Do you know that Dumaguete has a 10 PM curfew for minors in place since the early 1990s? That’s the loud sound you hear every night when you’re around the City Hall area. [Now, almost no one knows that’s actually a call to curfew, which I find funny.] Anyway, my flex is this: my high school friends and I [all in the first section] were responsible for that. We were out dancing at Music Box, some in their high school uniforms, and we were reported to the authorities. [“Minors! Dancing in Music Box!”] Thus, the installment of the 10 PM curfew. You’re welcome.
7:00 AM |
In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish Part 12: The Reel Life
Curiously enough, the best film of Dumaguete in the pandemic was made just right before the pandemic—and in that regard can be then taken as prophecy. The short film A Wakeful Sennight, made in the last months of 2019 by Andrew Alvarez and Stanley Alcala, asks us to picture the world in disarray: the sun is inexplicably in a standstill, and the world’s population—or at least the segment we see representing it—are tortured by the endless brightness and cannot sleep. When the film begins, we see a man—Mr. Alvarez directing himself—traversing a bucolic neighborhood, looking up at the sky and seeing the sun shining brightly in noontime splendor. He checks his watch—and that’s when we know of the film’s conceit: it is past 8 in the evening, and the sun has not set. There is no ensuing panic, only puzzlement. Our man tries to go to sleep and finds that he can’t. The days pass, and he and everyone else succumb to a zombie-like existence of wanting sleep but are forever deprived of it. The world becomes desolate, and when we see people about in the streets, they are in a stupor. And so it goes, on and on—until sunset eventually comes, and our man has finally gotten his need of night, but has collapsed on the street in much-needed slumber.
It’s a simple film, done without dialogue, and unspooling in its absurdity carried only by its musical motif [a French ballad the filmmakers composed themselves] and the comic work of everyone involved. When the filmmakers collaborated on it in 2019, it was the culmination of years of filmmaking done piecemeal—acting work here, editing work there—until the duo of Alvarez and Alcala, friends since childhood, finally joined forces as a directing/editing/producing tandem. A Wakeful Sennight was the product of that first collaboration—but no one saw it as the prophecy it turned out to be: a showcase of Dumaguete in desolation, its people afflicted by a phenomena bigger than themselves and walking around like trapped rats. It was a “comedy” when it came out in late 2019, and virtually a “documentary” when reviewed in the light of 2020—and it demonstrated one sure thing for both filmmakers: no one really knows how the days will go, so they might as well do film.
But is Dumaguete a filmmaking hub? And did the pandemic affect it?
“Dumaguete is home,” says Mr. Alvarez. “I grew up in Piapi; Stan in Bantayan. Our late grandfathers [Rev. Proceso Udarbe and National Scientist Angel Alcala] were well-known personalities [who helped] put this city on the map.” That familial affinity assured a strong bond since they met in grade school at Silliman, and lasted even with almost divergent paths they took in college and right after. Both alumni of Silliman University, Mr. Alvarez graduated with a degree in public administration but currently works as a content editor for a digital marketing company. Mr. Alcala, meanwhile, studied medical technology and eventually went on to finish medical school at Silliman, and is now a resident physician at a local hospital [and recently got into a training program for pathology in a Cebu hospital].
Their lives are totally different, but the arts always had a strong pull on both of them. “I started out in my creative career as a theater actor and occasional songwriter,” Mr. Alvarez says. “I’ve also joined a number of workshops, [with] the Philippine Educational Theater Association and the Elements Singer-Songwriter Camp.” That is how most people in Dumaguete know him: as a reliable mainstay in many plays and musicals in campus, and as a musician who has recorded and performed with the Belltower Project. On the other hand, most people see Mr. Alcala as someone devoted to his medical studies and career—but what many do not know is that he has dabbled frequently in film simply because of his love for the medium. “My first major foray in the creative scene was in a film that my fraternity/sorority sister asked me to edit,” Mr. Alcala says, thinking back to Tigway, a short film by Maya Jajalla, which won Best Film in the 2015 Silliman Film Open or SFO. [The SFO started as Dumaguete Shorts, an exhibition of locally-made short films in 2007, marking it as the first film festival in Dumaguete, but twice changing its name as its concentration expanded and changed over the years: the 61 Short Film Festival in 2010 and finally the Silliman Film Open in 2014.] “I have no formal training in filmmaking,” Mr. Alcala continues, but jumped at the chance to edit a film anyway—and subsequently won the Best Editing award for Tigway in that year’s SFO.
Mr. Alcala is aware that Dumaguete actually has a heritage of filmmaking—even if nobody knows or acknowledges it anymore. He cites, for example, the National Artist for Cinema Eddie Romero as a major influence, a Dumaguete filmmaker who parlayed his creative writing passions as a high school senior at Silliman into a mentorship with the great Filipino director Gerardo de Leon, eventually cementing his own reputation as a maker of solid Filipino film epics [such as Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kaayo Ngayon and Aguila] and schlocky Hollywood B-movies [such as The Mad Doctor of Blood Island and Black Mama White Mama].
But there’s also the equally distinguished Dumaguete director and screenwriter Cesar Jalandoni Amigo, who penned the political tragedy The Moises Padilla Story  and won a number of FAMAS Awards for his screenplays. And there’s also the fact that in the 1950s, at the height of the Golden Age of Visayan Cinema, a film company based in Dumaguete named Visayan Films—founded by Don Luis Arnaiz and Don Serafin Teves, whose family owned Park and Main, the two main movie theaters in Dumaguete for many decades—released a “musical extravaganza” titled Dumagsa in 1950, directed by a Cebuano director named Tura Rodriguez, and starring a popular Cebuano starlet named Rosita Fernandez. [Dumagsa was the story of a school teacher who falls in love with a hacendero. It had its premiere in 1950 in Park Theater and was a tremendous success, which led to its second offering, Leon Kilat, about the revolutionary hero hailing from Bacong. This was directed by Sat. A. Villarino. But after Leon Kilat’s release in 1952, the company no longer made any other movie, although other titles that Visayan Films was planning to do included another musical by Tura Rodriguez titled Miss Smiles, a society drama by F. Borromeo titled Karnabal, a musical by M.P. Velez titled Sa Kabukiran, a drama by G.C. Abdula titled Layawan, and an action drama by Mike Calumpang titled Bartender. The two films made are now considered lost films—possibly lost in the fire that engulfed Main Theater in the 1970s.]
But for the most part, except for actual filming done by Mr. Romero in his hometown—for The Passionate Strangers in 1968 and for Kamakalawa in 1981—Dumaguete has not really pursued an active filmmaking scene.
But the beginning of a real film culture—with movies made by locals, using local resources—began as a trickle, starting in that first Dumaguete Shorts exhibition in 2007—and soon there were animated films by Ramon Del Prado and Xteve Abanto, and documentary films by Carmen Del Prado and Anthony Gerard Odtohan, and short live action films by Jonah Lim, Mahogany Rae Bacon, Melissa Bernas Pal, Jo Simone Vale, Raymond Vincent Cutillar, Henzoly Alboroto, Jose Adrian Miraflor, Francis James Kho, and Carl Ivan Caballero, and the genuinely avant-garde curiosities by Razceljan Salvarita and Hersley-Ven Casero. [Mr. Salvarita’s I Am Patience, about a caterpillar making its way through a forest of leaves, was ultimately nominated in the best short film category of the 2013 Urian Awards.]
Mr. Miraflor’s Voldemort Must Die, an action/comedy short about love lost in the vein of Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino, won Best Film in the 2012 61 Film Festival—and signaled the start of a production company that he and his friends named DumbFights Productions, which would go on to release a number of short films over the years, including Jake Villegas on a Bridge with the Dancing Dragons, The House The Dead The Ugly, Ang Lansang ni Jake Villegas, and Ang Paghibalag sa Kalibunan—films that would more or less define the “Dumaguete short film” for many seasons in the regional film festival circuit as stories made with a cocky flair, always in the service of comedic action, and with a lot of fantastical elements, and edits, thrown in. [The House The Dead The Ugly, a story about a bunch of killers and gangsters who wind up in a mysterious house where they’re thrown for one violent loop, remains, for me, as their masterpiece.] DumbFights would gather an increasing number of collaborators since that first outing, including Von Colina, who would come to direct [and star] in most of their later films after Mr. Miraflor semi-retired from filmmaking due to health reasons, Alex Gascon [as cinematographer], Jetmore Banot [as actor and director], Louie Villegas [as actor], Mr. Alvarez [as actor], among many others—including Jomar Solania, Paul Benzi Florendo, and Ruel Joseph Tabada, who would also make significant directorial contributions to local film.
In 2021, DumbFights would release You, their take on the pandemic and the casual indifference of people towards impending danger by recasting the health crisis as a zombie apocalypse. That year, it was a finalist at the Lutas Film Festival, which also fielded Mr. Alvarez’s Best Mayo, starring Mr. Banot as a man in desperate search for a jar of mayonnaise to the point of madness, destroying his house in the process, and angering his wife. In a small role as Mayonnaise Girl in an Ad is Ara Mina Amor, also a film director [and occasional actress]. She would also have a film in competition that year at Lutas, a horror-adjacent story titled Masulob-on, a melancholic tone poem in stark black and white about depression and desperation and temptation. But Ms. Amor’s most pandemic-centered film is the comedy short Pisti Pandemic, made in 2022 for Eksena Cinema Quarantine, which follows a naïve young man who has just wisened up to the strictures [and dangers] of the lockdown and finds himself fighting zany battles to stock up on provisions with people panic-buying everything. [The funniest bit is the introduction to his yaya, played by an actor with a considerable beard—depicted to seem like a side-effect to the vaccine.]
A cursory observation would immediately pick up on the fact that these filmmakers constantly work with each other—and especially during the pandemic. In many ways, this collaborative spirit is the lifeblood of current Dumaguete filmmaking. Almost all of the filmmakers, especially those who started doing films in the early years of Lutas and the SFO, cross-pollinate their film productions with each other’s contributions, sometimes with these collaborations spilling into the storylines themselves. [Ms. Amor’s Finals, for example, include a cameo from the fighting gangsters of Miraflor’s The House The Dead The Ugly.] They act in each other films. They do sound design for some, and production design for others. Cinematography and editing are constantly on a round robin. For Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Alcala, this is the norm for current local filmmaking—and the smallness of Dumaguete makes it a necessity. “Dumaguete contributes to the growth of our artists,” Mr. Alvarez says. “I don’t mean this career-wise though, since there isn’t much of an industry here yet. But the city has this appeal that helps clear our thoughts and prepare ourselves to be inspired. The locals foster this [and] celebrate this, and the city itself grows from it.”
“The arts scene in Dumaguete is ever thriving,” Mr. Alcala says. “It’s easy to collaborate with different artists in the creation of cohesive art, and the city has actively endeavored to develop the scene through art exhibits, film contests, and music festivals.”
To which Mr. Alvarez adds: “There’s always something to do to help express ourselves and our backgrounds. And year after year, someone new joins in our circle. Someone young, hungry, and almost always willing to open up and collaborate.”
That openness for collaboration was what drove them to pair up in the first place in 2019. They both wanted to submit a film for Lutas—and then they brought in the Gonzales cousins [Gerick and Dhen Dart] to help out with the music and cinematography, and Renz Torres [who had made the D&D-themed short Primordial Witt] as production manager, and that was it. The collaboration, now known as Potlight Pictures, would go on to produce A Wakeful Sennight in 2019 and Best Mayo in 2021, pausing only in 2020 because of the pandemic lockdown. Their latest production, released in 2022, is Trash-Messiah, a fable about a man who finds a way to get rid of trash via a rip in the time/space continuum on his kitchen table—but to unexpected repercussions. It fits right in with their previous efforts—stories that are “dark, macabre, and odd,” that give one “an unnerving feeling that something is wrong,” where “symmetry and order [exist] amidst the chaos.”
“In developing films,” Mr. Alcala says, “I usually conjure a barebones concept and Andy [Alvarez] fills it up. Occasionally, it’s vice versa. The major challenge in the process is us—our conflicting ideologies—but we’ve never failed to arrive at a compromise, and the product is almost always magical with everything seemingly fitting in place.”
Interestingly enough, they found the pandemic to be a minor hiccup in their film productions. “Shooting during the pandemic wasn’t too foreign to us,” Mr. Alvarez admits. “We already work with a skeletal team. It was just the matter of making sure we were all doing things with health and safety protocols in mind. It helped that Stan’s a doctor as well. It certainly was meaningful to me, at least, that we got to work again on a film even with all the restrictions. I loved getting out of the house with more purpose.” To which Mr. Alcala adds: “If anything, [the pandemic only] added to our process. Limitations [somehow] provoke creativity for us.” Part of that provocation to creativity was the fact that most of the online film festivals they joined during the pandemic’s peak had guidelines requiring them to add themes centering on the pandemic lockdown into their storylines, “so that was definitely a factor we had to consider during pre-productions,” Mr. Alvarez adds.
There were in fact a number of film festivals local filmmakers gravitated to during the pandemic, even if only online, chief among them Foundation University’s Lutas Film Festival, which was established in 2014 and bills itself as “the Negros Oriental film festival,” and has since gone beyond annual screenings to also cater to lectures, workshops, and mentoring sessions on film production, as well as outright grant-giving to help local filmmakers in realizing their film projects.
In September 2020, with the pandemic still raging, Lutas was left with no choice but to modify its programming to host a Facebook screening of “The Best of Lutas,” featuring previous winners of the festival, including the late Mark Lifana’s Bugas , Geraldine Acibron’s Tubod , Mr. Lifana’s Abag , and Mr. Alvarez’s A Wakeful Sennight , and selections from Komedya, including Mr. Colina’s Ang Lansang ni Jake Villegas, Mr. Florendo and Mr. Banot’s Ang Paghibalag sa Kalibunan, Mr. Banot’s Hobo Ramon, and Mr. Florendo’s Karlo. That year’s edition, sponsored by the Film Development Council of the Philippines and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, also included master classes on screenwriting with [soon-to-be National Artist for Cinema] Ricky Lee, and on “pursuing film in the time of pandemic” with Achinette Villamor [producer of Balangiga: Howling Wilderness and Ruined Heart]. It also included a film pitching competition—from which three winners emerged: Kent Cadungog’s Kuan, Puhon, Daniella Spontak’s Cotton Candy Dreams, and Von Colina’s Three sa Mountain, each of them granted a sum to realize their screenplays. Later that year, in October, Lutas would field Abag, Tubod, and A Wakeful Sennight to be part of the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, together with the Bacolod-based Sine Negrense Film Festival, which fielded Belle Loyola’s Dalit, Kurt Soberano’s Jameson, and Mark Raymund Garcia’s Buding: Ang Babaye nga Naglitaw.
By the following year, in 2021, Lutas participated in the 10th Annual Moviemov Italian Film Festival, and also in Cinema Rehiyon, fielding Mr. Tabada’s Pamilya, Mr. Lifana’s Tagbo, and Kaira Maureen Downard’s Daman as the Negros Oriental representatives. In November, Lutas returned to its competition format, and premiered the winning films of the previous year’s pitch competition, as well as the nine entries to the main competition—out of which emerged a new winner, Ella Louise Salomon’s Ang Bunga sa Tiyan ni Adam, a film about a gender-switched story of a pregnancy. Salomon’s tragicomedy—which features one of the best scenes of swearing in Binisaya ever captured on film—swept most of the awards, including Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography—leaving the Best Editing award to Mr. Alvarez’s Best Mayo. Salomon’s film also led the Negros Oriental roster in the 2022 Cinema Rehiyon, which also included Best Mayo, Cotton Candy Dreams, Kuan Puhon, Masulub-on, and Ramon Del Prado’s Why the World Needs Coral Reefs.
Later in 2022, Lutas finally returned to a physical festival, screening its new slate of competing films at CityMall Cinema Dumaguete. Among the finalists are Emmmanuel Noel T. Navales’ Habwa, Marco Simpao’s Kawat, Carina Simpao’s Taknaan, Fredrick Tan’s Ang Panagdagit sa Dakong Dagat, and Von Colina’s ITI E.T., and fielded a spread of new winners including a special jury prize for Daniella Spontak’s Serial Influencer, Best Cinematography for Chris Jan Vergara’s Makasasala, Best in Editing for Mary Joy Real’s Panganti, Best in Screenplay for Alfonso Adrian Cerna’s Taymsa, and Best Film for Pawlo Lasmarias’ Hatud. The previous year’s pitch winner—Mr. Alvarez’s Trash-Messiah—was also screened, and the new pitch winner announced: Ms. Amor’s forthcoming Sad Bananas. Lasmarias’ Hatud, which follows a young man who walks to school with his younger brother, only for the latter to discover that his older brother is harboring an unpleasant dilemma, would also win Best Director and Best Actor [for Lasmarias himself] at the Nabunturan Independent Film Exhibition in September 2022, and would be invited to several national and international film festivals.
. . .
Into this swirl of local filmmaking enters Edwin Dalisay Jr.—JR to most people who know him. Born and raised in Cubao, Quezon City, he was not exactly a stranger to Dumaguete. He would regularly visit his girlfriend Shyr Keene Aragones over the years, and gradually came to know many of the city’s creatives, if cursorily in the beginning. And whenever people asked about what he did, he would say he was trying to be a filmmaker, which was always the dream.
He recalls: “My parents worked abroad so I was raised by my grandmother and my older brothers. I was always hanging out with my brother, JC, who introduced me to many things, including heavy metal music, music videos—and film. I admired my brother because he was a superb graphic artist. So I chose to study Fine Arts and Design at the UST to become an artist like him. It was during our third year when we had a class in video production, and that became my first exposure to filmmaking. I fell in love with it and became obsessed with telling stories with the camera. Filmmaking became my passion. I would mostly spend my free time watching movies, music videos, and documentaries. I didn’t know where to begin at the time, and it seemed impossible for me to work in the film industry. Making films back then was expensive and we had little or no source for equipment. So after college, I worked as a web designer for a real estate company—a desperate move because it felt like the better recourse than be a bum. But at the back of my mind, I kept telling myself that, whatever it took, I was going to be a filmmaker someday. After working for about three years, I stumbled on a film school in Ortigas called Asia Pacific Film Institute, which wasn’t too expensive. I thought to myself, I can probably find a few sidelines to pay for my film education. I can work in the morning till afternoon and go to school in the evening.” So he quit his job at that time, found a few weird online jobs, and got himself to film school—a brave choice that would mirror a later, pandemic-related decision.
After film school, he found himself working for the U.S. Embassy as their multimedia specialist. The Embassy soon brought him to Siquijor for a documentation project of the Lazi Church. “It was the first time that I’ve heard of Dumaguete and Siquijor, to be honest,” he says. “On our first day, we went straight to Siquijor, so I didn’t think much of Dumaguete. But the moment I stepped foot in Siquijor, I fell in love with it. It was really the first time in my life that I was in a rural province.”
He spent four days in Siquijor, and then spent one night in Dumaguete before flying back to Manila—which was when, like the fates, he decided to go around the city alone, taking pictures with his camera. And then he met Shyr.
“I noticed her in a coffee shop and asked her for suggestions on what to do in and around Dumaguete,” he says. “It was already late in the afternoon, so I didn’t really see much and I didn’t really get to explore the place. But that evening, Shyr invited me to hang out with her friends—and getting to know them was a wonderful experience. Despite the fact that I was a stranger, they were really welcoming and friendly. I had a terrific time getting to know Shyr.”
So he kept returning to Dumaguete, to court Shyr while she showed him “the beauty of the city and how amazing Negros Oriental is.” He fell in love—with Shyr, and with Dumaguete. Slowly, he came to know the city’s artists. First, the musicians—he would watch live gigs in Hayahay and El Amigo. Then, the visual artists—he would meet Jana Jumalon, who would show him around the art scene in the city. Then, the literary artists—he would meet me, and immediately he knew I would ask him the question: “Are you related to Butch Dalisay?” [He doesn’t know.] He would meet more people over the years.
When he would return to Manila after his Dumaguete visits, he would get back to his Embassy job—and to his abiding desire to found his own production company. He called it DWNTWN Films, which he started with his best friend Phish, and his cousin Joel. “We often hung out on the rooftop where I was living and talked about movies, music, and whatever topic came to mind,” he remembers. “That’s all we ever did, hangout and talk about life and our passion for filmmaking. Then, since I had the equipment that I could borrow from work, I would sometimes find side hustles as a freelance camera operator on the weekends.” In 2013, a friend who had a band was in need of someone to shoot a live performance. “He asked us if we were up for it, and of course we were game!” Mr. Dalisay remembers. “That was our first project as a team, the thing that started it all. Even though we really didn’t know what we were doing, we were definitely having fun just experiencing the craft.”
They came up with the name DWNTWN Films, because the place where JR lived was a bit of a rough neighborhood. “When we’d be on the rooftop, we could see establishments in Cubao, including Araneta Coliseum, Gateway Mall, and other high-rise buildings,” he says. “We referred to that part of Cubao as ‘UPTOWN,’ and we would call our neighborhood, ‘DOWNTOWN.’ So that’s why we called ourselves DWNTWN Films. There’s just something about the name that feels so punk rock, so underground. That’s why I fell in love with it and stuck with it.” Their efforts paid off, and soon they were getting regular gigs.
And then the pandemic happened—and with that, a kind of spiritual crisis for Mr. Dalisay. “The pandemic made me realize that life is short and we can lose everything in a snap of a finger,” he remembers. He made a sudden choice that scared even him: “I decided to move to Dumaguete during the pandemic, because I wanted to wake up every day feeling happy.”
For him, Manila was becoming too chaotic and he was missing Shyr too much. The stress of the separation was killing him—and on a lark, he contacted the Dumaguete LGU and told them that he was a Local Stranded Individual [LSI], wondering if that gambit would make them give him a certificate to travel. And it worked!
Still, it was a challenge to make the move, because travel was almost an impossibility at the peak of the pandemic. His airline kept cancelling his flight—“I got cancelled five times!”—and his plan to make the move in April 2020 eventually became a reality only in August. Getting the requirements to travel was also a huge hindrance—with lines to get a doctor’s certificate that lasted six hours. “And because my flight kept getting cancelled, my doctor’s certificates also get expired—so I had to go back and line up again,” he remembers.
And yet, moving to Dumaguete still seemed to Mr. Dalisay to be a no-brainer of a decision—even if it was a considerable gamble: “I had no plans of what the hell I was going to do here as a career, but because I had experience in filmmaking, I was confident enough to just take a leap of faith. I knew that if I moved to Dumaguete City, I’d just figure it out and find clients that will need my service. I told myself that whatever happens, I know that I have enough talent and experience for me to survive. I mean, I was a punk ass kid back then with no money and no idea what I would do in life, but I survived that and put myself in the right path to pursue my passion.”
He remembers reading an article once where he stumbled on a line he could not forget: “It was something like, ‘Remember, after the black plague, came the Renaissance.’ That quote really inspired me, and moving to Dumaguete, hands down, was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, seriously.”
And Mr. Dalisay feels that at this juncture of Dumaguete’s growth, the city will still be able to give him so many opportunities to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a filmmaker. “Here, I could write, direct, produce, shoot, edit, color grade, and even talk to clients,” he says. “For a full production, Shyr and I usually just work as a two-man crew. Of course it’s hard work but we’re really enjoying the experience.”
That faith in Dumaguete being able to give back to him has proven fruitful so far. Already, sometimes in collaboration with Paul Benzi Florendo’s Higantez Films, he has made several well-received pandemic-era videos for the Dumaguete City Tourism Office, including Kanus-a Man?, a video chronicling the hopes of local Dumaguetnon during the pandemic and encouraging them to get vaccinated against COVID-19, released in October 2021; Everyday Dumaguete, a video showcasing a Dumaguete slowly opening up, released in April 2022; and Celebrate Life in Dumaguete, a video showcasing the full beauty of the city emerging from the pandemic, released in August 2022. He has done videos for local businesses. And he has done many of the exhibit videos for the new MUGNA Gallery—a project that is close to his heart. One of these is a short documentary on the terra cotta art of Jana Jumalon, one of his first friends in Dumaguete.
“Lately, I’ve been doing short documentaries for artists here in Dumaguete,” he says. “I love projects like these because it’s really inspiring to get to know a person who’s passionate and creative. I believe that’s another appealing aspect of documentary filmmaking: once your subject begins to trust you and open up to you, you develop a strong bond with them.”
Mr. Dalisay dreams of doing narrative films eventually: “I wish to tell heartfelt stories through captivating moving pictures. I want to work with local talent, shoot in the neighborhood, and present stories about Dumaguete. Representing the magic and beauty that this city inspired in me. But, given my limited experience, I want to focus on making short films first. Then in the near future, I will eventually create full-length feature films here.”
Part of that plan is collaborating with Potlight Pictures—for whom he has already lensed Mr. Alvarez’s Trash-Messiah.
Mr. Dalisay moved to Dumaguete for love.
He plans to stay to capture the city fully on film—also for love.
Just found out today that one of my former film students, who really went on to make films, died in December 2020. I feel so devastated. This film, The House The Dead The Ugly, was probably his last. He wrote and starred in it, and his closest collaborator Von Colina directed it. It won Best Film at the Silliman Film Open in 2016.
3:00 PM |
The Nick Joaquin Literary Awards is Back!
I'm really glad that the Nick Joaquin Literary Awards is back! [Read here.] I'm grateful to be in the company of all these fantastic writers who are listed for the prize, and also happy that Graphics decided to spin off the Reader as the complimentary publication devoted to our literary works. The NJLA returns on May 4th, and also promises the publication of The Philippines Graphic Reader Book I, which will feature the 48 short stories and 48 poems that the literary magazine has published from February 2022 to January 2023. Thank you to literary editor Marra Lanot for including my story, and for her devoted attention to publishing all our works!
Scene: Caña at The Bricks Hotel along Rizal Avenue, Dumaguete, Thursday, 3 PM. A table overladen with laptops and work stuff, and cups of coffee. A conversation.
“I heard there’s a new coffeeshop opening in front of your apartment.”
“It’s not really a coffeeshop, we found out last night. It’s actually more of a milk tea place—but they do serve coffee. I mean they have to. The word ‘bean’ is part of their name. People would expect it to be a coffee place, not a milk tea place.”
“There are too many milk tea places in Dumaguete, to be frank about it.”
“I’ve only liked one or two of them, to be honest. But Renz is a big milk tea fan, although he denies it.”
“Wasn’t that spot where the, umm, new milk tea is now… wasn’t that a fruit stand?”
“It was! I loved its name. Rizalicious Fruit Stand. It tickled me to death. Can you imagine taking Rizal’s name and making it delicious? It’s absolutely sacrilegious and bonkers, I love it. But it’s gone now. I was frustrated about that for a while, because it became my landmark for Grab Food drivers.”
“I wonder why they moved out.”
“I’m not really sure—but I was riding a tricycle the other day and the passengers in it had some chika. Apparently the lot owners increased the rent? I’m not sure about that. But that’s what I heard.”
“These days, you have to be careful keeping a business. Everything’s so expensive now. Rent is expensive. Onions are expensive.”
“Can you imagine for a while we were talking about how expensive onions were in the Philippines? That people were actually trying to smuggle them in international flights? What crazy times we live in.”
“I’m worried about _____, though. Its original branch in ______ is no longer around. But it’s new branch along _____ is still thriving.”
“We ate there last night.”
“I think he’s just consolidating his businesses right now. Let go of branches that are no longer working.”
“But it was such a pandemic hit!”
“I remember trying to get their food in the early months it opened in 2021—and we couldn’t! The lines were so long, and by the time we got to the stall, all their food items were gone.”
“That was fun.”
“It was, kinda. We had to go back there at least four times before we could finally get our orders in. But it was worth it. That ______ is to die for. It was delicious.”
“I have no recollection anymore how much I ate there.”
“Oh, it was a lot for me. And then I stayed away for a bit because it was already a bit too much. But later, when we got a craving for ______, we’d be there in a minute.”
“And now that original spot is gone.”
“I went past it the other night—the spot is so dark now, and it was all so festive before. I loved how they played music like mad.”
“Now it’s gone. Except for their second branch along _______. Thank God it’s still there. Because I still get my ______ cravings. I don’t understand though. It was so popular during the pandemic!”
“But that’s how Dumaguete runs. It runs on f*ckboy consumerism.”
“F*ckboy what? What do you mean?”
“Haven’t you noticed? Whenever new places open in Dumaguete, locals throng to it like mad, for months even. But once the novelty is over, we avoid them like the plague. That’s what f*ckboys do. They’re always, like, into you—and then when they get their fill, sayonara.”
“Oh yeah. I remember Chapters Café.”
“Yup, that café is popular in Dipolog, and franchisers thought they could make it work in Dumaguete. And it did, for a while. It was so Instagrammable with its quaint design using popular literary characters—and people went there to Instagram being there. And then suddenly nobody came.”
“The food was horrible! And I hated how they used books as receipt and cash holders. It was so disrespectful.”
“I’ve noticed we generally hate franchises. We do like things that are local.”
“Must be why Harbor City didn’t work.”
“The dimsum wasn’t worth the Dumaguete taste. I also remember how people swarmed to Max’s.”
“I still love Max’s! But yeah, it’s quiet most days. I love the chicken though. And their other stuff. How come we still patronize Mooon Café and Café Racer? Aren’t they Cebu franchises?”
“Because Rey remade them to cater to Dumaguete sensibilities. Mooon Café in Cebu is not exactly the same as Mooon Café in Dumaguete, not really. Same with Café Racer. Totally different vibes. You have to get into the elusive Dumaguete vibe to cater to Dumaguete taste.”
“I have a former student once—he now works at a major Manila corporation—he posted in Facebook some years ago that the only way to know you’re really a success is to succeed in Dumaguete. Because we are notoriously picky, so when we pick you, you are an absolute winner.”
“Dumaguete as the litmus test for the rest of the Philippines?”
“I get that. I get f*ckboy consumerism, I guess. We do tend to swarm in the very beginning—and we do tend to easily let go.”
“Unless we really, really love the food or service.”
11:31 PM |
The Experience Economy and Other Things We Learned From the Culinary Heritage Workshop with Ige Ramos
When it comes to food, how much is our money’s worth? We had dinner at this new restaurant a few nights ago. [Writing this comes with the best effort at concealment. Our mantra has always been this: if we don’t like a Dumaguete restaurant’s fare, we’ll try our very best to resist the temptation to write a review—even though bad reviews are so tempting to do. Because we’d rather champion what we love, to be honest.] In any case, this restaurant was something we had not tried before. Ian always felt a strange kind of resistance whenever we passed by it, but he soon changed his mind, and we got ourselves a table—and we ordered a chicken dish for Ian, and a pork dish for Renz. Neither dish was filling or tasty.
And the service left a lot to be desired—even if the staff tried their hardest to be polite.
And we were eaten by mosquitoes.
And when we got the bill, we were floored to see the sum of a thousand pesos for bad dinner.
Where did it all go wrong?
Mostly, the food. We run by a simple philosophy in our culinary adventures: the food should be good, and better if it comes with an experience we can cherish later. Because that’s the thing that makes us come back, right? Sure, we can excuse the worst of atmosphere, and the rudest of staff, and the deadliest of mosquitoes, and even the steepiest of prices—but the food must be good, and also commensurate to the price tag it comes with. What’s worse than a meal bereft of flavor and soul is a meal that doesn’t justify its exorbitant bill, that falls short of the value attached to it.
The end of pandemic lockdown is upon us, whether we like it or not, and it’s mostly back to business as usual, but now we have a race for patronage with pre-pandemic restaurants and pandemic-era ones [and there’s a lot of them!]. Given the inflation, some of these are bound to bite the dust—but we think the ones that will survive are those that are unstinting in their quality, mindful of their pricing, aware of the value of experience, and also solicitous of the local palate. That last element is the hardest one to pin down because it involves a knowledge of the local food heritage, and a respect for it. We have a friend who recently bristled at a foreigner’s suggestion that our tablea was “unrefined chocolate,” with too much of a “burnt” taste: “I don’t get why he would denigrate our local tablea as ‘unrefined’—that’s exactly how we want our tablea to taste like. And why dismiss ‘burnt’ as a taste marker? Filipinos love a ‘burnt’ taste. That’s how we enjoy our grilled pork fat and everything else!”
Last March 18, a Saturday, we had the opportunity to place all these in context with culture and entrepreneurship, in a day-long workshop and lecture by one of the country’s leading voices in culinary heritage and cultural entrepreneurship, Ige Ramos, at 58 EJ Blanco.
Ige came with an invite from Slow Food Dumaguete/Negros Oriental organizers [in particular, Bea Misa-Crisostomo of Ritual] and the workshop was a jampacked event—perhaps with its participants enticed by Ige’s resume. A book designer, food writer, and visual artist, he runs IRDS/Republic of Taste Food Network, a platform for his publishing, book design, and independent research projects in edible design, comparative gastronomy, food history, anthropology, and public policy. He has designed some of the most important and influential food-themed books and cookbooks in the country, including Simply Delicious, Panaderia: Philippine Bread, Biscuit, and Bakery Traditions, The Governor-General’s Kitchen: Philippine Culinary Vignettes and Period Recipes, 1521-1935, Philippine Cookery: From Heart to Platter, Kulinarya: A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine, Salu-salo: A Celebration of Philippine Culinary Treasures,¬¬ The Aristocrat Stories: Since 1936, Linamnam: Eating One’s Way Around the Philippines, and The Ultimate Filipino Adobo: Stories Through the Ages. On his own, he has written and published Lasa ng Republika: Dila at Bandila—Ang Paghahanap sa Pambansang Panlasa ng Filipinas, Republic of Taste: The Untold Stories of Cavite Cuisine, and Appetite for Freedom: The Recipes of Maria Y. Orosa with Essays on Her Life and Work. He also calls himself a cultural entrepreneur, which he defines as someone who is “a cultural change agent and resourceful visionary who organizes cultural, financial, social, and human capital, to generate revenue from a cultural activity that benefits a community.” It is in that capacity that he undertook the Dumaguete workshop—which he also did in Bayawan and Bacolod soon after. He considers being a cultural entrepreneur as a kind of “activism,” because it “valorizes the local as the new premium in the experience economy.”
This is where we first marveled at the workshop—because most of us in attendance were doing exactly what the concept entailed, but now we had a word for it. In terms of culinary culture, experience economy means “giving or ascribing value or validity to something [e.g., by raising or fixing the price or value of a commodity],” particularly that which “belongs or relates to a particular place,” and declaring them as “premium” or of superior quality, and therefore should command a higher price. Ige explains: “In the twenty-first century, designing and selling experiences [have] eclipsed the manufacture of physical things. An experience stirs emotions and generates memories. It embraces dramatic action, sensory engagement, and temporal interaction with users. During an experience, users create meanings and associations that become more important than the event itself. The experience economy has changed the way commercial companies design and deliver products. The experience economy has also changed how schools, hospitals, museums, and other organizations provide services to communities.”
You can give a literary tour of Dumaguete places, for example, highlighting spots that appear in Philippine literature—and end it with a sale of local books. [You give consumers an experience of literature come alive.] You can take people to the coffee shop in Baslay, Dauin—and sell coffee made from beans cultivated by local Baslay farmers. [You give consumers the experience of locally produced coffee unavailable elsewhere.] Experience is the key. This is how musicians make money now in the age of Spotify: they go on concert tours, maximizing that experience of live music by selling merchandise [including albums] on the side.
Ige cites Don Norman’s Three Layers of User Experience, where we start with the visceral [“The colors of that homemade ice cream look beautiful”] and the behavioral [“That homemade ice cream actually tastes good!”], and proceeding to a future reflective stage [“I enjoyed eating that homemade ice cream, and I’d like to try it again”]. The rise of the experience economy also entails going from mere commodity to hyper-local/full-bodied experience, employing more design features that makes it more expensive—because the experiential entails providing a memorable event.
Take coffee, for instance: you start with the basic commodity—the beans—which comes cheap for the most part. You take it higher, and it becomes a basic product, like Kopiko—packaged instant coffee for daily use. You take it even higher, and you get service coffee, like the one from 7-11—no frills coffee from a convenience store. You take it even higher, and you get Starbucks—which gives you ambience, and wifi, and air-conditioning. The highest level of the experiential is to turn coffee into a hyper-local experience—serving it in a way that cannot be replicated elsewhere, and promising some singularity, like a unique culture or location. The challenge of course is for cultural entrepreneurs to put a premium to their efforts—but at the same time still make it accessible to the locals, and also not short-change the producers of the basic commodity [like the farmers of coffee beans].
Ige gave specific examples of experience economies he found successful—which include tourism in Faeroe Island, Denmark [where you pay to just unwind with locals as they go about their daily tasks], tourism in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia [were you pay to stay in a farmer’s hut in the middle of a rice field, and participate in local customs and rituals], and a homestay he undertook in Basey, Samar [where you pay to stay with local families and eat the food they prepare for their daily meals].
From his own efforts, he cited doing a DIY tour in 2016 called “Sampalan ng Side View Mirror sa CaviteX,” a project he did on Facebook where he posted pictures of local food vendors that could be found along CaviteX [a series of highways in Cavite], giving specific descriptions of what they could offer, and pinning their locations for people to find. It was a huge success, with many people liking the posts and taking on the tour on their own, and sampling the food stuff that the vendors offered. It was so successful that he soon got contacted by Cavitex officials themselves—who commissioned him to do an official food tour for them. What came about was “Viaje Feliz x Lasa ng Republika,” which attempted to connect local gastronomic and cultural communities of Cavite via CaviteX, something he accomplished by taking on a two-week study of the project, identifying the problem [how to promote the local culture, gastronomy, history and traditions of the smaller coastal towns of Cavite], the threats, the weaknesses, the strengths, and the opportunities it entailed. Having identified the factors, he managed to design a culinary event that was also a huge success—and was followed by two more culinary showcases for Cavite.
On the challenges of Philippine gastronomy, he began by doing away with the question of “What is Filipino food?” and opted instead with a better question: “How does food become Filipino”—taking note of how much of our culinary culture is really a mixture of many influences, making it difficult to ascertain what is “pure” Filipino. “There is no such thing as ‘pure’ anyway,” he said.
Still, Ige insisted that we continually look at food through the lens of cultural glasses—following the philosophy of Franz Boas—but in his research, he could not find a proper framework to distill his findings, so he made his own theoretical framework instead, which mixes the lens of ingredient, geography, ethnicity, and technology, leading to combined lenses of terroir, community, trade, and culinary, and leading further to various lenses involving space. [It’s all too complicated to include here, but it was an interesting development of succeeding Venn diagrams.] Part of this is looking at the usual markers for taste—sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami, as well as spiciness, astringency, and oleogustus [pertaining to fat as a medium that carries flavor]—but also knowing that Filipinos have taste markers that cannot be defined by these things, including the specificities of raw fish, of coconut water, of green fruit, of patis with calamansi and sili, of alagaw, of palapa, of pork fat, of pig’s blood, of balut water, of rendered oil from chicken skin, of bagoong, of batwan, of mabolo, of katmon, of bile, of annatto.
Ige also talked about how hard it is to put a “standard” to Filipino food. Like the adobo. Most people think that the adobo comes with bay leaf, with black pepper corns, and with soy sauce, and that all these should be part of the “standard adobo,” but in his studies, he found out that the oldest recipes for adobo do not even call for these things. They are recent additions to the dish!
He ended with the insight that a good sense of local gastronomy involves the following things: valuing the palengke or tianggue as public space and cultural hub; valuing the carinderia as a gastronomic ecosystem of taste, trust, and tradition; valuing nature as being definitive of our food culture, and the source of our traditional and heirloom ingredients; valuing our living food heritage tools, technology, and infrastructure [which may be disappearing fast because of “progress” and politics—citing for example the Philippine salt law, which has wrecked havoc on traditional salt-making in the country]; valuing living food heritage methods; valuing farm-to-plate eating as a culture of sustainability; and valuing cooks as repository of heirloom ingredients and knowledge.
How do we preserve all these?
By documenting our heritage food in cookbooks, even in rudimentary ways.
By saving our food heritage and culinary traditions as much as we can.
And by telling our food heritage stories.
What was most enriching about the workshop was the chance to convene with like-minded individuals, friends and strangers alike, with whom we shared a similar vision of culinary heritage. We were cooks, and divers, and writers, and entrepreneurs, and teachers, and chefs, and socialites—all supportive of a future that enriches the way we relate to each other and the way we relate to food. We learned that not every meal should revolutionize our taste buds, and food shouldn’t be a luxury unattainable to a majority. At the very least, a meal should be filling and nutritious at any price point. What’s terrible about the hellscape we call the present world is that a statement like that feels rebellious when it should be the standard we aspire to.
The workshop with Ige was punctuated with a simple smattering of merienda food sprawled all over a tiny kitchen island table. We had bilao lined with banana leaves serving biko with ginger and calamansi, budbod with muscovado, and linuyang rolled in pinipig and dessicated coconut. We paired these delectable offers with water, coffee, and sweet tuba. All the food were sourced from within Negros Oriental and made by local cooks and chefs. Everything was delicious.
A final thought with regards sustainability: a great meal can come from any origin, any upbringing. If paying for it means our farmers, fisherfolk, grocers, butchers, bakers, and cooks get to eat their next meal, wouldn’t that make what we eat a little bit better?
7:00 AM |
In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish Part 11: The Dumaguete Sound
Diomar Abrio is feeling ambitious. The longtime director of the Silliman University Culture and Arts Council [CAC] and a faculty member at the College of Performing and Visual Arts [COPVA] is brewing a plan, something he has dreamed of doing in recent years but feels compelled to finally accomplish it in 2023. In many ways, all that he has done in the name of cultural work for Silliman University, and Dumaguete in general, has led to this. Some years ago, he established an annual showcase of traditional Visayan music and dance, named Himig at Sayaw, which was later adopted by the National Committee on Music of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts [which he served for many years] into a project called Musikapuluhan. He has been trying to popularize Visayan folk music for a while now, and recently published a new edition of Priscilla Magdamo’s seminal work on Visayan folk songs, mining it for a variety of online performances during the pandemic.
This time, he is after something else. He wants to establish a choral festival in Dumaguete, and he wants the world to participate in it.
Call it inspired by pandemic restrictions, but that need to invite the world to Dumaguete is in many ways a cultural move that’s also partly therapy. When Typhoon Odette came with relentless fury in December 2021 in the middle of a raging pandemic, Mr. Abrio lost almost everything in the house he shared with his family in Barangay Suba in Manjuyod, a town north of Dumaguete. He is still traumatized by the memory of that awful night—the sound of the terrible wind, the cries of neighbors drowning in the flood, the sight of his car submerged in deep mud once morning came. He managed to hitch a ride on a motorcycle bound for Dumaguete to buy medicines for his family, and only when he entered the premises of a pharmacy did the reality of the tragedy sink in: right then and there, by the pharmacy’s door, he broke down and cried. But he has never been one to dwell too much on pain and loss and discomfort. Among CAC people, he is known as one who best rolls with the punches, and who makes things happen despite all the setbacks and red tape that is laid out for him whenever there are cultural events to be planned and executed. He is unassuming about it—but he does know what he wants. And now, he wants this: an international choral festival in Dumaguete, the pandemic be damned.
He has a name for it already. The Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez International Choral Festival, named after a beloved music mentor to many in Dumaguete, and a legend in choral music circles—but someone whose due has been overlooked for many years with regards her contribution to Philippine music.
Which is what usually happens when it comes to culture in Dumaguete—a veritable regional powerhouse that has produced many of the greats in Philippine arts [as well as pioneering many cultural efforts with national impact], but remains sadly unacknowledged by the gatekeepers in Manila. A quick search through the recent edition of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, for example, attests to this. In the music volume, there is nothing on Priscilla Magdamo [but there is an entry to “Ili-ili Tulog Anay” mentioning her as the primary collector of the song from field work], nothing on Albert Faurot, nothing on Constantino Bernardez, nothing on the Vistas, nothing on William Pfeiffer [but there is mention of him in the article on “research in music”], on our pioneering efforts in ethnomusicology and on our pioneering programs in choral music in the country, among others.
Not that she wants to measure her cultural legacy with an encyclopedia entry, but Ms. Visa-Suarez and her ilk clearly deserve recognition. Since she came back from the United States in 1989 after earning her masters in choral conducting from the Combs College of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Ms. Vista-Suarez has been steady in remaking the platform for cultural work at Silliman University [she was head of the CAC for many years, and steered efforts to put in print the university’s then non-existent cultural policies]. She has also gone about solidifying the musical heritage of Dumaguete—from her leadership of the famed Campus Choristers as well as Ating Pamana, to her work as musical director of many musicals at the Luce; from her ministry as conductor of church choirs, to her occasional forays into piano-playing. In her choral work, she has become a local legend—credited by her disciples of coming up with a distinctive sound she simply calls “timpla,” something that she has arrived at with her music after witnessing performances by many “top” choirs and reeling from their insistence that loud is good. She refuses to believe a choir’s prowess is measured by voices belting out, which may seem to unknowing audiences like a Sensurround barrage, but to her utterly lacks grace and restraint and musicality and … timpla.
It is this “timpla” that Dumaguete music is largely about. What it is, to be definitive about it, is a search for the best possible sound that comes from the confluence, and blending, of voices. Broadly, we can also take it to mean a confluence of genres and of efforts. Of the latter, the Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez International Choral Festival becomes the litmus test: a pandemic baby, it will the first international musical event in Dumaguete to be held in what increasingly seems to be the post-pandemic period. A lot hinges on its success, but Mr. Abrio is nothing but determined.
The people behind the CAC—and by and large the musical denizens of Silliman’s COPVA—has been largely responsible for the continued relevance of classical music in Dumaguete performance spaces, although it occasionally dips into the contemporary with concerts of pop favorites by its resident companies [including the Silliman University Marching Band, the Orkestra Sin Arco, the Campus Choristers, the Men’s Glee Club, the Women’s Ensemble, and others], and with its annual holding of the Valentine Songwriting Competition, the oldest musical competition of its kind in the Philippines. [In 2023, the VSC turns 35 years old.]
But the contemporary music scene, for the most part, is the province of the bands and performers behind the Belltower Project—although many of them are products of COPVA as well. Since 2013, when it was founded by Hope Tinambacan and his brother Juni Jay, Jan Barga, Franber Candia, and the Trasmonte twins Dave and Clark to be a community of local musicians helping each other drive forward the Dumaguete music scene, the Belltower Project has been a communal effort at determining the Dumaguete sound, at least in terms of popular music. It has done this by undertaking an ambitious [and supposedly] yearly project, which is putting out anthology albums featuring original compositions by a well-curated playlist of Oriental Negrense singers and bands, all of them of varied musical inclinations, from reggae to ska, from shoegaze to electronica, from hard metal to café ballads. [Their efforts have also led to the creation of a 2015 stage musical, Scharon Mani, which featured songs from the Belltower Project albums.] These albums that came out over the years were known primarily by their ordinal titles, from Uno to Cinco, and their launches were carefully coordinated concerts that regularly drew in massive crowds of steadfast fans. But efforts largely came to a halt because some of its masterminds [and some bands as well] had to leave Dumaguete to pursue professional lives elsewhere. This included Hope Tinambacan who had to temporarily leave for Singapore for theatre studies in 2016, and Natalie Curran, who had to go back home to Luxembourg after finishing her psychology studies at Silliman. But many of the bands remained—from Enchi to Hopia, from Finpot to 5Volts, from The Chocodog Invasion to Trigger Gypsies, from Odd to HNO2, from Crickets Playground to Modern Cassette, from Arnold Cristopher to N.A.N.A., and many others. Some, like Wilfreedo, have gone on to national fame. All of them were enjoying regular gigs before the pandemic, and many other local singers and groups [such as Kyle Juliano and Midnasty and the twins Zack x Zeph, and hiphop artists Kalamay Papi and Massiah] were being snapped up by major recording companies in Manila, or gaining national attention for their performances and videos.
The pandemic virtually put a stop to most of these things. Gone were the concerts. Gone were the albums. Gone were the gigs at the usual places such as Hayahay or El Amigo or Daddy Don’s. The Belltower Project remained in hiatus—its members scrambling to make a living, or to do something else in the long pause of three years. [One opened a bread-and-barbecue joint that became an instant pandemic success.] By the second year of the pandemic, in 2021, some places returned to restricted operations, and were inviting once more performers to provide musical entertainment for patrons—like Caña at The Bricks Hotel, or for a while at the defunct Sinati at The Flying Fish Hostel. But these all paled in comparison to the pre-pandemic musical scene. The only light that remained were the musical shows the CAC was offering, usually via the internet—and only because Silliman University was still operational despite being largely online, and part of its educational mandate was to provide a cultural component to the Silliman academic experience.
In many ways, the characteristics of musical performances—“have instrument, have space, will play”—enabled CAC to program shows that felt ready-made for a streaming audience, the only way it could be done during the pandemic. The compromise was obvious: it could not devote equal programming to other art forms like the literary arts or visual arts or cinema like it used to—but music and dance and a bit of theatre it could. [Architecture is always hard to program.] The CAC started what it called its “virtual cultural season” in August 2020—which by then had people losing the pre-pandemic wishful thinking that “all of these would be over by June”—by staging an annual cultural staple that brings together Silliman performers in themed concerts, Silliman Performs. For this year, the show was subtitled Hope for All Mankind. Scheduled to begin streaming on CAC’s Facebook page on August 22nd, it featured a smorgasbord of artists and groups of all stripes, including the SU String Ensemble, SUACONA Chorale, Kwerdas, Orkestra Sin Arco, Men’s Glee Club, Women’s Ensemble, Silliman University Band, SU Campus Choristers, SU Dance Troupe, and the SU Gratitude and Goodwill Ambassadors. It also had appearances by writers Alfred Yuson and Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas, as well as Alexandra Tuale, the Pacalioga Family, Beth Castillo-Winsor, Lora Espancho, Maria Elcon Kleine Koerkamp, Katrina Marie Saga, and representatives of Silliman alumni chapters in UAE, Hawaii, Thailand, and others. The mélange of the enterprise was perhaps a necessary answer to the pandemic ravages, which was still at its voracious peak—and it was basically a call for solidarity and community, a balm for frayed nerves, and a nostalgia trip for those seeking that kind of comfort.
Later on, in October 2020, CAC began putting on streaming versions of older shows, like Ampalaya the Musical, the Michael Dadap play based on the children’s book by Augie Rivera Jr., and The Story of Dumpawa’s Lullaby in October 2020, a musical revue I wrote based on Folk Songs of the Visayas by Priscilla Magdamo with a Manobo tale of a rat in search of a lullaby to bookend it. In November, it streamed Timeless Arias, showcasing operatic performances by COPVA musical artists. In December, it streamed Gleeful Christmas, featuring the Campus Choristers, the Men’s Glee Club, the Women’s Ensemble, the Concert Band, and the String Ensemble.
Around this time, it was gearing up for the launch of the first-ever virtual edition of the Valentine Songwriting Competition, scheduled for streaming on February 2021—this time, tweaking the regular format of the contest by focusing on the award for an overall Best Song [and scuttling the original Best Composer, Best Interpreter, and Best Arranger awards in the process], but also adding a Best Music Video award. It was all reflective of the pandemic lockdown necessities. Even in the challenges of the pandemic, the usual slate of ten finalists was filled. A People’s Choice category was also tacked on. On competition date, the song “When Quarantine Ends” by Shanice Nicole Caballes won the People’s Choice award, with Melchizedek Lozarita II’s “Huling Yakap” winning both Best Song and Best Music Video—a windfall of P30,000 cash prize [a third of that for the latter award].
Also in February 2021, true to the Zoom-centered cultural productions common of the time, Mr. Abrio would also organize for the CAC a webinar on “Accessing Visayan Folksongs as Pedagogical Resources for Music and Mother Tongue-Based Instruction,” together with Ms. Vista-Suarez and Matilda Limbaga-Erojo as facilitators. Around this time, the CAC finally put the finishing touches on its own website—which was many years in conception, but took a pandemic to finally put to reality: here, patrons could be invited to buy virtual tickets, and also to watch the streaming shows. Its first show using the website was a concert of Filipino art songs titled Kundiman at Iba Pa in March, again featuring singers from COPVA and other units in Silliman. In April, it streamed Piknik, a piano concert celebrating the 80th anniversary of Silliman’s Piano Program—“covering a wide range of genres from the masterful classical solos, arrangement of kundiman and folk songs, up to the sweeping OPM ballads,” and featuring many of the talented alumni of that program, including Gina Raakin, Enrico Riconalla, Christian Gonzales, Charles Abing, Casmelyn Quicoy, Allen Diadem Chesed Jovita, Alexis Faye Pal, Agape Manigsaca-Labuntog, Ricardo Abapo Jr., Winfred Quir, Romer Pielago, Michelle Dana Sabellina, Joji Jumawan Tonko, Lemoine Rey Poligrates, Kent Luigi Orbeta, Johann Rey Beira, Guide Dadang, Erik Johann Riconalla, and of course, the mother-daughter tandem of Isabel Dimaya Vista and Elizabeth Susan Vista Suarez. In May, to celebrate 80 years of COPVA’s Voice Department, CAC streamed Tinubdanan: Usa Ka Pasundayag nga Birtwal sa Atong Mga Huning Kabilin, a show “crafted to revive and relive the beauty and existence of Visayan folk songs as these songs born from the womb of our Visayan culture slowly become forgotten.”
In August, the CAC opened its 59th cultural season with another virtual programming, starting with Silliman Performs: Cradle of Faith, Justice, and Culture—and by “cradle” it meant the Silliman Amphitheatre, the space in campus in front of the Silliman Church which originated many of the university’s cultural programs from its beginning decades, and which in 2021 was turning a hundred years old. It was a momentous occasion to showcase Silliman performing arts, even if it was still a streamed event—but it also boasted of online appearances by Lea Salonga, Gary Valenciano, and National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab, who has maintained a close connection with the music people at Silliman over many decades.
In October, CAC streamed Bisayaw: A Visayan Folk Dance Festival, featuring the dance repertoire of the SU Dance Troupe and the musical gifts of the SU Rondalla. In November, it streamed Reverie: A Tapestry of Celebrated Art Songs, performed and recorded live at the Romeo P. Ariniego Art Gallery, billed as the “first full production concert in the venue,” and featuring the Cantare Vocé quintet led by soprano Katrina Marie Saga, together with the SU String Ensemble and SU Campus Choristers under Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez, and featuring the Philippine Madrigal Singers’ Mark Anthony Carpio. In December, it streamed Jazz Christmas, featuring the Silliman University Jazz Band under Joseph Albert Basa.
By February 2022, almost a full two years since the lockdowns began and with the pandemic showing no signs of slowing, the Valentine Songwriting Competition, which had been faithfully staged at the Luce for many years, did not show up on the cultural calendar—save for a February 18 showcase, titled Of Love, Music, and Lyrics: Original Music Compositions, which aimed to celebrate the 30-year stretch of the long-running competition. But, seemingly guilted into reconsidering a Valentine season without the annual competition, a real contest was finally slated for March 13—and tagged the understandable lateness in scheduling as “never too late for love songs!” The same two categories from the previous year’s competition were retained, with Cris Aguilar winning Best Song for “Closer,” and Adrien Rey Urciada winning Best Music Video for “Mahay.”
In April, CAC streamed Sonic Quest, a showcase of original compositions and arrangements by Silliman composers, including Jovy Leo O. Mulaan, Kaye Bernadette Banguis, Miguel Dizo, Janus Arthur [Onin], Myo Aung, Jhon James Dayak, Levi Alaban, Lee Albertino “Chino” Añiga, Odoni Pestelos, Jem Talaroc, and Algernon Van Peel. In May, it streamed Ating Pamana/Our Heritage, a celebration of Filipino music and dance heritage, including creative interpretations of beloved Original Pilipino Music. In July, it streamed a replay of Reverie: A Tapestry of Celebrated Art Songs. In August, CAC hosted a lecture demonstration and concert of the McClosky Institute of Voice, featuring Priscilla Magdamo.
Also that August, a pandemic milestone. After more than two years of performing virtually, CAC’s cultural calendar was now doing a shift: it was returning to the Luce Auditorium. The herald of that return was Silliman Performs: Cantate Domino, playing on August 25th and 26th, and featuring many of the performers that have endeavored to continue a viable cultural program online. In October, CAC co-sponsored with the CCP a program titled The Balitaw of Negros Oriental, a look at the extemporaneous expression of traditional Visayan courtship, featuring balitaw performers from Maloh, Siaton; Jimalalud High School; Sook, Ayungon; and Dumaguete City High School. In November, it hosted a music theory workshop with Maestro Ryan Cayabyab, who was returning to Dumaguete for the first time in person since December 2018. In December, the organizers behind the Valentine Songwriting Competition launched a return to normal programming by presenting Pagdasig sa Gugma: Love Through the Ages, an open-mic event at the Ariniego Art Gallery foyer. Later that month, CAC would restage Jazz Christmas with the Silliman University Big Band, this time with a full production at the Luce Auditorium.
The return of the Valentine Songwriting Competition to the Luce stage in February 2023 also meant a return to the old categories—with prizes for Best Composition, Best Arrangement, and Best Interpretation, and the subsequent retirement of the Best Music Video category. Julia Faith Joaquin won for the song “Pangandoy,” arranged by Jules Steven Josol. Gabrielle Moreno won Best Interpretation for her performance of her song “Mangga,” perhaps the first horny song ever sung on the VSC stage, arranged by John Rafael Doroteo. And Natalya Songcal won Best Arrangement for the song “Moonlit Dew,” composed by Jeyah Mae Culanag. Later that month, Musikapuluhan would also return in full force at the Luce, this time with a series of concerts titled Keep the Music Playing: Young Artists Series, with shows featuring Sara Maria Gonzales on the violin, John Paolo Anorico on the cello, and Ricardo Abapo Jr. on the piano on the 24th; Gabriel Allan and Ferros Paguirigan in The Chopin I Love: A Piano Concert on the 25th; and Michael Angelo Valenciano on the 26th. The program culminated on the 28th with Handulantaw: A Festival of Contemporary and Traditional Music and Dance Today.
But it would be disingenuous to compare CAC’s efforts with other similar bodies in Dumaguete, given Silliman’s resources and network. The city’s other educational and cultural institutions did rise to the challenge, facing the pandemic with cultural productions that defied the odds, some with more extensive efforts than others—and most of them virtual. One such commendable project was Hinalad Music Ministry’s offering of a Holy Week-timed music video, “Sa Krus,” in 2022, which transcended university borders and mixed in musical efforts by a variety of Dumaguete music people—including Jean Cuanan-Nalam [the composer], Gina Raakin [the arranger], Juni Jay Timbacan [the orchestrator, sound designer and mixer], Nikki Cimafranca [the director], Benjie Kitay and Kirk Antony Tebio [the videographers], and Dave Jan Fabe [the producer, with Cuanan-Nalam], featuring performances by Alexi Miraflor, Mary Anne Esquierdo, Majal Tagumpay Uriarte, Manuel Jarabe Jr., and Hope Tinambacan.
In Foundation University, its Office for Culture and the Arts spearheaded an online concert titled True Colors, featuring Abuhuni Choir, timed for the opening of its academic year in 2020, and ended the year with the A Very Special Christmas Celebration online concert, focusing on “The Christmas Pageant” by Rev. Jeanne Mcintosh, and also featuring the Abuhuni Choir, the Abuhuni Marching Band, and the Buglasayaw Dance Troupe. In 2021, there would be musical participations in the university’s regular cultural roster, including Saulog Artes in February, Padayon in April, and Kasadyaan in December, and the same slate in 2022—all virtual.
The truth of the matter is, even given the hardships of the pandemic, the astounding cultural grind at Silliman could continue on, blessed with a cultural leadership who undertook savvy creative choices that accepted the limitations of the pandemic and made something viable of the challenges, and bolstered by a shift to an online platform that readily showcased performances that had no need of the physicality of audiences. Still, it should be apt to take note that many of these performers unstintingly rose to the occasion upon invitation, and always “for the love of Silliman.” And yet, despite this abundance of cultural showcases, the reception in the greater community of Dumaguete remained largely muted. Unless you were an alumnus and followed the CAC Facebook posts with religion, you would not know what exactly was going on in campus, even virtually. That’s actually a longstanding pre-pandemic problem—engaging the greater Dumaguete community with Silliman’s cultural calendar—but the pandemic itself did not cure it. “It’s not without reason to think of Silliman sometimes as an island into itself. It’s terribly insular,” says D., a medical doctor.
COPVA aside, other music schools in town definitely felt the pandemic pinch. FunShop Dumaguete, a 20-year-old music tutoring center founded by Gina Raakin and associates and headquartered at the Bandera Building along Jose Pro Teves Street, knew the lockdown meant shifting lessons somehow online [not always a viable alternative for music learning], and soon, if the lockdown continued, less enrollment to their classes. But FunShop persevered, finding ways to make the limitations work, staging recitals like music videos and other endeavors, and even staging concerts with players on separate cameras playing music together. It was the same with the Jay Cyrus Creative Studios, which now occupies reduced space at the compound of the old Emilio Macias Building [formerly a hospital] along Manuel L. Teves Street, which has been taken over with some totality by a BPO. The enrollment dwindled—but a steadfast spirit that believed that things would get better was key. One needed faith to survive the pandemic. It was faith that opened the doors to other opportunities for Jay Cyrus Villanueva and his wife Wowee.
. . .
At the beginning of the third running year of the pandemic, Louise Remata-Villanueva [Wowee to friends] and Jay Cyrus Villanueva of the eponymous music school in Dumaguete stumbled on a chance of a lifetime. It was an opportunity to open an extensive performance space—and house the music school—at the old Bejar house along Hibbard Avenue in the heart of Piapi, right beside the public elementary school, a picturesque heritage structure cocooned in a vast compound. They imagined a stage gracing the extensive front lawn. They imagined a restaurant at the old garage. They imagined a lounge café in the first floor, complete with an intimate performance space. They imagined a studio and the school in the second floor. Their imagination ran towards the miraculously wonderful, so much so that only one name seemed perfect for the endeavor: Chadaa: Music and Dreams. In Binisaya, “tsada-a” means something delightful, brilliant, magnificent, astonishing, ideal.
In many ways, Chadaa as a performance and events venue was a wonderful pandemic fluke—and a leap of faith. But it is also something that seemed to be long time in coming, especially for Ms. Remata-Villanueva. Born in Cebu City but with Oriental Negrense roots, she had always considered Dumaguete to be home. She was four years old when her family moved to Dumaguete from Cebu, a very specific choice since her father actually landed an opportunity to work as general manager for Pepsi in Bacolod. But their grandparents were here, and they didn’t want to move elsewhere—and thus the choice of Dumaguete stood.
Ms. Remata-Villanueva earned her basic education from St. Paul’s, and went on to college at Silliman University, where she majored in Speech and Theatre. Music was already something deeply embedded in her passions, and this was the only choice for her: “Ever since grade school, I have been singing—which elevated to my love for music in general, most especially musical theatre and jazz,” she says. “After graduation, I took a few musical theatre workshops with Trumpets Manila, but mostly my exposure to theatre had been with Silliman, under the mighty directorship of the late Evelyn Aldecoa, my mentor and most favorite teacher.”
She would meet—and marry—Jay Cyrus Villanueva, Dumaguete’s top saxophonist who is a COPVA graduate, and who earned everyone’s delight by opening his own music tutorial center in Dumaguete, Jay Cyrus Creative Studios [JCCS], which grew quickly and became a success. [This year, it celebrates its tenth anniversary.] For Wowee, marriage to a budding music mogul meant being absorbed into the operations of the school, something she was already wont to do because of her extensive musical background. She became a coach for voice lessons, and eventually became the manager of the school. She also sang for events under Jay Cyrus Entertainment [now the Jay Cyrus Squad], a pop/jazz/funk band in Negros Oriental—and together with her husband, were the faces and voices of the pandemic Christmas music video the Dumaguete City Tourism Office released in 2020.
Dumaguete remained a center for their musical aspirations. “Jay and I love Dumaguete because of how rich our culture is here,” she says. “We want to be part of it and grow with it, especially that there are all these amazing artists here that truly inspire. They have personalities that humble you, and even ignite you to become even more creative and passionate. Dumaguete represents endless artistic and cultural possibilities.”
With that always in their minds, both had always dreamed of putting up a recital place of their own for their JCCS students. They envisioned a place where guests would be treated to eclectic experiences, from theatrical performances to stand-up comedy, from open-mics to music concerts with jazz bands, opera singers, classical pianists, and string quartets. “I can imagine having a solo cellist on a beautiful morning or a lazy afternoon in Chadaa,” she says. “What we want is to be able to provide and create an elevated atmosphere to showcase amazing talents in Negros and beyond.”
Finding the spot was a fluke that might be considered prophetic. “This location in Piapi was so random. I was in a car with my sister Therese Christine, and we were driving past this house, and she said: ‘Kanindot ani na lugar butangan ug something!’ Little did we know that fast forward to a few months, we got the exact same place, and now it is Chadaa.” And all it took, really, was an invitation of some sort from her father, Nestor T. Remata, and his best friends John Rojo and Nelson Cuñado, who all expressed an interest in investing in “something fun.” She immediately took the bait, showed them the property of her dreams, and broached the idea of a performance space—a step up from her and Jay’s dreams that for her seemed both like a “revelation and evolution.”
When the financing came through, she knew she wanted to preserve the old Bejar house as is, because its structure was already beautiful. It just needed a specific color scheme to pop out—and they settled on a particular marine blue that was at once arresting and cool, a vibe they were inspired by their love for the film La La Land, and for a certain old New Orleans jazz bar, and for The Blue Note in New York City.
The pandemic also defined their drive to succeed. “I believe that the pandemic has made an effect on us, because it has given us a thirst for bringing back the vibrant music scene in Dumaguete,” Ms. Remata-Villanueva says. “We want to widen the horizons of musicians here, provide a good place for music majors and all other artists—and not just waste their degrees and end up working at a call center—not that there is anything wrong with that! We want to provide a place where artists can really practice and hone what they have studied over the years and work on their passion.”
Today, Chadaa’s slate is still very much a work in progress—after declaring Wednesdays as Broadway Nights, they have just declared Saturday nights to be their Theatre Night [also for comedy specials and improv performances]—and their recently launched Jazz Nights on Fridays drew in a record number of attendees. In the meantime, since their launch in July 2022, they have hosted a variety of concerts, starting with saxophonist Joefre C. from Cebu and jazz musicians Mike Tambasen Project from Bacolod. Willfreedo would do its tenth anniversary concert in Chadaa, and the venue became a favorite performance space for a rotating number of singers and bands, including Enchi, Lagkaw Project, Ysabelle Lucero and Jordan Lim, Zia Mandi and Seth Gadiana [of Zamboanga], Carlos Zialcita and Blues Oriental, the Silliman University Jazz Band with Joseph Albert Basa, Julsduo [of Bohol], J-Squad, Julia, Crossroad Band, Pureplay, Jayson and Jamie, Nyords, All for Jordan, Chelsea Dawn, The Blues Bringer, The Quizo Family Singers, 3 of a Kind, Standout, and the in-house musical group Jay Cyrus Squad [formerly Jay Cyrus Entertainment].
The Belltower Project hosted their return from the pandemic doldrums in a January 28 concert celebrating their tenth anniversary in Chadaa. One of their pioneering members, Ms. Curran, had returned for a visit to Dumaguete—and the gang hastily took it as a chance to get back together, and to push plans to revive the Belltower Project brand and get back to the business of defining [and redefining] the Dumaguete sound. Their return concert was titled Decimo—perfect for a tenth anniversary gig, eschewing their usual homebase of Hayahay to this new concert place in Piapi. [They did return to Hayahay for their official tenth anniversary concert on 3 March 2023, with performances from Dalan, Crickets Playground, The Intermissioner, Modern Cassette, Ground Zero, and As the Skies Divide.] Performing together for the first time in years were some of BTP’s member bands, including Willfreedo, Finpot, Chelsea Dawn, Hopia, YONA, Trigger Gypsies, 3rd String, Own the Spot, and Chocodog Invasion, preceded by a songwriters jam early that afternoon. For many, the reunion show was virtually the fantastical end of the pandemic, a musical get-together to recollect and recharge.
It was an epic night of Dumaguete music. Tara De Leon, writer and music aficionado, recalls “the makeshift wall of tarpaulin obscure[ing] the venue, but the numerous cars and motorcycles that lined the street ‘revealed’ what was waiting inside” Chadaa. She says: “It wasn’t surprising, while Dumaguete seems to be teeming with live music performances, there was a certain hunger for that local flavor that the Belltower Project could only deliver and Decimo satiated that seemingly decade-long itch. Old fans of BTP nodded and acknowledged each other as if no time had passed, the familiar electric atmosphere welcoming us all home. The best part was the new young faces that dotted the concert grounds, full of energy and eager for local music—the bright future that will carry on the love and support for the local music community.”
Decimo triggered memories and hopes in equal measure, and perhaps also reminded everyone of the greater cause of Belltower Project. It was also a trigger of sentiments—and love. At the peak of the night, YONA’s Lorie Jayne Soriano received a proposal from her longtime partner [and co-band member], and tearfully accepted. Later, she would write of the whole thing:
“We [could] count the [number of] people who knew what we were going through lately. They didn’t know [Enrique Morelos Jr. and I] broke up a few weeks ago, cutting our six-and-a-half-year relationship. It got us so confused and messed up at some point, and the reason we still continued seeing each other was because we were part of the same band. So we had to be professional and show up at every rehearsal, performing our maoy songs na both of us could already relate… And then finally Decimo [came]. The event was a reunion of our Belltower Project community, the same community of musicians na nahimong reason why we met in the first place back in 2016. So many flashbacks! I was just enjoying every moment of the event because I was already thinking about what [Enrique] said that [he] might leave Dumaguete real soon. So while I was already tipsy, I had the courage to tell [him] something, and I whispered in [his] ear: ‘Kabalo ka, no? Dili ko ka imagine ug other person na kauban diri, ikaw ra.’ I really wanted to cry. After looking in [his] eyes, my heart was aching so badly I decided to go [to] where my friends [were]. [When] Willfreedo [performed], [he] knew how I loved seeing them perform up close… and there was [him] looking [at] me [at the corner]. Willfreedo played ‘I Will Make You Katawa’:
Bisan always ta mag away. Bisan mag-argue ta kanunay... Higugmaon tika hantod magulang ta.
“… Wala na ko kapugong, nakalingi ko [niya]… And then they played ‘Dumzville.’ [He was] already pushing me to go to the front kay gi-acknowledge ko ni Kuya Norris as their [music video] director before. Ug sa dihang niluhod naman intawon [si Enrique] sa kilid. Mura ko’g malipong ngano [syang] niluhod, nag sagol-sagol na ang naa sa akong utok, ngano man ni siya nga gabulag naman mi! And then I heard [him] talk... Samot ko na-confused! Wala na ko kadungog unsa to [iya] gisulti specifically, pero galantaw ko’s [iyang] mga mata, [and] I saw [his] sincerity. Tinuod gyud diay ang feeling na murag mawala sa [imong] panlantaw ang ubang tawo. And then [he] finally asked the question... [It was] a very memorable night, indeed. Nisulod and ni-perform [mi] nga single sa Chadaa, nigawas [mi] na engaged.”
That was a memorable January night of music and dreams—a fulfillment of Ms. Soriano’s love, and Mr. Tinambacan’s hopes, and Ms. Remata-Villanueva’s wishes. In September, the world finally comes to Dumaguete in celebration of choral music—and fulfilling, finally, Mr. Abrio’s aspirations. Distill all of that into a perfect “timpla,” and you get the Dumaguete sound.
My essays on the arts in Dumaguete during the pandemic are becoming longer, and longer, and longer. But I don’t really care. This wasn’t my purpose when I stumbled into this series last year, but it has somehow become not just a work of cultural criticism, it has moved on to become a very specific art history: chronicling how artists in a small Philippine city dealt with three years of the pandemic. I know there are some who think, “Too long!” but you know what? Kebs, these essays are not for you. Anyway, I’m done with visual arts [8 essays in all!], done with theatre, done with dance, done with music. Next up: cinema and literary arts, and then an epilogue.
I caught the premiere of the play Usa Ka Isla at the Luce Auditorium tonight. It's a Kasing Sining production, which is under the guidance of the great Lutgardo Luza Labad and the artistic direction of Jerrey David Aguilar, and tackles the travails and the aftermath of Typhoon Odette in Bohol, when it came and ravaged Central Visayas in December 2021. The story, in glorious Binisaya, is a chorus of voices from ordinary people as they prepare to face the incoming typhoon, not knowing the devastation that would eventually happen, and then showing the hardship and resilience of these people in the wake of the tragedy — questioning God, questioning authority, questioning fate, questioning the very idea of “resilience.” They have two more shows slated for Saturday. Here I am with Gardy, and with the cast and crew! For tickets, go to the Silliman University Culture and Arts Council website.
7:00 AM |
What Is It With All These Milk Tea Shops? and Other Notes on Saturation
If you’ve been in Dumaguete long enough to see trends take place and evolve, you will note that Dumaguetnons love to copy—perhaps in a very similar way it occurs in all other places, but in a small city like Dumaguete, copycatting can be quite conspicuous. That “smallness of place” may also be the trigger for this tendency: someone sees something as an aspirational goal or as a successful enterprise, copying feels like a sure bet. It’s hard to please the Dumaguetnon, so if something appeals to them, one better jump on the bandwagon.
Someone buys an Econo, for example, and then suddenly the city streets are awash with that uniquely 1990s motorcycle with white hoods [and comes in blue or red]—to the point that Dumaguete was once dubbed by national media as the “motorcycle capital of the Philippines.” Today, that Econo is now the Wigo.
Someone opens an internet café—and then suddenly, every corner has an internet café. Someone opens a yoga studio—and then suddenly we have a proliferation of yogis. Someone makes great ube pan de sal—and then suddenly ube pan de sal is everywhere.
Then there’s milk tea.
We’ve noticed that, for the longest time, there has been a lot of milk tea places popping up around the city. As far back as memory goes, Chowking was the first to jumpstart the milk tea craze in Dumaguete. The franchise introduced the concoction of black tea, evaporated milk, and chewy pearls to the Dumaguetnon public as early as the late 2000s, followed by Zagu which occupied a stall at Lee Super Plaza and at Robinsonsplace Dumaguete—and also wherever a Zagu could occupy, it did. These were our introduction to “pearls,” at an accessible price point that vibed well with the naturally kuripot Dumaguentnon.
What we eventually loved was Gong Cha, which set up a stall at the groundfloor of Robinsons, and which sold nothing else but milk tea in different kinds of flavor. Renz remembers asking himself: “Can a milk tea place earn enough to support paying rent for a mall stall?” The answer apparently is yes. Then there was Infinitea, which occupied a coveted spot at Paseo Perdices. It was a huge hit, and was always full—but it did not survive the pandemic crunch. [Now another milk tea is occupying its old location.]
Afterwards, the deluge of milk tea shops in town could be compared to mushrooms sprouting: from famous international franchises like ChaChaGo, to local franchises like Sebucha, to original enterprises donning exaggerated puns to name their business venture. Our favorite pun is QRSTea; and our least favorite is the rather tongue-in-cheek Zu Boh Ti Tea.
Someone in Twitter also made this observation: why is there a proliferation of coffee shops in Dumaguete all of a sudden? Ian remembers a time when the very idea of a coffee shop was so alien to the Dumaguetnon public. When Silliman Avenue Café [lovingly called SACs by its patrons] opened its gleaming venture along that street in the early 2000s, it was veritably the first of its kind in Dumaguete aside from Lee Cimbali at the Lee Super Plaza supermarket. Asked if the venture was sustainable in Dumaguete, one local businessman scoffed: “Ngano man ko mo-adto og coffee shop nga mahal kayo ang kape, nga puede ra man ko mag-Nescafe sa balay?”Obviously, years later, this remark is myopic.
There have been many coffee shops in Dumaguete since SACs—but over and after the pandemic, you can really sense a proliferation that is almost abnormal. The success of Coffee Collective probably paved the way, and now we have others like Oh Café along Larena Drive, Brewedways Coffee at Northpoint, 85 Degrees Artisan Café along Ipil Street, Socials Café in Claytown, Black and Copper along EJ Blanco Drive, Aromar Coffee and Kape Negrense Brew along West Rovira Road in Pulantubig, It’s the Coffee Weekend at Florentina Homes also along Rovira, and so many others. Along Aldecoa Drive, we have Alsani Café and The Cabin Blend—and the other day, Ian woke up to find the empty lot in front of his apartment along Aldecoa bearing a sign announcing a coffee shop soon to be built on the property. Coffee shops don’t always come in considerable brick and mortar space—Kapeng Lokal along East Rovira Road is just a small stall that’s easy to miss, but they have a loyal clientele who order mostly through food-delivery apps; Kohi along Hibbard Avenue is also a small stall but puts on a charming front with a Japanese-inspired ambience; and Don Macchiato’s is a pop-up along Locsin Street.
Renz recalls a friend who enrolled in a senior marketing class for his business degree, and who found himself assigned an entrepreneurial project for the entire semester. His chosen venture was selling coffee, and he said that selling coffee was a money-maker because the overhead cost was low but the selling price can be stretched considerably. Another one of his friends is a declared coffee enthusiast. She’s been interested in it since 2013, and bought filters and beans as a hobby. Then the pandemic hit, and the prices of these filters shot up significantly, and suddenly she found many people interested in how to make a great cup of coffee. A lot of these probably thought selling coffee would make great business.
Renz loves tea, but Ian swears by coffee—it helps soothe his ADHD, and regularly boosts his day. We are generally happy about the proliferation of coffee shops—and how we have famous franchises in place [Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Starbucks, and Tom n Toms] as well a roadside pickup points and online baristas selling through food apps and the Internet.
Market saturation doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It is an indication of a customer base that has disposable income. It means that everyone can enjoy a product, no matter what price points there are. It also means that competition is stiff. The food industry may be accessible and stalwart but savvy food businesses need to occupy food niches and cater to their audience right from the get-go. Dumaguete is an interesting market because of the wide gap between the working class and the rich so there are a lot of areas that you can target—but that market has to be enraptured by your marketing and your product, or else you’ll find yourself trying to capture only the specter of a customer. Competition in the market means that you and your competitors have to innovate with what you’re selling, or at the very least come up with a novel idea that sticks to your audience.
For example, fried chicken has been a Filipino food staple since the Americans brought that idea to us. Ever since then, fried chicken has remained a favorite in many restaurant fares and family recipes. We have learned to love chicken joy from Jollibee for decades now—but we’d like to applaud the entry of Crispy King into our midst. The franchise, which originated in Ormoc City and is easily recognizable with its red paint and zany word logo, is suddenly everywhere in Dumaguete. Every corner now has a Crispy King in it. But we’re not complaining. Its fried chicken, prepared in halal fashion, is very affordable [with P50, you can get a sizable piece of chicken meat, with gravy and a cup of rice as part of that affordable package]. Ian says it tastes even better than Jollibee’s chicken joy. He swears by it.
Does the proliferation of Crispy King have anything to do with the pandemic? We suppose so. It was already there before the lockdowns happened in 2020—but its spread is a pandemic-era recession miracle.
Maybe all these is just recession proliferation, but for now, let’s just enjoy our assorted milk tea, our coffee, and our fried chicken.