Before the lockdown last March, Manila, like the world's mega cities, never slept. Its lights dazzled from a birds-eye view and from midnight to dawn, Grab drivers shuffle partygoers between clubs and condos.
Take a typical Fort Strip scenario. At 3 a.m., sweaty and drunken bodies would crowd outside Fifth Avenue, trying to catch some air or a smoke after hours of dancing and drinking inside Nectar Nightclub. The scene is far chaotic inside, as drag queens entertain their drunk audience with lip sync battles.
For Nectar regulars, this was worth escaping to. Nevermind having to report to work sleepless the next day, hard-hit with a hangover, and slowly regaining memories of the previous night's regrettable fun.
The pandemic changed all of that and the quarantine is here indefinitely. Until the virus is defeated, strangers can't converge in clubs to toast, touch, and kiss. These intimate scenes are now a recipe for a pocket outbreak. In Baguio, it took a shared shot glass to delay its late September reopening to tourists.
Intimacy is the pandemic’s mortal enemy, which easily brings socializing to a close second. As so, when coronavirus first hit the country, the nightlife industry immediately knew it was the first to go.
"Even before the government imposed ECQ, we already closed our doors because we value the safety of our dear clients, staff and performers. We see our club as a home for the LGBTQ community and we value their safety and well-being," said Kris Nuevo, a partner at Nectar Nightclub.
On the other side of party city, Palace Manila also closed its doors to patrons. And with the rest of these bars and other types of drinking spots following suit, the nightlife industry was suddenly at a standstill, with no definite answer to when they can all return.
The party is now on Zoom
It didn't take long for them to find a way. At least, virtually.
"Our aim to deliver entertainment and to create an environment where our patrons can escape to when life gets tough remains the same, its just the ways in which we achieve this continuously evolves as our national situation does," said Alexandra Habaluyas, The Palace Manila's Vice President for Marketing. All clubs in their complex immediately hosted virtual parties, in order to try and mimic the same kind of fun for patrons locked up in their homes, badly needing an escape.
Nectar did the same thing. Having been in the nightlife industry for 16 years, Nuevo has mastered the art of bringing the LGBTQIA+ community together. Creating events and parties that help people connect and interact has been his second nature, and this easily led him to hosting the first zoom virtual party in the Philippines, the most attended and longest running in Southeast Asia.
"We all know how mentally and physically challenging it is to not be able to go out during this quarantine," he said. They have DJ sets, drag performances, and hosts running all night long who all aim to simulate a virtual version of the nightclub experience. Guests would participate in their homes, some putting on fake lights, and all would dance and drink together to loud music.
But the vibe is not the same
The night club experience is something one can only try to recreate. It may be easy to find a dark room and put on flashing lights while enjoying a drink bought in advance within the liquor ban's set time, all while at the comfort of the home, but the human touch is what makes the club a worthwhile experience.
Even for chill inuman places, the human element to drinking remains its most valuable attraction. Spontaneity, too.
“Because of COVID, I realized that I'm not really much of a drinker. I just like drinking when I'm with people,” said Diego Fodulla, a member of the COVID Class of 2020 who was supposed to maximize his last semester in college, basking in graduation season festivities.
As the enforced isolation and distancing took place, like everyone, he and his friends tried going online. But it didn't take long for Zoom fatigue to set in and make things routinary for them.
“At first, we tried to adapt and hang out as much as we can online. We played a lot of games, had some e-numans, and talked a lot. But you know, nakakapagod din so we ended up not talking every day but still sending messages and updates here and there," he said.
Fodullas said what made their weekly routine of drinking out before was the assurance of having each other's presence. Even if it's the same old song of drinking, doing karaoke, sharing stories virtually, these can never measure up to the actual experience, he said.
The small clubs called it a night
But out of everything, what scares Fodulla the most is the possibility of coming back and his usual hangout places are no more. While clubs and bars in BGC like The Palace Manila and Nectar Nightclub remain resilient, those in other parts of Metro Manila are not as lucky as they are barely getting by and worse, have been shown the door already.
Months ago, the closure of TodayxFuture in Cubao spelled the death of one of Manila's most loved queer spaces.
News of the closure of Lan Kwai Speakeasy & Hong Kong Cuisine made rounds on social media recently. But the owners clarified that they were only moving to a new spot but still in the same area. Still, it didn't help calm disraught college students down, who, since the pandemic, have been hit by waves of nostalgia as some of their favorite hangout spots could no longer survive.
“I'm very, very scared. Siyempre there's a sense of attachment na to these places and having not been in Quezon City for a long time, I am afraid that everything won't feel the same when I visit again," Fodullas said.
Meanwhile, another popular drinking spot in the area is also trying to keep afloat. Katipunan's first ever container van mall, The Pop UP, had no choice but to let go some of their tenants despite offering discount on rent. With leasing as their core business model, they've been relying on their stronger concepts such as Almusal Cafe, Brooklyn Social, and Tipple & Slaw just to break-even each month.
"Needless to say, the pursuit of profit has gone out the window this year," said James Thomas, The Pop Up's Chief Operating Officer.
With their usual customers -- university students -- gone for a year of remote learning, the immediate future for non-essential businesses like them appears bleak as a deadly virus lurks.
What's next for Manila's party scene?
When coronavirus first hit the country, the nightlife industry was the first to go. Assuming everything goes back to normal, it will be among the last to return.
Despite this, the resilient bar owners of The Pop Up, Nectar Nightclub, and The Palace Manila all agree on one thing: the nightlife industry can survive, so long as people find joy in stress-free environments that offer an escape from the mundane routines of everyday life.
"Humanity is built around socializing. Gatherings, whether it's for business, pleasure, or otherwise, is the backbone of what makes society," said James Thomas of The Pop Up.
While stop-gap measures like virtual parties and chill e-numans are there to keep people busy for the meantime, he believes that eventually, the market will recover as the country's health crisis does.
And although the ongoing crisis is barely a reprieve, they said that the pandemic is buying the nightlife industry more time to make their spaces safe, said Nectar's Nuevo, who is also a promoter of other clubs like Opus, Gramercy, Urbn BGC, and Republiq, among others.
"Quite frankly, I'm curious to see how long people can hold out without much human interaction. Afterall, the worst thing you can do to someone in a prison is isolate them from others. Whether we admit it or not, we all crave personal interaction. Starving ourselves of meaningful interaction this year may have been necessary, but please believe there will be a strong comeback once this is all a thing of the past," Thomas said.
Until then, Manila's streets can rest.