By Augusto Villalon
ILOILO EVOKES MANY PLEASANT images, each one as soothing as its melodious language whose lilt perfectly sums up the local lifestyle and culture: laid-back Southern gentility graciously lived in a city on the banks of a river whose languorous flow sets the peaceful tone of the residents' pulse.
There is no other city in the Philippines with an image as distinct as Iloilo.
Once the center of the Visayan sugar industry, the city retains vestiges of that era. Muelle Loney, the city dock, commemorates Nicholas Loney, the Englishman who industrialized the sugar industry in the 19th century, exported sugar globally from Iloilo, and brought prosperity to the province.
There was another side to the entrepreneurial Loney who flooded the Iloilo market with cheap, machine-woven textiles imported from England, a move killing the flourishing Ilonggo hand-loom industry which was the source of the best hand-woven fabric in the Philippines.
Nevertheless, the face Iloilo presents today is still sugar-sweet. Elegant arcaded colonnades dating back to the Commonwealth era still shade city-center sidewalks, an urban amenity now vanished from other Philippine city centers in the name of development.
The Commonwealth-era buildings of Iloilo face extinction. The new malls have taken away retail activity from the old city center. There are plans to reuse the old downtown buildings to produce a heritage-destination setting that attracts the public and tourists away from the malls, a plan seen to revive the old city center and return luster to the city's tarnished pride of place.
Descendants of illustrious Iloilo families continue to live in their stately homes that stand sometimes alone, at other times behind rows of commercial developments, on city streets that retain shabby remnants of its former grandeur.
Progress has swept away sidewalks, trees, and the small plazas that once made the city more livable than it is today.
Nevertheless, the city presents a wide range of architecture. Houses range from pre-20th century bahay na bato of the Spanish colonial era.
In Iloilo, the houses take on a Visayan character. They are more open and embellished than their Tagalog relatives. Superb mansions from the American colonial era, built in the 1920s in an eclectic style typical to Iloilo, remain.
Probably one of the best-preserved 1930s Art Deco houses in the country is aptly called Boat House, a reference to its flowing, streamlined lines recalling sleek ocean liners considered the height of modernity during that era, causing that particular variant of the Art Deco style to be called Moderne.
Iloilo unfolds on different levels. Some mansions struggle for existence side by side with unregulated commercial development on city streets. Fast-food stores in malls fail to capture faithful customers who still insist on going to the market, not a restaurant, for an authentic batchoy fix.
Ilonggo culture tempers 21st-century mass media and Internet culture with Visayan tradition, creating an interesting mix of cutting-edge technology and the old.
With its feet firmly planted on tradition is the Panaderia de Molo, an Iloilo icon deserving to be a national treasure. Its trademark striped tins of handmade cookies are prized gifts to any Filipino. Its bakery products are coveted Pinoy comfort food that maintain the old taste and texture no longer found in mass-manufactured products from commercial bakeries.
Established by the Jason sisters, ownership has passed to their Sanson great-granddaughters, the fourth generation of the family to manage the bakery. This generation zealously maintains original family recipes, still kneads and mixes by hand, uses traditional wooden and bamboo implements, and bakes in clay ovens fired by wood especially grown in the family's plantation.
Bent on preserving heritage, the Iloilo City Cultural Heritage and Conservation Council (ICCHCC) actively takes a hand in guiding the city to attaining a balance between tradition and the 21st century.
Enjoying support from City Mayor Jerry Treñas, who understands that the identity of Iloilo lies in its culture, well-connected ICCHCC board members are Iloilo movers involved in city government, civic organizations, mass media, business, professional and academic circles.
The ICCHCC is among the few organizations in the Philippines that have greatly increased heritage awareness. The organization successfully held a heritage awards program in 2005 that awarded the winners of a student essay competition and presented awards recognizing the best conservation and adaptive reuse of heritage architecture in the city.
Among its awardees were ancestral homes reused as schools, religious convents or restaurants, proof that heritage structures can be used for contemporary needs.
In May, the ICCHCC goes into full gear. Iloilo hosts the national culminating activity for Philippine Heritage Month on May 30-31 this year.
For the entire month of May the tireless
ICCHCC presents a series of activities celebrating heritage. A Flores de Mayo, exhibits of traditional culture, musical performances, lectures, and dance performances will be held in different venues all over the city.
The closing ceremonies in Iloilo City will be the highlight of the month-long celebration and focus on Panay cultural heritage, specifically Iloilo. During the two days, activities and events will include walking tours, park concerts, cultural performances, religious rites, and ceremonial receptions.
A good place to start an Iloilo visit would be at Museo Iloilo, whose exhibits introduce what the city is all about and whose director, Zaffy Ledesma, has an inside track on local history.
Walk next door from the Museo to the Department of Tourism Office (tel. 033-3375411) for detailed information on all cultural and tourism events sponsored either by the ICCHCC or the DOT which share an office in Iloilo City.
Source: Inquirer.net ( http://news.inq7.net/lifestyle/index.php?index=2&story_id=69948)
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