In the disorienting chaos that is Manila on a Saturday afternoon, we found ourselves somewhere along the intersection of Dos Castillas Street and Laong Laan Road. Hidden behind high-rise billboards and a crisp red and white Chowking signage is the famed Dangwa flower market, where the jeepney fumes eventually vanish into the refreshing scent of flowers.
The varieties of flowers are countless, a vibrant explosion of colors flooding the streets, the scent of fresh-cut flowers filling the narrow road. Orchids of yellow, purple, and orange are displayed in pots, bouquets made of pinkish, colorful hues hang on makeshift walls, and pails of carnations, mums, stargazers, peonies, even cacti and succulents, spread all over the wet concrete floor. On top of tables lay bundles of alstroemeria, statice, and baby’s breath, among others. Often, these are sold by bulk, unbelievably cheap when compared to commercial florists in malls and other cities.
The market is open 24/7, even on holidays, with their second busiest day of the year being All Souls Day in November. Nearby is the Dangwa bus station, the market’s namesake—the market itself gained its widespread popularity after former First Lady Imelda Marcos’ patronization in the 70s. Known for her flamboyance and love for beauty, adding flowers to several government-owned buildings, including Malacañang Palace, was her way of improving the nation’s aesthetic. Business for the flower industry and its growers and farmers has since flourished steadily.
“I come here once a week,” says Sister Louise of the Leaven Immaculate Conception, as she gazes at the newspaper-wrapped anthuriums and carnations cradled in her arms. The fuchsia pinks and bright reds she offers weekly in her convent’s altars contrast the pale blue of her habit and veil. Students from neighboring high schools and universities, some still in their uniforms, walk briskly back and forth, canvassing prices for their personal orders and even reselling inside campus for when the week of the 14th comes along.
“Anong hanap, Sir?” Eager vendors repeat together, a greeting of colors coming from stall signs, giant umbrellas, and today’s picks. Surrounded by the chatter of bargains and banter, an energetic stall attendant named Adel Sasot holds out a clear book of sample photographs of past bouquet designs. “Para kailan ba?” he asks after a passerby inquired about an eye-catching chocolate arrangement. Many like him are scattered all over the 500m stretch of road, all selling a diverse plethora of eloquent bouquets.
Apart from the more traditional ribbon and bowtie-bearing teddy bears, popular choices now also include Hello Kitty, Baymax, and Olaf, all of which may be creatively tied together with a few rose stems to form a more unconventional bouquet. It’s no surprise, then, that the florists at Dangwa have managed to keep up with the times and innovate. Sugary options are also available—Toblerone sticks and Ferrero Rocher rounds can substitute shorter shelf-life plants, thus forming yellow to golden geometric art pieces.
“Mas maganda pag kayo na magdala ng Ferrero ninyo para mas mura,” advices Kuya Adel, who has been working in the area since he was just a boy over 15 years ago. On the other hand, some of the stall attendants beside him have come from as far as Baguio. His hand rests on a glass refrigerator, which only a few of the storeowners have in order to preserve the freshness of the blooms.
Inside a larger shop are decoration supplies, varieties of crepe paper and foil, boxes in countless shapes and sizes, and other stationery associated to the big day at Dangwa, like heart-shaped plushies engraved with I-love-you’s and be-mine’s.
However, not everyone in Dangwa is as established. Stall-less bouquet arrangers and peddlers frolic around, looking for eager customers and overwhelmed firstt-imers. More often than not, they provide better offers in terms of pricing. Some are ruder and pushier than others, yet some remain remarkably hospitable during this busy season. And among the numerous calls of “Boss, anong hanap ba?” we were bombarded with, as we crossed the busy intersection into another lane of shops, we were followed by an assertive woman. “Saan para? Pang buhay o pang patay? Pang papatayin? Pang Marian Rivera o Angel Locsin?” Anne, a comedic and amicable dealer in Dangwa, quickly caught up with us, capturing our attention.
As a former call center agent for 10 years, she found that good business comes with service, commenting that what she earned in the call center is practically the same as what she earns here. Orders come in droves, despite not having a stall herself. “Lahat kami,” she points to the individuals on lookout lining the streets, “wala kaming shop. Hindi amin yan. Hindi kanya yan… Mga may shop mga Igorot, sila taga-Baguio, Ilocano,” Anne explains.
Trucks begin to park and unload boxes of still damp blooms fresh from the trip up north, just in time for the daily 4 o’clock deliveries. “Akala natin mga Igorot na maiitim parang katulad ko,” she jokes. “Hindi, mas mukha pa nga akong Igorot. Ang gaganda ng kutis nila,” she talks about her co-sellers from Benguet, half the population in Dangwa. After only a year, Anne has become well-versed in the ins and outs of the floral capital of Manila, and often finds good bargains for the most special of flowers. Having a natural eye for beauty and design and an assertive demeanor doesn’t hurt either. “Hindi ako namimigay ng luma,” she says of her own rule, preferring to do honest business, especially if she wants to gain mga suki.
The peak seasons, February, May, and November every year, always drive the prices up, say most of the shop owners. Prices of rose bouquets, ranging from 300 to 500 pesos on normal days, almost double during these annual occasions, making it more economic for customers to order in advance, especially those buying in bulk. However, the prices also drop significantly after these peak days end. Ecuador roses, which range from150 to 300 pesos on the 14th, can go as low as 50 pesos by the 15th or 16th.
Dealers like Anne assemble their bouquets on the streetside, or borrow space from friendly stall owners—nakikisama. As Anne leads us around the busy street of Laong Laan and Dos Castillas, she points out certain stores with the best prices for specific flowers. “Diyan magandang bumili ng Ecuadorian Roses,” she explains, pointing at a small shop at the corner of Don Quijote Street along Laong Laan. “Diyan naman magandang bumili ng imported na bulaklak,” she says, pointing to Gemma’s Flower shop along the same road. She points out other places more known for exotic pieces, should we ever visit again, from tulips and cabbage roses, to paper roses and Ecuadorian roses from China and the United States.
Vendors like Kuya Adel and Ate Anne carry out their orders, one of which is a huge ligawan effort involving 13 days of anonymous flower deliveries to a girl working in Manila Grand Opera beside the Doroteo Jose station. And on the 14th, the lucky girl will finally receive a Ferrero Rocher bouquet and a dozen China roses with the hopeful guy behind it all receiving his answer.
While Valentine’s Day comes and goes, the hardworking people at the vibrant market stay all year-round. Despite it being digital 2016, a trip to Dangwa is a retreat into nature where time stops, with nothing but a medley of flowers and faces interacting, the city’s facade acting as its backdrop. With bundles of our favorite picks wrapped in newspaper in two hands and extra change to spare in our pockets today, we walk with the sunset against our backs, and the old market disappears behind us. We move on to emptier streets of plain concrete and slightly duller cement walls, to get into a trike that will take us back to Tayuman station.