Silay City, Negros Occidental, the Philippines
April 16, 2011
Heritage conservation begins at home.
Ramon Hofileña doesn’t say it, but the winningest smile this side of Silay certainly makes that statement. A tour guide in his own home, Ramon has been welcoming visitors into his family’s ancestral house, the Manuel Severino Hofileña Heritage House, built by his father in 1934, for almost 38 years now – and counting. He leads the longest running cultural tour in the world.
He uses his age as a punchline, but being a senior citizen has not dimmed the sparkle in his eyes when he talks about the antique pieces and old photos that fill the house. His first point of connection with his audience of three (my mother, sister, and me) is the German-made piano in the living room. Mom, an erstwhile piano teacher, correctly identifies it as a Rachals, a point that clearly delights him, as if finding out that they speak a common language.
This is one museum where the guide IS the tour, not just a part of it. He shows sepia-colored photos of his family that adorn the top of the piano and colors his anecdotes about his past as a strapping youth (clad only in his swim trunks!) and his siblings, all of whom have become accomplished artists (thespians, dancers, musicians), with humor and candor.
Ramon lives and breathes art. The tour is not so much about the house, but the things that make it his home. He is the curator of his vast collection of Old World furniture and decor, archaeological finds, kitchen- and dinnerware, and objet d’art from around the world. He is also quite a historian, mining a lifetime of experiences as he explains each object with all the enthusiasm a kid would have in showing off his toys. He even demonstrates the old-school method of working a hand-powered printmaking machine.
Atop one table, a familiar face stares back from a picture frame – that of 80s heartthrob Rey “P.J.” Abellana, a Hofileña scion. He was very popular in my childhood that I patterned my nickname to his. That was how I came to be A.J. But my mother, who is more updated in showbiz than I am, is more familiar with his daughter, Carla Abellana, also an actress.
Most items were less familiar to me than P.J. Some of the curios may even be out of this world, literally. Ramon also collects and sells tektites. These black rocks, the size of a chicken egg, are believed to have been formed by meteorite impact. Unbeknownst to me, there are tektite fields in my home province. And even an art connoisseur needs a sideline.
We find the comedor (dining room) with the long dining table already set and his mother’s china from the former Czechoslovakia in full display in the cupboard. Ramon indulges Mom by lighting the candelabra to complete the ambiance, redolent of the genteel elegance of Negrense sugar barons in the early 20th century, for her photo op.
Even the kitchen does not lack in interesting finds. One wooden chopping board was made by National Artist for Sculpture Napoleon Abueva. The house, which has seen the who’s-who in the world of high art, feels like sacred ground.
There is also a library of old books, although these days Ramon would rather watch DVD (his disc collection is pretty extensive too). One cabinet contains stacks of well-preserved original pocketbooks.
This time, Mom explains, “These were the reading materials that Dad used to read during Liberation time. These books were supplied to the GI’s as their reading on their downtimes and later the GI’s gave them to interested Filipino who liked reading these novels. They were called pocketbooks because they could easily fit into a soldier’s pocket.” There’s a reason I call her a walking Wikipedia.
Upstairs, my sister frantically fans herself in the rarefied air of the virtual art gallery. A diverse collection by artists, which run the gamut from national artists to unknown local painters, decks the walls from floor to ceiling. Ramon highlights the works of Lamberto Hechanova, whom he claims to have preceded Andy Warhol in getting on the pop art movement.
But Ramon gives the finale honor to an unknown Silay-born artist, Conrado Judith, who received no formal art training and made a living by painting movie billboards. It was only after the artist’s death at the age of 34 that his paintings and drawings were discovered in his hut. Ramon beams with hometown pride as he discusses composition in Judith’s works, which can hold their own beside those by Philippine national artists.
The art pieces on display comprise only a third of his collection. The rest are stashed in the bedrooms for lack of space. Perhaps the city should hold an annual exhibit of Ramon’s entire art collection.
Before going down, Ramon graciously permits us to peek into the bedrooms. A particular bedspread catches my attention. It is similar to one that my grandmother crocheted when I was a kid. I remember waking up from my afternoon nap with the pineapple design grooved on my face. I find my own point of connection.
Ramon Hofileña seems to have the enviable work-at-home job. I wonder, though, if he gets a moment’s peace living in a tourist spot. He must have found peace in this vocation; he devoted his life to it, after all.
His passion for art and sense of history extends beyond the house at 14 Cinco de Noviembre Street. He is a tireless champion of Silay’s cultural heritage as well. I recommend this tour to anyone visiting Negros; just call for an appointment. It is an afternoon well spent, getting to know the man who looms larger than the house.