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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

entry arrow11:32 PM | A Brief History of Dumaguete's "Finest" and Oriental Negrense High Society

Purely by accident, I came across last May’s issue of Philippine Tatler, the country’s local glossy which highlights the oh-so-beautiful life of the Filipino elite and the landed—those dahlings who populate the column-inches of our society pages, glittering in gold and diamond, and signature wear, and the irrefutable air of perfumed privilege. Those dahlings who are, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once described them, very “different than you and me.”

The magazine’s immediate attraction was the cover—quite an unusual one for a rag given to photoshopped worship of its society denizens, both the Gucci-ganged young and the Botoxed old, who are given to posing with stiff-backed patrician postures for Philippine Tatler’s cameras in resplendent clothes and in equally sumptuous—if bordering on baroque—settings. The May cover instead was an artful nude of some female model done up with stylized hair ornaments, and offset by a background that was a shock of Matisse and Gaugain put together. “The Art of Beauty,” the big headline blared out, promising the “sensational images by international photographer Nigel Baker.” I have always had a strange compulsion for magazines, and I thought that perhaps this issue of Philippine Tatler was worth picking up and skimming. The price is hefty at P200 per issue, and when I do buy it I make sure it is for a good reason. Then again, it has been a while since the last issue I read. And besides, there was that certain perverse pleasure to be had in scanning the pictures of our supposed “betters,” mock-envying them their comforts in Forbes, their vacations in Capri, their dancing nights in Majorca, their shopping in Rodeo Drive. (A boy can hope for the good life…)

And then there it was, in the inside pages: a generous portfolio of “Southern Gentry,” with several pages devoted to portraits of, and short articles about, “Dumaguete’s finest.” As with the case with anything, nothing comes close to gripping anyone’s interest but stories of home. Gripping it was indeed—and there was also that wild sense of vindication for the native in me, one who recoils every time I hear (or come across) suggestions that Dumaguete is probinsya through-and-through, with all the attendant connotations of the uncouth, the unwashed, and the uncultured. We already suffer enough from the indignities of having a name we have for our people and our culture—bisaya—becoming a curious synonym for baduy, no thanks to the enduring caricatures we bear because of Manilyn Reynes and Annabelle Rama hamming it up, hard accent and all, in the wild terrain of local popular culture.

But I say this beyond typical native pride: Dumaguete may not be a big city (and hopefully it will never be), and it may still teem with occasional barriotic tendencies, but uncultured it is not. Together with Baguio (which is tropical Dumaguete’s cool-climate twin), we may be the most cultured city outside of the four main metropolises (Manila, Cebu, Davao, and Iloilo) in the country. Tatler’s recognition that there is a well-spring of, ehem, “social finesse” in our midst is heartening. It may be artificial recognition, but nevertheless.

I know of a writer—one Lia Bulaong—who, upon stumbling on one of Manolet Teves’s society columns in The Visayan Daily Star online, was tickled pink at the very idea of “high society” in Negros, thinking the combination highly unlikely, given the—ehem—provincial tones of our lives here. That’s typical, of course, of many Manileños, and we have all somehow learned to forgive the prejudiced short-sightedness of some of them. Then again, she may not have recognized that the “true-blue high society” she knows of from her native Manila actually spring from four (very interconnected) points of the Visayas—Iloilo, Bacolod, Bais, and Cebu—who go by the names of Lopez, Lhuiller, Villanueva, Preysler, Del Prado, Arroyo, Ledesma, Teves, Osmeña, Vicente, Romero, Garcia, and what-not.

Historically, Negros Oriental has a rich history of the burgis and the elite. The landed hacenderos of the island—which includes Negros Occidental—often keep track of each other, attend each other’s parties, and intermarry. They may have different “kingdoms”—the Bais-Tanjay-Dumaguete-Pamplona families, the Victorias-Cadiz-Sagay families, the Bayawan-Santa Catalina-Basay-Sipalay families, the Kabankalan-Ilog-Himamaylan families, the Canlaon-Guihulngan-Vallehermoso-San Carlos families, the Bacolod-La Carlota-Silay-Talisay families—but most are sugar barons welded together by common crop, a shared fortune, as well as accidents of history.

In the best of our old times, some Negrense girls used to make their debutantes balls at St. James Court in London. This glittering world is partly chronicled in the pages of Kabilin, the now-rare coffee table book of the province’s history, published when Negros Oriental turned a hundred years old in 1989. That world though has mostly disappeared, precipitated by the sugar crisis that decimated the ranks of the hacenderos and robbed them of much of their wealth in the 1970s and the 1980s. And all that are left are their slowly disappearing acreage, strong memories of the golden age, and—to borrow a devastating quote from Savannah’s Jim Williams (who was immortalized in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil)—“their good manners.” Manolet, in one of our talks about Negrense history, calls that bygone era as the days of Tara, a name borrowed of course from the gilded pages of Gone With the Wind. I plan to write about that conversation soon, when Manolet waxed nostalgic about the parties in Azucarera de Bais, before hard times—and the conquering barbarians—crashed the party, and ended everything.

And for that, perhaps it is best to quote the full text from Fitzgerald’s story “The Rich Boy”: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.” That suits perfectly well the cycles of fortune of our local high society.

But to go back to the list of Dumaguete’s finest according to the gospel of Philippine Tatler… It was a good enough feature written by Marge Enriquez (with great photography by Wig Tysmans). But the first question that held me was: when did [a certain person] ever become a historian of Dumaguete? I bet Valentino Sitoy and Caridad Aldecoa-Rodriguez would probably disagree. Still, the Tatler story gathers a well-deserved and merry bunch that groups together such local social butterflies as Mariant Escaño-Villegas, Manolet Gonzales-Teves, Rico Absin, Chiquiting Sagarbarria, Jack and Pristine Raymond, Herminio and Victoria Teves, Victoria Del Prado-Carballo, Amanda Diago-Vicente, Irene Villanueva-Wicklein, Virginia Teves-Laurel, Maria Lourdes Vicente-Ortiz, Alexandra Teves, and Lucille Raymond-Villanueva. Most of them Teveses.

And yet I can’t help but feel that the true cross-section of Dumaguete high society has not really been fully represented in these glossy pages. Not that I’m complaining. Unlike most of the Philippines whose idea of “lordship” and “society” bears a strong Spanish aquiline nose, Dumaguete is unique with its strong American influence that has produced an upper/upper middle class of mostly non-Spanish stock (including those with Chinese roots) who holds great sway in local things political, social, economic, and cultural.

What the Spanish traditionally contributed to local high society was their sense of fabulous fiesta, especially during sipong, their annual celebration of harvest, a fête that ran from Canlargo in Bais to Tanjay to the sugar houses along Avenida de Rizal in the famous Boulevard. What the Americans brought with them was a sense of high culture, and that was when Negros learned to appreciate Shakespearean plays, operas, dances, and concerts. From Silliman University, for example, came two of the best hostesses the province has ever produced or nurtured: University First Ladies Pearl Gamboa-Doromal (daughter of an ambassador and wife of President Quintin S. Doromal) and Francisca Ruiz (wife of Chicago-based consul Leopoldo T. Ruiz who became Silliman’s first Filipino President), both of whom set the highest standards for hospitality in Silliman and the rest of Dumaguete.

Thirty or fifty years ago, Negrense society can be best described as mostly Spanish—but not so much anymore. You can feel it in the way many of the subjects in Tatler’s pages describe their daily lives: quietly living in the countryside among the sugar canes, pushing for what they call life rendered in simplicity, and staying away from the social and cultural limelight as much as they can. That’s a sad shadow of their immediate past, something I wish they can recover from, because these people—when they really want to—can really help transform Dumaguete and Negros Oriental’s future for the better. New York and Boston and Detroit and most of the best cosmopolitan cities in the world are the way they are because of strong patronage by their wealthy and their “high society” to help their hometowns attain strong footing in cultural currents. Think the Rockefellers. Think the Vanderbilts. Think the Kennedys.

If I can add to that Tatler list of Dumagueteños who deserve being profiled as one of “society’s finest,” I would put in Arlene Delloso-Uypitching, who is fast becoming the best hostess around town, one who gives exclusive and very fabulous parties in her two homes in Valencia town; Dennis Trillo, favorite son and now famous matinee idol; Josie Sy-Limkaichong, who has redefined public service in the third district of Negros Oriental; Wing Del Prado, who is reasserting an artistic claim to her family’s old-name heritage; Patrick Sy Chua, who has become both first-class dentist and patisserie connoisseur; Cecille Hoffman, who spearheads local awareness for gender rights and environmental concerns; Angeline Dy, who is fast-becoming both the ice cream and computer queen in the city; Adrian Arnaiz Dionaldo, who is slowly redefining the idea of real estate in Dumaguete; Rowena Tiempo-Torrevillas, who has inherited the literary greatness of her parents, including National Artist for Literature Edith Lopez Tiempo; Heinz and Esther Windler, who are environmental stalwarts, and whose beautiful house was once featured in Architectural Digest; Karen Villanueva, Bais City’s first daughter; Dean Sinco, Foundation University’s favorite son and now sought-after architect; Mike Romero, son Miguel, and uncle Eddie Romero (our National Artist for Film), who are continuing the grand Romero legacy of the province; Laura Teves-Sy, who is the perfect marriage of the local Spanish and Chinese communities; Angel Amigo, a former fashion model who comes from old wealth; Gilbert Uymatiao, the foremost organic farmer in the province; Cahirup Armogeña, who is helping slowly regain for the family their old glory in the hotel-and-restaurant business; Pia Francisco-Sy, former Miss Silliman and sister of top fashion model Ana Francisco; Pearl Gamboa-Doromal and daughter Meg, who are practically Silliman royalty; Rajo Laurel, top fashion designer; Mike Butler, transplanted Australian entrepreneur who has made Dumaguete his home and has helped revitalize its sense of tourism and culture; Jacqueline Veloso-Antonio, one of Dumaguete’s legendary beauties who is making a reputation for herself as a savvy businesswoman; Annabelle Lee-Adriano, who has transformed Antulang into an increasingly world-class resort; Joy Sanchez-Bobon, who is one of the most successful businesswoman in the city, and is known as “the quiet entrepreneur” of Pamplona; Mel Montaño, a native son who has come home from abroad to help the city become an unlikely BPO powerhouse; and Suzanne Lu-Bascara, one of the original beauty-and-brains from Dumaguete who now wields clout as the head of a local BPO. There are countless others…

Which just means that, even more than sugar cane people, Dumaguete absolutely teems with “high society” who truly makes things matter in this city of gentlest people, dahlings.

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