November 08, 2018

A Lawyer’s Survival Guide to Manila By Albert Vincent Y. Yu Chang

Albert Vincent Y. Yu Chang

Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, enjoys a distinct history and character that can only be paralleled by a few of its peer cities in Asia. The monikers by which it is and had been known—Perla de Oriente, the Queen City of the Pacific, and the City of Our Affections—capture its essence and charm.


Pre-Hispanic Manila, then known as Selurong, was a civilized, trading community and at some point appears to have been a part of the Indonesian Hindu empire of Majapahit, and during the reign of Sultan Bolkiah, a Bruneian satellite-state. In 1571, Spanish conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi officially founded the city of Manila, which eventually became the seat of Spanish rule until 1898. For much of the Spanish colonial era, Manila was a center of international trade via the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade. In 1898, Admiral George Dewey led U.S. Naval forces to victory against the Spanish squadron in the Battle of Manila Bay. In 1942, Manila fell to Japanese Imperial forces until its liberation in 1945 by U.S. forces led by General Douglas MacArthur.

Contemporary Manila

Today, Manila is one of 16 cities that comprise Metro Manila, the national capital region. With 11.8 million people occupying a land area of approximately 246 square miles, Metro Manila has been ranked the eleventh most populous metropolitan area in the world. Its gross regional product, estimated at $149 billion as of July 2011, places Metro Manila as the second wealthiest urban agglomeration in Southeast Asia, and the thirty-eighth in the world.

Metro Manila is a showcase of history, economic development, and societal realities. It consists of modern skyscrapers, historical buildings, mansions in enclaves of wealthy Manileños, and shanties in slum areas that serve as dwelling place of indigent Filipinos. Industries in Metro Manila showcase Filipino entrepreneurship, which is exemplified, for example, by some of the largest shopping malls in the world. Built by a local entrepreneur, they include call centers and outsourcing facilities, which establish the country as the business process outsourcing capital of the world.


Foreigners typically feel welcome in cosmopolitan Manila. Its people are friendly and respectful of foreign cultures. In business settings, Filipino professionals are collaborative and adaptive to the environment. They value punctuality but are flexible with time. However, Filipinos also tend to be hierarchical and formalistic. Out of respect for seniority or authority, individuals are typically addressed as “sir” or “ma’am” or by professional titles, e.g., “attorney” or “engineer,” and must be accorded with the appropriate manner of speaking, tone of voice, and facial expression, based on norms impacted by the hierarchy.

Legal System

The Philippine legal system combines features of the Spanish civil law and the U.S. common law. Subject to very few exceptions, Philippine laws are written in English, and commercial and remedial laws were based on American sources. Thus, while the inefficiencies prevalent in developing countries do not spare the Philippines, international lawyers will find the Philippine legal system more easily navigable than more indigenous counterparts in Asia.

Business Attire

Like most aspects of Filipino culture, fashion in the Philippines enjoys a long history of Western influences. However, the tropical climate has impacted the norms regarding business and formal attire. Suits remain acceptable in business settings; but, for men, the traditional barong (which literally means “dress”), an embroidered formal garment of lighter material (usually linen or cotton but also silk or fiber woven from pineapple or banana fiber for more formal variants), is an acceptable alternative. There are counterparts of the barong for women, but these are not as commonly worn in business settings.

Business Hours

Office hours start at approximately 8 a.m. and end at 5 p.m., although Filipino professionals are used to working beyond office hours. Subject to variances across locations and seasons, shopping malls are generally open between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m.


Filipino commuters are served by mass transit railways, buses, jeepneys (utility vehicles converted from World War II general-purpose vehicles), taxis, and tricycles (for side streets). However, these public transportation options are, for various reasons, not always recommended for tourists. To move around the city, business travelers, particularly those who are averse to hazards prevalent in large cities, are better served by limousine services, rental cars, or taxicabs arranged by hotel personnel.


While admittedly not as internationally celebrated as other Asian cuisines, Philippine cuisine has had its share of airtime on the Food Channel. Among the famous Filipino dishes or delicacies are the lechón (roast pig, featured by Anthony Bourdain), balut (fetal duck eggs, featured by Andrew Zimmern), and adobo (vinegared pork or chicken, featured by Martha Stewart). Arguably, the traces of foreign influences make Filipino dishes generally less exotic. However, it is the unique mix of various influences that makes Filipino food interesting. Throughout the city, in addition to branches of many well-known American chains, there are localized East Asian, European, and Latin-influenced restaurants. Among the most successful Filipino enterprises is a Filipino adaptation of the American hamburger fast food concept, known by the trade name “Jollibee,” and its iconic mascot that have become ubiquitous throughout the country and an integral part of Philippine society.


In Manila, tourists will enjoy buildings and districts that represent various periods of Philippine history, including, among other sites, the walled city of Intramuros and a defense fortress called Fort Santiago, built by the Spaniards; the Manila Chinatown, the oldest Chinatown in the world, established in 1594; the Basilica Minore de San Sebastián, reportedly co-designed by Gustave Eiffel and the only all-steel basilica in Asia; and the historic Manila Hotel that served as the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur during the war in the Pacific.


As a travel destination, Manila competes with some of the most irresistible cities in the world. Those who make it there, however, will find a city rich with history and character, friendly, and fun.

Albert Vincent Y. Yu Chang

Albert Vincent Y. Yu Chang ( is a senior counsel at Warner Norcross & Judd LLP. He was formerly an associate at SyCip Salazar Hernandez & Gatmaitan in Metro Manila.