While the seafood treat was good in Balaring, I ought to bring my guest for what Silay City is known for – ancestral houses. Unlike other cities in the Philippines that has lost countless ancestral houses post – World War II either to bombing or development, there are still a number left in Silay. A walk around Silay City is like a time warp to the time when classical buildings and houses dots the city center. It was a hot day but tons of food made us ready for a walk. I am not a stranger to Silay since I’ve been here a few months ago for the free tour of the Philippine Blog Awards Visayas Participants last Nov. 13, 2011.
Going around Silay City, there is one formidable question that is sure to be asked: “What’s the difference between Silay and Vigan?” The question does make sense since Silay and Vigan are both heritage cities and has been known for their best preserved ancestral houses. I remember that being asked before and thankfully I have an answer for my guest. Vigan City’s ancestral house are actually of Mexican design as a consequence of being a port stop of galleons from Acapulco, Mexico while Silay City’s have variety of design ranging from Castillan, American and French Countryside with Filipino elements mixed.
While a number of ancestral houses are well-preserved, Silay’s ancestral houses saw period of darkness when a significant number were threatened to be destroyed. At the time of the Marcos dictatorship, the highways north of Bacólod was widened to accomodate a growing traffic. Since a number of ancestral houses and heritage buildings are close to the streets, they were slated for demolition but Silaynons pushed for them to be spared. Fortunately, these ancestral houses and heritage buildings were spared and the people of Silay realized the sentimental, cultural and tourism value of these structures for Silay City.
Apparently, not only ancestral houses are spared but also the countless century-old trees that dot the landscape. They are remnants of the times that saw a revolution, a golden age, world war and another round of tough times. Branches speak of generations, pasts that reminds us of how sugar’s wealth built Silay. This reminds me of the unfortunate news few years ago when age-old trees at the Intramuros area were cut off to be replaced by supposedly “more authentic” fire trees. Indiscriminate planning does take a heavy toll on heritage. My wish is that Silay would be vigilant in safeguarding these grand old trees.
Few minutes of leisure walk, we reached our destination – Balay Negrénse. Balay Negrénse is the ancestral house of Don Victor F. Gaston, the son of the French haciendero Yves Germain Gaston. I am no longer stranger to Balay Negrénse since this is my second visit to the house-museum. We rang the courtesy bell to call in a guide to let us in and show us around. Unfortunately, there was no guide available but by the stroke of luck, the Museum Director herself, Mrs. Maida Jison, wife of a former Silay City Mayor was very accommodating enough to show us around. Talk about hospitality at best and finest here.
Though I know the drill in Balay Negrénse, Mrs. Jison offered a fresh new view of Balay Negrénse and it’s history. She proved to be a really good guide after all since she has personal involvement with how the house was refurbished. Mrs. Jison even showed some photos before the house was turned into a museum. She told us that she used to disdain passing by this mansion when she was still young since it once looked like your image of a haunted house. She told us of many ghost stories about the house which made hairs stand up even up to now every time I remember her stories that are quite vivid and detailed.
Sensing the apparent scardycat I have become, she assured us that no such stories have been accounted since the house was turned into a museum. The restoration of the Gaston House came as a challenge for Negros Cultural Foundation, the foundation that runs this museum and Negros Museum since it entailed millions of pesos. Out of generous donations and financial aid from Silay City ‘s various agencies, they were able to restore the structure. Since the house was bare when it was totally abandoned in 1970s, museum pieces were generously loaned or donated by elite families showcasing Negrénse lifestyle.
Mrs. Jison also talked about Silay from her childhood especially with how the City Plaza used to look before changes were done in the Marcos era. She showed us the picture of how the plaza looked like before and was wonderful with classical lightings, benches where the old folks used to chat and the former fountain. The old plaza was of sunken style, much like what UP’s Sunken Garden is but with more elegant trappings. She was frank to tell us that she disdain seeing the plaza in the current state from what used to be of European-style. Every Silaynon indeed shares same tearful sentiments as she expressed.
As if in a jump of thought, she relayed to us another mystery story about one of two statues of Pan that used to adorn the fountains of the City Plaza. Pan is the Greek god of fertility which sports a set of horns and hind legs. Familiar image, isn’t it? It is said that placing the statues in the middle of a fountain of water served a purpose. When the plaza was demolished, one of the statues were placed in a house of the certain Silaynon which burned down mysteriously. The statue was left unscathed and the next house that hosted the statue also burned down. This stopped when it was made into pond centerpiece.
Mrs. Jison was so enthusiastic with her stories that we didn’t noticed we already spent an hour’s time. Our conversation with her was cut short when a visitor arrived at her office. I took over from her to tour Doc Chard on the receiving area on the second floor. All was well in the area except for the fact that the ballroom-sized bathroom was closed to public. I would have loved to show Doc how spacious the room was. After a few snapshots of the place, we decided to go down since there were no seats or chairs for us to sit on. We decided to continue on the tour and bade Mrs. Jison goodbye in her lovely office.
Since we were already in the Calle Cinco de Noviembre, I decided to take my guest to the marker on the spot where a farmacia used to stand. The farmacia was owned by Leandro Locsin where Negrénse revolutionaries were secretly planned for revolution against the Spanish authorities. This was the Cinco de Noviembre that ushered my blog’s namesake, the República Cantonal de Negros or República Negrénse in short. This was an event in the history of Negros I am proud of since it was the time that Negrénses proved their cunning and established a functioning government started in this simple street corner.
Walking down the street, I suddenly noticed the grand orange mansion bit of distance. As I can remember well, a notable Silaynon lives there and he is Solo Locsin whom I met last November 13, 2011 during the bloggers’ tour of Silay. Just stone’s throw from this house is an odd-looking ancestral house that has another story to tell, a sad love story to be specific. The house was meant to be of two stories but the second floor was chopped off by the owner. The story is very interesting since it is a classic tragic love story of a haciendero daughter and a guy of simple stature whom a fellow Negros Blogger wrote about.
Since Café 1925 was just nearby, I decided to take Doc Chard inside to cool down before telling him the story in detail. The walking tour of the city revealed a lot of stories that an average tour would not have mentioned. This makes me interested to write about the stories of each ancestral house we passed by. Who knows what more stories awaits for us to discover, may it be success stories, an interesting number of horror stories like those we heard in Balay Negrénse or tragic ones like the house beside Café 1925. I suggest that when you walk around the city, go with locals for I am sure he would have stories to tell.