Unless you're in the market for a pair of modestly priced loafers, Marikina Shoe Expo may not sound like a promising destination. But while you can always visit for bespoke leather brogues or inexpensive PVC pumps, this U-shaped compound, nestled in Manila's sprawling Cubao district, offers more than just footwear. Built in the 1970s, at the behest of the Philippines' footwear-loving former First Lady Imelda Marcos, who wanted to promote local shoemakers, it seemed on the brink of dereliction when its original tenants began to close down due to cheap Southeast Asian competition. Rents plummeted and, in 2004, a different type of resident moved in. Suddenly, hollow store units were populated by funky art galleries and vintage boutiques, cool cafés and quirky antique shops. This new community dubbed itself Cubao X, a moniker that reflected its eclectic, bohemian spirit.
Today, Cubao X is buzzing. Shops come and go quickly, so you never know who will open their doors at 4 p.m. the hour that most of the owners, being night owls, prefer to commence business. "It's completely different from a mall it's still independent and nonmainstream," says indie filmmaker Bong Salaveria. His appointment-only antique store, Vintage Pop, was one of the vanguard establishments of the newly recolonized compound. Salaveria closed it in July he is about to emigrate to Canada but Vintage Pop's range of 20th century kitsch, which Salaveria sometimes customized, was emblematic of the kind of thing Cubao X trades in. So was the store's whimsical approach to retailing. Customers grew accustomed to having to make appointments via text message, and falling in love with some item only to be told that it wasn't for sale. Others were given items free, because Salaveria wanted them to have good homes.
Despite all the comings and goings, Cubao X stands as a stronghold of hip, culture-savvy, creative Manila most conspicuously on Friday and Saturday nights, when avant-garde DJ sets, indie-rock gigs, poetry readings, independent-movie screenings and art-show openings spring up as if spontaneously. Yet even without an event on the cards, the compound's motley venues offer plenty of diversions. It's hard not to find joy within the expansive Grand Thrift House, tel: (63) 920 962 3079, run by a family of antique and curio collectors expect vintage Elvis posters, brick-sized cell phones and secondhand photography books (if you're lucky, you'll find one that features a youthful Imelda Marcos cavorting with Madame Mao). Pop-culture fiends will delight in Sputnik, tel: (63-2) 709 1867, which sells local and international comics as well as vinyl toys, while fans of vintage furniture will find peace among the mid-century modern antiques of Karma, tel: (63-2) 437 0748, whose olive-green walls and steep red staircase provide a backdrop for Saarinen tulip chairs and Sciolari chandeliers. Meantime, Heritage, tel: (63-2) 692 3469, purveys a wealth of Filipiniana, from rare editions of writings by Philippine national hero José Rizal to practical handbooks on the ins and outs of pig-rearing.
There are also plenty of options for kicking back, Pinoy-style. In the daytime, you can hide out from the heat in the cool confines of My Breathing Space, tel: (63) 929 450 7733, and sip a Philippine barako coffee (or, if you prefer, a Vietnamese rose tea) among a bewildering medley of model cats and novelty knickknacks. If you get hungry, you can order a thin-crust pizza at Bellini's, tel: (63-2) 913 2550. If you simply want a drink, sit back and people-watch at Mogwai, tel: (63-2) 913 1060, which also features an art-house cinematheque upstairs. Once refreshed, head across the road to the I Love You Store, tel: (63) 917 499 5223. At this ukay-ukay (or rummage) boutique, preloved clothing is deconstructed, redesigned and remade into highly covetable fashion.
Granted, there's no shortage of things to buy but that's hardly the point. "We're not interested in making money," Salaveria says over a San Miguel cerveza negra as dusk settles over the compound and the shops around us begin to light up. "The important thing is independence." Find out more at www.cubao-x.com.