Hard Times On a Timeless Street In the Philippines

'The oldest street in the Philippines''- it seemed an exaggerated claim. The city of Cebu is a medium-sized port and trading center in the middle of the Philippine archipelago, and its main drag, Colon Street, is a commercial thoroughfare of little apparent distinction.

The guidebooks are correct, but only if you think it takes Spanish colonialists to make a street. Cebu is where colonialism got its start in the Philippines. Explorers Ferdinand Magellan and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived here in the 16th century. Their followers established Colon Street, named after Christopher Columbus. (In Spanish, the Italian explorer's name is transliterated as Cristobal Colon.)

By the 19th century, Colon Street had had its share of notable residents - successful trading clans, families that would produce leading Filipino politicians, and American colonial officials. William Howard Taft, then of the Philippine Commission, visited Cebu with great pomp in 1901 to decide whether or not the Cebuanos were fit to govern themselves.

At one end of the street arose a neighborhood known as Parian, where wealthy Christians of Chinese and mixed ancestry built impressive homes of stone, tile, and wood.

''Nobody, but nobody,'' wrote Concepcion Briones in a history of the quarter, ''can ever live and grow up in Parian and forget its sweet-scented gardens with flowering bush-lined pathways everywhere.''

The flowering bush-lined paths are gone. Colon Street is now a thoroughly trafficked avenue, its buildings gone gray from the soot of exhaust. It has an air of fading 1950s commercialism, with large department stores in need of renovation, huge cinema halls, and fast-food restaurants.

Street vendors sell shoelaces, key chains, cheap sunglasses. Sidewalk entrepreneurs can fix your watch or replate a necklace in gold.

On a recent walk down the street, two people were particularly memorable. One was pop-icon Madonna in a TV incarnation that featured closely cropped blond hair and not much clothing. Her image drew a crowd of young men to watch her on a television store's largest screen. The speakers overwhelmed the noise of the traffic.

The other was a young girl, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, sitting on the sidewalk behind a display of goods her mother had put out for sale. The items were mostly brass - a fork with a tine missing, a Japanese five-yen coin, a belt buckle that said ROTC.

The little girl was shining the brass goods without a cloth, rubbing in the polish with little fingers. This family was having a hard life, but the brass shone more brilliantly, infinitely more genuinely, than the American pop star.

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