The choice for Balay Negrénse grounds as the place for the Philippine Blog Awards Visayas participants to have lunch is a superb one. Fresh air and the refreshing view of the big house made the organic lunch eating experience a unique one. While we marvel on the view of the house outside, the interiors are worth exploring too. The house was built by Don Victor Gaston, the son of Yves Germain Gaston, a Frenchman from Normandy and the patriarch of the Gaston Family who was one of those responsible of revolutionizing the sugar industry. Now know today as the Balay Negrénse Museum, this is one of the three standing Gaston mansions in the island and the one well known.
The actual family name of Yves Germain Gaston is Germain, a result of the old French naming system similar to the Spanish one which the paternal family is mentioned first before the maternal family name. In order to prove that the family indeed is a descendant of the original French family, they brought with them their family’s heraldic arms from France. This particular piece is found in the private office once occupied by Don Victor. Preserved with the office are some important documents related to their ancestry and some books which the esteemed French-blooded haciendero treasured and cared. The house has been nicknamed as balay nga dakû or “big house” in Hiligaynon which it really is with its enormous size.
Apparently, family kinship is very much important for the Gaston Family and they keep a genealogy wheel in Balay Negrénse in order to keep their family updated in their connection. The genealogy wheel starts off with Yves Germain Gaston and branches off to three which all built their mansions, Balay Negrénse included. The present generation amounts to close to a thousand descendants which are all successful in their field with those involved in business, arts, music, politics and some even Monseigneurs in their own right. One of their family members, the late Gov. Emilio Gaston was Governor of Occidental Negros from 1934 to 1937. I wonder if the genealogy wheel is updated since this is open to public.
As with any other ancestral mansions in Silay and other parts of the Island, the centerpiece of the house is the grand piano. There are other pianos inside the mansion but it is a grand piano that determines the social standing of the family. The so-called bragging rights the grand piano gives to the mansion’s residents are much like what a Hummer or a Rolls Royce can give at present. Indeed, even at present, a grand piano is still considered a status symbol. Grand pianos not only serve as a bragging item or a determiner of social standing, it was also used to feature a family member’s musical skills either in playing the piano or singing. A number of Gastons have been sent to the conservatories of Europe to study music and some like the mezzo-soprano Conchita Gaston is known worldwide and has graced several social occasions in Silay City.
One defining feature of mansions are their grand staircases which welcomes you immediately from the big main doors of the house. Have you ever wondered why the grand staircases? As the guide told us, it is mainly for a dramatic entrance of the party celebrant especially girls on their debut. Negrénse hacienderos love to party and they make these “dramatic entrances” 0ften and grand staircases are a convenient platform too which can act as a stage. Most of the mansion’s features may have derived inspiration from palaces that some of these hacienderos visited in their regular vacation tours of Europe. As much as grand staircases are mentioned best in fairytale stories, the stories of the mansion’s occupants seem to have a fairytale twist to it too. Most of the stories are hearsay but some have a grain of truth in the matter.
The best part of this house, just like any kind of house is the kitchen. Even as the house had modernized its kitchen equipment in the middle of the 20th century, the dirty kitchen concept still persists. It is here that the hard cooking is done using native ingredients to serve tasty gourmet meals for special dinners or just simply daily food. Hundreds of unique recipes must have passed by the charcoal stoves and clay pots of these dirty kitchens. Houses in Negros always have a space set aside spaces for the foods that require a little bit of dirty, or should I say smoky work. While dirty kitchens have waned down in style on the latter part of the 20th century, it is seeing a comeback as people re-explore the native ways of cooking food. No wonder why Balay Negrénse was chosen as the venue of the Adobo Festival every Cinco de Noviembre to serve as the renaissance of good food that houses like these showcased.
The mansion’s long table is often the scene of glamor and fine dining where the best of porcelain plates and silverwares are used. Children are separated from the adults when eating as to not disturb them in their dinners with spilled glasses, broken plates and often noisy disposition. Meals are often the venue for family members to update on each other about the latest happenings or on the latest price of sugar per picul on the market. Oftentimes, every meals would not only serve the residents of the house but also their relatives. It is a norm for haciendero families go rounds in hosting their family or even other haciendero families for lunch or dinner. Many times, it would be a showdown of the best recipes between families with one trying to outdo each other with unique recipes and the most elegant of dining ware taken down from the displays for the most important guests to use.
In the afternoon, the men and women of the house would gather in the sala of the house to enjoy coffee or tea while discussing business matters. These now empty coffee tables once host a retinue of men loudly talking about the latest in trends while the women continue in doing their business. Women would often do knitting together while gossiping about the juicy incidents about some occasional scandals that trick out of some confines. Silay may have been a bustling rich pueblo but the once laidback town is small enough for the latest rumors to circulate. Issues like the discreet affairs of men or the latest adventures of some “liberal” women are the meatiest of the matter, together with some gossip about bastard children thrown into the mix. Indeed, the afternoon coffees of yesteryears are your primordial social networking of the present.
As with any other old houses, an aura of mystique is also tagged with Balay Negrénse. The hysteria of haunted houses will always be attached to these balay nga dakû. Moreoften, it is the controversies and a number of hearsays that haunt these walls with a lasting impact. One can only imagine the busy activities that once saw this house when the sugar industry was once at its peak. The walls can speak only as much as what is written on the books are the words spoken by the guides. The curious and imaginative minds sometimes cannot help but be transported back in time when parties were held after the other. Balay Negrénse and other big mansions of Silay is a testament to the good life that many of those who migrated to Negros have long sought for. For many, an inspiration but for the present generation, a heritage worth taking care for the future generations to behold and learn.
More photos on the Balay nga Dakû in the Photo Blog.