San Nicolas District

STEPHEN’S SAN NICOLAS. There is a surge of nostalgia among the millennial generation to an Old Manila that we only see in books and in digital media. Museum guides, aptly called docents and heritage preservation groups are now being championed by energetic, civic-minded individuals from this internet generation.

Stephen John Pamorada grew up in the historic San Nicolas District. In this bustling residential area, located at one of the world’s oldest Chinatowns near the piers and people’s markets of Divisoria are some of the remaining ancestral houses in Manila dating to the Spanish period. These houses, still standing with their original hardwood frames, wrought iron grillworks and roof tiles like the Bahay na Tisa in a corner lot along Elcano and Lavazares streets, are just a few years away from being demolished or moved piece-by-piece to an antique auction or that heritage resort unless solid efforts are made to prevent it from happening.

BINONDO. One afternoon, Stephen showed us around San Nicolas District where a turn at every street corner was like turning a page of a mystery game book to reveal either a historical marker to an erstwhile structure or a decrepit ancestral house that is best described in the past tense.

Binondo was founded on Minondoc, an island across the Pasig River from Intramuros. It was a land-grant given by the Spanish Governor General Luis Perez Dasmariñas to the Chinese migrants who converted to Christianity and intermarried with the locals. Through most of the 19th century, Binondo became the commercial capital of the country. It boasted of a stone church that overlooks Plaza Calderon de la Barca, made charming by its twin fountains. Around this impressive plaza stood landmark buildings, the Hotel de Oriente and La Insular cigar factory. Both were architectural masterpieces in neo-Mudejar style by Spanish architect Juan Jose Huervas y Arizmendi.

LEGEND OF BUAYANG BATO. By the 16th century, Binondo’s population began to swell and it became necessary to expand the settlement in Minondoc to the adjoining village of Baybay. The union of the two villages on March 28, 1594 became the foundation day of the Arrabal de Binondo. Just like in Intramuros, streets in this suburb were arranged in gridlocks and were marked by street signs made of glazed tiles embedded on corner houses. As its residents grew its wealth through trading and retail business, they were able to build fashionable houses as high as three-floors. An excellent specimen would have been Casa Vyzantina at the corner of Madrid and Peñarubia streets but this opulent three story house, also designed by Arizmendi was transferred to a resort in Bataan.

The village of Baybay was later renamed after the Augustinian saint, San Nicolas de Tolentino who was famous for the miraculous appearance of migratory birds locally known as the tarat during his feast day, the curative sacramental bread called the Panacillo de San Nicolas, and the legend of the Buayang Bato. In Jose Rizal’s novel, El Filibusterismo the character Padre Salvi narrated the story of the Chinese fisherman who was attacked by a crocodile that once plagued the Pasig River. He cried out in an identifiable accent San Nicolasi that instantly turned the the voracious reptile into stone.

PANCETERIA MACANISTA DE BUEN GUSTO. Also mentioned in El Filibusterismo was Panceteria Macanista de Buen Gusto. A crumbling structure that once housed this famous restaurant is sandwiched between modern concrete buildings along Blanco Bridge that connects Binondo to San Nicolas District. The food served in the panceteria that were described in Chapter 23 of Rizal’s second novel were the lumpia (spring rolls), torta (crab omelet), pancit guisado (sauteed noodles), and the pancit lang-lang, which was a mix of mushrooms, lobster meat or shrimps, egg noodles and chicken bits in a broth.  Dining furniture was made up of round tables with equally round little wooden stool that served as seats. At the center of each table were four small colored plates with four pastries on each one and four tea cups in red porcelain with corresponding lids. Also on the table were a bottle of wine and two wineglasses of gleaming crystals. On the wall was a signage that read: De esta fonda el cabecilla al publico advierte. Que nada dejen absolutamente sobre algune mesa or silla.

We stared for a moment at the abandoned wooden structure and thought that nothing much has changed since Rizal wrote the novel since to this day we see an equivalent of that reminder posted in fast foods and public places as Management will not accept responsibility for the loss of  personal belongings left unattended (on tables or chairs). Thieves still thrive in these modern times.

SANTO CRISTO DE LONGOS. Another popular legend in Binondo relates to the finding of the image of Santo Cristo de Longos. The story goes that some time in the 16th century, an inarticulate Chinese laborer was drawing water from a well in the barrios of Longos. When he pulled out the pail, he found a blackened corpus of the crucified Christ without a Cross. He began shouting to announce about his discovery. The news about a deaf-mute who miraculously gained speech spread and the image became a popular object of devotion among residents of the settlement.

The image was immediately fitted with a cross and was enshrined in the Capilla de San Gabriel while a street side shrine on the sight of the well was built with a replica of the Santo Cristo de Longos. When an earthquake destroyed the chapel,  the original image was transferred to Binondo Church. In 1704, The Venerable Hermandad del Santo Cristo de Longos was founded to propagate the devotion to the miraculous image.

CASA TRIBUNAL DE NATURALES. For the next three hours, our walking tour with Stephen covered streets in San Nicolas where most of the remaining ancestral houses were clustered in the area. These ancestral structures, though neglected for years and deteriorating give us clues on their function and how the community developed around them.

A lonely structure from two centuries ago, in a street of high-rise buildings along Calle Asuncion was the Casa Tribunal de Naturales. This used to be the courthouse that caters to the Chinese and meztisaje residents of old Binondo and San Nicolas. Officials presided over cases that was led by a Chinese gobernadorcillo, equivalent of today’s town mayor. A well-known gobernadorcillo of San Nicolas was the 19th century metal smith and bell caster, Hilario Sunico.

ESTILO SUNICO. I immediately recognized the ancestral house at the corner of Madrid and Lara streets that I first saw from the pages of the iconic Philippine Ancestral Houses by GCF Books. I learned from Stephen that it once belonged to the sought after metal smith and bell maker, Hilario Chanuangco Sunico y Santos. The house was built 1890. It was home to his wife Sergia Litonjua y Pablo, and their four children Dionisia, Tomas, Sebastian and Rosalia. 

The house was relatively in a sound condition. Intact were the ornate grillwork on the windows and ventanillas that Hilario must have also applied his style in crafting the metal works for Puente de Colgante in Quiapo, Tutuban Train Station in Tundo, the wrought iron fence of the Jesuit Church in Intramuros and the electric chandeliers designed by Isabelo Tampingco for San Sebastian Church in Plaza del Carmen.

FUNDICION DE HILARIO SUNICO. A block from the Sunico residence was the historic metal foundry where Hilario Sunico cast some 176 brass bells for the different churches around the country. Hilario sharpened his skills in metal crafting at an early age at his father’s foundry. He started making small bells and metal fittings for calesas as source of income to support his family. Later, he put up his own foundry and made brass bells that bear the name Fundicion de Hilario Sunico. His earliest works was dated 1872. He crafted the bells of Binondo Church in 1878. From 1872 to 1937, the Sunico trademark were inscribed in most church bells around the country.

Church bells from the Sunico foundry gained a good reputation for their rich tenor. The secret was in the right mixing of metal alloys like bronze, copper and stannite. Upon Hilario’s death, the secret formula and bell casting business was passed on to his only son, Tomas as Herederos de Hilario Sunico. The demand for church bells diminished during the American period. The foundry eventually closed down leaving behind a heritage structure that still bears the ornate Estilo Sunico in its doors and windows. The Sunico residence and the foundry deserve a historical marker. But what can a piece commemorative plaque do to prevent heritage structures from vanishing?

X MARKS THE SPOT. Like a treasure hunter, it excites me to locate historical markers because it means that there must be something or someone, an important event that made a space historically sacred worth a pilgrimage. Along Estraude Street was the house which the Rizal family rented where the bone remains of Jose Rizal was placed in a wooden urn after it was exhumed from Paco Cemetery. The house was razed by fire. A modern building stands on the site. Two historical markers attached to a skyscraper in Calle San Fernando marks the site of a house where Doña Teodora Alonzo, the mother of Rizal spent her last days. A historical marker along Calle Lavezares marks the site of the house of Dr. Pio Valenzuela, a member of the Supreme Council of the Katipunan where he once offered free medical services for the poor and housed the secret printing office of the revolutionary paper Ang Kalayaan. Still standing along Calle Urbiztondo was the bahay-na-bato where General Antonio Luna was born in 1866. It is currently used as a warehouse.

The grounds of Perdo Guevarra Elementary School was the site of the 18th century silk market. The Alcaicería de San Fernando, which literally means the King’s market was an octagonal structure for trading goods. A stone marker was unearthed from this site. It is safely kept in the National Museum. A cast of the marker’s replica is displayed in the campus. Locating these historical markers in San Nicolas District was like discovering the X that marks the spot to that sacred ground only to realize that they have been desecrated and looted of their heritage treasures.

SAN NICOLAS FIRESTATION. Next to Perdo Guevarra Elementary School was the San Nicolas Fire Station. It was among the oldest in the Manila dating back to the time of the first American fire chief Hugh Bonner. The Americans replaced the fire wagons with steam-powered water trucks and introduced a modern fire fighting system in Manila that included the sliding pole and the raincoat uniform.

The fire station in San Nicolas became famous in the olden days because it had one of the finest gymnasiums in town. According to Nick Joaquin, sportsmen  labeled it as the Cradle of Boxing in Manila where ‘American firemen would gather the neighboring kids in their makeshift boxing ring, provide them with boxing gloves, and make them slug it out for a purse collected from all the station’s firemen.’ These prizefights developed a local taste for boxing among Filipinos, which marked the glory days of the pre-war 1920s.

FOUNDING OF THE KATIPUNAN. We walked towards Divisoria to locate No.72 Azcarraga corner of El Cano. Azcarraga was renamed Claro M. Recto Avenue. In a corner lot was the site of the house of Deodato Arellano. On July 7, 1892, a secret council convened at this house following the arrest of Rizal to create a new organization, the Kataastaasang, Kagalang-galang na Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan. Popularly known as the Katipunan, it was a secret society that promoted armed struggle, revolution, and separation from the Spanish Empire.

A busy people’s market replaced the historic house. A monument composed of figurative sculptures of the Katipunan founders Deodato Arellano, Valentin Diaz, Andres Bonifacio, Teodoro Plata, and Ladislao Diwa surrounded by low reliefs depicting symbols, emblems and activities of the revolutionary society was installed by artist Ros Arcilla.

EPILOGUE: HERITAGE CHAMPIONS. Looming like a crown to a forgotten carnival queen in the busyness of the fruit market in Divisoria was the Ides O’Racca Building. Built in 1935, was owned by the prominent physician of the Revolution, Dr. Isidoro de Santos. One of his patients was Apolinario Mabini. During the Japanese Occupation, the building became O’Racca Candy Factory. The government took over the property after the war. Got burned and abandoned since then. It was declared a cultural property by the National Museum in 2014 but no solid plans on what to do with this Art Deco jewel.

In the wake of the old San Nicolas that we only read in books and digital media, Stephen’s enthusiasm for heritage structures remains infectious. For his college thesis, he documented the remaining ancestral structures around his childhood neighborhood with plans to use it as a resource for heritage advocacy efforts. We need more champions, that like Stephen who takes ownership to campaign the preservation our ancestral heritage.

– 5 February 2019 | Chinese New Year

Published in: on February 5, 2019 at 9:00 pm  Comments (1)  

Manila Central Post Office

NOSTALGIC FOR CHRISTMAS CARDS. Times are changing. There are more and more things to be nostalgic about. As a child, receiving and sending Christmas cards signaled the happiest season of the year. I remember my folks would start writing Christmas cards in lengthy notes and sending them to the post office as early as November so that our relatives in the US would receive them in time for the holidays. By December, I would regularly open the mail box attached to our gate (a feature we rarely see in contemporary houses today) to gather the sealed envelopes and peel off the stamps.

Nowadays, we receive holiday greetings through instant text messages and emails most of the time, in a form of copied or templated greetings. We seldom write Christmas cards in all seriousness and send them via the post office. Longing for childhood Christmases, I went to the Manila Central Post Office a few days before Christmas to send some greeting cards to friends just like how my parents and grandparents did it in the past.

POST OFFICE BY THE RIVER. The Manila Central Post Office is located in what used to be a sprawling Plaza Arroceros that extended far to where the Metropolitan Theater and Manila City Hall now stands. It was renamed Plaza Lawton during the Commonwealth Era and recently as Liwasang Bonifacio with a monument to the revolutionary leader, Andres Bonifacio as the centerpiece. At the rear of this impressive building, is the primordial Pasig River flanked by Jones and MacArthur Bridges. To build a post office by the ancient river was strategic during an era when goods and mail were transported via steam-powered vessels.

Bathe in mid-morning sunlight, the monumental structure glimmered like a Roman temple to an important god. The entire length of the main building is elevated from the road by a flight of stairs that leads to a magnificent colonnade guarded by sixteen Ionic columns.

THE BURNHAM PLAN. Past the arcade, people enter into the vastness of the main lobby through a march of doors and transact in the tall grilled windows. Clean, elegant lines, graceful and dignified this iconic building is a manifestation of the Burnham Plan.

The Neoclassical style dominated the architecture of government buildings during the American years. The Manila Central Post Office was merely a part of a greater design by Daniel Burnham. The famous urban planner was sent to the Philippines in the early 1900s to draw a plan for a modern state capitol. Burnham’s ambitious design for Manila was to mirror Washington D.C. with a Capitol Hill that would rise along Taft Avenue facing the bay (A tasteless Torre de Manila occupies this area today), a reflecting pool in the center with the Rizal Monument at the Luneta end. Just like the National Mall, government buildings would be arranged in a formal pattern around this quadrangle. Of the proposed neoclassical structures for Manila, only the Legislative, Finance and Agriculture buildings that now house National Museum complex, and the Manila Central Post Office were completed.

OBRA NI JUAN ARELLANO. The US-trained Filipino architect, Juan Arellano designed the Manila Central Post Office building. His works include the original Jones Bridge (with allegorical figures in Beaux Arts style that we can only see in old photos), the Legislative Building, the Metropolitan Theater and other iconic structures that represent the architectural face of the American Era around the country.

Construction of the post office began in 1926 under the supervision of the engineering firm Pedro Siochi and Company. The post office sustained heavy damages during the Liberation in 1945 but it survived the hasty reconstruction a year after the war. The postwar building still bears the chastity of the original and stands as a memorial to Arellano’s magnum opus.

AMERICAN TROPICAL. After depositing my mail, I started exploring the building for the first time. Though European in look and feel, the post office building is designed for the tropics. Generous light and air at main lobby streams through the grillwork and awning windows above the doors. The ornate grillwork is repeated in the staircases that leads to the upper floors of the five-floor building.

The two semi-circular drums on each end of the rectangular mast is topped with half domes. An atrium lends natural light to the parcel and registered mail sections. The highly decorated ceiling and wainscoting are attributed to the sculptor Isabelo Tampingco, whom Arellano often worked with.

POSTAL AND PHILATELIC HISTORY. A postal museum is set in one corner of the main lobby. Displayed were equipment used by the post office in earlier times to weigh and postmark letters and packages. Also on exhibit is a maquette of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) Monument by French sculptor Charles René de Paul de Saint-Marceaux that shows five Beaux Arts figures floating around the globe representing the continents. The granite and marble monument was erected in 1909 at the UPU headquarters in Switzerland.

The postal museum occasionally hosts a philatelic congress to display collectible stamps. Special tours were conducted to retell the beginnings of the postal services in the country. The first post office was established in Manila in 1779. It was housed in the Aduana by the riverside of Intramuros. The first postage stamp was issued in 1854 bearing the profile of the reigning monarch of the time, Isabela II. The word Filipinas first appeared on stamps in 1872 with King Amadeo’s portrait. The last stamp issues by Spanish colonial government bears the image of the boy king, Alfonso XIII in 1898. During the Philippine Revolution, crudely printed stamps were issued with the word Filipinas and emblems of the Katipunan. In 1906, the US Insular Government issued its first stamps. Images of Jose Rizal and paintings of Fernando Amorsolo appeared in stamps during the American Era. During the Japanese Occupation, stamps were used for cultural propaganda with text that says Congratulations/Fall of Bataan and Corregidor 1942. Stamps in this period also bear a juxtaposition of the images of Mayon Volcano and Mount Fuji with text in Nipongo.

LOCK BOX. At the side of the postal exhibit are stairs leading to the Lock Box area at the lower floor. Post Office (PO) boxes were popular alternatives to mailing addresses. Lock boxes can be rented for a fee.

Doors at the lock box section leads to the back doors that opens to a wharf by the Pasig River. Urban legends says that the lock box section were used for tortures and as a prison during the Japanese Occupation.

EPILOGUE: MONUMENT TO SELF-GOVERNMENT. A fitting finale to that mid-morning trip to the Manila Central Post Office is to view the heroic statue of the mamang kartero facing the flag framed by the Arellano’s columns in homage to the couriers that delivered greeting cards that gave me happy memories of childhood Christmases.

In the fast internet age, it maybe a hard sell to keep the tradition of sending mail through the post office. However, Arellano’s neoclassical magnum opus must be preserved as a monument, a tasteful reminder to generations of that time when Filipinos were being readied for self-governance and democracy.

– January 14, 2019 | TOF 11th Year Anniversary

Published in: on January 14, 2019 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Pamintuan Mansion

OCTOBER FIESTA IN ANGELES. There are three important fiestas in Angeles, Pampanga during October: The Fiestang Naval (Feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary of La Naval) held every second Sunday of the month, The Fiesta de San Angelo (Feast of the Guardian Angel) on the following Monday after the Fiestang Naval and the Fiesta nang Apu Mamacalulu (Feast of Christ in the Holy Sepulchre) held every last Friday of October. All three fiestas are traced back on the days in the 18th century when the primeval barrio of Culiat were being cleared from the wild by Don Angel Pantaleon de Miranda and wife, Doña Rosalia de Jesus to make way to a new settlement known today as Angeles. It was said that during clearing activities were made in the wilderness, the image of the Our Lady of the Holy Rosary was carried by the founders to bless the new town.

A couple of centuries later from its clearing, Angeles has roads, bridges, barrios, farms, and a town center with buildings like a municipio, a magnificent church to enshrine the image of its patroness, and grand houses of the town elite. Some of these structures still stand to this day. One of which is the Pamintuan Mansion.

PAMINTUAN MANSION. The Pamintuan Mansion stood at intersecting roads in the poblacion, just a few walks from the Sto. Rosario Church.  The massive house was built in the 1880s by the landlord Don Florentino Pamintuan and wife Doña Mancia Sandico. It appeared stately with heavily-carved and decorated exterior and a tasteful Victorian architecture.

A historical marker describes the house that served in different occasions as residence to General Emilio Aguinaldo, the headquarters to General Arthur McArthur, a barracks to a regiment of Japanese soldiers, an American clubhouse, a hotel, and a satellite office of the Central Bank of the Philippines until recently when the antique mansion was fittingly refurbished to become the Museum of Social History.

MUSEUM OF SOCIAL HISTORY. One enters the Pamintuan Mansion through the entresuelo, a mezzanine with rooms that serve as office of the museum curator and e-learning hub. This section of the house is raised from the ground floor or zaguan some steps higher. The zaguan traditionally severed as parking space for the carruajes (carriages) and carozzas used for processions. It is paved with a dizzying pattern of machuca tiles. Machuca originated from the Baldoza cement tile factory in the 1900s owned by Don Jose Machuca de Romeo from San Miguel District of Manila.

A room at the zaguan housed an impressive assemblage of indigenous fabrics, weaving tools, fashion accessories and clothing styles from the earliest form to its fusion into contemporary trends chiefly from the collection of the famous doyenne of Philippine fashion, Patis Pamintuan-Tesoro.

TIME SLIP. From a tour of the zaguan, a walk to the flight of steps brought me back to the entresuelo that led to the wide narra staircase. I imagined the history that passed on the steps.

On 12 June 1899, only a few days since the assassination of General Antonio Luna in Cabanatuan and two years have after the execution of Andres Bonifacio in Maragondon, General Aguinaldo celebrated the anniversary of Philippine independence which was declared from his house in Kawit. From one of the windows of Pamintuan Mansion, General Aguinaldo with his immediate family, his young aide-de-camp, Manuel Quezon and close comrade General Tomas Mascardo watched a military parade under the command of his favorite general, Gregorio del Pilar. Present in the occasion were Jose and Joaquin Luna who were probably inquiring about the death of their brother.

FIESTANG NAVAL. Upon reaching the second floor, the house was well lit just like in the olden days for an evening of tertulia. Under the metal ceiling with repousse floral designs and framed by the calado transoms, neoclassical arches and columns, a Marian exhibit was being staged in honor of the town’s patroness, Nuestra Señora del Santissimo Rosario de La Naval.

How Manila’s La Naval made it to Pampanga can be traced from the efforts of the town’s founding fathers who petitioned the separation of the old Culiat from San Fernando and to formally adopt the name Pueblos de los Angeles in honor of the trailblazer Don Angel de Miranda. The main parish of Angeles was named Parroquia ning Santo Rosario to give honor to the Our Lady of the Holy Rosary who the settlers believed have interceded to achieve their township. In October 10, 1830, the first La Naval fiesta was celebrated in Angeles with an unveiling of the image of the Virgen La Naval followed by a solemn procession.

PAMINTUAN UNDER STARS AND STRIPES. When Aguinaldo and his troops left Angeles, General Arthur McArthur commandeered the mansion for his headquarters until the end of the Revolutionary Government in 1901. During the American Period, the Pamintuan House hosted banquets that received important political figures like High Commissioner Frank Murphy in the 1930s.

Being an important venue for hosting social events, the mansion was furnished with the latest furniture from the intricately carved beds to Art Nouveau and Art Deco chais and tables.

THE HAUNTED ANGELES HOTEL. Peace time in Angeles was shattered by war. The Japanese bombed Fort Stotsenburg. A group of the Japanese soldiers occupied the historic mansion. During Liberation, the house became a clubhouse and recreation facility for American servicemen. Perhaps due to the residual energy left by previous occupants, the Pamintuans decided to lease the mansion to a Chinese businessman. In 1947, the mansion was converted into Angeles Hotel.

In the book, Letras y Figuras, former Central Bank Governor Jaime Laya mentioned a ghost of a young lady in night gown who appeared floating in the tower room. We can only guess at the probability that this restless spirit might have been a victim of war atrocity since the Japanese Occupation left us with several haunted places around the country. A spiral staircase at the second floor leads to the tower room and another one with Art Nouveau carvings leads to a rooftop veranda.

EPILOGUE: BEST VIEW. From the rooftop veranda of the Pamintuan Mansion is a 360 degree view of the townscape of Angeles. A statuette of a lady in early baro’t saya that serves as a decorative finial to the mirador or tower room must have had the best vantage point to watch generations of Fiestang Naval processions.

– Feast of the Victory of the Nuestra Señora del Santissimo Rosario de La Naval | 2018



Published in: on October 7, 2018 at 11:29 pm  Comments (5)  

Tabungaw Hat-Maker

HOME ON A HILL. It was a steep drive up from Tangadan Tunnel to barrio San Quintin in Abra. The soil was soggy and roads were slippery from the days of rain. We hiked the muddy path, burdened by our city feet to meet the hat-maker, Teofilo Garcia at his home on a hill.

Apo Teofilo is a local farmer who is famous for crafting the katokong nga tabungaw, the Ilocano for elegant, rain and shine durable hats fashioned from native gourd.

HAT-MAKING TRADITIONS. Handmade head-gears, crafted from materials found in nature and used as practical accessories and protection from sun and rain have been perfected by our ancestral tribes centuries ago. To preserve the integrity of hat-making process, the craft was passed down from generations of hat-makers. The Maranaos and Bagobos were known for carving wooden helmets used for combat. The Maranao hat was topped with a silver turret while the Bagobos decorated theirs with geometric patterns. The Bontocs carved a bowl-shaped helmet with portruding anthropomorphic figures. They also weaved nito into a bachelor’s basket hat called the suklang. The Gaddangs weaved rattan to make a skull cap that was trimmed with colorful beads, pearls and metal while the Ilongots fashioned a head dress from animals they hunt like the hornbill.

The Tausugs and Yakans weaved thin strips of bamboo to make cone and dome-shaped hats with an inner cushioning of the same material, which was separately woven. The Tagalogs and Visayans have their versions of the popular salakot, finely woven from anahaw palm or fashioned from dried tortoise shell, trimmed with silver or gold. Of the same category is the Ilocano takurong nga tabungaw or gourd hat.

TAKURONG NGA TABUNGAW. Apo Teofilo learned making takurong, Ilocano for hat out of tabungaw or native gourd from his grandfather during his teens. The hat-making process begins from the planting of the seeds of the vegetable and knowing when it has grown into its right size for harvest, cutting in halves, drying and letting the ants eat the pulp to lining the edge with woven nito and weaving the built-in inner cushioning with alternating patterns using rattan and bamboo to make sure it snugs comfortably into the wearer’s head.

Apo Teofilo spent years to master the amazing engineering inside the hat. Today, it only takes a week or two for the seventy-seven year old craftsman to make one.

A STRONG KISS. Like most folk art, history of tabungaw making is difficult to trace. Artist’s illustrations show early freedom fighters like Diego Silang and member of the Katipunan wearing a tabungaw. Tabungaw making was popular among Ilocano household until interest in the craft grandually declined. Apo Teofilo revealed that in his younger years, the tabungaw hat was called by his fellow hat-makers and friends as strong kiss because it guaranteed the wearer to get one from a date.

Apo Teofilo is the known master for this craft. He leads hat-making workshops in Abra. In his hometown, high school students wore the tabungaw hat that they made on their graduation march in place of the Oxford cap. In 2012, Apo Teofilo received the National Living Treasure award. This award, equivalent to the Order of the National Artist is bestowed by the state to craftsmen or manlilikha ng bayan for preserving and promoting local traditions and craft-making for future generations.

EPILOGUE: NATIONAL LIVING TREASURE. Nowhere is hat-making was raised to the level of fine art as Apo Teofilo did. Before leaving, we bought a tabungaw hat that the National Living Treasure signed as a priceless strong kiss from Abra.

Published in: on September 15, 2018 at 3:42 pm  Leave a Comment  


INTO THE VALLEY OF FOLK ARTISTS. Cocooned between the legendary Cordilleras and the vast coastal towns of the two Ilocoses is the province of Abra. A trip in this verdant mountain valley offers travelers the opportunity to explore remote and hidden mountain and river trails that are rich in natural wonders.

But our lure to Abra is having the chance to meet the guardians of folk art and local traditions; a farmer who keeps the traditional way of making hats out of a native vegetable, a tribal elder and storyteller in a village settlement with the aborigines of Ilocos, the fabled Tingguiansand a cross-generational community of abel weavers.

BEYOND TANGADAN TUNNEL. Our day of discovery began the moment we stepped out from the bus after an eight-hour ride right in front of a mountain that towers at the end of the national highway. One enters Abra via  Tangadan Tunnel. The 62-meter tunnel cuts directly through the mountain and it took two years to build in the 1930s. A monument to the Abrense heroine, Gabriela Silang guards this entrance to Abra.

Beyond the tunnel is a wide rugged landscape broken by mountain ranges and foothills. Behind the jagged mountain peaks, the clouds moved slow to reveal the verdant valleys. Green is the color of the forest and of the rice fields that are kept moist by the rain and the narrow rivers lacing through the ethereal terrain.

APO TEOFILO’S STRONG KISS. The soil was soggy from the days of rain in the barrio of San Quintin where we hiked the muddy path, burdened by our city feet to meet the hat-maker, Teofilo Garcia at his home on a hill. Apo Teofilo is a local farmer who is famous for the craft of making katokong nga tabungaw, the Ilocano for elegant, rain and shine durable hats fashioned from native gourd. He learned the process of carving the vegetable and weaving the inner cushioning out of rattan from his grandfather when he was a teen. In his younger years, the tabungaw hat was called by his fellow hat-makers and friends as strong kiss because it guaranteed the wearer to get one from a date.

Apo Teofilo is the known master for this craft. He leads hat-making workshops in Abra. In his hometown, high school students wore the tabungaw hat that they made on their graduation march in place of the Oxford cap. In 2012, Apo Teofilo received the National Living Treasure award. This award, equivalent to the Order of the National Artist is bestowed by the state to craftsmen or manlilikha ng bayan for preserving and promoting local traditions and craft-making for future generations. Before we left Apo Teofilo, we bought a tabungaw hat that the National Living Treasure signed as a priceless strong kiss from Abra.

PIDIGAN. We exited San Quintin and entered the historic town of Pidigan. This town was established by Spanish friars in 1832 with the Immaculate Concepcion as patroness. Our next stopover was the ruins of the old church in this town’s poblacion. The bricks and old stone dates to 1890 but an earlier structure used to stand on the ruins. The church-convent was described to be octagonal in form with three altars and a watchtower. Built in 1823, it functioned both as a place for worship and fortification against invading tribes.

During World War II, the Japanese enemy used school buildings and residential houses in Pidigan as their barracks. In 1945, Pidigan became the seat of Abra’s local government while the country was in transition after the war.

TINGGUIANS OF NAMARABAR. At the Tingguian village of Namarabar in the town of Peñarrubia, we were welcomed by tribal elder Norma Mina Agaid. Graceful in her sleeves of heirloom beads, a symbol of prestige equivalent to the tattoos worn by their mountain cousins in Kalinga, the folk history of the Tingguian culture and tradition echoes in Norma’s lively storytelling through her embroideries.

In 1959, Norma wanted to paint but she can’t so she embroidered on abel fabric the Am-Amma that visualizes the story of their ancestor gods and folk myths, the all-weather Tingguian warriors guarding the Tangadan Tunnel against the invading Ilocanos, the Abrense heroine Gabriela Silang, the ancient method of dyeing cloth using barks and plants, the goddess weaver, Pinaing who introduced through dreams the weaving patterns pinilian and binakol and the embroidery style called kinamay to the Tingguian women.

SIDE TRIP TO BUCAY. From Namarabar, we revved up on paved mountain road to reach our next stop. Bucay was the provincial capital of Abra when it became independent from Ilocos Sur in 1847. Its name is said to come from the medicinal plant makabuhay that the friars introduced to the natives who were then afflicted by malaria.

A historical landmark in this town is the ruins of the Casa Real of the provincial governor. Only the arched front entrance bearing the coat of arms of Leon and Castille remains of the original Spanish structure.

TAYUM CHURCH. From Bucay, we raced to Tayum. The town’s name was taken from an indigo-yielding plant that the Tingguians used for dyeing yarns of cotton threads. At its town center is a cluster of ancestral structures dating back to the Spanish period.

Tayum’s oldest monument is its church. Its Baroque façade distinctly decorated with finials shaped like burnay jars from Vigan and  the bell tower alongside dated 1571. Dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, the church was recognized as a National Cultural Treasure.

TAYUM HERITAGE TOWN. We walked around the poblacion to better see some heritage structures in Tayum. The Teodoro Brillantes House is the only heritage house in town to have a National Historical Institute marker. It’s supposed to be a museum but no one remembers when it last opened for viewing. A prominent feature of this American-era chalet is the brick work on the ground floor and the raised front porch with t-shaped staircase. There are no quarries in Abra so clay was baked to make bricks to encase the wooden posts and house frame.

The Flores House that was built in 1890 looks recently restored following the style of a bahay-na-bato that is distinct to Vigan with whitewashed stonework at the ground floor that is extended to the massive corner pillars on the upper floor. The Jose Cariño Sr. House has been left to the elements, but it is still possible to imagine the stateliness it once had through crumbling antique house.

GABRIELA SILANG MUSUEM OF FINE ARTS. Along Tayum’s Calle Real, the old royal road that links Abra’s former capital in Bucay to its present one in Bangued is the ancestral house of Don Nicolas Cariño.  It was in this house where his niece, Gabriela Cariño Silang took shelter after the assassination of her husband, Ilocano revolutionary Diego Silang in 1763.

A work in progress, rooms in this ancestral house are being converted into exhibition spaces for the museum dedicated to the Abrense heroine. The Gabriela Silang Museum of Fine Arts’ collection includes 5000 paintings and unnumbered European and Orientalia objects d’ art amassed by Ambassador Rosario Cariño from around the world.

BRUNCH IN BANGUED. We arrived in Abra’s provincial capital just before lunch time. Here, again was an epitome of Philippine town life, a neat rural community of relaxed people, ancestral structures, storied churches and hearty comfort meals. The ancestral house of Senate President Quintin Parades is a historical landmark that serves as a shrine to the late statesman. Then there is San Lorenzo Church that serves as an unofficial shrine to a certain Rosa Balitoc who unearthed gold from her yard that she donated to have this this church built at the town cemetery.

For brunch, we were treated with sinful servings of bagnet, pakbet and dinakdakan. Dinakdakan is a smokey-flavored pork dish dressed in vinegar and pig’s brains mixture.  We had a brief stopover right in the middle of Abra River through the lengthy Calaba Bridge on our way to La Paz.

ABEL LOOMS OF LA PAZ. Late in the afternoon we were introduced to a community of abel weavers in the town of La Paz. Abel is Ilocano verb for weave while inabel is a noun for woven fabric. This handwoven fabric is colorful and can last for centuries as heirloom pieces in forms of clothing, blankets and decorative accessories.

In Barangay Bulbulala, several box-type looms are arranged in a huge room like an assembly line. Women sat on each wooden loom with fixed concentration while they alternately pass the shuttle back and forth with their dexterous hands across an expanse of colored yards before them and push the pedal with their feet. Weaving abel is a skill passed down from one generation to the next and takes years to master. At one loom sat a girl in her preteens. Her fingers moved with same agility around the warp and weft of her unfinished cloth much like the master abel weavers before her.

EPILOGUE: A TIMELESS CONTINUUM. In Abra, pilgrims are welcomed with opened arms like long lost relatives. In this valley of folk artists, we are reminded by Apo Teofilo’s takurong nga tabungaw, Nana Norma’s Am-Amma, and the handmade abel fabrics of La Paz that we are all  part of the warp, weft and weave in a timeless continuum of Philippine life and culture. We belong to a single tribe.

Published in: on July 23, 2018 at 10:27 am  Comments (2)