The History of 'Mabilis Pa sa Alas Kwatro'


Ikaw talaga, hindi ka mautusan, pero pagdating sa lakwatsa, mabilis ka pa sa alas kwatro!”

(“You can’t be relied on with chores, but when it comes to gallivanting, you’re faster than four o’clock!”)

You’ve probably heard the phrase “mabilis pa sa alas kwatro” when someone was being scolded for wanting to leave quickly in pursuit of some kind of leisure. The phrase actually dates back to the American colonial era in the Philippines and referred to the four o’clock siren of the Insular Ice Plant in Manila.

According to historian Ambeth Ocampo, the ice plant sounded three times every day: At seven o’clock to signal the start of work, at 12 noon to signal lunch break, and at four o’clock to signal the end of the day’s work.

At the time, the ice plant’s four o’clock siren became an institution that announced not only the end of the day for the plant’s workers but for the rest of Manila. Ocampo explains the city, at that time, was relatively quieter, and the blaring siren would be heard throughout the city signaling the end of the workday. 

It so happened that unscrupulous workers at the time would already queue up for the exit minutes before the four o’clock chimed. Their American superiors observed this, noting, “These Filipinos are faster than the four o’clock siren!”

The phrase caught on and eventually passed into Filipino lingo. These days, “Mabilis pa sa alas kwatro” is used to reprehend someone who neglects responsibilities but shows eagerness in the pursuit of pleasures.


The Ice Plant That Birthed ‘Mabilis pa sa Alas Kwatro’

Photo by Public Domain.

The Insular Ice and Cold Storage Plant or simply Insular Ice Plant was an ice production and storage facility in Manila, Philippines. It was built in 1902, a mere four years after the Philippine Revolution. At the time, it was considered a state-of-the-art facility. The colonial government in Manila had to ask the U.S. Congress to approve its construction for the sake of “comfort supplies” deemed essential to the American troops: cold beverages. 

According to researcher Marlyne Sahakian, the ice plant was one of the first permanent structures built in the Philippines by the Americans. It was designed by Edgar K. Bourne following the Mission-Revival architectural style at the time. 

Its 10-storey smokestack became Manila’s most prominent landmark. Sadly, it was destroyed in World War II, leaving only the smokestack. The ruins were left untouched until the 1980s when it was removed by the government to give way for the construction of the Light Rail Transit.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor-at-Large
Mario Alvaro Limos is features editor-at-large at Esquire Philippines, and heads the Lifestyle and Esports content of as its section editor. Email him at [email protected] and [email protected]
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