Last January 18, President Rodrigo Duterte signed a law that mandated the conservation of the Gabaldon school buildings found nationwide, which sought to preserve “the architectural, historical and social significance” of these heritage school houses. The Gabaldon buildings were built around the Philippines from 1907 to 1946. In Dumaguete, the most famous example is the main building of the Negros Oriental High School, which was established in Dumaguete in 1902 [in the spot where the City Hall and the East City Central School buildings are now], but was later transferred to its current location along Kagawasan Avenue at the Capitol Area, where its Gabaldon building stands proud as beacon for local education.
These school buildings were designed by the American architect William Parsons, and are so named because their funding was made possible through Act. No. 1801, authored by Isauro Gabaldon. Including the one in Dumaguete, there are about 1,446 Gabaldon buildings all over the country—and under the new law, they are recognized as “built heritage,” and thus are included as part of cultural properties determined by the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009.
The new law requires local government units that have Gabaldon school buildings under their jurisdiction to “adopt measures for the protection and conservation of these structures,” with the aid of several government institutions, including the Department of Education and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. From the ABS-CBN news report on the passage of the law, Sen. Loren Legarda, the bill’s author, is quoted as saying that “these structures symbolize the first foundation of the Philippine public school system during the American period, in which each Filipino child, even from the most remote areas of the country, had access to formal education.”
It is that symbolic nature of these buildings that make them important—although most people do not readily see that about architectural structures, which leads to an ironic point: they are often the most visible kind of heritage in any town or city, and yet their importance as “heritage” are often unseen by people in the locality. They are often just perceived as “old buildings,” often dilapidated, and often fall victim to razing or demolition, always in the name of “progress.” Just a few weeks ago, the beautiful—although sadly neglected—Luis Rotea heritage house in Bais, which occupied a prime location in the city, is now gone, apparently to make way for a McDonald’s.
Built heritage, needless to say, is a most important cultural asset because it embodies the historical layers of our built environs made of materials such as cement, brick, wood, stone, and metal, even plaster—which make up the physical evidence of our cultural development. Built heritage thus includes houses and hotels, museums and markets, cathedrals and cemeteries, factories and fences, as well as plazas and streetscapes. It includes a wide range of historical and familiar landmarks that are vital in forming—and sustaining—a robust sense of belonging and affection to our community.
So quickly now, what are some of the other built heritage we can find around Dumaguete City besides the campanario and the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria?
The Locsin heritage house at the corner of Locsin Street and Sta. Catalina Street is one of the most important heritage houses in Dumaguete City. Legend has it that Jose Rizal once visited the house. But its true historical importance is that this was the venue for the election of officers for the Provisional Revolutionary Government on 25 November 1898. It had belonged to the Teniente Cornelia Yapsutco, and later became the property of the Locsin family in Dumaguete. It still stands intact.
The ancestral house of Ramon Teves Pastor at the crossing of Real Street [now named after him] and Dr. V. Locsin Street, popular known as the White House, is a testament to one of the most important figures in Dumaguete life and politics. Ramon Teves Pastor was mayor of Dumaguete from October 1912 until October 1916, and under his watch, M.L. Quezon Park was inaugurated a hundred years ago, on 20 September 1916, which paved the way for free nightly shows at the new Dumaguete landmark. The plot was donated by the Pastor family and the Patero family. The construction of the Rizal Boulevard breakwater was also done during his term, which makes him one of the major shapers of the Dumaguete environs we know and love today. The house still stands intact.
The row of beautiful, sometimes ornately designed, houses along the Paseo de Rizal or the Boulevard—stretching from the fringes of Tinago down to the corner of Silliman Avenue—are called by locals as the Sugar Houses, so named because these were the city residences of sugar plantation owners whose haciendas were mostly concentrated in Bais, Tanjay, and Manjuyod towns. For most of the life of the boulevard, these houses became the beautiful windows to the genteel air of Dumaguete, each one competing with each other with their disparate architectural details, and their singular grandness. Most of these houses over the years have been transformed into the various hotels and bars and restaurants that now dot the stretch. The grandest among them that still remain largely untouched is the magnificent, formerly green-tinged Serafin Lajato Teves Mansion at the corner of Rizal Boulevard and Burgos Street.
Of the school buildings aside from the Gabaldon structure of NOHS, we have Silliman Hall, named after Horace Brinsmade Silliman, the philanthropist who gave the initial donation to start the school that would become the university that it is now, is located right at the bend that leads to the sea-side Rizal Boulevard. Its sight is quite distinctive in the Dumaguete landscape, and it is perhaps the structure most iconic of the City besides the campanario. The three-story structure—held together by wooden arches stemming from cast-iron columns, its design complete with gables and intricate carpentry—is the first and the oldest building in campus. Dr. David Sutherland Hibbard, the school founder, was responsible for sketching out how Silliman Hall was supposed to look: his design represented American architecture of the stick-style, which dominated colonial buildings in the early days of the 20th century. The blocks used to build Silliman Hall were made from corals, and the components of the iron ceiling were shipped all the way from New York, from an old theater. Silliman Hall has served as classroom, dormitory (the future Philippine President Carlos P. Garcia stayed there when he was a student at Sillliman), library, faculty hall, and function hall—and in the early days of Silliman, it served as venue for recitals, plays, and convocations. Much of the building fell into disrepair and its first floor was converted to office spaces—until the late 1990s when Architect Manuel Almagro spearheaded efforts funded by USAid that restored the building to its original glory. The structure stands restored and intact.
Guy Hall in Silliman campus was built as a dormitory for boys. Construction began in 1918, with donations from Mr. William E. Guy of St. Louis, dedicated and named after his wife Kathryn Lemoine-Guy. Mr. Guy had met Silliman Institute benefactor Dr. Horace Silliman and pledged $15,000 to make two dormitories for boys. Instead of having two separate buildings, plans were made to change it to one with two wings—a more economical approach. Construction continued until 1927. It was made the general headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Forces during the duration of the war in Dumaguete. It still stands intact, and recently restored.
Among the government buildings, the City Hall—now referred to as the Presidencia—has the happy turn of being restored to its old glory. The Presidencia was built in 1937, and was designed by the great Filipino architect Juan M. Arellano who also designed some of the greatest pre-war buildings in the Philippines, including the Manila Post Office and the old Senate building, which currently houses the National Museum of the Philippines.
The Negros Oriental Provincial Capitol, located along Kagawasan Avenue around the city’s Freedom Park, was built in 1924 from designs made by architect and urban designer Daniel Hudson Burnham, which was based on the U.S. Capitol. (Burnham also designed the Flatiron Building in New York City and Union Station in Washington, D.C.) The design for the Negros Oriental Capitol, borrowing heavily from Greek architecture, symbolizes courage and strength, and the white paint symbolizes purity. It still stands intact—but needs restoration.
Public art and utilities, too, are part of the built heritage. The sculpture and fountain in M.L. Quezon Park was designed by Italian sculptor Francesco Riccardo Monti, who made it right around the time architect Juan M. Arellano was building the Presidencia in 1937. Monti stayed in the Philippines from 1930 until his death in 1958. During his stay, he worked with local architects and sculptors on major projects commissioned by the government and private individuals. Several of Monti’s sculptures are part of Metro Manila’s landmarks. His statues can be seen in front of public buildings or plazas, while his relief work decorate many exterior and interior walls in heritage buildings. It stands intact.
Built heritage is not just about beautiful or significant historic buildings. It also includes small and modest buildings of the commercial sort, including ones that reflect the social conditions of working families and local business titans. Of the heritage commercial buildings around downtown Dumaguete, my favorites are the few remaining Art Deco buildings mostly around Perdices Street, as well as Surban Street. Most of them are in various state of disrepair or use—and these include Park Building and the Uymatiao Building, as well as the Uypitching Building along Colon that blends Art Deco with Chinese motifs. Art Deco, also called style moderne, was a movement in the decorative arts and architecture that originated in the 1920s and developed into a major style in western Europe and the United States during the 1930s—formed with the “intention to create a sleek and anti-traditional elegance that symbolized wealth and sophistication,” according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, its “distinguishing features [being] simple, clean shapes, often with a ‘streamlined’ look, ornament that is geometric or stylized from representational forms; and unusually varied, often expensive materials.” Most of these buildings remain intact, but their style have been “diminished” by outer structures, or bad paint jobs.
Cathedrals and churches are some of the most beautiful—and preserved—examples of built heritage, but so are cemeteries. The Dumaguete Memorial Park is the most recently conceived, and utilized—but the smaller ones are more of interest to me. The Bogo public cemetery is within the embrace of the Memorial Park, and provides an interesting study of contrast. I used to love the Bagacay public cemetery for its chaos—but it has since undergone a facelift of sorts. The Daro Chinese cemetery is interesting for how it commands a lonely stretch of road within that barangay—but a small and separate cemetery within it is of utmost significance. The American Cemetery is one of the least well-known spots in Dumaguete, owing perhaps to the kind of grim reminder it brings about mortality, but also perhaps because of its secluded location inside the Chinese cemetery. It no longer has internment space, but the place still “charms” the occasional visitor with its wrought-iron gate beautifully covered by pink cadena de amor, and grounds shaded by full-grown mahogany trees and indian trees. Among the Americans buried here include a host of missionary teachers from Silliman University, such as Henry and Margaret Mack, T. S. Dodd, W. M. Baugh, Ila Smith-Munn, Cal Reed Cole Sr., Elena A. Cole, Cal Reed Cole Jr., Charlie Bell Cole Sr., Rev. Lapsley Armstrong McAfee, Robert Sherry Matheson, and Elliot Thomas Bell.
Are there any built heritage within Dumaguete City that gives us a reminder of World War II and the Japanese occupation of the town between 1942 and 1945? Nothing much remains in Dumaguete indicative of the occupation during that war, except one. The “pill box,” or defensive position, in Tugas is a remarkable piece of that historical time—easily seen by pedestrians as this strange “pyramid” while traversing Hibbard Avenue. It mostly puzzles people though. How many times have I gotten this question: “What is that?” And admittedly, for the longest time, I did not have a clear answer to give. The pill box is located about four blocks in-land from Lo-oc, near the North City Elementary School in Piapi, on the right hand side of Hibbard Avenue going north. It is located on private property, and it is not a preserved historical site.
Built heritage is a key to the understanding of our shared history in the community. It defines our origins. It enlightens us about who we are today. It gives us a sense of place, which in turn helps establish identity for the community—because they contribute to a sense of our connectedness to each other, which inspires community pride and a confidence of Dumaguete as “unique.” Most of all, when our local built heritage is properly preserved and promoted, it can stimulate interest about Dumaguete’s past, which can enrich the daily lives of Dumaguetnons.
The Campanario de Dumaguete as it stands today was built during the time of Fray Juan Felix de la Encarnacion who took charge of the Dumaguete parish between 1867 and 1879. More famously called the Bell Tower, it is set on the remains of the original southeastern watchtower originally built by Don Jose Manuel Fernandez de Septien, parish priest of Dumaguete, between 1755 and 1760.
There were originally four of them.
Each of these four watchtowers was made from stone and mortar, and each was mounted with cannons. The first watchtower would have been at the corner of Bishop Epifanio Surban St. and Perdices St., where the Bank of Philippine Islands is currently located. The second would have been at the corner of Surban St. and Katada St., the rear corner of COSCA. The third would have been at the corner of Katada St. and Colon St., at the corner of the fish terminal. And the fourth, and the only surviving watchtower, would be the current campanario—standing tall and proud after all these years, the very beacon of Dumaguete City.
The "ghost" towers in these photos are not fully representative of the original structures. They might have been two-storey structures, with no belfry. The "ghost tower" used here is taken from a photo of the Panglao watchtower.
They were the four corners of an ancient Spanish colonial fortress that surrounded the massive stone church and the convento built by Fr. Septien, which kept Dumaguete safe from the pirate raids from the south.
From church historian Fr. Roman Sagun Jr., we learn that “the convento was built from choice strong materials, which covered even the rear portion. This edifice, in which remnants of warfare can still be found in its original doorway, was constructed like a strong fort and ensured safety from any attack by pirates. It was also fortified by a wall over two meters in height from the outside, forming a large square in the center where the church and the convento were situated; there was also a large plaza where the inhabitants could take refuge in times of necessity.”
We also learn that “aside from constructing the church, the convento, the fortress, the watchtowers, and the contravalla, Fr. Septien also built bulwarks which were located at strategic positions on the beachfront of Dumaguete. All these were made of stone and were well secured, and they were utilized to keep watch on the coast and prevent any surprise pirate attack.”
From some strange unfurling fate, the campanario has withstood the test of time, even though the original watchtower it is set on is largely gone, its ruins becoming the foundation of Fr. Encarnacion’s project. It illustrates very well the caprices of history, the brutal march of time, and the attendant ravages of the elements.
History is easily vanished; I believe the campanario has only truly survived because it has come to transcend history—it has become an icon. As an example of built heritage, its fate—at least for now—is secure. But the fight for heritage preservation is always a generational story, and the battle will always be fought every time another generation comes of age.
Perhaps definitive of built heritage that has come to transform significantly Dumaguete is the Paseo de Rizal, or the Rizal Boulevard, and the pier. The boulevard was named after Jose Rizal, the national hero, who is said to have spent a few hours along the stretch to stroll before departing for Dapitan for his exile. It currently extends at a length of 967 meters, from the Press Club to the pier, including the extended promenade. The promenade follows the city’s shoreline, and is lined with the beautiful [formerly] private houses—the so-called sugar houses—of local hacenderos and the buildings of Silliman University.
When the latter was still Silliman Institute in the early years of the 20th century, it had become a popular school for many students from other places to matriculate in, and people from other parts of the country started arriving in droves in Dumaguete, which had no pier. To land in Dumaguete then, according to historian Caridad Aldecoa-Rodriguez, passengers had to be “carried over the shoulders of some husky cargadores from the boat to the shore to avoid becoming wet. This was a common sight at the beach in those times.”
By June 1919, Vicente Flagrante, the local district engineer, had finished the plans for a pier in Dumaguete, and an appropriation for P50,000 was approved, with succeeding appropriations coming until 1935.
It was the greatest improvement Dumaguete had ever undertaken at that time. Before the building of the pier, however, the construction of a boulevard running parallel to the seashore of Dumaguete was a stroke of genius for the town planners. It was designed to connect the provincial road with the port, and four principal streets of Dumaguete—now declared first-class roads—were joined with the boulevard by 1916.
The boulevard came at the height of infrastructure construction under the leadership of town mayor Señor Ramon Teves Pastor [who served from October 1912 to October 1916], which also saw the construction of Quezon Park in September 1916. Señor Pastor as town mayor should be credited for having largely shaped the Dumaguete that we know and love today.
His ancestral home—another heritage building which has seen various phases of extensions and repair over the decades but remains a heritage structure at heart—is at the corner of Real Street and Locsin Street, a magnificent white house clearly of vintage mold.
Every time I see this house, I wish Dumaguete remembered more fervently the memory of this patriarch: Señor Pastor, after all, was instrumental in shaping Dumaguete. Without him, the Dumaguete we know and love—paseo, pier, and park—would not have become that city at all.
I never know what to make of Tanjay whenever I come to visit this city north of Dumaguete, an hour away by car. It’s a prosperous small city and I find it fascinating enough to have written two short stories set in it. It is also clear that its people take civic pride in the city as bastion of mavens, given the moniker it has come to embrace: “City of Professionals,” which sounds positively lofty, educated, sophisticated.
Local history gives us an even richer regard of the place. Tanjay is the oldest parish in Negros Oriental [the mission was established in 1580, and the parish became full-fledged in 1587].
When we take archaeology into consideration, we also learn that Tanjay was the site of an ancient maritime chiefdom of some importance in the Visayas in the period before the Spaniards came.
“Tanjay appears to have been the center of a series of economically and politically expanding regional polities, whose chiefs simultaneously controlled luxury good trade coming into the coastal port, and the river-based economy of lowland-upland exchange,” writes Laura L. Junker in Raiding, Trading, and Feasting: The Political Economy of Philippine Chiefdoms (1999), and suggests that its growth as a pre-colonial settlement is linked with the Tanjay chief’s increasing political power, themselves engaged thoroughly in production activities and trade, sponsoring crafts by skilled local artisans and becoming their patron.
[In the book, Junker also maps out the phases of pre-colonial civilization in Negros Oriental, from artifacts collected from archeological sites in Tanjay and nearby Bais, as well as Bacong and nearby Dumaguete: the Edjek Phase (1500-2000 BC), the Solamillo Phase (0-500 AD), the Aguilar Phase (500-1000 AD), the Santiago Phase (1100-1400 AD), the Osmena Phase (1400-1600 AD), and the Historic Phase (post-1600, in the early years of the Spanish colonial period)—all of them named after the properties the archaeological diggings were conducted. This gives the astounding insight that 2,000 years before the modern era, there was already a civilized culture in the island of Negros, then called Buglas.]
In Eufemio Patanñe’s The Philippines in the 6th to 16th Centuries (1996), we also learn that the Tanjay archaeological data suggests that the chiefdom founded at the mouth of the Tanjay River—the largest and only navigable river in Negros Oriental—was actually “strategically located,” the settlement small at first, but in time grew, “attracting migrants from upriver or from other less geographically favored islands,” with the “one major impetus for growth [being] trade, specifically, foreign trade…substantiated by excavations of Chinese porcelain represented by Sung, Yuan and early Ming trade pottery.” Patanñe admits there was scant evidence there was direct trade between China and Tanjay, “but certainly, by 1100 A.D. Chinese porcelain was present in Tanjay.”
And yet you don’t see any of that history—both the pre-colonial or Spanish colonial—manifested or preserved in Tanjay. No museums exist to exhibit the evidences of that pre-colonial chiefdom. No old houses preserved to give light of its rich sugar past, and no remains of the Spanish stronghold that made this one of the earliest Spanish settlements. In other towns—especially Bacong, Dauin, and Amlan—we still have standing churches that attest to that Spanish colonial history. Tanjay, oldest parish in Negros, has none of that.
I asked a particular friend from Tanjay who comes from the Calumpang family [specific identity withheld upon request], thinking he would have answers since he is pursuing projects invested in the city’s local heritage efforts. Of the church, he says: “From what I was told, it was renovated in the 1960s when they tried to ‘upgrade and update’ everything to concrete. The old church, based on pictures and accounts of people who saw it, was made of adobe. The floors inside the church, instead of lapidas, had names of the faithful who helped the church through donations. I’ve always wanted to know why it has been redesigned this way, but no one seems to have concrete answers to give me. I once saw photos of the old church and it was beautiful. It had two belfries and [the design] was typical of its generation. The most recent wave of ‘damage’ was brought on by a parish priest who gave the main altar a garish facelift and had all the pillars of the interiors removed.”
Of heritage conservation, he commented: “Tanjay has had a hard time preserving its heritage. I don’t think it even does this now. [And] I have yet to find a direct answer to why this has been so.”
I can very well imagine a Tanjay with its heritage intact. I can imagine walking down its Rizal Street and strolling across heritage houses that tell the tale of its storied past. I can imagine going to its parish church and see reflected back to me 318 years of Spanish colonial history. I can imagine going to archaeological sites within the city, or to a local museum, and see documentation in shards of ancient pottery and china indicating the richness of pre-colonial Tanjay. None of those exist.
[Note: Tanjay parish priest Msgr. Glenn Corsiga is currently constructing a museum. He hopes to finish it before he will be transferred for another assignment next year. Information from Fr. Roman Sagun]
In Dumaguete, despite the enormous heritage work still left undone, we have at least a few scattered efforts, for the most part existing because a visionary a long time saw a need for conservation.
We remain grateful, for example, to visionaries like Hubert Reynolds, who was founder of the Silliman University Anthropological Museum—an institution he established partly to house local ethnological and archaeological artifacts dating as far back as 200 B.C. Reynolds was a fraternal worker of the Disciples of Christ who, due partly to the nature of his calling, was a wide traveler who took a deep interest in different cultures. When he came to Dumaguete, he contributed greatly to the local understanding of the various native cultures of the Philippines. Dr. Reynolds came to Silliman in 1964 with his wife Harriett, after finishing their doctorate degrees at Hartford Seminary Foundation in Connecticut. They arrived with a vast portfolio of research materials and scholarly writings that focused on the cultures of the Negritos, the Isnegs, and the Tausugs. What might be considered the highlight of all the Reynolds’ involvements in and contributions to Dumaguete is the establishment of the anthropology museum in 1970, which stands today as a treasure trove of memorabilia from the early years of Silliman, as well as the aforementioned archaeological finds.
We remain grateful to the Dumaguete parish for finding an icon in the campanario, still standing and giving us a slice of the distant past when Dumaguete was a constant place of pillage by pirates in the 19th century—and from this, we learn of Fr. Jose Manuel Fernandez de Septien built a fort with four watchtowers to stand guard against future raids, and of Fr. Juan Felix de la Encarnacion who built the now famous bell tower upon the ruins of one of those Septien watchtowers. [But what is up with that orange photo-bomber of a building behind it?]
We remain grateful to the families who own the sugar houses along the Rizal Boulevard, for endeavoring to preserve their beautiful architectural integrity, which speaks volumes of the Golden Age of Sugarlandia in Negros Oriental, even as they are being repurposed to fit more modern needs—a restaurant, a hotel, a café.
These things are what we call in heritage work as “built heritage.” Built heritage is easily the most recognizable and most visible of the lot: it includes, after all, man-made historic environments including houses, factories and commercial buildings, churches and mosques and other traditional places of worship, cemeteries, school buildings, government buildings, the local marketplaces, monuments and plazas and parks, bridges, even streets, roads, railways, and bridges. It also includes physically created places such as gardens, mining sites, and stock routes, as well as archaeological sites.
These things—particularly buildings—are a city’s most obvious historians, but also ironically also most mute. When they are able to tell their stories, though, we get a slice of the Dumaguete story in such rich historical details.
Take a look at the Du An Sim Building, for example, which takes up most of the eastern part of the block straddling Calle Ma. Cristina, Surban Street, and Locsin Street. It is one of my favorite old buildings in Dumaguete. It currently houses several shops, which have been around for quite some time, including Good Luck Store, which used to have the best collection of movies on VHS for rent in the city. [Good Luck Store was veritably my film school when I was of college age, and was devouring movies to fill in a cineaste education.] The shops in this building are always busy, but I’ve often wondered, whenever I find myself in this area of Dumaguete, what’s upstairs, or better yet, how the building began.
I love the building’s rounded corners, and its wooden windows, and its generous corner balconies [there are two]—something you don’t see a lot in old buildings here. I can imagine the family that constructed this building, assembling in the balconies to watch parades or just the people of the town hustling by on ordinary days. [One balcony overlooks the wet market.] For a long time, I didn’t know when it was built, and I thought perhaps that it was probably in the 1940s.
When I posted a photo of the building on Facebook, captioning it with my rumination regarding its architecture and history, City Sports Coordinator Ike Xavier Villaflores contacted me, and over coffee told me a bit of family lore.
Mr. Villaflores belongs to the Alo clan, an old Dumaguete family known for its expertise in carpentry and whose patriarch in the 1930s and 1940s was one Generoso Alo Villaflores, or Popo, as he was fondly called by friends and family. [Popo was one of the local artisans responsible for building many iconic structures in Dumaguete, including the Silliman Church and the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria.] The Alo family owned the property fronting the Du An Sim building, where the Uypitching Building now stands, and Popo used to set out to do regular carpentry work at the Cathedral grounds before it was burned down in the Great Dumaguete Fire that consumed the area—including the public market—in 1953, which started at a store under the proprietorship of Nirmela Nanikram, in what is now MetroBank.
During the war, what is now the Du An Sim building was just a haphazard collection of wooden shops. The head of the Du An Sim family, who was very close to Popo, asked for his help: the Japanese had been occupying Dumaguete for some time now, and the later years of the war proved hard, especially for people of Chinese ancestry, and he was planning to evacuate the town for the mountains with the rest of the family—but he didn’t know where to entrust his accumulated wealth in bills and coins. Popo suggested burying the money in a nearby field—what is now the EROS Building, which currently houses Pag-IBIG Fund. In the darkness of one quiet night, the two proceeded to bury the entire lot, and the Du An Sim family evacuated the next day. Mr. Du An Sim unfortunately died during the war, and when his widow and the rest of the family later came back to the city, they arrived almost penniless, and their plight aggravated soon after by their property being engulfed in the Big Fire of 1953. Popo, according to Mr. Villaflores, guided the widow to the hiding place where her husband’s money was buried—and out of that, Mr. Villaflores told me, came the funds that built the Du An Sim building we see today. Popo was foreman in the building of that project, completed in 1954.
The Du An Sim Building tells a story significant to the historical development of Dumaguete. So do many of the old buildings here—although most of us have learned to become deaf to what stories they have to tell. Preserving them, and then digging up their history, is one way to appreciate them, and one way to chart Dumaguete history. I look at the Du An Sim Building now: it occupies a choice spot in the oldest section of Dumaguete. I can see its potential, if it’s spruced up and restored even just a bit; as an architectural piece, as a historical marker, as a vibrant commercial center, it would be a jewel.
4:55 PM |
Ang Sugilanon sa Kasakit ni Epefania, Radio Play
Of my stories, "Old Movies" and "Things You Don't Know" are anthologized more often and taught in schools, but "The Sugilanon of Epefania's Heartbreak" is the one that's always being adapted into something else. It has become a comic book. It has become a stage play [presented as part of the Virgin Labfest and staged at the Cultural Center of the Philippines]. And it has become fodder for many classroom projects. Somebody did a whole shadow play of the story. And now it's also a radio drama titled "Ang Sugilanon sa Kasakit ni Epefania." This one's produced and performed by Diza Apple Rubio, Andrea Maglipac, Carl Joseph Carazo Lara, Isabel Geronimo, Krystel Mae Santisteban, and Shane De Guzman, in J Marie Maxino's senior high class. Thank you, guys! "The Sugilanon of Epefania’s Heartbreak" is special to me because it is the story of my family and their past in Bayawan [which used to be called Tolong]. So every time somebody creates something new out of this story, I think of it as a chance to pay respect to my ancestors, because it is making them alive.
On February 27, Jose Javier Reyes—screenwriter of Oro Plata Mata and director of Pare Ko, Live Show, and Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo—posted this on his Facebook page: “The box office results of both foreign and local films that opened today are all dismal. It may be sooner than we expected.” The post had a fearful urgency, and since it came from someone who has been working deep in the trenches of the local film industry for so long, it also felt like a missive from someone in the know. A prophecy almost, and it smelled of doom. But what is that “it” that is “sooner than expected”?
A few days later, on March 3, Mr. Reyes again posted: “It is dismaying to see Facebook posts of movie houses with just one or two people in the audience today. And it is a Sunday.” To which the actor Ogie Diaz replied: “Oo, direk. Nakakalungkot. Ten or eleven lang ‘ata kami kagabi sa Familia Blondina sa Gateway. Wala ding pila sa ticketing.” Reyes posted a rejoinder: “Ito na ang pinangangamba ko. Di ko akalain na ganito kabilis ang kaganapan.”
Pangangamba. Kabilis ang kaganapan. Sooner than expected.
This is the “it” thus defined: nobody is watching movies in the theaters anymore. Except the latest from Marvel.
I was reminded of these social media posts from Mr. Reyes when I caught this headline from The New York Times, dated 6 March 2019: “‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ Is Coming to Netflix.” The news story was being posted in quick succession on the newsfeed of so many friends on Facebook—and I understood the excitement and the frenzy of the sharing. The Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, originally published in 1967, is a classic of world literature, and it is the favorite tome of the magic realist bent for many, many people—and it has never ever been adapted for the screen before. Considering what a landmark of literature it is, it is indeed a surprise that only now do we get stirrings of a film adaptation.
The New York Times article provides an explanation: “It was not for lack of interest,” the article goes. “In a recent call, the Nobel Prize winning novelist’s son, Rodrigo García…said that his father had received many offers over the years to adapt the book to film. But his father was concerned that the story would not translate well or fit within a single movie (or even two), he added. García Márquez was also committed to the story being told in Spanish, so many offers were ‘non-starters’ to him.”
In other words, for the author, the very form and the very business of film itself made him say no to all the offers of adaptation. Movies must be two hours long—three at the most, the industry insists, and to make sure it would have legs to carry it through the expected demands of the box office, it has to have the characters speak in English, even cast non-Latino movie stars to make it sell. Such have been the familiar strictures of commercial cinema, especially in Hollywood.
Only very recently have we gotten a pathbreaking platform that is currently making mincemeat of those very strictures, rendering them as relics of another time. With Netflix—and streaming in general—length has ceased to be a concern. We have learned to “binge-watch,” and we have learned to appreciate long-form storytelling. After Netflix gave the greenlight to Mike Flanagan to expand Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House into a 10-episode series, the show became an unexpected hit. There are similar success stories in the Netflix mold. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma—which recently harvested a number of Oscar wins—is another such unlikely success story: an award-winning film that is set in Spanish, subtitled, made in Mexico, starring unknowns, and photographed in black-and-white. It found a home in Netflix the way it could never probably have in a regular studio. To quote Rodrigo Garcia again from the article: “Netflix was among the first to prove that people are more willing than ever to see series that are produced in foreign languages with subtitles. All that seems to be a problem that is no longer a problem.”
But that’s the thing about Netflix and why it’s capturing eyeballs—and why it seems to be rapidly displacing theaters as the shrine for contemporary filmed entertainment, as we could cull from the Facebook posts of Mr. Reyes: it is brave in its risk-taking the way movie studios haven’t been in years.
It does stumble a lot in that risk-taking [let’s never talk about True Memoirs of an International Assassin starring Kevin James as a James Bond wannabe], but it can afford to and the rewards more than compensate. The Oscars for Roma is the best and most recent example. Movie studios, on the other hand, have been boxing themselves in for many years now, churning out the formulaic and the franchise-rific, because they’re the “surest deal.”
Who can blame them though? The risks in mainstream filmmaking have never been greater, and movie studios today face the same kind of dilemma they once had when television was suddenly resurgent in the 1950s. To survive today seems to entail a regurgitation of what has already proven successful, hence the avalanche of superhero movies and the like. But when Hollywood actually does something totally out of the blue, sometimes critics are too ready to pounce unfairly with sharp knives—like the attendant hatred that came for Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, a great, if mind-boggling, movie that was fried critically and was largely ignored at the box office, even if it starred Jennifer Lawrence. Audiences stay away from the likes of Mother! because movie-going simply has become too expensive these days for anyone to gamble on the untested. It’s a lose-lose situation for movie studios.
Consider Netflix. It only demands a flat monthly fee that’s roughly equivalent to the cost of one movie ticket. For that, it gives the subscriber a smorgasbord of choices, from the safe [“The Kissing Booth”] to the zany [“Maniac”]. It is a business model the studios [and movie theaters] can never probably emulate, and it is killing the latter.
I still watch movies in theaters as much as I can though, simply because I know the experience of watching a movie in a theater can never be equaled by a computer or a TV screen—but I also completely understand why many people don’t go to the theaters anymore. Because, hey look, Netflix is actually giving us Gabriel Garcia Marquez! Also Rebel Wilson in a rom com! [If you’re into that.] Also Heneral Luna! What choices! And you don’t even have to bear with traffic and terrible popcorn and that tita who can’t stop rolling through her Facebook in the middle of a movie!
When was the last time a local movie in a theater seriously wowed me and many people in Dumaguete? Patay Na Si Hesus, actually—which beguiled and swept through most of the Visayas like the Second Coming. It proved a local hit because representation does matter! But do you think Star Cinema or Regal Films will ever make a film like this, in Binisaya, embracing non-Manila realities? I don’t think so. Even then, movie theaters barely released Patay. They also barely released Heneral Luna, too. Until the clamor from the grassroots for both films could no longer be ignored, and suddenly they were getting prime slots in the cinemas, but only after several weeks of independent screenings by the enterprising producers who were going through alternative distribution, in this case the school circuit, to have their films seen because no movie theater would touch them.
Distribution is one of the biggest problems facing Philippine cinema today, compounded of course by the reality that most well-made films of certain gravity remain bound to festival screenings [hence, we have a very Manila-centric film culture, because most of the festivals are there] and they never really do the rounds of the rest of the country. But Vice Ganda films do. This creates a perception for many ordinary filmgoers that these are the only types of films we create for the mass audience, hindering them from seeing, and learning to expect, better fare. They are so used to these trashy films these have actually become an intrinsic part of the local cinematic diet. It’s like Jollibee; we know that fast food’s bad for us—but we have been taught to drool at the sight of a Chicken Joy or a burger steak. It’s no wonder these films earn millions every December when the MMFF comes rolling around; the local industry has taught them to expect only this. A change for the better will remain a pipe dream. MMFF had a rare and glorious turn for the better in 2016, which could have been a start—but now it’s back to the comforts of the old pigsty. The revolution never happened.
When smaller production houses try to book their films in a popular mall chain—guaranteeing, to some degree, countrywide distribution—the effort feels very much like dealing with the Mafia. In Cinema Rehiyon 10 in 2018, during a forum held in a cavernous Cavite mall theater, I was forced to listen to a representative of these mall chain cinemas give a fantastic spin for why the system is the way it is, even giving fantastic excuses for why local cinemas are still opening movies on Wednesdays and not on weekends, and for why they do the awful practice of pulling out a local movie if it doesn’t meet a certain quota on the very first day of screening. This, even if the film showed promise it would have better legs in the coming days, if only it was allowed to stay on for a few more days. So many good films have been sacrificed because of this practice—which does make a bit of sense if commercial interest has to trump over anything else. But why then did they allow Bato to linger on in theaters, even if absolutely nobody was watching it? And how could that terrible movie earn a B rating from the Cinema Evaluation Board? Politics?
And why is the testy compromise over the MMFF have to be the formation of the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, slated only for a week in August, a month which is acknowledged in the industry as the slowest movie-going month of the year?
The system is terribly rotten.
And so, if Netflix must be the one to burn down the current one to make way for hopefully something better [independent micro-cinemas seem to be one answer], so be it.
In the year that we celebrate the centennial of Philippine cinema, let it all burn.