Bagac, Bataan, the Philippines
August 10 – 11, 2013
“What if there’s mumu (ghost)?” Mhel vibered her concern – or maybe excitement – about visiting old houses. Old did not necessarily mean haunted. I spent my childhood in a creaky old house across from a cemetery and not once did I witness any paranormal activity. That was why I dug the old world charm and long history of heritage houses and none of their supposed spirit dwellers.
With my all-girl crew (Mhel, Jo, and Mommy Ritz), I traveled three hours by bus (Bataan Transit) north of Manila to Balanga, Bataan and an endless 45 minutes by jeepney to Bagac, where a privately-owned seaside compound of 27 replicas and restored colonial-era houses, salvaged from demolition and abandonment in their original sites, awaited guests from a time beyond their own. Most were bahay na bato, stone houses (with usually wooden upper floors) favored by principalia families as these structures were more resistant to earthquakes. Real estate developer Jose Acuzar dismantled, gathered, transported, reassembled, and rebuilt these houses like Lego pieces in his 400-hectare heritage village: Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar.
We were received at Casa Mexico, an airy bahay na bato that may have originally stood in Mexico – the town in Pampanga, not the country (most of the casas here were named after their places of origin). It was remarkably reconstructed from scratch. Bits and pieces of the house were salvaged from a junk shop and rebuilt based on photographs. How the house ended up for scrap was indicative of the lack of heritage appreciation and preservation in this country. Suffering the worst fate in its original form, Casa Mexico set the tone of this concept resort – that of regaining lost heritage.
We had reserved a room at the compound’s main digs: Paseo de Escolta, a replica of commercial buildings in early 1900s Binondo. In true Escolta fashion, the ground floor was occupied by a convenience store, spa, souvenir shop, antique gallery, and photography studio; the upper floors housed hotel rooms.
Paseo de Escolta was a pair of buildings: a two-level bahay na bato and a colonnaded three-level strip building with a classical facade of Ionic columns and caryatids. When evening fell we ventured out promenading through the cobbled Plaza Belmonte out front as lights cast brilliant reflections on stones still wet from the afternoon rain. The time capsule ambiance was not confined to the interiors. Pounding the pavement of old Manila must have been similarly pleasant back when architectural elegance and structural harmony were the norm, not the present-day urban decay and injudicious development.
We had the best of both worlds in our room at Paseo de Escolta’s bahay na bato. Kudos to the owner’s wife who designed and outfitted it with modern conveniences like A/C and TV (but no Wi-Fi!) and old world furnishings like capiz-shell sliding windowpanes and hardwood armoires. The studio with loft was a grand affair: high ceiling, dark wood, and spiral staircase. Even the T&B was spacious, but the old school lock didn’t work. I popped into the bathroom when one of the girls (guess who) was in a glorious state of undress. Oh my virgin eyes!
We had our meals at Casa Unisan (originally built in 1839), distinctive for its heavy masonry, especially the huge stone arches, that lent an ominous air to the interiors. Later I learned that the Maxino family who lived in it, save for the youngest daughter, was massacred by thieves. A tad too gruesome a history for a house from Quezon that would be repurposed into one of the resort’s two restaurants, Cafe Marivent. Outside, the stonework was no less arresting. A stoup with a lion’s head bas-relief greeted us as we exited the back door.
Casa Bizantina (originally built in 1890 by Don Lorenzo del Rosario) was one of the few not named after their hometown, sometimes referred to as Casa Binondo III. It stood majestically overlooking a cobbled plaza dotted with sculptures; its grandiose facade belied how much it had been neglected in its original location. For a time, the house was turned into a school and later abandoned. It was subsequently overtaken by squatters who nailed their clothes lines on gold-gilded wooden walls. Oblivious, they merely brushed off flakes of gold that had come off. They were paupers unknowingly living in a palace.
Casa Bizantina, so named for its florid design, easily became my favorite, although I didn’t have any chance to get in. As one of the houses rented out to big groups, it was occupied by foreign guests at that time. I could only ogle the opulent interiors, massive mural in the sala, and grand staircase from the door. The foreign occupants, dressed in Filipino traditional clothes, including tribal loincloth, were in the middle of a rowdy costume party. The next morning, the doors were shut; perhaps the party animals were sleeping in their hangover. Dexter Manansala, our guide, commenced the tour (there was one every hour) at the house’s shadow and showed photos of its dilapidated state before finding a new hope and home here. The contrast was striking; truly, a house could only be as good as the people living in it.
The tour’s first stop was Casa Luna (originally built in 1850), an Ilocano-style red brick mansion of the Novicio family from Luna, La Union that served as the resort’s museum. Primitivo Novicio was related to the mother of Antonio and Juan Luna, and as mayor, he renamed the town after them. Interestingly, we approached the house from the back. Dexter lectured us about colonial caste system for servants: aliping namamahay (a servant who owned houses, usually within the master’s land) and alipin sa gigilid (a servant who didn’t, sa gigilid means in the corner). The latter, lower in rank, was not allowed into the mansion, only on the sidelines. Dexter led us through the back and up to the azotea as an alipin sa gigilid did. The tour allowed us a peek into the way of life of Filipinos, ilustrado and alipin, in the 19th century.
The house was a treasure trove of antique furniture and contraptions, such as a milk jug, phonograph, flat iron, and tobacco maker (which I guessed to be a condom holder, anachronism intended). Dexter demonstrated how clothes were ironed by a female alipin, balancing on a rolling pin and using her weight to knead voluminous fabrics, daily wear back in the day, laid out on the wooden board. Housework required the merging of the appliance, the act, and the agent into a singular mechanism – a far cry from today’s push-button machines. It must’ve taken an army of servants to keep everything in order in such a big house.
Entering an entresuelo, we found a painting of Princess Urduja by National Artist Cesar Legaspi. It caught my attention because it showed the bare-breasted princess flanked by several male allies, one of whom was identified by Dexter as Limahong, the famous Chinese pirate in Philippine history. The painting reminded me of my dad who claimed we were descended from Limahong. It had since become a personal photo op tradition when I saw him depicted in art.
Casa Lubao (originally built in 1920), the charming and colorful Arrastia-Vitug ancestral house, was another favorite. The Arrastias, whose most famous scion was Spanish socialite Isabel Preysler, were the wealthiest hacienderos that cultivated the fertile plains of Pampanga. Dexter showed faded photos of the Arrastia couple, Don Valentin and Francisca, looking long-faced because smiling for the camera was considered improper during pre-selfie times. As an hacienda (plantation) house, the original Casa Lubao’s lower level was once used as a granary. The upper floor was airy and recreated according to matriarch Francisca Salgado Arrastia’s penchant for green, which she associated with prosperity.
Color aside, it was the family’s graciousness and generosity that attracted good fortune. Seeing his neighbor’s young son, a bright and diligent boy despite his family’s lack of resources, walking to school barefoot, Don Valentin bought him shoes and clothes and employed his mother as a laundress. That boy eventually became the country’s ninth president, Diosdado Macapagal. The house also escaped torching by the Japanese Imperial Army because a driver who was actually a Japanese spy argued for sparing the house out of respect for the kindness of his former employers.
The tradition of kindness had been passed on to their children, notably to daughter, Juanita, and son-in-law, Dr. Wenceslao Vitug, who continued living in the house. The Vitug couple donated land to churches, schools, and their farmhands and generously extended medical and financial help to their workers. Their children soon outgrew the town and settled elsewhere in the world, only making house visits that became more infrequent as years passed. Eventually, the house was put in the market, and the new owner tore it down. The descendants must’ve been delighted to find their ancestral house resurrected at its present site; the clan had a reunion at least once here.
The tour’s finale was a stop at Casa Biñan (originally built in the 16th century by Gregorio Alonzo, National Hero Jose Rizal’s maternal great grandfather). Dexter admitted that the house was 99% replica. That 1% original turned out to be the front door, wrinkled but still sturdy, and a few wall planks. The rest of the house was too dilapidated to transport from Laguna.
Teodora Alonzo, Rizal’s mother, grew up in this house that would be passed on to several ownership down the generations. It was even converted into a cinema and, later, a supermarket. With that long history, it had two addresses posted at the door as the number of houses grew through the years. It had also witnessed much family drama. If only the walls could speak.
It was in spilling family secrets that Dexter launched into his Carlos Celdran school of tour guiding spiel. With sound effects, dramatic vocal inflection, and suspense of a juicy piece of chismis (gossip), he told a story that involved adultery, illegal detention, SOS letters thrown out of the window, attempted murder through poisoning, punishment by exile and walking 24 km from Biñan to Calamba. I leave the details out as the written word could never do justice to Dexter’s flamboyant storytelling. Suffice it to say that it all unraveled like a soap opera, except that the alleged villains were Rizal’s grandfather and mother! Indeed, a hero could come from anywhere, even from less than perfect backgrounds, like ours.
We passed by Casa Quiapo aka Casa Hidalgo (originally built in 1867) on our way back to where we had started. Designed by the first Filipino architect, Felix Roxas y Arroyo, the colonnaded house of Rafael Enriquez became the first site of UP School of Fine Arts in 1909. I went to UP Manila, but I missed this piece of history.
Just my luck, the house was not opened to the public that day. It would be worth a second visit if only to see the halls where the country’s masters – Luna, Hidalgo, Amorsolo, among others – trained. The school later transferred to the Padre Faura campus, and the house fell from grace as well as into disrepair. At one point, it became a torohan, a place for live sex shows. The house’s history reflected that of Manila’s – from a pre-war Pearl of the Orient to the seedy, crime-infested city it had become.
The tour skipped the casas that were occupied by guests. I wondered if these old houses had brought with them the spirits that Mhel was obsessed with. So far, no supernatural sighting or paramdam, not even the shadow of a friend whom we were supposed to meet here but was a no-show (oh, that’s another story!). But yes, I did feel something – the spirit of these otherwise doomed houses, their histories and stories and secrets that lived on for condo-dwelling generations that would never live in them. More than the summation of bits of wood and metal and stone, it was the spirit of the houses that had been given a new life here.
Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar was not without its critics though. Some quarters expressed disappointment at the contrivance of a heritage resort that had taken the context out of these extant historical structures. How much care was taken in the process of tearing down, transporting, and touching up? Points well taken, but these houses of old could not endure through the vicissitudes of time. They had been left crumbling away where they once stood. My only concern was the compound’s seaside location. Would salty winds have deleterious effects on antique materials? At least, these houses, protected and clustered conveniently, had found a new home where Filipinos could take “pride in the past” and “hope for the future.”