Nostalgia in Negros Occidental

Sandwiched between larger and older Iloilo City across the Guimaras strait, and younger and more scholarly Dumaguete across the Kanlaon Mountain range, the city of Bacolod somehow manages to distinguish itself from its sister cities through sheer attitude. The more devoted denizens of Bacolod proudly maintain that their beloved hometown is more antebellum than Atlanta and more genteel than Geneva. And they’re not really all that far off. At its peak, the province of Negros Occidental, of which Bacolod is the capital, lay claim to a glittering social scene revolving around the incredible wealth generated by the vast plantations or haciendas that blanket the boot-shaped island. From this milieu materialized a rarefied bubble in which float sugar barons, debutante balls, and opera nights, which neither history nor entropy have completely burst.

Respect and Remembrance

As a community, the Negrenses hold their heritage in high esteem, maybe more so than most Filipinos. This is most evident in the attention and care given to the museums dedicated to the province. Located in the old agriculture building close to the capitol building, the Negros Museum is an unusual historical and humanities museum in the sense that, instead of displaying antiques and artifacts, it showcases the ongoing saga of the people of Negros Occidental. The tale begins with the main and permanent display of a reconstructed batil, a wooden sailing vessel used for passengers and cargo at the turn of the century. The batil contains artifacts and reproductions of the type of goods that were exchanged between Negros, nearby islands and foreign lands.

The story flows onward by highlighting the province’s role as the “sugarbowl” of the Philippines, with displays depicting sugar production, the role of the ordinary plantation worker, and even the lifestyle of the legendary Negrense haciendero or plantation owner. There are also exhibits focusing on such themes as the Chinese in Negros, the Catholic Church, and the folksongs and folktales of the island. Smaller galleries flank the main hall: the Cinco de Noviembre exhibit highlights the Spanish colonial era, the Sports Hall of Fame, and a gallery for changing exhibits. In the museum’s north wing is the Jose Garcia Montelibano Toy and Folk Arts Museum, the only one of its kind in the Philippines. Containing about 2,000 toys and folk crafts collected by Mrs. Montelibano all over the world, many of the toys are in mint state. The display is arranged anthropologically with each section telling a story, from simple, basic toys to the most complex mechanized creations.

Nostalgia buffs can get their fill of family heirlooms and religious relics at the Museo Negrense de La Salle. Maintained by the prestigious private Catholic school, the museum preserves vital documents, photographs, and cultural artifacts related to the history and culture of Negros that have been donated by its most prominent families. During our visit, the museum was featuring the legacy of the illustrious Vargas family, particularly the mementos of their late matriarch, Lourdes “Nena” Vargas-Ledesma. From there, we were then warmly welcomed to the estate of her son Eduardo Vargas Ledesma Jr., which prides itself on maintaining one of the world’s largest breeding farms for fighting cocks, and also an interesting display of centuries-old urnas, colorful religious figures collected from all around the Visayas.

Sweet Sojourn

As the sun began to set, we proceeded to the picturesque town of Silay, home to no less than 31 heritage houses of varying degrees of grandeur and antiquity. The dwindling twilight lent a rather spooky air to the storied town. It was easy to imagine the ghosts of Silay roaming the stone streets and ancient structures, haunting the vestiges of the sugar boom’s belle époque, biding their time till the next spectral ball. Thankfully, the Romanesque domes of Silay’s San Diego Pro-Cathedral were ablaze with light and life, as the devout townsfolk giddily prepared for a religious procession, much like their ancestors must have done for generations.

As we sped back to the city for the evening, sweeping tracts of sugarcane spread out on both sides of the highway, inescapably reminding us of the backbone on which the island’s society rests. Although the pace may be slow and the pleasures simple, things still seem to be carried out with a certain sense of style. Even the local dialect of Hiligaynon, unquestionably the Philippines’ gentlest-sounding language, has a sweetly romantic lilt to its cadence.

The sugar baron’s swagger that profoundly permeates the city’s lifestyle is never more obvious than after nightfall. Like exotic nocturnal creatures, the Bacoleños break free from their daytime responsibilities (or lack thereof) and flit into the lively clubs, cafes, and casinos that all cater to the appetites of a town that has learned how to live well and live high and never forgot its lessons. Where else but in Sugarland can you expect a smorgasbord of the most scrumptiously elegant pastries and desserts? And the Ledesma’s fighting cock farm notwithstanding, the Negrenses do love their chicken, grilled to perfection preferably in the traditional Bacolod inasal (literal translation: “cooked over the fire”) recipe which entails a lot of garlic, calamansi juice, and annatto. Once stuffed with sweets, brewed coffee, grilled meats, and liquor (not necessarily in that order) Bacoleños customarily take a leisurely stroll round the rectangular reflecting lagoon in front of the capitol building, or down the main thoroughfare ofLacson St.

Bacolod is a city that likes to keep its mysteries shrouded, and the decadent goings-on at the private parties thrown by some of Negros society’s finest are the stuff of international legend, and interested visitors should dearly hope to be invited for a glimpse into this privileged circus. Or wait till October, when in an ironic display of public passion, the city hosts the yearly Masskara Festival, like a rowdier version of the Venice Masquerade with a Filipino twist – all the masks come with a big smile. But knowing the Negrenses, the faces concealed behind the masks are sure to be smiling even wider, safely smug with their sweet secrets.

Getting There:

Bacolod is located 45 minutes South of Manila by plane. Commercial flights are available daily. If flying in to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila you will have to change planes for the 45 minute hop to Bacolod. A new airport of international standards opened in Silay in 2007.

-text and photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2007.

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  1. Bacolod’s Ruins | Love 2 Type

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