Manila, Part II: Searching for the 400 Club

When explaining this strange, too-brief-to-be-pleasure and too-long-to-be-business trip across the world to the Philippines, I tend to use the word “research” a lot. It’s probably the most applicable term, both in light of the goals I described in Part I and in view of my ongoing historical information-seeking for the book. But my own “research” trips in the past and for other projects have had a more explicit research-based component in that I am usually visiting an archive someplace. Indeed, I have a conventional “research trip” later this month when I visit College Park, Maryland to conclude my work (started before COVID) at the National Archives.

My trip to Manila, however, is a bit different. I am not bound by the opening and closing hours of a library. I do not need to fill out any call slips. I am not checking archival items off a list (while trying to avoid the temptation to add new ones). And since this does not feel like a conventional research trip, I’m not sure what I should do. I’m visiting museums, not libraries. I’m taking photographs of the city, not of arcane documents. Instead, I am trying to retrace my grandfather’s steps, and in that process I am feeling my way around a whole new dimension of place-based research.

One of my few discrete “research” goals going into this trip was to find a place called the 400 Club. Although his future brother-in-law Dan did not accompany Elmer to the popular dance hall (perhaps for obvious reasons), the name stood out to me as I was reading Grandpa’s letters. He mentions it in one of his final letters home before he was discharged:

I had liberty in Manila yesterday . . . Several other fellows [and I] took some beer with us from the ship. The place we went to is called the ‘400 Club.’ It was a pretty nice place. Small band for dance music and several girls around to dance with. I told Rosie I went dancing out here. We all had a nice time and it was good to dance again.

Elmer Luckett to his Parents, 16 September 1945

Most of his discussion about Manila is vague in terms of location, and the places with Dan and his friends are left up to the imagination. But “the 400 Club,” a “pretty nice place,” seemed enticingly specific. I wanted someplace concrete in Manila that I could use to connect with my Grandfather’s experience in the city. I did not realistically expect the club to still be operational, but I hoped that at least the building would still be there. Either way, it was worth checking out.

Destruction at the Walled City (Intramuros district) of old Manila in May 1945 — after the Battle of Manila
Destruction at the Walled City (Intramuros district) of old Manila in May 1945 — after the Battle of Manila. From WikiCommons. Original source: Illustration 341 in Medical Dept., U.S. Army: Surgery in World War II: Activities of Surgical Consultants, Vol. II, Office of the Surgeon general, Dept. of the Army, Washington, D.C., 1964.

Unfortunately, the 400 Club existed during an inconvenient period for historians researching local businesses. It is hard to know what predated and survived the relentless Battle for Manila, and what immediately followed. Like a punch-drunk boxer staggering after a near-knock out blow, Manila was putting the pieces back together—quite literally—after its liberation, and many things were changing at once. The 400 Club might have been brand-new to the stricken city, a mere room in a structurally sound building with a crate of booze, a few musicians, and a rag to wipe the soot and ash off the bar. Or it might have slinked its way through the past three years, hosting Japanese Imperial officers one day and grizzled guerillas the next, sort of like a Filipino version of Rick’s Café Américain. The more I thought about it, the more I built up the mystery in my mind.

This may be by design. The 400 Club was both a place and a concept, and the concept itself was hardly original. In 1892, the New York Times published a list of “the Four Hundred,” which was a roll-call of New York’s most beloved (or at least sought-after) socialites. The term soon became synonymous with elite social standing. Eventually someone applied the significance of the number to the need to sell drinks, and it was not long before it became a kind of brand for exclusive bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. The most famous “400 Club” belongs to London, which opened in Leister Square sometime before World War II. Although it would eventually become an exclusive supper club, during the war it catered largely to military personnel. Perhaps not coincidentally, the 400 Club was eventually exported to other places in the British Commonwealth, including Sydney, and it later made its way up the Pacific Rim. Yokohama, Japan had a 400 Club during the American occupation after the war, where it eventually became associated with the growing popularity of jazz in that city. (1)

Fortunately, Manila’s 400 Club had a more detailed chronicler (at least in this respect) than my grandfather: Sy M. Kahn, an enlisted man who served in the Army Transportation Corps. In his diary, which he later edited and published, Kahn gives a fantastic and detailed description of the venue:

We went to a place named the 400 Club, a nightclub way up on the other end of Royal Ave [Real Street]. We bought several bottles of whiskey and then proceeded to look for the place. It took us an hour-and-a-half to find it, and the driving rain and dark streets of Royal Ave did not help . . . The club had a good band, an indoor and outdoor dance floor, and a small patio. There are numerous women, mostly Filipino, some Spanish. In a few moments we had women at our table. I got the company I wanted in a Spanish girl named Virginia who spoke English well, is tallish, a good dancer, and 25. It felt strange to have a good-looking girl dance close and be mildly affectionate. We all had a roaring time. The prices were terrific, but we were having such a good time that the money didn’t mean anything.

Sy M. Kahn

Kahn’s vivid and detailed description of the 400 Club leaves little to be desired, apart from its exact location and its broader historical context (2). Kahn’s recollections, like Elmer’s, provide a snapshot of the place, but little in the way of biography. So the search continued, and I knew it would take me much longer than an hour and a half to locate it.

Picture of street in Intramuros. Several motorcycles can be seen. Picture is mostly decorative.
Intramuros in 2022. Photo by Author.

Last Saturday I was able to visit Real Street for myself. I imagine it looked very different after the battle in 1945, but in 2022 it is the living, breathing heart of Intramuros. Stalls, scooters, and sleeping dogs line the narrow sidewalks, while residents make their own daily history. The war is not quite ancient, since some folks still remember the long, difficult years that followed. However, aside from a prominent memorial to the lives lost during the Battle of Manila, the conflict feels remote. As I walked down the street, I imagined throngs of American servicemen roaming down the street in giant herds, spilling out of their ships like marbles from a sack, seeking out amusement and refreshment in the battered, broken city. I could almost see my grandfather surveying the destruction, passing wrecked buildings and crumbled brick, twisted metal and blackened timber, and then marveling at the intact San Agustin Church as it gazed back at the sin-seeking sailors shuffling past. Less charitably, I could also picture him grimacing at the high price of food and the near-total absence of beer.

Once I approached the end of Real Street, I looked around for a bar or a club. There were no obvious signs of either, and the only establishment that I or Google were aware of was a small distillery museum nearby with a tasting room. Instead, Real Street ends in a crowd of apartment buildings, with the rebuilt wall looming silently ahead. I’d like to think that Grandpa had a similar moment, standing in the exact same spot, of looking around and wondering where the club was. I probably had more success in quickly deciding that it was gone than they had in quickly locating it. As Kahn noted in his diary, the east end of Real Street in 1945 was a dark, quiet place to visit at night. As for me, it was a sunny, soupy afternoon in Manila. My clothes were glued to my skin. I needed a shower, not a dance, so I headed back to my hotel.

Picture of the front of San Agustin Church. Photo mostly for decorative purposes.
San Agustin Church was one of the few structures in Intramuros to survive the battle. It was built in 1607. Photo by author.

After a couple of days spent exploring the city, I decided to perform my due diligence on my last day in town and take another crack at the mystery. So I stopped by the National Library of the Philippines to see if they had any city directories for Manila. I was not sure that they even existed, given the Library’s destruction during the Japanese occupation and the burning or theft of most of its holdings, but I figured it was worth a shot. After looking at a business directory from 1988 (which had no trace of the club), I asked the reference librarian if they had older copies. As it turns out, they are all online (remember: when in doubt, always ask a reference librarian). Unfortunately, I found no trace of any later directories from the period immediately following the war, but it was fun to check out another country’s national library.

The day was getting late, and I had other things to do before I left. My quest, such as it was, came to an end. I may be able to learn more about the club eventually (and perhaps one of my readers has some information that I have missed . . .), but when I do I will be thousands of miles away, unable to visit. I decided to settle for a consolation prize: dinner and beer at the Army Navy Club (better known today as the Rizal Park Hotel). I sat down at my table on the rooftop veranda just as the sun was setting, and even though many things have changed in the 111 years since it was first built, I watched the same pink, orange, and golden hues swirl into one another over the bay that surely entranced Douglas MacArthur, Jose Rizal, and so many others. And at that moment I felt like I was truly sharing something with my Grandpa and my Uncle Dan, as if we were connecting across time.

View from the Rizal Park hotel after sunset. Image mostly decorative.
View from the Rizal Park Hotel after sunset. Photo by author.

I’m not sure if looking for an eighty-year old nightclub and then giving up because it was too hot outside qualifies as research. But retracing my grandfather’s footsteps nearly a century later and seeing the old church, feeling the breeze off the bay and the cobblestones beneath my feet, and experiencing the scrum of crowded humanity in narrow streets helps me visualize his experience a little better. The experiences I’ve gained and the empathy I’d developed will help the book, and to be frank they help me as a person, too.

This journey was also a pilgrimage of sorts. It has become a family tradition for Elmer Luckett’s descendants to fly to Hawaii, don a lei, and drive out to the USS Arizona Memorial and Museum at Pearl Harbor. It is a powerful, instructive, and emotional moment for the people who loved him. But for me, anyway, I feel like this trek is a tribute to to the other end of grandpa’s journey. It does not represent the start of a frightening quest, but the end of a momentous adventure. It also helps me connect my grandfather’s journey to my Uncle Dan’s. I never knew him (or my grandmother), but there is a kind of poetry in reflecting on how his and grandpa’s journeys intersected in this place halfway around the world, just as grandpa and grandma’s fates began twisting themselves around one another during the past two years. On a more global level, it reminds me not of how America was violently awaken from its pre-war apathy, but of that very same war’s destructive effect. It shows that Americans should continue to care about both the horrors of war and the possibilities of peacetime.

Well, anyway, that’s all a bit tedious to summarize, so perhaps I will keep calling it a research trip. The term may appear somewhat disingenuous in hindsight. However, if the hallmark of a good research trip is to not only learn the things to came to learn, but to better appreciate the vast universe of things you never had any idea you needed to learn, then this journey has been an unqualified success.


(1) See William Thomas Generous Jr., Sweet Pea at War: A History of USS Portland (Lexington, Ky: University of Kentucky Press, 2003), 21; and E. Taylor Atkins, Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 179, 206.

(2) Sy M. Kahn, Between Tedium and Terror: A Soldier’s World War II Diary, 1943-45 (Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press), 285. Note Kahn’s use of “Royal,” not “Real,” which may either be soldier slang for the infamous neighborhood’s main thoroughfare or an automatic translation on Kahn’s part. But there is no “Royal” Avenue in Manila, either before or following the war, and even Anglicized maps of the region during the American occupation use “Real.”