.

Outside the bar, the action is different.

Hookers in criminally short dresses sit on plastic stools or prowl in packs looking for business.

Older white men hunt for young brown meat, some nonchalantly holding hands with transexual prostitutes. I am not sure if they know their partner also has a dick.

Once in a while mainland Chinese men walk past the Oar, conversing loudly in their coarse accent. Why do Chinese shout at each other from two feet away?

I hope they disappear one day from Malate and the West Philippine Sea. –

Roberto Coloma, better known as Bobby, retired in 2022 after 40 years as a foreign correspondent. He started his career as editor-in-chief of the Philippine Collegian, the student newspaper of the University of the Philippines.

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