Look: Snapshots From When the World Fair Was Held in Manila

Revisiting the country's first international fair 65 years ago.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, the world was caught up in the excitement of international fairs and expositions. The successful hosting of New York’s World Fair 1939-1940 inspired other countries to put up their own, as showcases of progress, goodwill and international friendship.

The memory of the successful Manila Carnivals that ended before the war had not completely dimmed; oldtimers still reminisced fondly about how the Carnivals brought people together, basking in the peacetime merriment of an emerging nation. 

THE FIRST WORLD FAIR IN ASIA AND THE FAR EAST. The 1953 Philippine International Fair opened to much fanfare on February 1, with President Elpidio Quirino welcoming the world to Manila and daughter Vicky Quirino-Gonzales cutting the ribbon.


So, sometime in 1952, unfazed even by the brewing war in Korea, the Philippines decided to join the bandwagon and planned an ambitious international exposition that would come to be recognized as the first ever world fair in the Orient.

Souvenir program of the Philippine International Fair

Setting the stage for a world fair in the Orient

The organizing committee, led by then Secretary of Commerce and Industry Cornelio Balmaceda, believed that Manila’s strategic location as the “Gateway to Asia” put the country in an enviable position to show the rest of the world its vast economic potential which just beginning to be realized. After all, it had only been seven years since the Philippines was granted its independence—the first Republic in Asia—and it was the opportune time to reveal what its people have achieved in the last 500 years.

THE FAIRGROUND ON THE DRAWING BOARD. As designed by architect Otilio Arellano, the exposition grounds were symmetrical in layout and grand in scale.

It was also the perfect platform to present the nation’s rich natural resources for economic and commercial possibilities and to announce the advent of the new era of industrialization. The international fair hoped to foster closer ties between the Philippines and other nations, promote cultural understanding and strengthen its position in the global arena. Finally, the inaugural fair was seen as a prelude to the establishment of a permanent Philippine World Fair, similar to the famous fairs of Leipzig, Milan and Barcelona, possibly at a new site in Quezon City.

LAGOON OF NATIONS. The long reflecting pool was lined with magnificent pavilions of participating foreign countries and local exhibits from provinces, government bureaus, and private enterprises.


As in the Manila Carnivals of old, Wallace Field in Luneta was chosen as the venue of the Fair. Overgrown with grass, the United Nations Plaza as it was now called, was cleared and landscaped, then turned over to the able hands of Architect Otilio Arellano, nephew of the venerable architect Juan Arellano who also did design work for Manila’s past carnivals. Architect Arellano decided on a symmetrical layout for the fair, dominated by a central “Lagoon of Nations,” a long, reflecting pool that was hemmed with international and local pavilions on both sides.

The Fair To Watch: 500 Years of Progress

READ THE FAIR PRINT. The announcement of the official opening of the Fair was launched in full-page print ads in leading publications of the day.


On February 1, 1953, at 4:30 in the afternoon in front of the Rizal Monument, the 1st Philippine International Fair opened with much fanfare with President Elpidio Quirino giving his welcome address before a large crowd of Filipinos and foreign guests. His daughter, Vicky Quirino-Gonzales cut the ceremonial ribbon which marked the official opening of the momentuous, historic event.

GATEWAY TO THE EAST. The towering archway entrance was the identifying landmark of the Fair, designed by Architect Arellano.


Visitors poured into the main entrance, past the hero’s monument and through the most imposing and tallest structure in the fairgrounds—a magnificent salakot-topped archway called “Gateway to the East,” designed by Arellano. Four allegorical figures representing the Four Freedoms (Freedom from Fear, Want, religion and Expression) stood on pedestals at the four corners of the archway, sculpted by Italian Francisco Monti. The dramatic figure of a standing Filipina, arms opened in welcome greeted the visitors as they streamed in.

MURAL LESSONS. Noted muralist, Botong Francisco, was commissioned to render mural panels depicting important events in Philippine history.


Flanking the entrance were cutout murals executed by famed painted Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco that visualized the country’s events of the past 500 years. Inspiring in both magnitude and significance, the fair attracted the participation of national and international firms and institutions. 

Pavilions, pagodas and pageants

There were impressive pavilions from 35 Philippine provinces, 18 chartered cities, 63 business firms, 21 national government agencies and a dozen foreign countries led by the U.S., China, Spain, Cambodia, Indonesia, Italy, Korea, Thailand, Spain, Sweden, Belgium, and Vietnam.

GET ME TO THE CHURCH ON TIME. The Catholic Church Exhibit was allotted the biggest space in the fairgrounds, showcasing old, ecclesiastical arts and staging religious plays.


The biggest space was allotted to the Catholic Church of the Philippines, which put up a 2,500-square-meter cathedral-shaped building, complete with a bell tower and chimes. The compound housed an exhibit of old ecclesiastical art, rare books, relics, and religious documents. The pageants, tableaus, and theatrical plays presented periodically were among the top drawers of the fair.

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. The bell-shaped U.S. Pavilion, designed by Carlos Arguelles, was inspired by the historic Liberty Bell that was tolled in 1776, during the declaration of American independence.

Of the foreign pavilions, the one that got the most attention was the United States Pavilion, which replicated the shape of the iconic Liberty Bell believed to have been rung to mark the reading of the Declaration of American Independence in 1776. The U.S. pavilion was designed by local architect Carlos Arguelles.

Pavilions of Belgium and Sweden


The streamlined pavilions of European countries such as Sweden, Belgium, and Spain provided a sharp contrast to the Asian pavilions of China, Cambodia and Thailand that looked like majestic temples and pagodas, with spires and peaked roofs.

Pavilions of Cambodia and Indonesia

Each country proudly showed off its latest scientific, industrial, and cultural advances, some of them entirely new to Filipinos—batik textiles and rubber products of Indonesia; Chinese porcelain, silk fabrics, objects of art in marble; Famed Borsalino hats, wines, fine woodwork and modern machinery from Italy; Belgian tiles, ceramics and glass products; industrial machines for agriculture, navigation, dairy industry, packaging and printing from Sweden; and Thai jewelry, gemstones, textiles and religious antiquities in the form of two Buddha heads.


Public display of attractions

Pavilions of Basilan, Cebu, Iloilo and Pasay City

Provincial exhibits competed for attention with their attractively-designed show-windows that presented products of the most bewildering variety. Batangas featured famous products like balisongs, twine, and cordage, embroidered jusi, shell products and wooden shows, and to top it off, the display also included a real horse! Bohol showed off its flagship products—Talibon Hats, made of finely woven raffia buri. Not to be outdone was Davao, which had progressed amazingly after the Liberation. Its special attraction was the durian fruit, which was said to impart youthful and masculine vigor to those who partook of it.


Exotic Lanao featured its kris and flute, spears and guitars, cymbals and gongs, most in brass. Mountain Province put on display a miniature Ifugao Rice Terraces while Sulu boasted of its world-class pearls and shell crafts. 

GOVERNMENT BUREAU PAVILIONS. National Rice and Corn Corp. (NARIC), and the National Merchandising Corp.


Government bureaus and state institutions had their own exclusive compound that housed exhibits from the Department of Agriculture, Commerce and Industry, Public Works and Communications, Education, Science and Technology, Justice, National Defense, among others.

Private commercial enterprises pitched in by holding state-of-the-art exhibits that drew raves from the daily crowd. International Harvester, for example, showed off its modern tractors, motor trucks, industrial and agricultural equipment. Paperboard products made from locally-collected scrap paper demonstrated the recycling capability of Philippine Paper Mills, Inc. Interesting gadgets and devices could be seen at the booths of Western Electric, Motorola and Audivox—from high-efficiency projectors and hearing aids to microphones and two-way radios.

Sideshows, spectacles and rides of a lifetime

But if the adult crowd was awed by these marvelous building attractions, the younger set—including children—could not wait to go to the Amusement Zone, where thrills of a lifetime awaited.

AMUSE ME. The Amusement Center of the Fair was laid out at the Sunken Gardens, divided into four sections that featured a variety of rides and sideshows.


The 20-hectare space on the Sunken Gardens could be accessed by an overhead bridge linked to the exposition grounds. Divided into four sections, the Entertainment Zone featured special rides, acrobatics, stateside shows, and water spectacles.

SILVER STREAK. One of the exciting roller coasters that one could ride at the Amusement Center, never before seen in the Philippines.


New roller coaster rides brought in from the U.S. by Pedro Taguba & Co. were instant hits with Filipino kids, and so were the miniature railroad train rides of Jack Warner. American impresario E. K. Fernandez flew in a troop of artists and daredevil acrobats to complement Billy Rose’s Aquacade show that had 30 costumed mermaids swimming in complete synchronicity as they flipped and tumbled in the giant pool.

Artists from around the globe came to provide songs and dances, but world-renowned Xavier Cugat became the toast of the stage, with his troupe that performed bouncy Latin numbers that had audiences clamoring for more.

Picking the fair’s fairest: Miss Philippines 1953

Without a doubt though, the Philippine International Fair centerpiece event was the coronation of Miss Philippines 1953. Rising movie stars, young colegialas, glamorous high society girls and unknown provincial delegates rushed to join the prestigious competition.

THE ROLE OF THE FIRST RUNNER-UP IS VERY IMPORTANT. Some of the candidates for the Miss Philippines of the Fair. Many were handpicked by their local government officials and came from pedigreed backgrounds.


The list of candidates read like a veritable who’s who of city and provincial beauties, many handpicked by their local officials to lead the quest for the plum Miss Philippines crown: Emma Nepomuceno (Nueva Ecija), Lina Taguinod (Cagayan), Ofelia Salvacion (Quezon Province), Florina Guerrero (Catanduanes), Teresita Gianan (Legaspi City), Estela Viana (Occidental Mindoro), Teresita Abueva (Bohol), Naty David (Camarines Norte), Ofelia Salazar (Zamboanga), Rosario Prieto (Naga City), Magneta Magbuhat (Batangas), Loretta de Guzman (Dagupan), Maria Dulce Ramiro (Misamis Occidental), Alice Fuentes (Baguio), Jesusa de Leon (Bulacan), Petrona Bucad (Isabela), Ana Maria Arnaiz (Dumaguete), Antonia Tan (Samar), Lucita Salazar (Ormoc City), Nelia Cuaycong (Negros Occidental), Amelita Pastrano (Iloilo), Teresita Villarosa (Cebu City), Gloria Salazar (Leyte), Santanina Tillah (Sulu, the future senator), Lily Cuevas (Basilan City), Corazon Lacsamana (Zamboanga del Sur), Gilda Gruet Walstrom (Davao) and Monette Tambunting (Quezon City).

THE CHOSEN. Maria Cristina Galang, daughter of former Tarlac governor Alejandro Galang, Miss Philippines of the 1953 Philippine International Fair.

But it was a fair convent-bred 19-year-old beauty from Tarlac, Tarlac who walked away with the Miss Philippines 1953 title, Maria Cristina Galang. The 5’4” Lyceum student, daughter of a former governor of Tarlac, Alejandro Galang and Apolonia de Leon, was also automatically named Miss Luzon. Her royal court included Violeta Villamor of Cebu (Miss Visayas) and Gina Walstrom of Davao (Miss Mindanao).


CRISTINA’S COURT. Miss Philippines 1953 and her court of honor.


Hits and Misses: Miss Philippines, Miss Universe, and the Muse of Manila

Incidentally, at the same pageant, a Miss Manila was chosen, won by Norma Jimenez over Amparo Manuel and Imelda Romualdez. Imelda, a losing nominee, was given the title “Muse of Manila” after tearfully complaining to Mayor Arsenio Lacson about alleged irregularities in the contest.

CROWNING MOMENT. Miss Universe Armi Kuusela crowns Cristina Galang as Miss Philippines of 1953. Kuusela would meet Virgilio Hilario during her stay in the country, whom she would eventually wed. 

Cristina’s victory was significant, for she was crowned by no less than the visiting 1st Miss Universe of 1952, Armi Kuusela of Finland (Armi later married rich Filipino businessman Virgilio Hilario after a much-publicized whirlwind courtship). While here, Kuusela was given the royal treatment wherever she went—from paying a courtesy call to Pres. Quirino, visiting Baguio where she would meet Hilario, laying a wreath on Bonifacio’s monument, to top billing the “Show of Shows” at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.

NINOY AQUINO JR., CONSORT TO A QUEEN. Future senator Benigno Aquino Jr., a townmate of Cristina, served as her escort at her Coronation.


Armi was assisted by the 1952 queen, Teresita Sanchez. Cristina’s escort was her kabalen, the young 21-year-old Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. The pageant committee originally wanted Cristina to join the 1953 Miss Universe in Long Beach, California, but this did not push through. Instead, a namesake, Cristina Pacheco was sent to the international competition.

Tarlac showed its gratitude to Cristina by throwing a lavish Despedida Dance at the Tarlac Trade School Court in her hometown on 5 September 1953. Tarlac’s most prominent citizens, headed by Governor and Antonio E. Lopez and Mayor Hipolito Castañeda graced the occasion. A park was also fittingly named after her, the Maria Cristina Park, located near the provincial capitol

TOAST OF TARLAC. Maria Cristina Galang was accorded a victory ball by a grateful province for her triumph as Miss Philippines.


Cristina acted as a welcome official of the 1st Philippine International Fair, meeting important dignitaries, foreign visitors, crowning fiesta beauties and lending her beautiful presence in several social events. (After her duties at the fair ended, Cristina went back to her Liberal Arts studies at the Georgian University in New Jersey. She then went to Fordham University in New York for her graduate studies in Sociology. There, she met Dr. Jose Caedo, an intern-trainee at the Cancer Memorial Hospital, who would become her husband. The Caedos would have three children.)

FAIR MEMENTOS. The Philippines International Fair spawned many collectible materials including first day of issue stamps, medals, philatelic items and commemorative booklets.

A share of fair rewards

To further underscore the significance of the 1953 Philippine International Fair, commemorative stamps were issued to mark the milestone event. Scheduled to close in April, the Fair was extended until May 31, 1953. In all, over two million visitors came to the fair, twice the city’s total population, making it a resounding success. Close to 700 thousand pesos were collected at the gates.

The momentum generated by the 1953 Philippine International Fair proved short-lived with the envisioned industrial age remaining still an elusive dream. An attempt to sustain the gains through a follow-up 1954 edition was a dismal failure and was quickly forgotten. Internal problems like the rise of Huk insurgency, graft and corruption in the government, politicking, lack of infrastructure (many unbuilt and unrestored from the last war), and a poor, inefficient transport system led to an unremarkable economy still driven by agriculture, small, cottage industries, and underdeveloped tourism. 


CROWD PLEASER. Over two million people visited the fair in is four-month run, twice the population of Manila.


But for many Filipinos who had never known the benefits of real progress, a truer index of his advancement was his happiness and well-being—the ability to smile and laugh, even when the going got tough. Put in this perspective, the fairs of his day were the perfect distractions to his daily worries, a place to see and be seen after a day’s toil, a peaceful, joyous realm to soak and revel in, where he could witness—at his leisure—the unfolding marvels and wonders of a modern world.


President Elpidio Quirino had hoped that the Philippine International Fair would not just “ focus attention on the progress of the first Republic in the Far East.” It had also been his desire that the event help “advance the common concern to make freedom, peace, and increased well-being the ultimate goal for men of goodwill everywhere.”

For one brief, shining moment—four months to be exact—the Fair managed to be just that, and more: It uplifted a people’s spirit, rekindled pride of country, and left a legacy of collective happiness and good feelings—when all the world came to discover the promise of a new Philippine republic—that would live on for years to come.

Recommended Videos
About The Author
Alex R. Castro
View Other Articles From Alex R. Castro
Latest Stories
Not only does it inform the cast’s performances, but its stripping down of the play’s setting to its barest elements underscores the universality and timelessness of its message.
These are the six pieces you need to cop this season.
It turns out that most of these emblematic charmers are jewelry timepieces.
The modern property, which is a combination of two units, was designed by famed architect Claudio Silvestrin.
The palace staff treated Harriet the monkey to a scone, and sent it home with a new corgi friend.
You can’t miss out on one of the country’s longest-running trade fairs.
A screening of The Sorcerer's Stone was accompanied by live music courtesy of the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Gerard Salonga.
Airbnb is giving two superfans a chance to live like the Crawleys-royal treatment and all.
From presents for your own parents to the perfect gifts for new moms and dads.
Here’s a look at her debut collection, plus what else to expect from the designer’s eponymous brand.
Load More Articles