Last year in February, I brought the CCP’s Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra to Bacolod City for a two-day free public concert for Bacolodnons at the request of Mayor Evelio Leonardia, who initiated the project. As I was listening to the strains of the symphonic music during the open-air concert staged at the Bacolod City Government Center grounds, I somehow felt transported to a time before the war when the elite of Bacolod listened to such music in the public plaza.
My interest is in its past life, which is very vivid for someone like me who has an imaginative cinematic mind. When people speak of Bacolod, my mind conjures images of the old pre-civil war South in America. Like America’s old south, old Bacolod used to be the home of aristocratic hacienderos with vast sugar plantations, employing thousands of peasants to work in sugar plantations and azucareras.
As Bacolod City is now being transformed into a cosmopolitan city of the future, I hope its old-world charm and its rich history and heritage won’t vanish with the inroads of modernity.
If you want to get the story of Bacolod City in just a few hours, the Negros Museum is the place to go. Located near the lagoon and capitol building, the museum provides a tour of the history of the province of Negros Occidental from its humble beginnings as mere small settlement by the riverbank known as Magsungay, to the colonial times, the rise of the sugar industry, cultural influx of foreigners, the revolution, past governors, and murals done by Negrense artists. Here you will be regaled with stories about the landed hacienderos, the muscovado mill and how the sugar is being processed, about the Amorsolo paintings, and the old steam locomotives and everything about Bacolod’s former life.
When people speak of Bacolod, my mind conjures images of the old pre-civil war South in America. Like America’s old south, old Bacolod used to be the home of aristocratic hacienderos with vast sugar plantations, employing thousands of peasants to work in sugar plantations and azucareras.
The San Sebastian Church in Bacolod reminds you of the fact that the early missionaries placed the original village under the care and protection of Saint Sebastian sometime in the middle of the 18th century. A note of interest is its elegant architecture that harkens back to the Spanish times and is considered an important historical marker by none other than the Philippine Historical Committee. This is a structure that was opened to the public in 1882, and now holds the Bishop’s Palace within its grounds.
For centuries, the Philippines was one of the largest producers of sugar worldwide, with Negros Occidental accounting for about half of the nation’s total production due to the so-called exodus of Iloilo planters to the island in the 1850s for the promise of cheaper land.
Because of their acquired wealth, sugar barons called dons, built the most beautiful and modern houses of their time, meant as gifts to their wives and unmarried children, and as observation points of their plantations.
But nothing lasts forever. When the sugar industry declined around the 1970s and the 1980s, Negros took a hard blow, and many sugar barons lost their power and pre-eminence. It was as the movie blurb puts it “a civilization gone with the wind.”
Still, the legacy of Negros Occidental’s sugar barons lives on in the stories of their homes.
There is the famous mansion at Hacienda Rosalia, which was built by the descendant of Yves Leopold Germain Gaston who introduced sugar farming in the Island of Negros. Set your foot on the grounds and floors of a home on which a sugar baron once walked.
Along Burgos Street, once known as “Millionaire’s Row” for being the location of many of the mansions owned by Bacolodnon elite, stands a large structure resembling a boat, from its shape to its porthole windows. The “boathouse,” or Daku Balay (big house), was created by Generoso Villanueva, a sugar planter, in 1936 when Art Deco was at its peak in Manila. The house was the tallest building in Bacolod until the 1950s, and remains to be the largest Art Deco private residence in the country.
For more cultural and artistic enrichment, visit neighboring Talisay, which was known as the Paris of the East during its glory days at the turn of the century. More than 30 houses in Silay have been declared official heritage landmarks by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. They are well preserved, giving visitors a good glimpse of Spanish, American, and indigenous art and culture.
There’s also the Bernardo Jalandoni Museum and the Hofilena home, and Balay ni Tana Dicang, a Spanish colonial bahay na bato named after its matriarch, Kapitana Enrica Alunan-Lizares.
Also in Silay, you will find Balay Negrense which was built in 1898 by Don Victor Gaston y Fernandez. Balay Negrense now stands as a reminder of the rich history of Silay, a perfect showcase of what a 19th-century sugar baron’s life was like. A typical bahay-na-bato upper-class Filipino house, it features different architectural characteristics: open windows and elevated apartments inspired by indigenous Filipino bamboo houses and a roof with galvanized iron and low-level concrete that shows an American influence.
In the middle of a vast sugarcane field, you will find “The Ruins.” So called because it is all what is left of the mansion of Don Mariano Ledesma Lacson. Touted as the “Taj Mahal of Negros,” it was built in tribute of Don Mariano’s wife who had died during childbirth. Its turn of the century European inspired architecture makes you forget that you are in Negros Occidental. Unfortunately, one can only speculate on the interiors of the mansion, for what remains is the concrete skeleton, as it was burned down during World War II.
Flash forward to the present. If you happen to visit Bacolod City in October, you might just find yourself lost in the hoopla of the annual MassKara Festival, a Mardi Gras-like event that is highlighted by a spectacularly vivid mix of dance, color, and music. The partying happens everywhere: in the home and in the streets. Masskara means “a mass of smiling faces” and is a feast of thanksgiving for the blessings of life. Masskara is the inspiration for the city’s moniker as “The City of Smiles.”
There’s more to experience in Bacolod City. But as an artist who is passionate about culture, I have had my fill for one visit. One leaves Bacolod City with the smile of someone who has been soulfully enriched.