Silay: The Paris of Negros
- Tina H. Lapres () - December 22, 2002 - 12:00am
(9th Prize Winner, Philippine STAR Travel Now Essay Writing Contest, co-sponsored by Philippine Tourism Authority, Sun Village Boracay Resort and Smart Communications)

Barely 14 kilometers north of the provincial capital of Negros Occidental, or a mere 15-minute drive from Bacolod, lies the city of Silay. Dubbed in the 1920s as the "Paris of Negros," Silay has always been the acknowledged cultural and intellectual seat of the province, a distinction that persists up to now and which its officials and residents help to perpetuate.

Oldtimers love to talk about the old Silay, of how performers from Europe would come to perform in the town instead of Bacolod. Of how the strong voice of the Italian tenors would seemingly break the window panes. Our late father, during the last years of his life, would recall with undisguised pleasure how he and our mother would deposit the older children with our grandmother so they could watch the opera in the evening. Even in his old age, he remembered how the visiting Europeans would pick up and smoke the cigars discarded by the landed Silaynons.

From our father’s account, as well as those of the surviving members of that past generation, almost every house had a piano or a violin or both. The electronic age was ages away and entertainment for the family came from these musical instruments. This passion for music and the arts gave Silay – and the Philippines – its first international star: Conchita Gaston, the mezzo soprano who in the post-war years performed in major operas in Europe. Ms. Gaston was reportedly the first Filipina to cut a record in America. Up until her passing, she was a revered figure in her city of birth.

In later years, Silay would produce a National Artist for Architecture: the late Lindy Locsin who designed the palace of the Prince of Brunei, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Philippine International Convention Center, and many other impressive buildings along Ayala Avenue in Makati.

Driving to Silay from Bacolod City, one notices that the four-lane highway suddenly narrows down to form a bottleneck as he enters the city. Soon enough, one gets a glimpse of the old houses and buildings that line this portion of the highway, or Rizal Street, which traverses the center of the city. Later, one learns that the continued existence of these structures is mostly credited to a motley group of Silaynons who had the sense of history to work against their destruction in the 1970s.

Fully convinced that these houses and buildings, as well as the other ancestral houses in the city, were worth fighting for, the nucleus of what was to become the Silay Heritage Foundation went around getting signatures and effectively putting a stop to the ongoing street-widening project of the government. It is a testament to the foresight of these men and women that these landmarks were spared from destruction in the name of progress. Today, these ancestral houses and buildings form part of the charms of the city, attracting foreign and domestic visitors.

In recent years, two of these ancestral houses have been turned into lifestyle museums that give a glimpse of what life was like for the so-called sugar barons of old: the Balay Negrense on Cinco de Noviembre Street, and the Don Bernardino-Ysabel Jalandoni House Museum on the northernmost end of Rizal Street.

Balay Negrense was home to Don Victor Gaston, eldest son of Yves Germaine Leopold Gaston, the Frenchman who came and settled in a place called Buen Retiro in Silay during the latter part of the 19th century. Yves Gaston, who previously worked as a technician in a sugar farm in Batangas, was largely credited with the development of the sugar industry in Northern Negros. Perhaps it is also safe to say that it was this older Gaston and his descendants who imbued the then pueblo of Silay with the unmistakable French flavor, giving rise to the Paris of Negros tag.

In the 1980s, when Negros Occidental suffered from its worst economic crisis, the Gaston house was deserted and left to the elements. For many years it remained unoccupied and neglected, its sorry state resulting in stories about it being haunted. Now restored to its former glory with the help of the Department of Tourism, the century-old Gaston mansion, now called Balay Negrense, is being run by the Negros Cultural Foundation.

The first to be declared a National Historical Landmark in the City of Silay by the National Historical Institute on November 6, 1993, the two-storey residence of the late Don Bernardino and Ysabel Jalandoni is typical of the opulent houses of the early 20th century. Built in 1908, the well-preserved house was constructed with materials meant to last a lifetime, with the hardwood coming from faraway Mindoro.

Although one cannot see the resemblance, the design of the house is said to have been influenced by the native nipa hut. Its steel-trayed ceiling, on the other hand, was molded in Hamburg, Germany. Run by the Silay Heritage Foundation, a non-government organization, the Pink Museum, as the Jalandoni House is sometimes referred to by locals, occasionally serves as the venue for cultural, educational and artistic activities for Silaynons.

Just a short walking distance from Balay Negrense is another ancestral house that is similarly identified with the NHI marker. Owned by the late Manuel and Hilda Hofileña, this family abode was opened much earlier to the public, its main attraction being the private art and antique collection of son Ramon. Probably the biggest and most interesting in the province, Ramon’s collection includes works of contemporary artists as well as masters, among them Luna, Rizal, Amorsolo, Manansala, and Abueva.

An avid art connoisseur, Ramon Hofileña used to bring art exhibits to this city, perpetuating in the process the image of Silay as the center of the arts. He also conducted printmaking workshops for the young in the family house, with the hope of discovering yet another artist. A visit to Ramon’s collection, and with him providing the annotation, can be very educational, and never fails to impress visitors.

These three notable houses – Balay Negrense, the Bernardino Jalandoni house-museum, and the Hofilena ancestral house cum art gallery – have been featured in glossy magazines and lifestyle sections of major papers. Along with the 30 or so ancestral houses of varying designs and architecture, they have earned for Silay the unofficial tag as Museum City.

Some sectors may lament what they consider as obstruction to progress, but these vintage structures are attracting visitors to the city. They have also, in the words of a National Historical Institute official, given Silay the "soul" that is sadly lacking in many modern cities.

In contrast to, or perhaps complementing the ancestral houses, the San Diego Pro-Cathedral must be one of the most beautiful modern churches in the province. Built in 1925 and designed by an Italian, its domed architecture resembles that of the basilicas of Rome. Like the old award-winning plaza that in the 1970s was sacrificed in the name of beautification, the Pro-Cathedral evokes images of Europe and its old-world charm.

Another tourist come-on of Silay, though of a different kind, are the "dragons" of the Hawaiian-Philippine Company, one of the 15 sugar mills that can be found in the province. Used to transport sugarcanes as well as bags of sugar, these vintage steam locomotives are among the oldest remaining steam locomotives in the world. Railway enthusiasts from Australia, Japan, and Europe, have visited this sugar company in their desire to see the Baldwins and Alcos, to photograph them as they perform their task during the milling season, and most importantly, to experience a ride on one of them.

Other sugar mills are also hosts to these huge machines, although they have mostly been replaced in sugar operations by diesel-fueled locomotives for economic reasons.

Remarkable as they are, the ancestral houses, art collection and museum pieces are not Silay’s only tourist attractions. Thirty-two kilometers east of the city is Patag Valley, which in the last remaining months of World War 11, was the last stronghold of the Japanese Imperial Forces. For this reason, Japanese – as well as American – war veterans make sentimental journeys to this historic place. These memorial tours peaked in the late ’70s and early ’80s when then Tourism Secretary Jose Aspiras institutionalized the Reunion for Peace. The project encouraged former enemies to come together and to visit scenes of battle where comrades lost their lives.

Today, Patag is more than just a historical site. Surrounded by mountains and blessed with a year-round cool climate, the valley with its hidden waterfalls and scenic beauty has been declared an ecotourism zone. Some local entrepreneurs have started building resorts in the area and it continues to be a favorite campsite for young scouts and plain nature lovers.

Known for its excellent food and pastries, Silay is a veritable gourmet paradise, a place where cooking and eating is an art to be savored and enjoyed. Here, family recipes are treasured and guarded like some valuable heirloom, to be brought out and served on special occasions.

It is said that piaya, probably the most in-demand take-home item or pasalubong, originated from Silay. So with the fresh lumpia ubod the city is also known for. The fame has so spread that sellers elsewhere, to convince an undecided customer, would claim that their goods came from Silay.

A visit to Silay will not be complete without a stop at El Ideal Bakery & Refreshment. Located just a few meters from the public plaza, El Ideal has built a reputation for producing excellent pastries, pies and breads. It seems this bakery had always been there, and it does not only count on visitors or tourists for business. Silaynons, as well as other Negrenses driving to the northern towns of Negros Occidental, invariably stop there for their favorites. Depending on the time of day, and the number of buyers who have come before, one will find freshly-baked pies, chocolate and cassava cakes, puddings, panara, empanada, piaya, an asssortment of cookies and the chewy meringue.

For the really famished, there is the nourishing batchoy and arroz caldo, or the halo-halo to beat the summer heat. Standouts among the bakery products, as far as visitors are concerned, are El Ideal’s buko and guapple pies, the last an original recipe of the bakery.

Established by the late Alice Villanueva family in 1920, the fame of El Ideal has reached other shores. Sometime in the 1980s, the British Broadcasting Corporation did a documentary film on Food and Eating Habits Around the World. Somehow the crew found its way to Silay and El Ideal was fortunate to have been included in that documentary, with the BBC crew filming the making of guapple tarts. The docu was later shown in the United Kingdom and in other Asian countries.

Another proof that Silay is indeed the place to be for food-lovers is the proliferation of the so-called manuglibod or sweet-sellers. These women – and a few men – go around carrying flat native baskets on their heads filled with all sorts of pastries and goodies. In the old days when there were just a few of them, the manuglibud would go around the town, calling out to the housewives and mothers who were mostly home in those days. Untying the katsa or white cloth that they knot around the basket, children would then be made to choose from the variety of offerings from the well-stocked kalalaw or bilao.

Today, the Silay sellers do not confine their selling to their hometown. In the morning one sees them gathered in a place near the public market, waiting for their suppliers to deliver their orders. From there they take the jeepneys to Bacolod and proceed to their respective "territories": a subdivision, a commercial bank, a school, or the Capitol, where they have become a familiar sight.

Like the El Ideal, the sweet sellers of Silay were also immortalized in that BBC documentary. So with the Hofileña ancestral house. They have also been featured in glossy magazines and travel articles. To be sure, more TV producers and filmmakers came after BBC to capture this aspect of Silay lifestyle. Cultural and historical landmarks, lifestyle museums, ecotourism sites, good food. These things, plus its proximity to the capital city, have drawn Filipino and foreign travelers to Silay. Convention time in Bacolod would invariably find Balay Negrense, Jalandoni House-Museum and the Hofilena ancestral house, swarming with the participants on a pre- or post-convention tours. El Ideal’s products are also gobbled up in minutes.

Fortunately for Silay and its people, the local government sees what tourism can contribute to the economy, and have responded positively to the call of the times. A tourism and a cultural office are now in place to take care of tourism-related activities. There is the Kabataang Silay Ensemble and Rondalla, a school-based group of dancers and musicians who have earned honors here and abroad. Dubbed the Young Ambassadors of Silay, they contribute to the image of Silay as seat of culture with the excellence of their performance. To ensure its continuity, the city government conducts a one-month workshop every summer to prepare replacements for the graduating members.

Like the rest of the province, the city has developed its own festival called Kansilay which spices up the annual fiesta in November.

Local entrepreneurs, like Aquilles Baldevia, have ventured into the hotel and restaurant business, providing much-needed facilities for those who want to imbibe the special ambience of the city by actually living in it, if only for a few days. Last summer Baldevia opened his latest project – a resort near the sea complete with a regular-sized swimming pool, picnic sheds, and cottages for overnight visitors.

In a few more years, an airport of international standard is expected to rise in Silay. This will – hopefully – enable the city to live up to its new title. Not anymore as the Paris of Negros or the Museum City, but to its 21st century distinction bestowed by the Department of Tourism: One of The 25 Top Tourist Destinations in the Philippines.

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