Vintage Cubao

(Part I – Araneta City)

Before Eastwood, there was Cubao, and before Cubao, there was Avenida. When Avenida lost its luster, people flocked to Cubao for cinema, carnival, and cuisine. If Avenida had State, Ever, and Odeon, Cubao had Diamond, Coronet, and New Frontier.

I’m sure many a gallivanting Atenean found his way to any of these Cubao movie houses while his Taft rival queued at the cinemas of Harrison Plaza which closed down a couple of years ago. This makes Ali Mall in Cubao the oldest existing mall in Manila since both malls opened in 1976. This pioneering mall had stores like Botak, the running store, and Papemelroti, the artisanal gift shop. It was named after Muhammad Ali who exchanged blows with Joe Frazier in the greatest boxing match of all time—the Thrilla in Manila at the Araneta Coliseum.

During its heyday, Araneta was one of the biggest coliseums in the world. Now called Smart Araneta Coliseum, it hosts big events, from sports to concerts to beauty pageants. I vividly remember the nearly riotous concerts of our Pinoy Rockers and the legendary rock star, Eric Clapton. The Commodores electrified their audience with the bump.

I also experienced horrendous traffic when Ateneo–La Salle and Crispa–Toyota basketball games were played successively. As a child, I was mesmerized by the ball handling antics of the Harlem Globetrotters. 

Not contented in being a mere sports spectator, I gallantly attempted the hottest craze of the ‘70s—skating at Fiesta Carnival. This playground was the first indoor carnival, notorious for its death-defying roller coaster and other scary rides. It has never been replicated until now.

Another “rite of passage” for a Manila kid was watching over his father’s shoulder to watch the robotic Christmas show of Manila C.O.D. The automated show transferred to Greenhills several years after. I frequented C.O.D.’s sporting goods at the top floor since it had the best supply of swimming and skin diving gear. Unsurprisingly, it was owned by the family of Olympic swimmer Ral Rosario. 

Next door is everybody’s favorite, Aling Nena’s Bibingka, which still delivers online. Walking toward Aurora Boulevard, Tropical Hut, which predates Jollibee and McDonald’s, still serves its juicy burgers. Jollibee, by the way, started as an ice cream parlor somewhere in Cubao. What I really miss, though, is the root beer float of A&W, which has been long gone.

If there are losses, there are also reincarnations. Rustan’s is now in Gateway. New Frontier is now called Kia Theater but seems to have reverted to its old name for better recall. They haven’t removed the old signage with missing letters. I shall never forget this cinema because after watching Bruce Lee pummel Chuck Norris in the Way of the Dragon, I scurried out and ran around Cubao to cool off my heightened adrenaline. It’s a good thing I didn’t knock the first guy I saw!

On a more sedate note, the traditional shoe stores of Marikina Expo have transformed into non-traditional creative art spaces and renamed Cubao X. It has restaurants, antique/vintage shops, vinyl stores, collectibles, and a thrift shop. The old shoe repair shop is the only remnant that reminds us that this was once a shoe haven. I’m not sure if the small cinema is still around, while Fred’s Revolucion has branched out to Escolta. 

Only time will tell if this hipsters’ haven will endure, though I see good signs when I see loyal customers flocking on weekend nights. 

Hidden in the back is Bellini’s, that authentic Italian restaurant owned by an Italian paparazzo who has endeared many Filipinos with his gregariousness. Bellini’s now has a separate coffee shop which serves Italian donuts!

Across the street on Romulo are more antique shops. Inside Ali Mall are antique, vintage, vinyl shops which you can enjoy picking in air-conditioned comfort. Sining Kamalig has resurrected in Ali Mall from its original site in Manila.

The Cubao of today would be unrecognizable for a balikbayan with the emergence of high-rise condominiums, hotels, and BPOs. I, for one, lost my bearings in a few instances. The old landmarks like Farmers’ Plaza and the Big Dome (Araneta) have been modernized, but there remains a tinge of patina in the small stores, flower shops and old burger joints that will make you reminisce about a vintage Cubao.

JP Ordoña (Manilakad) leads Manilakad Walks in Intramuros, Binondo, Quiapo and more. In between, he writes, climbs, dives and more. Let him guide you to several walking destinations in Manila. Manilakad (JP Ordoña can be reached on Facebook Messenger or through text at 0916-3597888.)