By Rhodalyn C. Wani
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
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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