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The showman of Manila

In a top hat and "barong Tagalog," Carlos Celdran entertains, and sometimes offends, tourists to the Philippines.

MANILA — Carlos Celdran has been called "Manila's pied piper." But a more apt description might be a clown with a sledgehammer, who smashes long-held notions about Philippine history and culture.

As the city's most popular guide, he can often be found leading a pack of 30-odd tourists, many of them westerners, on his weekly tours of the city's cultural and historical sites. 

In addition to drawing on his background in visual and performing arts — Celdran conducts his tours wearing a top hat and "barong Tagalog" (the national shirt for Filipino men), and waving a miniature American flag — he injects his tours with a liberal political bent that is both irreverent and entertaining.

For example, at a recent tour of Intramuros — the "walled city" in Manila where Spaniards protected themselves against a mob of Muslims in the 16th century — Celdran wowed his mostly Caucasian audience with politically charged references, all delivered in his vaudevillian style. He described the Roman Catholic leadership in the Philippines during that period as “Catholic Talibans” running a "theocracy" that suppressed Filipinos' desire for independence.

And inside the San Agustin Church — considered the mother of Philippine colonial churches — Celdran herded his audience into a chamber filled with tombs of Filipinos who died in World War II. He launched into a tirade against World War II U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, blaming him for destroying Manila (here he showed a photograph of a bomb from a U.S. plane) in an attempt to get rid of the Japanese.

Celdran also ridiculed MacArthur as a showman, alleging that when MacArthur landed on the shores of Leyte, he re-staged the event so a Life magazine photographer could perfectly capture the moment he waded into the water. 

"He was a better actor than a general," Celdran, pipe in hand, boomed, eliciting a faint but firm snicker from one of the elderly Americans in the group.

In a way, Celdran knows whereof he speaks. A pudgy 36-year-old of Spanish, American and Chinese descent, Celdran studied fine arts at the University of the Philippines and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design before shifting to performing arts. He interned with New York City's Blue Man Group and later formed a performing arts group in Manila.