Talisay City, Negros Occidental, the Philippines
December 29, 2009
A thing of beauty is a joy forever / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness; but still will keep / A bower quiet for us, and a sleep…
These verses by John Keats came to mind when I beheld what was simply called The Ruins.
Talisay City, the northern neighbor of Bacolod, was just a town you passed through en route to more happenin’ places, such as Silay and Victorias. It certainly wasn’t a place to wax poetic in.
That changed in January 2008 when The Ruins was unveiled to the public. I got wind of it through a Facebook photo album of a relative in Negros.
For decades it lay in a state of ruins – its rubble reportedly visited by teenagers on ghost-hunting outings. Only one rather discreet sign could be found on a street corner, pointing to a dirt road that cut through a sugarcane plantation. The entire route just begged to be missed.
The Ruins was a mansion built in the early 1900s by sugar baron, Mariano Ledesma Lacson for his Portuguese wife from Macau, Maria Braga. I thought they lived there together, but the wife had died before its construction. It was built in her memory – a sort of lived-in Taj Mahal.
In its halcyon days, the mansion was the largest residential structure in Negros. One thing for certain – Negrense hacienderos knew how to live the good life. The sweet life, if you will, thanks to the robust sugar economy.
A 3-day conflagration reduced the mansion to a magnificent shell. It was burned to a crisp by guerilla fighters at the start of WW2 to render it useless to Japanese forces. The roof caved in and its contents went up in smoke, but the concrete skeleton stubbornly remained standing.
Only imagination could fill up its hollow interior with elegant furniture and luxurious decors. The tiles were somehow salvaged; they were still the original ones on the flooring. I gingerly climbed up the staircase to a deck for the view, but without railings, it was not for wobbly knees like mine.
Its fiery history reminded me of a story about my great-grandfather. His house in the countryside was similarly torched around the same time, along with its cherished contents, primarily my grandfather’s mementos and photos of his stay in the US. My mother said he could only crouch in agony as he watched the house and family history reduced to cinder.
Unlike my grandfather’s house, The Ruins had enough remnants to become a tourist attraction. With a minimal entrance fee of P25 (only about 50 cents!), we could fully explore this relic of Negrense history at our own pace.
It was a photography buff’s dream. Tall arches and rows of columns would photograph well at sundown, when shadows were long and the light soft. Even at mid-afternoon, the streaming beams of sunlight through the archways were dramatic. My mom who would usually be indifferent to camwhoring could not resist asking me to take her photos, conceptualizing them herself. My young nephew, Dylan, was similarly inspired and snapped photos as well.
The grounds around The Ruins were just as picture-perfect. A flower garden on one side of the mansion was restored. Originally tended by a Japanese gardener, who understandably disappeared when the Japanese invaded the island, the garden retained a Zen-like tranquility in its European design: a cobblestone oasis of flowers and fountain as an accent on a wide lawn of even-trimmed grass, a wishing well, and shade structures. Rows of yellow bells dancing in the wind made us forget the heat.
A multi-tiered fountain provided a dynamic contrast to the stone-cold imposing ruins and to an old towering smokestack (simboryo), a common sight in the Negrense landscape, behind it. The sound of cascading water completed the enchanting ambiance.
What had been torched and abandoned became a tourist attraction. Beauty prevailed over the ravages of war and time. Seeing The Ruins brought to mind other architectural relics and ancient edifices, testaments that beauty could outlive the physical structure that possessed it as their stories and histories lived on in their hollow shells.