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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, September 24, 2009

entry arrow7:05 PM | A History of Dancing and Commotion

Part 2 of a Series on Night Life in Dumaguete

“College life is really not about pseudo teachers and their boring classes. It’s zigzagging from Escaño to Barefoot to take a leak.”
—MARIANNE TAPALES, former student

Our nights become because of the city we have.

Let me start by saying that the city always seems to stand on the brink of clashing peculiarities that often make it difficult to describe. Dumaguete is—so the tired cliché goes—a city that really is a small town at heart—but not exactly. It is a place so far away from the center of things that it is permeated with a semi-rough probinsyano air—but not really. It’s conservative to the bone—but not really; it can be quite liberal—but not really either. It is a beautiful, romantic place you can easily fall in love with—until you see pockets of it that make your heart bleed.

It is this and that, a place of constant flux in the guise of a slow tartanilla.

These things make it the capital of infuriating constancy as well as head-turning reinvention. But see how that goes? Our contradictions become us. “It’s the capital of schizoids then,” a friend once casually observed. I nodded and shook my head at roughly the same time.

Dumaguete is place where not too many people from the rest of the regions know very well—and there are people who are even more familiar with Silliman University than the place where it is located. (“Is Dumaguete in Silliman?” so the question goes. But perhaps this is in the same vein of how we think of Princeton but not New Haven.) Mention that it is in Negros (omitting the Spanish terms of direction that divide the island), and they think it’s a town near Bacolod.

And yet it is a celebrated city in spite of itself: it is a place of cultural ferment, and a place of breathtaking romantic beauty that more often than not finds itself splashed, like a surprised virgin, on the pages of Island Magazine (“one of 20 best islands in the world to live in!”), the New York Times (“I grew attached to the small harbor town,” writes travel writer Daisann McLane), or the Lonely Planet travel guide (“If you were beginning to develop an aversion to regional centers, you’re in for a pleasant surprise with Dumaguete. It’s a nice place. Seriously. Everyone raves about the Rizal Boulevard promenade, and it’s true there’s something genuinely charming about this harbor-front ‘quarter mile’: the faux-antique gas lamps; the grassy median strip. But there are other things to like about Dumaguete: it’s big but it feels small, and it’s less congested, less polluted and—being a university town—far more hip and urbane than your average provincial capital”).

To the eyes of the world, it is our merry contradictions that make us.

Still, Dumagueteños love to shroud themselves in the promise of calm, slowness, and silence. We call it a “city of gentle people,” after all—a gentility bred by Spanish sugar nobility, I suppose, which does not really say much—or perhaps it is a throwaway description of how passive things can be here?

Historically, the silence has always been part of the old Dumaguete charm, and the first complaint now from any returning Dumagueteño long gone from the scene is to express dismay over the traffic and the surprising flood of people. Writer Krip Yuson, adopted son of the city, speaks of the old silence with such nostalgia in his book The Word on Paradise: “I remember it as clearly as yesterday, that first rite on a slow-moving tartanilla, May of 1968. How I marveled at the manner of entry, at the fresh air of provincia, rustic indolence, aged acacias lining an avenue I instantly knew would lead to a long-imagined, long-elusive fountainhead...”

I also remember an anecdote Jacqueline Veloso-Antonio once told me about how the sound of someone’s car from not too far away—the screeching of tires on asphalt or gravel road, the sound of brakes—can immediately be registered sight unseen. “That’s So-and-so’s car, we would say,” Jacqueline laughed, remembering the old days. “Nipauli na sya.”

And then there is also the “university town” label, a moniker that promises an abundance of youth culture that always must be on the cutting edge of things and sensibilities—inherently defiant, gloriously rough, astoundingly creative, aggressively hip. How does one reconcile that image with a Dumaguete that is also a bucolic capital smack in the middle of countryside?

Everybody knows everybody else, and conservative fronts—nurtured both by Roman Catholic piety and American Protestant missionary zeal—still remain the standard order of things. But there’s also an ironic awareness among most Dumagueteños that there are not-so-subtle waves of transgressions that run like undiscovered waters beneath this general impression of “nothing happening.”

When Peyton Place came out—first as a scandalous 1956 novel by Grace Metalious and then a 1957 hit movie directed by Mark Robson and starring Lana Turner—it wasn’t such a great surprise that many locals saw too many parallels between Dumaguete and that archetypal American small town of sweet hypocrisy, where a pristine white picket fence mentality also bristles with delicious scarlet secrets that threaten to explode like a vat of raw sugar.

Such places on the quiet edge of things beget nocturnal lives that are the stuff of scandalous dreams. Dumaguete is so small and so quiet, that to vent—in one way (drinking) or another (dancing)—becomes the thing to do. Which brings us to a truism that Moses Joshua Atega, a Dumaguete transplant from Davao, always tells every new visitor to Dumaguete, in a kind of wicked reassurance: “Nothing bad will happen to you in Dumaguete. But, if something bad happens, you will like it.”

It is into that tradition of billowing quiet and vapid slowness that Music Box—before it was known as Why Not?—came in, and radically altered the nighttime landscape.

There had been other disco places and clubs in town before Music Box arrived, of course, and there were social events of various stripes where the young of Dumaguete raged against the overwhelming quiet of the everyday.

Moses Atega told me that before there were “official” party places like El Camino and Hayahay, Dumagueteños were already hosting strings of private parties in casa blancas everywhere in town, including the posh ones hosted in American missionary homes in Silliman campus. Even older than that, there were the bayles during sipong among the sugar cane workers.

“When I was in high school in the 1970s,” local TV host Glenda Fabillar told me, “we had jam sessions held in friends’ houses with only katol as light.” She said this laughing at the memory. “Then, in college, we partied in Silliman’s Catacombs, and there were more—but I can only remember the places we went to, but not their names. There were a lot.”

“In the 1970s,” Professor Cecilia Genove told me, “it was Town and Country Bakeshop, or TCB, which had a disco. That’s located near the Gallardo Building where Mr. D is now. I remember we would climb the fence near the SU Church to cross to Town and Country, to buy hot pan de sal. There was also North Pole, which is now Why Not, where you can have dinner and a nightcap. No disco there, however. I remember the spaghetti of Maricar’s [which is now the boarded up place fronting Taster’s Delight]. Their pastries were our favorites. There was also Dainty, an ice cream parlor. Life was truly laidback then.”

Understandably, Dumagueteños ate out more than partied then. For Rural Bank’s Toby Dichoso, to go out in the 1970s was to visit Speed Meals, where Body and Sole is now. “They had really good food in a jiffy,” he said. “And when merienda time came, who could forget those ice cream sundaes of North Pole, which was located in the Boulevard then. They served the best sundaes and banana splits. Remember, these were the time when we had to take two flights to Dumaguete from Manila. We took flights from Manila to Cebu with BAC 1-11, and upon reaching Cebu we changed to a plane with a turbo propeller bound for Dumaguete. And we used to go to Cruztelco just to make long distance calls. All phones were analogue then—only four numbers—and we went through an operator and we would ask her to dial the number for us while we waited in the lobby. As soon as the operator would connect us, she would direct us to a booth with a number, and there we would converse.”

U.S.-based Al de las Armas remembered that time as an opportunity to be creative: “When we ran out of allowance, we shared, we treated, we donated, we pahulam to our fellow Sillimanians. I’d walk from the campus to Ricky’s and bum for piso-piso, and I’d got lots of money after the social walk... Then, of course, we spent it all having a good time... Nowhere else can you do that!”

Local Globe manager Jacqueline Antonio remembered her parents mentioning Red Pepper in the 1970s, where Monterey of La Residencia is now. “There was Rainbow Pub in Piapi, a bar with billiards—but I was too young then. Not sure if it had a disco. There was also Windmills in Banilad and North Pole—both in the Boulevard and then in Bantayan—in the late 1970s and 1980s,” she said. “There was Tavern’s soft bar in the late 1980s—‘80s music was the best!

“Definitely Tavern in the 1980s,” says businesswoman and writer Sonia Sygaco. “It had a disco, a resto bar with a band. And billiards. Tavern, I think, was the only elegant place to go because Dumaguete at that time only restaurants with no additional forms of entertainment.”

“In the early 1980s,” court clerk Angel Quiamco remembered, “there was Blue Wave in Escaño. And pwede pa pa-inoman sa Boulevard then, after which mag-bayle sa SU gym, or Hibbard Hall’s second floor, or Silliman Hall’s first floor. This was during Fridays, with events sponsored by different campus organizations. Then there was inoman sa Silliman Beach, or mga bayle sa mga barangay during fiesta.”

But Music Box was the hinge that changed the course of things. The year was 1992, the world was still fresh from the wounds of the Gulf War, and a young Swiss named Marcus Kalberer took over what used to be North Pole, a beloved watering hole for locals, and put into place what was then the most ambitious party club in Dumaguete. The city until then knew no such things. To cap that plan, he installed a jazzed up jukebox on the roof of the old Medina sugar house, with dazzlingly colorful neon signs blaring out the words: “Music Box.”

For the young in the early 1990s, it was an electric current into the common placidity and the brutal ugliness of the boring. It was also the new excuse for the hip to return to Rizal Boulevard, which had become, by the late 1980s, a mecca for drunkards and prostitutes who plied their alcohol smell and their skin trade in a virtual city of tambay vendors and barbecue stalls. The whole boulevard nightlife until then was defined by sleaze, its headquarters being Rainbow Lodge (later The Office), which is now the Sol y Mar Building where the Globe office is located. It used to be part motel, and part bar.

To go to the Boulevard then was reason enough to be mocked by friends. “You’re going to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams?” they would say. But the strip was slowly undergoing a cosmetic make-over then, spearheaded by the dynamic new mayor Agustin Perdices, who came in after the chaos of the Quial years. The grassy lawns were being manicured, the seaside promenade cemented and prettified, the garish fluorescent lights nailed to haphazard wooden posts replaced by the Spanish-style posts now emitting a more romantic yellow light. The sugar houses along the stretch suddenly took on a different shine. Some opened their doors to new business. There was now Sans Rival in the old Sagarbarria house, for example, and the old Villegas house was now Hotel Al Mar (later La Residencia). But there were unforeseen changes, too, that shocked: North Pole—the old Medina house, which was leased by the Wuttriches for 25 years—suddenly became Music Box.

And the young flocked to it like it was the answer to their dreams.

In the long-gone layout of the Music Box of old, you made your grand entrance after a cursory inspection by a bouncer—a new thing in Dumaguete then—and once you’ve passed through the heavy, padded doors and straight into the inside, you were introduced into a dark, very glamorous interior that was leveled in many places, red sofas dotting surfaces everywhere. The dance floor was right on the far-side. The walls were covered by screens that played the latest videos from MTV, when MTV was still new in the country and it still had currency as the symbol of cool. There were glittery things that hung from the ceiling. And the bar, right in the center of things, was party central. People dressed up to go to Music Box. The coolest cats and the most ravishing girls in town partied in Music Box.

Music Box was the place to be seen. “MB,” its patrons lovingly called it. And for the next five or so years, Music Box reigned as Dumaguete’s center of the social universe, where the young and the rich (and the social climbers) went and partied. To arrive by car was de riguer. Motorcycles were frowned upon, but tolerated. But if you arrived by tricycle, it was a common—although unspoken—rule that you had to alight by the corner near Chin Loong, and walk the rest of the way to the entrance of Music Box.

And for what it is worth, Music Box opened the floodgates for more contemporary sensibilities that shook the old silences and the geriatric drool of the old Dumaguete.

It barged into the scene at the same time as DYGB, which blasted into the air as Power 95. It was the new FM station in town, with the swanky new chrome-and-white cement headquarters right in the heart of town—so swanky it even had a popular video store in the ground floor called Midtown, which rented out the latest in laser discs! DYGB threatened the longtime ascendancy of DYEM and its easy-listening vibe. (Remember “Album Covers”?) Barely a month into operation, the Dejarescos had taken it to court, to have it dial down to a frequency that was not to near its own. Power 95 soon became Power 91. But it was a hip new FM station with an alien sound, with fast-talking American-sounding deejays, playing scandalous songs like “Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby.”

Dumaguete’s head spun.

I still remember those days. I was still in high school—a sophomore in Silliman High—and one day, DJ Alan felt compelled to explain the nature of the next song in his playlist. “We don’t mean to hurt the sensibilities of the people in the community,” he said, “but we are here to play for Dumaguete the latest hit sounds. I hope nobody gets offended by our next song…”

And then the music played:

Let’s talk about sex, baby
Let’s talk about you and me,
Let’s talk about all the good things, all the bad things that may be.
Let’s talk about sex…
Let’s talk about sex.

Dumaguete’s head spun some more.

Later on, in early 1993, our first section of high school seniors from Silliman, led by our gangleader for merrymaking Gerard Anthony Adiong, trooped to our favorite party place in town, and painted the night away in hues of red and blue. Someone saw us partying like mad, and duly reported us to the authorities. The principal admonished us. “And to think you belong to the first section!” she said.

And thus began Dumaguete’s 10 P.M. curfew—with matching sirens blaring out like a mad sound from the heart of City Hall.

Blame us. That’s our fault.

(To be continued…)

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