The 1981 period film Oro, Plata, Mata depicts how the lives of two sugar magnate-families in the island of Negros were disrupted by the outbreak of World War II. It starts with a grand debut party attended by the town’s richest and prominent personalities. Two young boys opened a door leading to the house’s court sized living room where the guests mostly lads and ladies were performing a chain dance. Their hands were placed at the hips of the person preceding them in the chain and they rhythmically danced to the music being played by a liveband. This I think is among the most cinematographic sequences ever translated into a Filipino film. The scene is reminiscent of early Philippine romantic literature’s soirees; those hosted by rich Spanish scions and could be heard and left unnoticed practically by an entire neighborhood.
I had always thought that Balay Negrense was the setting of the classic film. This was one of the reasons why I anticipated my Negros trip back in October 2006. Apart from witnessing the Masskara Festival in Bacolod City, I planned for a sidetrip to Balay Negrense, a national heritage house located in a nearby city called Silay.
In the course of writing this post, I found out that the film’s setting was actually Hacienda Santa Rosalia, an ancestral house in Manapla, the third town north of Silay City. In searching information about the hacienda, I figured out what lead me to wrongly attribute Balay Negrense as the setting of the film. First, Balay Negrese and Hacienda Santa Rosalia both belonged to the same family. Balay Negrense was the ancestral house of Victor F. Gaston, the son of the sugar baron Yves Leopold Germain Gaston. The elder Gaston is credited as the pioneer of sugar cultivation in Negros and him introducing horno economico (iron mill technology) to the province, allowed Negros to begin the commercial production of export-quality sugar. Yves Gaston was a French businessman married to a Filipina from Batangas and he decided to venture to Negros after he found the soil in the province suitable for sugarcane farming. Second, Balay Negrense appears identical to Hacienda Santa Rosalia. I revisited Oro, Plata, Mata (available on youtube) and the film’s setting really strikes resemblance to the interiors and layout of Balay Negrense. As shown in the film, one can conclude that in building his own house, Victor F. Gaston drew inspirations from the ancestral house built by his father.
The Victor F. Gaston ancestral house is now popularly referred to as Balay Negrense (The People of Negros House). A group of concerned citizens, who later formed the Negros Cultural Foundation, rescued the structure from abandonment and disrepair in mid-1970s. The family heirs eventually entrusted and donated the house to the Foundation which steered initiatives for its preservation. Balay Negrense was converted into a museum showcasing the lifestyle of a late 19th century sugar baron and it was officially inaugurated in October 1990 making it the first museum in Negros. Balay Negrense is the most prominent structure along Cinco de Noviembre Street, the very street where the 5 November 1898 bloodless revolution was conceived. The revolution successfully ended Spanish rule and this lead to the formation of a short-lived Negros Republic. The republic ceased when after barely three months the Americans landed on the island unopposed.
In its heyday, Silay City was referred to as the ‘Paris of Negros.’ It was the island’s economic and cultural center and its affluence enabled it to adapt or introduce a lifestyle which the rich families got acquainted with from their Europe travels. Furthermore, the city even imported artists and cultural shows just to satiate its taste for culture and the arts. Silaynon pianist Jose Ledesma for instance brought to the province operettas and zarzuelas and the Italian architect Antonio Bernasconi was commissioned to design the city’s San Diego de Alcala Church. The city still claims its old title primarily because of its grand ancestral houses that up to this day remain intact. Thirty-one of these have already been declared as national heritage houses by the National Historical Institute (NHI), meaning before any demolition or modification is done to any of them, family heirs need to consult and ask permission from government through the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). Notwithstanding this law enacted in 2009, I read from a blog (www.silayheritage.com) that two of these national heritage houses (namely, Augusto Hilado Severiño and Claudio Ilado Akol Heritage Houses) were demolished (recently) by their owners.
Silay City and the whole of Negros went on a decline in the mid-1970s when the sugar industry was badly hit by a staggered crisis. Many companies folded and since there was a slim chance of immediate recovery a number of hacienda owners were forced to leave Negros. As I have mentioned earlier, this was also the time when the Victor F. Gaston ancestral house was left unused by the family. The crisis reached to the extent where the country needed to start importing sugar in 1986 in order to meet domestic demands. This was the socio-economic milieu in which Masskara Festival emerged in 1980. Masskara Festival was conceived in the provincial capital Bacolod City as a means of uplifting the morale of the people. The first Masskara Festival was then a declaration of resiliency and since then it transformed into being one of the most popular and frequented festivals in the country.
For my next visit to Negros, I would want to recreate the route I took in 2006. From Manila, I went to Bacolod via Toledo City in Cebu. There, I took a passenger catamaran ferry to San Carlos City, Negros Oriental. The ferry traversed the Tañon Strait. From San Carlos City, I took a bus to Bacolod City. I consider the bus ride from San Carlos to Bacolod as the best I have ever had. The route passes through a rolling terrain and large track of verdant sugarcane lands at the foot of thick Negros serrated mountains. It made me further appreciate the island of Negros as the ‘Sugarbowl of the Philippines.’