From highways to alleys: Tartanillas survive despite Cebu City’s restrictions

October 27, 2011 by  
Filed under article, features

tartanillaby Junald Dawa Ango

The tartanilla, Cebu City’s version of the horse-drawn carriage or calesa, is past its heyday.

Jeepneys and taxis are the preferred mode of transport in the city today. Add to that the tricycles, pedicabs and motorcycles-for-hire also competing to share in the commuter traffic in Cebu’s streets.1

More than half a century ago, when taxis were absent and jeepneys were few, the tartanilla was king of the road. It was the main form of transportation around downtown Cebu City and in the neighboring suburbs.

Slowly modernization crawled in. Motorized transport, which is more efficient than horsepower, became a growing business enterprise. Commuter preference for speed and convenience also followed:  the passengers began vacating the familiar seats of the tartanilla, or rig, after the Second World War when Cebu’s streets were slowly invaded by motorized transport.2

Competition came from downtown jeeps, taxis and tricycles for commuter service. “Downtown jeeps, like Daitsun, Daitsu, etc. could enter smaller and narrower roads like rigs.” And their fares were only slightly higher than rig fare. Taxis were also preferable because these can travel faster and can bring passengers to their doorstep; a former advantage offered only by the tartanilla. Some families even bought mini-cars and motorcycles by installments for private use.3

Without patrons, earnings dwindled. A significant number of rig drivers or cocheros gave up their means of living. Without renters, rig owners let their carriages deteriorate; old rigs were left in disrepair and only a few new ones were constructed. The tartanilla business was on a downturn. The rig numbers dwindled as did the routes they ply. Slowly they were squeezed into a few streets in the downtown. Many a stubborn cochero and rig owner finally gave up, but others still stuck their necks out; either they were the most determined or the most needy. Their horses kept on clip-clopping in the few remaining tartanilla bailiwicks: the streets from Carbon and Taboan leading to Duljo, Mambaling and A. Lopez.

Percy Ruita Jamin, in a study of the tartanilla industry of Cebu City in 1974, cited additional reasons besides the increase of motorized vehicles for the decline of the tartanilla4:

“[1.] Ordinance prohibiting the entrance of the tartanilla in some streets of the city

[2.] Uplift of the educational standards of the children (of cocheros)

[3.] Centennial celebration (of Cebu City) in 1965

[4.] High cost of feeds

[5.] Establishment of Big Firms”

Besides the competition offered by taxis and jeeps, she also listed the following as problems faced by the rig industry at that time:

“[1.] High cost of horse feeds

[2.] Lack of government incentive

[3.] Fare remains steady

[4.] Bad Weather”

Two of the reasons for the decline of the tartanilla industry were government imposed: the ban on some streets and the centennial celebration. Also, two of the problems faced by the diminished tartanilla in 1974 were government inflicted: absence of government support and no fare increase. These government-imposed and inflicted factors, continued in the succeeding years, caused the further decline of this service. The government did have a hand in the decline of this transport industry.

This paper argues that the city government’s increasing restrictions of the tartanilla operations contributed to its slide from its primary position in Cebu City’s transportation system. It shows that with each restrictive city ordinance, policy or decree imposed on the rig industry, the number of tartanilla units had decreased and the number of routes had reduced. The paper traces the Cebu City government’s regulation of the tartanilla beginning after the Second World War up to the 1990s. After the 90s, the council no longer enacted additional restrictive measures because the tartanillas were already too few for them to bother with.

When the tartanilla was king

However, in the 1940s and 50s, the tartanilla was still king of the road; it was the primary form of transport within Cebu City. The number of units were growing from around 1,500 in the 50’s to almost 2,500 in the 60’s.5 In 1960, there were 2,425 rigs plying the city.6

The tartanilla would take you anywhere in the city and its suburbs.7 Similar to the taxi, it did not follow a line or route but may take its passenger to any destination in the city based on these rates in 19458:

“I –  Within city limits – P0.10 per capita

II – Beyond city limits – P0.10 per capita plus P0.05 for every additional kilometer

III – By the hour – P0.60 for the first 30 minutes or less. Over 30 minutes but not over one (1) hour, P1.00 and for every additional hour or fraction thereof, P0.75

IV – By City Limits is meant that area of Cebu City comprised within and bounded by Carlock , Tres de Abril, Mango Avenue and Martires streets and the sea. Passengers using rigs beyond these limits shall be subject to Tariff No. II.”

Three years later, changes were made on the fare schedule. Fare for additional kilometers was increased from P0.05 to P0.10 beyond city limits; and city limits was redefined as “within Tuti – Calamba Streets, P. del Rosario – Imus Streets, Martires – T. Padilla Streets and the sea or water front.”9

City council conspires against the tartanilla

While the rig transport was on an upswing in the 1950s, the city council suddenly applied the brakes to the momentum of growth. Beginning at the closing years of the decade and pursuing it in the decades thereafter, the council successively imposed restrictive ordinances on the transport; it was overtly campaigning against the tartanilla.

“This is a kind of industry which the government endeavors to eliminate and they are doing this by installments. City planners are planning to ease out this industry. According to them, this industry does not give a good image to the city,” says Jamin.10 The reasons cited by the city officials for their desire to limit, if not abolish, the rigs were11:

“1. hazard to traffic;

2. horses sometimes are hard to control, when restless become uncontrollable;

3. source of waste matters, a hazard to health; and

4. bad image to visitors of the city.”

They then enacted corresponding ordinances to respond to these problems; ordinances which led to the decline of the tartanilla as transport.

Anti-horse manure ordinance

In 1958, civic organizations lead by the Board of Directors of Zapatera Elementary School Parents Teachers Association petitioned the city council to act on a unique Cebuano problem — horse manure. It was a grave garbage and pollution problem at that time. The council estimated 5,000 kilos of manure being scattered around the city daily (a kilo per horse for the 5,000 horses). When dried and pulverized, it was blown about and mixed with the air they breathe.12

The council responded with an anti-horse manure ordinance. All rigs must carry a receptacle for the manure and the driver must stop the rig and pick-up the manure as discharged by the horse.13 That ingenious contraption attached behind the butt of the horse today which captures the waste as it is released by the animal was not yet used at that time by the Cebuanos.

So far, no restriction which limited tartanilla operations due to the health risks posed by horse manure was enacted. But later on, the health risks would be cited by the government in passing another law that further restricted tartanilla service.

Limitation of the number of rigs

The more immediate and direct problem faced by the rig owners and drivers was the view held by the city council that the tartanilla was the main cause of the worsening traffic congestion. The only way to go, most councilors believed, was to limit the rig operations or ultimately abolished it.

In 1961, the city council delivered a big blow to tartanilla operation — Ordinance no. 328. The ordinance barred further growth of the number of tartanillas by limiting the number of rigs allowed to operate in the city at 2,500. The 2,425 rigs who were registered in the previous year would be the ones renewed their registration, while the first to apply for licenses in 1961 would be given the remaining 75 slots.14 No more licenses will be issued over 2,500.

Why this drastic measure? At this time the rigs were still the dominant form of transport in Cebu; tricycles and pedicabs were few. A well-traveled Bureau of Lands employee observed that Cebu has the most number of tartanillas in the Philippines. The city council, searching for a solution to traffic problems, saw the numerous tartanillas as the cause of the problem. They believed that these century-old carriages should be replaced by a more efficient form of transportation. They were thinking of scooters as replacement.15 Scooters, or motorcycles, must have been attached to side cars and transformed into the tricycles.

For the council, the scooter was the solution to traffic congestion: 2,500 rigs could be replaced by only 700 scooters, thus decongesting the streets. The proponents of the ordinance, councilors Eulogio Borres and Raymundo Crystal, even claimed that the rig owners and drivers were willing to be converted into scooter operators and drivers. And this conversion was within their means — the cost of a brand new tartanilla (P500.00) was enough down-payment for a scooter.16

But the council plan was not without opposition. In the city’s search for a more efficient transport, there was no need to harass one of the competitors. Councilor Nazario Pacquiao pointed out that the provision on no substitution placed the rigs at a great disadvantage. This provision banned replacement of delinquent rigs and voluntary surrendered licenses. The slots will not be given to new applicants but will remain vacant. According to Pacquiao, the 2,500 rigs allowed to operate will slowly reduce in number even if there are only five delinquent operators every year: from 2,500 in 1961 to only 2,495 in ’62, 2,490 in ’63 and so on.17 And five delinquent operators a year is the best case scenario; varied reasons prevent a rig operator to settle his taxes on time.

The councilor suggested that they allow free competition to take its course instead of giving unfair advantage to the scooters by limiting the number of rigs. If the scooters are really more efficient, they would eventually push aside the rigs from the streets.18 The suggestion was unheeded, the ordinance was passed by a majority decision with one opposing and one abstention.

Limitation of their routes

The city council did not stop with controlling the maximum number of tartanillas; they also prohibited the rigs from entering selected districts of the city. If in the 40s and 50s, the tartanilla operated like a taxi: it could convey its passenger to any point in the city, in the 60s it was already banned in several streets.

In 1965, during the celebration of the 400th year anniversary of the Christianization of the Philippines which was held in Cebu City, rigs were banned from entering some streets like Sanciangko, T. Padilla, Imus-Sikatuna, Bonifacio and various smaller streets near the centennial area. The celebration lasted for a month but the prohibition continued after, forcing many cocheros to quit. The lay-off from tartanilla service during the centennial also resulted to the deterioration of rigs; the units fell into disrepair and decay rendering them unusable. From 2,430 rigs registered in 1964 prior to the centennial celebration the number dropped to only 1,192 rigs in 1966.19

Seven years later another restriction was imposed: Ordinance 801 series of 1972 of Cebu City Traffic Code. “According to Lt. Alfonso S. Perales, Education Officer of the CPD [Cebu Police Department], tartanillas are banned from entering the national highways of the city. The previous ordinances (No. 65) were repealed and the prevailing ordinance is Ordinance No. 801 series of 1972 of Cebu City Traffic Code….”20

The ban from the national highways prevented them not only from entering but also from crossing the highways; making other streets inaccessible. Formerly restricted only in main streets like Colon, Magallanes, M.J. Cuenco and Leon Kilat; with the new ordinance, rigs are now allowed only in Sanciangko, Borromeo, Tres de Abril, Garfield, a certain portion of Junquera, Imus, Sikatuna, T. Padilla, C. Padilla, Aranas, Spoliarium, Carlock, a certain portion of M. J. Cuenco, Tupas, and other small streets. These resulted to more rig owners and cocheros quitting; only 530 rigs were registered in 1973.21

Plagued by the oil crisis in the 1970s, we assume that the government will reverse its attitude toward the rigs because it is an alternative to motorized transport. However, “Patrolman [A.D.] Sayson [of CPD Traffic Division] says that the stringent measures and restrictions are imposed strictly now as before even with the oil crisis because of [the city officials] aim to eradicate this road nuisance.”22

The restrictions continued with another ordinance in 1990. Ordinance 1381 set the remaining streets allowed for passage of the tartanilla.23 It states:

“Section 7. The rig drivers are authorized and may pass only through the following streets any time of the day or night:

a. From the junction of D. Jakosalem Street following Sanciangko Street, Juan Climaco Street up to Forbes Bridge, back and forth;

b. From Taboan Market (Tres de Abril Street) through Sanciangko Street up to the junction of D. Jakosalem St., back and forth; from Taboan Market (B. Aranas Street) through Lakandula Street, then C. Padilla Street to Duljo, back and forth; From Pasil Fish Market through Tupas Street up to the corner of Magallanes and El Filibusterismo Street, back and forth; from Taboan Market (Tres de Abril Street) through Katipunan or V. Rama Street or A. Lopez Street, back and forth; from Taboan Market through Tres de Abril Street, then Carlock Street and B. Aranas Ext., back and forth.”

The city council passed this ordinance in a unanimous resolution. Citing heath risks due to manure, and traffic congestion worsened by the slow moving rigs as reasons, they sent the staggering rig industry to its knees. This time the rig people cared less, or were powerless, to defend. Unlike the prolonged debates in the council session when they set the maximum number of tartanillas at 2,500, no objection was raised. Unlike the vehement opposition of operators and drivers when the council planned to prohibit rigs from entering some streets, they assented to be allowed only in a few. Two years later there were only 437 registered tartanillas in the city.24

A king no more

The downfall of the tartanilla is mainly due to the advance of technology. Motor-powered vehicles are superior to the horse-powered rigs; market forces side with the more efficient mode of transport, the faster scooters (converted into tricycles), and later, the bigger taxis and jeepneys. The tartanilla is just another casualty of progress.

However, the Cebu City government may have hastened the decline of the tartanilla as a form transportation. Instead of waiting for market forces to determine the fate of the tartanilla, the city council passed successive ordinances that quickened the transition from rigs to motorized transport. In its quest to find solutions to traffic problems, it jumped to the conclusion that the rigs were the culprit, and eliminating them would solve traffic congestion (which it did not). Thus it marginalized the rig service through its increasing restrictive ordinances.

The tartanilla may not be king anymore, but it continues to ferry passengers and cargoes along the side-streets of Cebu. It is a preferred transportation of shoppers returning to nearby suburbs from shopping in the city’s three largest public markets (Carbon, Taboan and Pasil) for a fare below the regular transportation. Today, 100 to 200 rigs remain.

While the city is bidding out its plans for a modern mass transit system (either by Light Rail Transit or Bus Rapid Transit); while other Philippine cities have retired their horse-drawn carriages into tourist rides, Cebu’s tartanillas continue to serve commuter needs unsatisfied by regular transportation; it is still a limited means of transport to some inner parts of the city. Our generation will never witness a tartanilla traffic jam again but once in a while you will notice from your jeepney seat a cochero announcing the passage of the one time Cebuano king of the road.


1These modes of transport are only those which operate within the city. There are also buses and vans/FXs in Cebu City, but these convey commuters to the other cities and towns of the province.

2“The Unsinkable Tartanilla”, Sun Star Weekend, 3 September 1989, p. 8.

3Percy Ruita Jamin, “A Study of the Tartanilla Industry in Cebu City” (MA thesis, University of San Carlos, Cebu City, 1974), pp. 35, 73.

4Jamin, 74.

5Jamin 39.

6Municipal Board of the City of Cebu, “minutes of Ordinance 328”, 16 January, 1961.

7Municipal Board of the City of Cebu, Ordinance no. 65: An ordinance regulating traffic, operation of rigs, registration of rigs and rig driver license, licensing of push cart owner, and the carrying of lights, 20 December, 1947.

8Municipal Board of the City of Cebu, Ordinance no. 2: An ordinance providing for tariff or schedule of rates for tartanillas operated for public use, 12 July, 1945.

9Municipal Board of the City of Cebu, Ordinance 67: An ordinance to amend section one of Ordinance numbered Two entitled “An ordinance providing for tariff or schedule of rates for tartanillas operated for public use”, 9 April, 1948.

10Jamin, p. 74.

11Jamin, 75.

12Municipal Board of the City of Cebu, Ordinance 241: An ordinance providing for the elimination of manures from the city streets and for other purposes, 6 March 1958.

13Ordinance 241.

14Municipal Board of the City of Cebu, Ordinance 328: An ordinance limiting the registration of tartanillas operating within the limits of the City of Cebu to two thousand five hundred rigs only and for other purposes, 16 January, 1961; “minutes Ordinance 328”.

15“minutes Ordinance 328”.




19Jamin, 36- 37.

20Jamin 14.

21Jamin 34, 39.

22Jamin 17.

23City Council of Cebu, Ordinance 1381: An ordinance updating and consolidating the existing ordinances pertaining to the registration flow of traffic and licensing of rigs and rig drivers and providing penalties therefore, 19 November, 1990.

24“Tartanillas”, Sun Star Weekend, 20 September 1992, p. 19.

Works Cited

Municipal Board of the City of Cebu. Ordinance no. 2: An ordinance providing for tariff or schedule of rates for tartanillas operated for public use. 12 July, 1945.

Municipal Board of the City of Cebu. Ordinance no. 65: An ordinance regulating traffic, operation of rigs, registration of rigs and rig driver license, licensing of push cart owner, and the carrying of lights. 20 December, 1947.

Municipal Board of the City of Cebu. Ordinance 67: An ordinance to amend section one of Ordinance numbered Two entitled “An ordinance providing for tariff or schedule of rates for tartanillas operated for public use.”. 9 April, 1948.

Municipal Board of the City of Cebu. Ordinance 241: An ordinance providing for the elimination of manures from the city streets and for other purposes. 6 March 1958.

Municipal Board of the City of Cebu. Ordinance 328: An ordinance limiting the registration of tartanillas operating within the limits of the City of Cebu to two thousand five hundred rigs only and for other purposes. 16 January, 1961.

City Council of Cebu. Ordinance 1381: An ordinance updating and consolidating the existing ordinances pertaining to the registration flow of traffic and licensing of rigs and rig drivers and providing penalties therefore. 19 November, 1990.

Municipal Board of the City of Cebu, “minutes of Ordinance 328”, 16 January, 1961.

Jamin, Percy Ruita. “A Study of the Tartanilla Industry in Cebu City”. MA thesis University of San Carlos. 1974.

“The Unsinkable Tartanilla”. Sun Star Weekend. 3 September 1989.

Tartanillas”. Sun Star Weekend. 20 September 1992.

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Devotees flock to Cebu for Sinulog Festival

January 11, 2011 by  
Filed under News

sinulog.phBy Emmanuel Mongaya (UCANews, Cebu City)

Tourists and devotees of the Santo Niño or the Child Jesus have started arriving in the central Philippine province of Cebu to join the week-long religious celebration dubbed the “Sinulog.”

The festival will culminate on Jan. 16 with a grand parade through a 4.5km route across Cebu city, featuring festival giants, colorful floats and marching bands.

A day before the grand parade, a 7km solemn procession in honor of the Child Jesus will highlight the end of the nine-day novena at the Basilica del Santo Niño.

Other activities of the 10-day festival include the grand coronation night of the Miss Cebu pageant, the Cebu Pop Music Festival, trade fairs, a parade along the river, street parties and a short-film festival.

The first batch of 32 “balikbayans” or returning Filipinos arrived at Mactan-Cebu International Airport last week, while 200 more are expected on Jan. 13, said Cinbeth Orellano of the Cebu City Tourism Commission.

While tourists booked into hotels and resorts, the poorer devotees from nearby provinces have started setting up tents near the church of the Child Jesus at Fort San Pedro.

Over a million devotees usually crowd the streets of Cebu during the religious procession and the grand Sinulog parade. Police said they expect a crowd of over two million people this year.

The Sinulog is a traditional dance that natives of Cebu offer to their gods before Portuguese explorer Fernando de Magallanes or Ferdinand Magellan gifted the queen of Cebu the image of the Child Jesus when she was baptized a Christian.

-Photo from www.


Images of Calle Colon: Evoking Memories of a Cebuano Street

November 10, 2010 by  
Filed under article, features

By Rhodalyn C. Wani

Calle Colon, c. 1910. (Photograph courtesy of Cebuano Studies Center.)

Calle Colon, c. 1910. (Photograph courtesy of Cebuano Studies Center.)

Within the heart of the downtown district of Cebu City lies Calle Colon, a street that continually evokes memories in the minds of many Cebuanos. In this street, which has been home to aging yellowish and gray buildings, the hustle and bustle of everyday life is evident in the persistent blaring of horns from jeepneys, the infernal haggling of vendors and their customers over articles such as belts, shoes, and other ornaments, and the excited giggles and laughter of students walking towards their schools. In this street that has borne witness to the city’s long history, various nooks and crannies speak softly of rich and colorful narratives of the Cebuano and his urban identity.

As a child, I had walked down this street, clinging dearly to my mother’s arm as she warned me against sly pickpockets or the more blatant snatchers. I had watched fascinated at the seemingly deft expertise shoe shiners and jewelry cleaners poured into their crafts. Not far away, an occasional tartanilla clip-clopped along the street capturing the attention and amazement of a young and curious mind such as mine. This was my first memory of Calle Colon.

Through the years, Calle Colon continued to exist in my mind as a vivid image of a street with dark back alleys riddled with prowling pickpockets or snatchers. Little did I know that my own image of Colon was only one amongst many others that Cebuanos had of this historic street.

Much more than this, my succeeding re-acquaintance with the street would lead me to realize that these various images evoked through individual memories not only provided a glimpse of Colon’s rich and colorful history but helped weave a story of the Cebuano coming to grips with his urban identity as well.

This paper attempts to explore the various images of Colon as illustrated in the memories of individual Cebuanos have of this street. Fourteen in-depth interviews conducted from the period of December 2005 to October 2007 will be examined in detail. Primary and secondary literature will also be used to supplement existing data found in the interviews.

Community of Chinese Traders

Calle Colon is located within the district of Parian,  and thus, the former’s early history is inextricably linked with the latter. The earliest account we have on the existence of Parian comes from a Jesuit priest, Pedro Chirino, assigned to administer missionary activities in Cebu during the late 16th century and early 17th century. Writing in 1595, Chirino described the formation of three distinct communities in Cebu: a community of Spaniards located near the pier, a community of locals found in the southwest, and a community of approximately two hundred Chinese (“two hundred souls”) living to the north of Fort San Pedro.  Although by no means the first group of Chinese to have disembarked in Cebu, this group is distinguished for being among the first to establish a permanent settlement in the area.

Much similar to their predecessors, the Chinese in Parian lived primarily through the trade they conducted while traversing the length of the Parian estero. Early maps of Cebu show the Parian estero flowing from the northeast at Tinago, gently lolling to the west, swooping down south to an area near Ermita and San Nicolas, and finally returning to the sea. Interestingly, Calle Colon runs parallel to the Parian estero and although early Spanish accounts fail to mention a specific street in this area, it is not hard to imagine the existence of a primitive pathway used by the Chinese as they fared along their day-to-day trading activities.

Although the Parian estero has since silted up, the memory of it being once navigable and used by Chinese traders has remained to this day. Cebuano folklorist, Abellana, for example, mentioned the commerce that abounded on this estero in his search for the pre-Spanish Cebuano. This market place (Parian) was bounded by the Parian and Tinago esteros which were navigable before. At Parian estero, Sampans or flat-bottom boats which were loaded with different merchandise were able to be flowed up to the vicinity of the Oriente Theater today.3

Another vivid portrayal comes from a former resident of Colon, who once remembered this flowing estero, no doubt reliving a memory passed down to her from older generations. Centuries ago, the Estero de Parian was wide and deep, its water flowing constantly. Sailing vessels loaded with merchandise from such exotic places as Siam, Arabia, and China navigated the waterway that snaked west to east, traversing the three streets of Old Parian.

It is this same image of active Chinese traders in Parian that has been carried over to describe Calle Colon’s early history. A more recent Asean Summit held in Cebu in 2007, for example, portrayed Colon as an early community for the Chinese. Bold, large and red lanterns were strewn up carefully along the buildings, while dancers dressed in Chinese costumes eagerly paraded the length of the street.

This image of Colon as a community of Chinese traders has lived through the times.

Sometimes pushed out of the spotlight to make room for more contemporary images of Colon, it has nevertheless resurfaced time and time again to aid the Cebuano in his search for the early beginnings of Calle Colon.

Home of the Chinese Mestizo Gentry

Teatro Oriente before the outbreak of World War II. (From Mojares, Casa Gorordo, p. 31.)

Teatro Oriente before the outbreak of World War II. (From Mojares, Casa Gorordo, p. 31.)

Trade in Cebu, however, was not a continuous process of progression and it had its fair share of ups and downs. By the end of the 16th century and for approximately two centuries thereafter, trade in the island had noticeably decreased as the lucrative galleon trade in Manila increased in dominance. A short-lived attempt by the Spaniards in Cebu to engage in the galleon trade from 1594 to 1604 temporarily stimulated trade, but ended dismally as several decrees on what type of goods could be trafficked heavily restricted merchants from benefitting fully from the trade.

The effect of the trade stagnating during this time had drastic effects in Cebu. Many Spanish merchants, looking for better opportunities, opted to move to Manila and engage in the galleon trade there. In fact by 1738, there were only one or two Spaniards left living in Cebu who were not priests or administrators.  In addition to the weakening trade in Cebu, a series of decrees propagated in 1760 expelling the Chinese from the Philippines also brought the number of Chinese living in Parian down to 18 to 25. Cebu, relegated to becoming an “economically depressed backwater” at this time, was observed by 18th century travelers as a “small village” or an “assemblage of a few miserable huts.”

Meanwhile, by the 19th century, Parian and its surroundings began to go through a transformation of its own. The Parian estero, once a flowing waterway used by enterprising merchants, began to silt up and make transportation of goods more and more difficult. Hence, as the commercial value of the area began to decrease with the drying up of a major waterway, Parian transformed into a predominantly residential area for a new growing class of Chinese mestizos who would later play an integral role in the economic boom experienced by the city in the late 19th century.

Our next image of Colon primarily comes from this period of Colon’s history when Parian’s geographical transformation marked the beginnings of a Chinese mestizo gentry residing in the area. Distinct Cebuano families with Chinese-mestizo backgrounds such as the Osmeñas, Climacos, Velosos and Gantuangcos to name only a few, made their homes in large houses lining up Colon and created a community of close-knit members affiliated by blood or marriage.

The Chinese mestizos’ balay na tisa, a house built with a combination of wood and stone, exemplified the quintessential Filipino house. Typically two-story in structure, the main living area was found on the upper level of house, while the lower level served as a work or storage space for the family. Windows were made of wood and capiz shells and lined up below with ventanillas, or small shuttered windows instrumental in making the insides of the houses breezier.

A former resident of Colon once described the houses found in the area: Parian’s old houses had a dignity all their own (…) These ancestral homes were made of limestone blocks, enormous posts of durable molave, likewise molave walls, and attractive red-tile roofs (…) The windows of Colon houses were of sturdy wooden frames and pretty lampirong or capiz panes. The sliding panels of wood were easily opened and closed. It was very cool within our homes… Most, if not all, houses in Colon had an open and roofless space called the azotea. Although usually found as an extension of the main house, the azoteas of Colon’s houses were found on the rooftop of the house itself. Newly-washed clothes were often hung up to dry in these azoteas, but aside from this practical purpose, the azoteas served as a space for entertainment.

Just as the houses in Colon gave the street a unique appearance, its residents, too, played a unique role in shaping much of Cebu’s affairs in the late 19th century. Many Chinese mestizo families engaged in several commercial activities connected with the production of cash crops such as sugar, abaca, and cotton, while others went on to form successful business firms and served as agents for a burgeoning number of foreign commercial houses in Cebu.

By the turn of the century, Colon was home to a distinct community of Chinese mestizo gentry who played integral roles in shaping much of Cebu’s modern society. Dotting the historic street with their lavish and luxurious houses, these homes have come to epitomize another rich image of Colon, a portrait of times when life was much simpler yet more bountiful.

Flourishing Center of Cebuano Theaters and Cinemas

Along with an increase in economic activities in Cebu came a greater appreciation for the theater arts. The early 20th century marked another point in Colon’s history as numerous theaters flourished in the street. Showcasing several Cebuano talents in play-writing and acting, Cebuanos visited Colon primarily to watch and enjoy the increasingly popular dulaang binisaya. With the advent of “talkies” during the 1930s, the theaters in Colon slowly transformed into cinemas, and although the outbreak of World War II in 1942 wrought massive destruction in the area, these cinemas rose from the ashes and continued to proliferate well into the 1980s.

One famous theater found at the junction of Colon and Osmeña Boulevard at the turn of the 20th century was the Teatro Junquera (or Teatro Oriente as it was came to be known later on). Built in 1886 by Inocencio Junquera Huergo y Sanchez on a lot formerly owned by Rafael Veloso, the theater has changed ownership from Pedro Rivera-Mir, Leopold Falek, until finally falling into the hands of Jose Avila. Most famous for having staged the first modern dulaang binisiya, “Gugma sa Yutang Natawhan” by Vicente Sotto in 2 January 1902, the theater has since then become home to the works of famous Cebuano playwrights such as Piux A. Kabahar and Buenaventura Rodriguez.

Another theater standing close to the corner of Colon and Osmeña Boulevard was Cinema Royo, which was built on a former cockpit owned by Pedro Royo. Although considered as the cheapest theater in its time (each ticket was priced at 5 centavos, while other theaters charged 20 centavos per ticket), its seats, unfortunately, had no back support and were uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, the theater still became a favorite venue for much-awaited boxing matches. Vision Theater was another distinct structure found in Colon during this time. Built by Agustin Jereza, its famous facade of naked women sculpted by Italian artist Dante Guidetti proved controversial upon its inception. Most famous now for being the only pre-war building left standing in Colon, its walls have borne witness to other historic events. In 1938, for example, the first Cebuano talking motion picture,“Bertoldo-Balodoy,” was premiered in this theater. A few years later, with World War II looming over the archipelago, the USAFFE forces set their headquarters here as well. At the heyday of its existence, Vision Theater proudly hailed its status as the “reyna sa mga sinihan sa Kabisayaan ug Mindanaw.”

As World War II broke out in Cebu in 1942, fleeing Americans bombed several parts of the city. Fires razed buildings in Colon to the ground and the only structure that remained standing was the Vision Theater. Residents rushed to gather their belongings for what many believed to a be a few days of intermittent battling with the Japanese forces, but proved to be a three-year long exodus into the northern and southern towns. Many returned to Colon after the war not to rebuild their homes, but instead to lease their lots to several businesses. The war ended Colon’s predominantly residential character of the former years and paved the way open to a purely commercial district in later years.

The period after the war saw the continued proliferation of numerous cinemas in Colon. In addition to pre-war theaters such as Teatro Oriente and Vision Theater, as many as twenty cinemas were built in Colon during this time. With cinemas such as Cebu Theater, King Theater, Lane Theater, Majestic Theater, Star Theater, Venus Theater, Premiere, President, Cinema, Eden, Superama, Cinerama, Ultra Vistarama, Seven Arts and Victor, Cebuanos acquired a taste not only for Hollywood and Chinese films, but local films as well.

At a time when entertainment could only be found in cinemas, Colon served as an avenue for Cebuanos seeking a few moments of enjoyment. The theaters and cinemas flourishing in Colon constitute another image of Colon reminisced fondly by many Cebuanos. As one Cebuano journalist aptly put it, “The theaters were the lifeblood of Cebu City in the past. Because entertainment alone before was only in theaters. Wa gyu’y lain.”

Bustling Business District

The changing nature of Colon after World War II was also marked by a significant growth in business establishments in the street. In fact, from 1950 to 1985, more than one hundred establishments were noted to have been found in the street. Ranging from restaurants and bakeries to shoe shops and pawnshops, Cebuanos went to Colon to do most of their shopping. Colon’s commercial role during this period rose to such a point that one journalist observed, “The greater postwar city shifted her business core to modern Calle Colon.”

One famous establishment found in Colon at thistime was the Elite (e-läyt) Bakery. Situated at the corner of Colon and Osmeña Boulevard, the bakery was popular for its tasty French bread and ube jam. Until well into the 1980s, the bakery continued to be managed by the Osmeñas.17

La Madrid Cafe was another establishment popular with the Cebuanos during the post-war years. Standing in between the Teatro Oriente and Majestic, it began as a small “nook” selling popcorn to moviegoers. Cebuano politicians and journalists of the post-war years also found their own haven in a restaurant known as Chocolate House. Situated in front of the Reynes’ home near the corner of Colon and Pelaez, these personalities were often seen chatting and debating the night away while digging into the restaurant’s specialties, tsokolate and waffles.

By the 1970s, department stores such as Gazini Plaza, Metro Gaisano, Gaisano South, Gaisano Main, Fairmart, Gaw, and Rositas began sprouting in Colon and marked a significant point in the Cebuano’s shopping lifestyle. For the first time, the convenience of being able to shop in a single building came within the grasps of Cebuanos and this made the department stores along Colon not only popular but successful as well.

The decades from the 1950s to the 1980s witnessed an increase in commercial activities in Colon. In fact, Cebuanos have often pinpointed Colon’s “glory” to this period. Bustling with commercial activity with shoppers moving to and fro, this image of Colon’s commercial dominance holds a unique place in the Cebuano’s memory. As one businessman described: ‘Tong una. Wa, it’s like a big mall. Oo, puno ug tawo. Rich and poor maglakaw sa Colon. Labang-labang. Like musulod didto sa Gaisano, after that, mubalhin na pud ngadto sa pikas. Mubalhin na pud another mall. Balhin na pud another store. Like Hong Kong. Then, kaon ko’g restaurant. Tan-aw ko’g sine. Everything was here. Naa gyud sa Colon.”

“Declining” Center of Commerce

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, Calle Colon once again went through a transformation. The previous decades of bustling commercial activities seemingly began to take its toll on the street as buildings began to take on a worn-out look and sidewalks slowly became dirtier. Vendors made their appearance more permanent during this time as they peddled their wares in various spots along the street. Petty crimes began to rise as several reports of theft began to proliferate. Traffic, which was previously never a problem in Colon, suddenly gave the city government much to worry about as they shuffled back and forth between policies on making traffic on the street one-way, two-way, or one-way once again.

On the commercial sphere, a noticeable change in the nature of businessmen and clients arose as well. Larger businesses moved to uptown areas as the process of “suburbanization” began to take place in the city, while smaller businessmen remained to open shop in Colon. Shoppers from the higher brackets of society also visited Colon less and less as larger malls outside the downtown district gained immense popularity. Colon, by this time, continued to enjoy patronage, but mostly from shoppers who were now searching for a “good buy for less money.”

This period has often been referred to as a point of “decline” in Colon’s history and it is this image I had of Colon as I was growing up. Others, though, have expressed disagreement to such a view and have instead described a “changing nature” in Colon. Proponents of this latter view have pointed out that commerce still continues to thrive in Colon, albeit on the aspect of selling raw goods or selling goods wholesale. In other words, Colon continues to be alive with activity, only of a different sort from those seen in the previous decades.

Nevertheless, the image of degradation and “decline” in Colon continues to be a strong one up to the present, and it is an image that current heritage workers in Colon wish to change. Groups such as the W.I.L. Hapsay Sugbo Foundation and the Cebu Downtown Revitalization Project both gaze back sentimentally on a “long, lost glory of Colon” and through heritage projects and commercial activities, have taken the first bold steps in fostering a deeper appreciation for the historic street. Much has still to be done, yet given Colon’s long history of resiliency, the future can only hold infinite possibilities of change.

Symbol of Cebuano Heritage

From a community of Chinese traders, a home for the Chinese mestizo gentry, a flourishing center of theaters and cinemas, a bustling business district, to a “declining” center of commerce, Calle Colon has undoubtedly transformed itself time and time again. The various images of the street distinguished not only from its long, drawn-out history but also from the numerous narratives told and retold, echo deeply of a heritage shared by generations of Cebuanos.

Aging yellowish and gray buildings may characterize our Colon of today, yet all around are signs of life steadily pulsating, reminiscent of age-old yet modern values, raw and beautiful at the same time, as Cebuanos continue to immerse themselves in the sights and sounds of altering states of urbanity.

(Published in Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society, Vol. 37, March 2009 No.1, Cebu City: University of San Carlos Publications, Pages: 1-18)



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