Manila is one of the world’s most populous cities; official counts put the population at 22,000,000 whereas unofficially, 50,000,000 is the number being thrown around. Traffic crawls; on a typical main street, 10kph (6mph) is a good pace, whilst at peak hour you will achieve half that. It makes sense then, that motorcycles are the answer to a speedy commute. A few weeks ago I got to spend some time with Michael Eijansantos from Café Racer Philippines (www.caferacer.ph) to explore the moto scene in the city.
Whilst motorcycles have had a rich history throughout the Philippines, their uses in the past have been mostly as a practical, cheap and fuel efficient mode of transport, well suited to the variable road conditions in this island nation. Unsurprisingly, small capacity motorbikes rule the roads. Big bikes are there too (and have been for a while); but their relative cost had, inevitably, restricted their use to government services and the well-off. As the economy in the Philippines continues a pattern a constant growth (strongest growth in Asia in 2016), big bikes are becoming more and more popular.
An offshoot of better economic times has been a surge in moto-culture, regardless of bike capacity. Old bikes that have been passed down between generations or lying, rotting in sheds have started to be resurrected, given new leases in life as faithfully restored or complete custom rides. Often this happens in small, backyard workshops.
Just after sunset, we to a stop in a busy street, Michael points out a non-descript, metal doorway next to a small fresh food stall. There are no signs of any type, no motorcycles parked outside, in fact, no indication at all that this is one of Manila’s premier backyard garages. Past the gate is a long, narrow alley, just wide enough to allow the safe coasting of a bike to the workshop.
Tokwa Party Garage (https://www.facebook.com/tokwapartygarage/ - Tofu Party Garage – named after the things the owners love to do – drink and eat tofu) is one of the more successful backyard workshops in Manila right now. Having been in business for two years they have built around 50 bikes; last year, successfully competing in the Moto Builds Pilipinas (a music and bike show, as well as a biker build off; steadily taking off as the scene grows, last year being held in the Tiendesitas People’s Village – a huge step from its humble beginnings).
Over a few bottles of red horse (the ‘’strong’’ beer popular in the Philippies) with the guys, the story of TPG was relayed. It is plain to see the guys are proud of not only their builds but of the direction the business has taken over time. TPG started with Jerish Abac building a bike for himself; before he knew it, he was building bikes for friends. Not long after the idea for turning this into a business was born, he was joined by three friends who shared his keen interest in bikes, but little experience building them, the team have had to not only hone their craft and specialize in order to be efficient, but also figure out how to run a successful business along the same time. This is a tall order for any custom builder.
Their current workshop is around 4 x 3 meters, having knocked out a wall of the house (I have no idea how Jerish talked his wife into this – I have problems convincing mine I need more parts for the bike, let alone knocking out walls), and reduced the size of the living room.
At present all fabrication and assembly takes place in this small space. There are plans for expansion, continued success (again, planning to display at Moto Builds Pilipinas 2017 – this time even bigger, occurring side by side with the Manila Transport Show) and merchandising sales have led to plans to a bigger workshop. TPG continues to be a crowd favorite by continually pushing the envelope, each build bringing something new to their repertoire in terms of both design and complexity of fabrication.
Joh, Carl, Gelo & Jerish – the TPG boys
Ropali Classics (www.ropaliclassics.com) is part of the Ropali Group (notably, distributors of Ural & Royal Enfield in the Philippines); in 2014, owner Aldlus Rex Alingog identified the rising moto lifestyle trend in Manila and opened the first lifestyle shop.
Aldous Rex Alingog – Ropali Classics
Not only does the shop work and sell motorcycles, its focus is on the lifestyle and experience; this is achieved by an emphasis not on new bikes, but on classics and a well stocked bar / café with a unique ambiance, designed largely by Aldous himself. The premises are relaxed, there are no prices, no stalker-ish sales people and plenty of places to just sit, chill and admire the bikes and related paraphernalia. Every Thursday the shop hosts a bike night, with music, drinks and an outdoor BBQ drawing out Manila’s moto enthusiasts. Prizes are also awarded for custom bikes. Aldous does not see other shops in Manila as competition, rather, he sees helping others as fostering growth in the industry, something good for everyone concerned.
Unfortunately we were here on a Wednesday, so no BBQ or beers for us, rather we spoke to Kit, the head restorer / guru (and get an extensive tour of the workshop and large yet-to-be-restored storage area). Prior to joining the team at Ropali Classics, Kit and Aldrin were running their own backyard restoration garage (Darkhorse Manila) specializing in vintage BMWs (this somewhat explains the abundance of these in the showroom), Aldous, Kit and Aldrin saw the advantage of co-operation, initially by supplying and selling restored classics in the showroom; this rapidly evolved into Kit and Aldrin moving from their own workshop into the bigger premises in Ropali Classics and becoming a permanent fixture there.
Kit and Aldrin claim that old bikes are fairly common in the Philippines, with his team picking up around three bikes a month, many of them barn finds. The practicality of motorcycles (and popular public perception of them as not much more than tools) has resulted in many sitting in various states of neglect around the country.
Evening having arrived, we headed to Motora Azul 1955 (www.facebook.com/motoraazul1955/), the newest moto-lifestyle café lounge in Manila – and lucky for us, their weekly bike night just happens to be Wednesdays.
Although the interior of the café has some trick bikes, and people slowly tickled in, a burger and beer were first on our agenda. Motora Azul 1955 is attached to one of the biggest Yamaha dealerships I’ve ever seen. However, the café itself, whilst being all about Yamaha, was full of customs, and the patrons, well.. they rode pretty much anything. The kerb outside was packed with all manner of machines, Japanese, American, Italian, it didn’t matter. A brand new Ducati parked next to a rat-look, low displacement café racer said it all. Everyone is welcome, as long as the passion extends to keeping two wheels on the ground.
Outside, the music was coming from a custom Harley bagger (parked right next to a Royal Enfield). Inside Motora Azul 1955 had hired a DJ to keep the joint pumping. We left around 11pm, sadly, in a taxi back to the hotel and not on two wheels as would have been ideal.
What I can take away from the Manila scene is that not only is it growing (and fast) but that it is one of the most equal examples of moto culture I have seen anywhere. Not only in terms of riders, and sure, there is that too, everyone respects whatever people chose to ride. But in terms of opportunity for the industry itself, big companies are of course cashing in on the tide, but there is ample space and opportunity for small outfits to grow, to innovate and in many respects to outperform the bigger fish in the pond. This I think, embodies the spirit of The All Riders…. All Colors… All Creeds.. All Classes…..