A Field Guide to Burning the Town Red


I. The Night Lives on the Boulevard and Escaño, Circa 2010

It is not difficult to map the geography of Dumaguete’s night life.

The simple answer is: there’s nothing.

Nothing resembling the sophisticated rough and tumble of metropolises, anyway—say, Manila’s Embassy and Greenbelt and The Fort, or Cebu’s Vudu and Doce, or Baguio’s Vocas and Rumours, or the whole sandy stretch of Boracay. There are no sightings of night creatures in the city bedecked in the signature wardrobe of painting the town red as they descend on the enviable hot spots of the moment, to party all night to the latest musical concoctions of the deejay du jour, and to emerge only in the near morning light smelling of sweet smoke and an amalgam of alcohol, cigarette, sweat, recreational mind-warpers, and perhaps somebody’s saliva.

Dumaguete is never a city that “never sleeps.”

It’s too small, some people say, and knows no variety. Everybody goes to the same places all the time, and everybody dances to the same music again and again. A “night life” is worth its reputation only in the way it provides escape from boredom of the every day. You can’t have that when tedium becomes the escape itself.

But there’s also this indefinable something—or perhaps a clustery kaleidoscope of everything: a scattered constellation of bright (and not-so-bright) nocturnal buzzing that follows a strict schedule lasting more than half a week, creating a social swirl that is governed, by and large, by a strange Negrense sense of social class.

One always starts with coffee and dinner and light talk at Gabby’s Bistro, in the enclaves of Bantayan, where the bright lights and the cheerful colors always seem to beautifully kick in the start of a good evening. Some choose to spend nighttime in the old tagay tradition, not on anonymous sidewalks outside residences, but in places like Garahe along Noblefranca, or Qyosko along Santa Rosa, or Sted’s near that. (But this is not an essay on beer circles.)

Everything really begins on Wednesdays, when the B and C crowd—mostly college students but also a generous smattering of young professionals—all ache to get over the hump day, looking forward to the looming weekend ahead. They flock to the Pinoy/Jamaican sounds of Hayahay’s Reggae Wednesday, where Sande Fuentes, often with Mickey Ybañez and the rest of the Hayahay regulars in tow, hold court. The beer in their hands will be ice-cold.

Hayahay attracts a loyal customer base—has always been since it opened in 2000. Its charms are rustic and simple: just a hodge-podge of mini-bars and tables, mostly in the open air, in an arrangement of managed chaos gelled together by a bohemian spirit. This is true Dumaguete night life at its purest form.

Its two observation decks will be in full capacity, and so will be Chez Andre’s pizza corner to the left-most side of the entire compound, where three large round tables accommodate a plethora of barkadas, with a vantage sight of the amused observer staring down the rest of the lion’s den. The band for the night—a mix of Boyan’s Law, Stand Out, Souljah, Front Page, or Silent Vibe—will start playing around nine, perhaps even earlier, and by the time midnight comes along, a throng—bodies rubbing and hopping to the quirky reggae sound—can be found on the tiny dance floor in front of the band.

Everywhere, everybody is uniformed in careless shirts over shorts pants, feet clad in sandals and espadrilles. Wednesday is when you let your hair down but still party. Wednesdays are sweaty. Wednesdays are dread locks nights.

On Thursdays, a taste of the weekend finally begins, but nothing too ostentatious—Hayahay still mostly closes by midnight, and its neighbor El Camino Blanco may blare out dance music but the place is often near empty.

Nobody goes to Camino on Thursdays. That is taken as an unspoken breach of night-life logic.

And so the only recourse, perfectly acceptable to many, is to park one’s car or van along the beachfront stretch of Escaño Boulevard, then take out the plastic shopping bags containing junk food and assorted pulutan, Tanduay rhum, and endless beer—and then party till the wee hours with the music blaring from the car’s stereo.

The spot that tops the T-shape of the stretch is ground zero for grill parties. It’s the choice spot to be in Escaño, which has since replaced San Moritz (along Agan-an) as the nighttime beach side hangout of Dumaguete. There is a certain headiness to being Escaño—perhaps the effect of the collision of the orange tungsten lights running smack against the black horizon of the sea, the twinkling lights of Cebu towns in the distance.

On Thursdays, the scene is small—only a few cars and a scattering of motorcycles dot the Escaño landscape—but already, the oldish couple manning the small stall at the corner of Piapi Beach and E.J. Blanco Drive is making good business selling packs of cigarettes, soft drinks, bottles of Tanduay (with a choice of long neck or flats), and packs and packs of ice. Business for them (and for the peanut vendors that now ply the long “runway” walk of Escaño, which ends at a sari-sari store/beer garden rightly named Tambayan sa Escaño) will pick up some more intensity in the next two days.

On Fridays, Payag sa Likod, nestled in the bowels of unassuming bodegas fronting the provincial hospital, unleashes what it calls Reggae Friday, and students (mostly from nearby Silliman University) descend on cheap beer, wallowing in the strange bamboo-hut-intimacy of Payag’s open door ambience. Here, the charming Christine Torres reigns, ready to pour you a swig of Payag Sling, its pinkish concoction subtle but ravishingly deadly. Admittedly, there is a roughness and an earthy aroma to the place that may confuse the uninitiated—but this is where the kids hang out, a cocoonish respite from the vastness of sea sky of Piapi Beach. And the beer is cheap. And the place is the only spot in town where the maddening crowds—all distinguished by the pecking order of schools around town—are allowed, somewhat, to mingle. The NORSU crowd are here hobnobbing with the Sillimanians, the Foundation people with the Paulinians who are careful to keep a low profile lest the nuns know.

In Gimmick, things are not the same: the Sillimanians with their airs have left the scene, and the NORSUnians have taken over. In Maychen, right across the road from Gimmick, a kind of social black hole—awashed in Beer na Beer—exists amidst the heaps of trash, the slaking rivers of urine across the dirt floor, and the monobloc tables and chairs jammed against jagged cement edges of what used to be a house. It is a different kind of party in Maychen.

But the main party still remains in Escaño, which, on Friday nights, is now beginning to pick up steam. The stretch—which starts right in front of Hayahay and goes all the way to the dark beyond, would now be filled to capacity, crammed with all manners of cars and motorcycles creating a drunken patchwork of parking. Nobody cares.

In one corner, near Barefoot Bistro, the policemen keep watch. Many moons ago, this was dangerous ground—I have friends who have been stabbed or mauled here—but the atmosphere has arguably since changed. It has become the place where the kids can “safely” party. There is a kind of harmony in the orchestrated chaos—everybody knows everybody—and people dance, flirt, drink, and make speeches to the moon and the stars.

Still, only the desperate goes to Camino on Friday nights, and most will probably end up in Hayahay, to binge on sisig and sinuglaw, and rhum and vodka.

On Saturday nights, the party in Escaño comes to full blast—and the well-heeled crowd now finally descends on Camino, with full intentions to gyrate to house and R&B. The ladies are in their best small black dresses, hair and makeup perfectly done—but with full expectations to be fully undone by the time the night comes to a close. These days, it is local designer Josip Tumapa who comes in with his posse to start the night right. (In olden days, that role would have been Al de las Armas’s.) And the deejay plays his selection of dance tunes—mostly R&B, because the Dumaguete crowd simply does not get house or trance music—but nobody dances until Mitz Meliton dances. It always begins with Paper Kisses doing contemporary covers. On some (bad) nights, a deejay’s sidekick would bark into the microphone, shouting, “Aw! Aw! Aw!” or “Seleman! Seleman! Jump! Jump, jump, jump your hands!” Some would, of course, jump. Some would curse back, telling him to go shut himself. DJ Joeren is the local deejay for the days—but sometimes, a Manila-based one, such as DJ Ace from Embassy, would be flown in, ready to give Dumaguete a taste of edgier stuff.

In Music Box, the dance hall of the entertainment and dining compound generally known as Why Not?—an alternate universe exists—where the garishly made-up and the truly crazy hobnob with the white trash to the sound of 90s dance music, creating the grand spectacle unique to the place: people dancing, not with each other, but to their reflection on the mirrored panels surrounding the squarish dance floor as everybody looks on in strange fascination. It is a different kind of fun, something to subscribe to when you’re already too drunk to care.

The Rizal Boulevard—previously the center of Dumaguete’s night life universe—is a ghost of its former self, crippled by pious but misplaced city regulations, and done to death by the spectacle of Japayuki-style entertainment on a makeshift stage outside CocoAmigos. “Nobody I know has been to CocoAmigos in months,” says a friend. “Too many boorish foreigners and their brown women.”

“That’s a bad thing to say,” I told him.

“But isn’t that how it goes? The moment they come, the locals disappear.”

And then the party stops at three o’clock on a Sunday morning—and slowly, the crowd dissipates for an after-midnight chow at Connie’s or Qyosko or Chowking. They will look tired and happy, like the very picture of merry stupor and delirium.

II. Walking the Ramp

“We do too many fashion shows in Dumaguete.”
—Patrick Boglosa, event organizer

Sometimes, the city night life is all about shows. The big event. This is the story of one of them.

It was already 6 o’clock in the late Saturday afternoon of August 29—and Dumaguete was at the start of the difficult process of winding down after the weeklong founding celebration of Silliman University.

It was the last day for a partying month—and the night to come was to be the last call for letting down one’s hair. “It was party to the limits, or bust,” recalled Gerard Anthony Adiong.

The entire month was already a veritable beehive of activity, but the seven days before this day had been particularly crackling with the excitement of a mob let loose: Silliman’s collegiate throng—and this is the only crowd that actually makes the city alive—saw no classes, and there was suddenly the excuse, the daily invention to party.

Mostly, they descended on Hibalag, the booth area near the Silliman gym—a bastion of tradition, and in the old days even bigger than the city fiesta, that had lasted decades. The year’s edition of Hibalag, even if small, was still surprisingly particularly zesty, its sense of fun miraculously infectious after seven years of morass that had its size and ambition contract year by year. This year’s Hibalag, needless to say, still mostly paled in comparison to the booths of more than a decade ago, when the soccer field became a virtual bustling city of nipa and amakan and kawayan, filling the entire span from Larena Hall to the Silliman Library, from the gymnasium to the Divinity School. There were a maze of byways and little streets that it was easy to get lost in the storm of organizations ready to spring on you both pranks and innovative commerce.

But even then, all throughout the week, there had been food fairs, and class reunions, and private parties, and exhibitions, and concerts, and horror chambers, and beauty pageants, and fashion shows, and tattoo artists plying their trade. August 29 was the last day of all that—and people seemed bent on giving the month that one last fling before they settled to the ides of September.

On that date, at six o’clock, Jaysun Penales, an event organizer and a clinical instructor at the College of Nursing, was still at Barefoot Bistro doing last minute preparations for the event he would be hoisting on the city late that night. It was the third edition of an annual “fashion fling” he called D’Ramp—and all pressure was on him. Already this one was the fourth—and the last—fashion show to hit Dumaguete in a week. Only that Wednesday, and in the same venue, Toto Marquez and his crew had already unleashed their Sneak Foam Party that featured a revealing ramp show of models wearing nothing but the skimpiest of beach wear. (The foam party part, however, was a bust—there was no foam, and nobody partied.) The following night, annexing Barefoot Bistro and El Camino Blanco this time around, Tyrone Tejam amped the ante with his X International Fashion Party that brought in a Manila deejay and a batch of international models, purportedly Eastern European and Brazilian.

Was Dumaguete already in a fashion fatigue? The tickets for the previous shows had already been priced quite high, one at P200 and the other at P500—enormous sums for the notoriously cheap Dumaguete crowd. The lingering question remained: was there a paying crowd left for D’Ramp 3, even at P150 per ticket? Better yet: would anyone be left to care for what passed for a fashion show in the city?

Fashion shows in Dumaguete are relatively a new phenomenon—although Dumaguete society had long since done their share from the 1960s on with private fashion shows exclusive to their well-heeled ilk. The city had never really been fashionable, given everybody’s predilection for tropical uniform: a white shirt, a pair of “city shorts,” and sandals. The idea of couture is largely lost in this small town pretending to be a city, but in the late 1990s and finally in the 2000s, “fashion shows” became almost an epidemic—and it came out in all sorts of disguises, from low-brow bikini opens celebrating the carnal, to wedding shows at the boulevard at the height of May.

Some call the phenomenon a travesty.

“Sometimes,” says local fashion designer Josip Estolloso Tumapa, “I do agree that we do a lot of fashion shows in Dumaguete. But it is quite an insult to attach the word ‘fashion’ in relations to many of these shows. Because some are done with intentions other than serving fashion. They’re more like Monterey ‘walking-meat’ shows. They’re partnered mostly RTW boutiques that make everything look … commercial. If I were to pay P150 to see clothes that I see anytime I want just by walking the streets of this city, then hell I would rather sweat it by walking rather than paying. It’s getting kapoy. And it’s getting generic. That is why I do filtering on the events I am invited to—to only work with established or semi-established and competent, well-experienced people in the field of production whom also I can learn from. And to check the production plans and see that everything won’t be half-baked. Lisud naman gud especially from my side. Here I am working and enslaving myself making clothes and—ugh, utter disappointment. But I think it comes in stages. Hopefully Dumaguete will get there sooner than later if we do serve the growing Dumaguete ‘fashion crowd’ with something deserving and worth the money. Nothing run-of-the-mill.”

Mr. Penales, in the meantime, hung on to what he thought would make his show a little different—this was going to be a bigger show, featuring almost fifty models culled from the various social sets around Dumaguete and Cebu. And he was also launching Faces magazine, a project he was editing for Negros Chronicle, which for its first issue would showcase what he called “the fifteen hottest bachelors of the city.” Most of those bachelors—which included the ragtag bunch of Gabby del Prado, Ian Lizares, Marco Ongsingco, Dudly Mark Realuyo Rios, Farzad E. Pakdamanian, Jonathan Keane Camat, Jacob Carl Jumawan, Ian Rosales Casocot, Saturnino Pacencia Jr., Bernard Piñero, Kyle Janruss Delfino, and Ralph Percidenes—would open the show and walk the ramp. He believed people would come. It was the last night of the Founders Week, after all. People would come.

And then it started to rain hard.

Dressed only in a plain orange shirt and shorts and a pair of slippers, Mr. Penales had been doing last minute preparations, checking that everything was set—the lights, the sounds, the stage that had been hurriedly set up only that morning, the makeshift dressing area, the sponsors’ various tarpaulin, the arrangement of the models’ clothes. It would have been a logistics nightmare, but his production assistant Bogy Lim, a quiet young man whose unassuming air belies a sharp fascination for dealing with details, was busy zeroing in on the essentials. Somewhere in the chaos, Angel Gonzales, another production assistant, counted out the clothes, and the choreographer Janjaran was busy plotting out the intricate finalities of the models’ movements on the long runway, a not-so-sturdy plank made of lawanit that was now beginning to get soaked in by the pouring rain. The models, meanwhile, were billeted in three hotels around town—in Hotel Carmila, in Hotel Nicanor, and in Ildesefa. Call time was six o’clock, and all were busy getting their makeup. They were all getting hungry, but no one dared eat—it wouldn’t be good to look puffy and stuffed in front of a crowd. And some of them would be wearing lingerie and stylish briefs in a few segments. In Room 303 of Hotel Nicanor, event organizer Kathleen Hynson Patacsil was helping put on the makeup for the boys while the newly made-up Aesha Amigo Villanueva gingerly brushed away the hotel’s curtains and looked out the window to see the rain pouring down like mad on San Jose Street. “Do you think it’s still going to rain at 10 o’clock?” she asked no one in particular. “Will we even have a show?”

The show, of course, was still a distant four hours away, but the rain was not helping anybody—including those who planned to see the show—feel at ease. In her house somewhere in Valencia, Arlene Delloso-Uypitching was a little worried about the tickets she was promised, and also the possibility of getting wet. In Hotel Carmila, Miss Dumaguete Maria Luz Catan was not happy with her make-up, and swore to hop to another hotel and another make-up artist, her boyfriend and fellow model Ian Lizares in tow. Back in Barefoot Bistro, sitting quietly at the bar, Mr. Penales was already thinking in terms of contingencies—what he would do if the rain persisted, or if a blackout would occur? But he was also thinking: what would I wear? It had to be something that would make him look good on stage. He wanted to go home, take a shower. He felt sticky and sweaty despite the cold air.

Earlier that Saturday morning, things were the very picture of preparations going well. The day was fine and bright, the skies blue. It had been rainless all of August, and no one would foresee the drench of rains ahead. That morning, El Camino Blanco and Barefoot Bistro—the twin venues for things nocturnal in Dumaguete—looked quite different in the daylight that at nighttime, at the height of weekend parties where the darkness hide the empty beer mugs, the ashtrays filled with discarded cigarette butts, the curious flirtations between friends and strangers alike. In the daylight, the remnants of Friday night were all too clear and topsy-turvy—it looked like the aftermath of a battle. The tables and chairs were haphazard, some in a dance of tumbled madness. Everywhere, the carpenters and electricians were busy putting in the effects for the duo events for the night—D’Ramp 3 and the Philip Morris Party. The ramp in the bistro was being built—a plywood runway held together by a flimsy wood frames. The speakers were being put in place, the tents unfurled. Inside Camino, new lights—better, more dramatic ones—were being installed, and a new deejay’s booth being placed on stage. The models were in clusters were everywhere, all trying to get last minute instructions for how to move that night. Still, this was going to be my first time to walk the ramp—I have never “modeled” before, if that was the word for it, as I was always in the background of things as these events go. But I took to the experience as an observer of new things—and came to this conclusion once said to me by a friend, a socialite: “I like fashion shows. They’re shallow fun, and vanity is the perfect excuse for being in the center of things.” But considering the rain later, I asked ruefully, would the “debut” even happen?

But by nine o’clock, the rain was slowing down—but it would not readily vanish away. It slowed down in spurts. It was still cold, but at least nobody was going to get wet, except by stray showers. By ten o’clock, the two red billowing tents that graced the catwalk and the rows of chairs that surrounded it were filling to the brim, and by the time the fifteen bachelors walked the ramp to open the show to the tune of Pitbull’s “I Know You Want Me,” the crowd was screaming. At nearby El Camino Blanco, the now legendary Philip Morris Party was also starting.

The night of August 29 was going to be a night everybody would remember.

Later on, Mr. Penales would tell me it was not glamorous at all, the staging of fashion shows—it was all of grit and tons of headache. But it was fun.

“Why do you do it then?” I asked.

“Passion,” he replied.

III. A Brief History of Dancing and Commotion

“College life is really not about pseudo teachers and their boring classes. It’s zigzagging from Escaño to Barefoot to take a leak.” 
—Marianne Tapales, former student

Our nights become because of the city we have.

Let me start by saying that the city always seems to stand on the brink of clashing peculiarities that often make it difficult to describe. Dumaguete is—so the tired cliché goes—a city that really is a small town at heart—but not exactly. It is a place so far away from the center of things that it is permeated with a semi-rough probinsyano air—but not really. It’s conservative to the bone—but not really; it can be quite liberal—but not really either. It is a beautiful, romantic place you can easily fall in love with—until you see pockets of it that make your heart bleed.

It is this and that, a place of constant flux in the guise of a slow tartanilla.

These things make it the capital of infuriating constancy as well as head-turning reinvention. But see how that goes? Our contradictions become us. “It’s the capital of schizoids then,” a friend once casually observed. I nodded and shook my head at roughly the same time.

Dumaguete is place where not too many people from the rest of the regions know very well—and there are people who are even more familiar with Silliman University than the place where it is located. (“Is Dumaguete in Silliman?” so the question goes. But perhaps this is in the same vein of how we think of Princeton but not New Haven.) Mention that it is in Negros (omitting the Spanish terms of direction that divide the island), and they think it’s a town near Bacolod. And yet it is a celebrated city in spite of itself: it is a place of cultural ferment, and a place of breathtaking romantic beauty that more often than not finds itself splashed, like a surprised virgin, on the pages of Island Magazine (“one of 20 best islands in the world to live in!”), the New York Times (“I grew attached to the small harbor town,” writes travel writer Daisann McLane), or the Lonely Planet travel guide (“If you were beginning to develop an aversion to regional centers, you’re in for a pleasant surprise with Dumaguete. It’s a nice place. Seriously. Everyone raves about the Rizal Boulevard promenade, and it’s true there’s something genuinely charming about this harbor-front ‘quarter mile’: the faux-antique gas lamps; the grassy median strip. But there are other things to like about Dumaguete: it’s big but it feels small, and it’s less congested, less polluted and—being a university town—far more hip and urbane than your average provincial capital”).

To the eyes of the world, it is our merry contradictions that make us.

Still, Dumagueteños love to shroud themselves in the promise of calm, slowness, and silence. We call it a “city of gentle people,” after all—a gentility bred by Spanish sugar nobility, I suppose, which does not really say much—or perhaps it is a throwaway description of how passive things can be here?

Historically, the silence has always been part of the old Dumaguete charm, and the first complaint now from any returning Dumagueteño long gone from the scene is to express dismay over the traffic and the surprising flood of people. Writer Krip Yuson, adopted son of the city, speaks of the old silence with such nostalgia in his book The Word on Paradise: “I remember it as clearly as yesterday, that first rite on a slow-moving tartanilla, May of 1968. How I marveled at the manner of entry, at the fresh air of provincia, rustic indolence, aged acacias lining an avenue I instantly knew would lead to a long-imagined, long-elusive fountainhead…”

I also remember an anecdote Jacqueline Veloso-Antonio once told me about how the sound of someone’s car from not too far away—the screeching of tires on asphalt or gravel road, the sound of brakes—can immediately be registered sight unseen. “That’s So-and-so’s car, we would say,” Jacqueline laughed, remembering the old days. “Nipauli na sya.”

And then there is also the “university town” label, a moniker that promises an abundance of youth culture that always must be on the cutting edge of things and sensibilities—inherently defiant, gloriously rough, astoundingly creative, aggressively hip. How does one reconcile that image with a Dumaguete that is also a bucolic capital smack in the middle of countryside?

Everybody knows everybody else, and conservative fronts—nurtured both by Roman Catholic piety and American Protestant missionary zeal—still remain the standard order of things. But there’s also an ironic awareness among most Dumagueteños that there are not-so-subtle waves of transgressions that run like undiscovered waters beneath this general impression of “nothing happening.”

When Peyton Place came out—first as a scandalous 1956 novel by Grace Metalious and then a 1957 hit movie directed by Mark Robson and starring Lana Turner—it wasn’t such a great surprise that many locals saw too many parallels between Dumaguete and that archetypal American small town of sweet hypocrisy, where a pristine white picket fence mentality also bristles with delicious scarlet secrets that threaten to explode like a vat of raw sugar.

Such places on the quiet edge of things beget nocturnal lives that are the stuff of scandalous dreams. Dumaguete is so small and so quiet, that to vent—in one way (drinking) or another (dancing)—becomes the thing to do. Which brings us to a truism that Moses Joshua Atega, a Dumaguete transplant from Davao, always tells every new visitor to Dumaguete, in a kind of wicked reassurance: “Nothing bad will happen to you in Dumaguete. But, if something bad happens, you will like it.”

It is into that tradition of billowing quiet and vapid slowness that Music Box—before it was known as Why Not?—came in, and radically altered the nighttime landscape.

There had been other disco places and clubs in town before Music Box arrived, of course, and there were social events of various stripes where the young of Dumaguete raged against the overwhelming quiet of the everyday.

Moses Atega told me that before there were “official” party places like El Camino and Hayahay, Dumagueteños were already hosting strings of private parties in casa blancas everywhere in town, including the posh ones hosted in American missionary homes in Silliman campus. Even older than that, there were the bayles during sipong among the sugar cane workers.

“When I was in high school in the 1970s,” local TV host Glenda Fabillar told me, “we had jam sessions held in friends’ houses with only katol as light.” She said this laughing at the memory. “Then, in college, we partied in Silliman’s Catacombs, and there were more—but I can only remember the places we went to, but not their names. There were a lot.”

“In the 1970s,” Professor Cecilia Genove told me, “it was Town and Country Bakeshop, or TCB, which had a disco. That’s located near the Gallardo Building where Mr. D is now. I remember we would climb the fence near the SU Church to cross to Town and Country, to buy hot pan de sal. There was also North Pole, which is now Why Not, where you can have dinner and a nightcap. No disco there, however. I remember the spaghetti of Maricar’s [which is now the boarded up place fronting Taster’s Delight]. Their pastries were our favorites. There was also Dainty, an ice cream parlor. Life was truly laidback then.”

Understandably, Dumagueteños ate out more than partied then. For Rural Bank’s Toby Dichoso, to go out in the 1970s was to visit Speed Meals, where Body and Sole is now. “They had really good food in a jiffy,” he said. “And when merienda time came, who could forget those ice cream sundaes of North Pole, which was located in the Boulevard then. They served the best sundaes and banana splits. Remember, these were the time when we had to take two flights to Dumaguete from Manila. We took flights from Manila to Cebu with BAC 1-11, and upon reaching Cebu we changed to a plane with a turbo propeller bound for Dumaguete. And we used to go to Cruztelco just to make long distance calls. All phones were analogue then—only four numbers—and we went through an operator and we would ask her to dial the number for us while we waited in the lobby. As soon as the operator would connect us, she would direct us to a booth with a number, and there we would converse.”

U.S.-based Al de las Armas remembered that time as an opportunity to be creative: “When we ran out of allowance, we shared, we treated, we donated, we pahulam to our fellow Sillimanians. I’d walk from the campus to Ricky’s and bum for piso-piso, and I’d got lots of money after the social walk… Then, of course, we spent it all having a good time… Nowhere else can you do that!”

Local Globe manager Jacqueline Antonio remembered her parents mentioning Red Pepper in the 1970s, where Monterey of La Residencia is now. “There was Rainbow Pub in Piapi, a bar with billiards—but I was too young then. Not sure if it had a disco. There was also Windmills in Banilad and North Pole—both in the Boulevard and then in Bantayan—in the late 1970s and 1980s,” she said. “There was Tavern’s soft bar in the late 1980s—‘80s music was the best!

“Definitely Tavern in the 1980s,” says businesswoman and writer Sonia Sygaco. “It had a disco, a resto bar with a band. And billiards. Tavern, I think, was the only elegant place to go because Dumaguete at that time only restaurants with no additional forms of entertainment.”

“In the early 1980s,” court clerk Angel Quiamco remembered, “there was Blue Wave in Escaño. And pwede pa pa-inoman sa Boulevard then, after which mag-bayle sa SU gym, or Hibbard Hall’s second floor, or Silliman Hall’s first floor. This was during Fridays, with events sponsored by different campus organizations. Then there was inoman sa Silliman Beach, or mga bayle sa mga barangay during fiesta.”

But Music Box was the hinge that changed the course of things. The year was 1992, the world was still fresh from the wounds of the Gulf War, and a young Swiss named Marcus Kalberer took over what used to be North Pole, a beloved watering hole for locals, and put into place what was then the most ambitious party club in Dumaguete. The city until then knew no such things. To cap that plan, he installed a jazzed up jukebox on the roof of the old Veloso sugar house, with dazzlingly colorful neon signs blaring out the words: “Music Box.”

For the young in the early 1990s, it was an electric current into the common placidity and the brutal ugliness of the boring. It was also the new excuse for the hip to return to Rizal Boulevard, which had become, by the late 1980s, a mecca for drunkards and prostitutes who plied their alcohol smell and their skin trade in a virtual city of tambay vendors and barbecue stalls. The whole boulevard nightlife until then was defined by sleaze, its headquarters being Rainbow Lodge (later The Office), which is now the Sol y Mar Building where the Globe office is located. It used to be part motel, and part bar.

To go to the Boulevard then was reason enough to be mocked by friends. “You’re going to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams?” they would say. But the strip was slowly undergoing a cosmetic make-over then, spearheaded by the dynamic new mayor Agustin Perdices, who came in after the chaos of the Quial years. The grassy lawns were being manicured, the seaside promenade cemented and prettified, the garish fluorescent lights nailed to haphazard wooden posts replaced by the Spanish-style posts now emitting a more romantic yellow light. The sugar houses along the stretch suddenly took on a different shine. Some opened their doors to new business. There was now Sans Rival in the old Sagarbarria house, for example, and the old Villegas house was now Hotel Al Mar (later La Residencia). But there were unforeseen changes, too, that shocked: North Pole—the old Medina house, which was leased by the Wuttriches for 25 years—suddenly became Music Box.

And the young flocked to it like it was the answer to their dreams.

In the long-gone layout of the Music Box of old, you made your grand entrance after a cursory inspection by a bouncer—a new thing in Dumaguete then—and once you’ve passed through the heavy, padded doors and straight into the inside, you were introduced into a dark, very glamorous interior that was leveled in many places, red sofas dotting surfaces everywhere. The dance floor was right on the far-side. The walls were covered by screens that played the latest videos from MTV, when MTV was still new in the country and it still had currency as the symbol of cool. There were glittery things that hung from the ceiling. And the bar, right in the center of things, was party central. People dressed up to go to Music Box. The coolest cats and the most ravishing girls in town partied in Music Box.

Music Box was the place to be seen. “MB,” its patrons lovingly called it. And for the next five or so years, Music Box reigned as Dumaguete’s center of the social universe, where the young and the rich (and the social climbers) went and partied. To arrive by car was de riguer. Motorcycles were frowned upon, but tolerated. But if you arrived by tricycle, it was a common—although unspoken—rule that you had to alight by the corner near Chin Loong, and walk the rest of the way to the entrance.

And for what it is worth, Music Box opened the floodgates for more contemporary sensibilities that shook the old silences and the geriatric drool of the old Dumaguete.

It barged into the scene at the same time as DYGB, which blasted into the air as Power 95. It was the new FM station in town, with the swanky new chrome-and-white cement headquarters right in the heart of town—so swanky it even had a popular video store in the ground floor called Midtown, which rented out the latest in laser discs! DYGB threatened the longtime ascendancy of DYEM and its easy-listening vibe. (Remember “Album Covers”?) Barely a month into operation, the Dejarescos had taken it to court, to have it dial down to a frequency that was not to near its own. Power 95 soon became Power 91. But it was a hip new FM station with an alien sound, with fast-talking American-sounding deejays, playing scandalous songs like Salt N’ Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.”

Dumaguete’s head spun.

I still remember those days. I was still in high school—a sophomore in Silliman High—and one day, DJ Alan felt compelled to explain the nature of the next song in his playlist. “We don’t mean to hurt the sensibilities of the people in the community,” he said, “but we are here to play for Dumaguete the latest hit sounds. I hope nobody gets offended by our next song…”

And then the music played:

            Let’s talk about sex, baby

            Let’s talk about you and me,

            Let’s talk about all the good things, all the bad things that may be.

            Let’s talk about sex…

            Let’s talk about sex.

Dumaguete’s head spun some more.

Later on, in early 1993, our first section of high school seniors from Silliman, led by our gangleader for merrymaking Gerard Anthony Adiong, trooped to our favorite party place in town, and painted the night away in hues of red and blue. Someone saw us partying like mad, and duly reported us to the authorities. The principal admonished us. “And to think you belong to the first section!” she said.

And thus began Dumaguete’s 10 P.M. curfew—with matching sirens blaring out like a mad sound from the heart of City Hall.

Blame us. That’s our fault.

IV. The Long Party Closes

“We were gods and goddesses of dance and light. Everywhere we went, we glittered.”
—Eric Samuel Joven, on Dumaguete of the mid-1990s

All what ifs, given the right nurturing and a little kick of imagination, are excuses to party.

Like all good ideas that become infectious and are soon carried through by the sheer push of will and word-of-mouth, the one I am about to tell you started out as a broad stroke of such kind of speculation.

But let us begin by noting that What Ifs was the game to play—bordering sometimes on the wicked and the suggestive—in the boredom-infested, pre-cellphone, pre-Facebook days of the mid-1990s. This was when, for a brief moment, a kind of affluent flowering enveloped a suddenly burgeoning Dumaguete, turning the city into a frenetic beehive.

It was a brilliant bubble of a time, coming right before the Asian financial crisis (which shook our lives, and from which we have yet to recover). President Fidel Ramos was in power, and the Philippines—just coming out of the dark ages early in the decade that saw the country crippled by endless blackouts that ravaged the economy—was suddenly enjoying a belated (and, alas, short-lived) reputation of having become the new economic miracle of the region, Asia’s “new tiger.”

Those were the days when Dumaguete began stirring from the slumbering pace, when old and new began to clash and to accommodate each other. Its narrow streets were no longer so quiet. By 1998, Felipe Antonio Remollo was the new and dynamic mayor. Everybody suddenly seemed flushed with extra cash. The air was drunk with unbridled optimism (there was talk of a Metro Dumaguete, of urban master plans that would change the way Dumagueteños lived and interacted…). Every day felt like a promise of bigger things. And every night was a party.

There was no such thing as a slow night at the Rizal Boulevard, for example. In the heady days of the 1990s, it was Party Central every night of the week—even Sundays. Newly rehabilitated from its bleak 1980s reputation as a red light district, the seaside promenade was suddenly a slick stretch of simple but handsome design, thanks to outgoing mayor Agustin Perdices. The place practically leaped away from its previous incarnation as a concrete monstrosity with bad lighting. Suddenly, it became postcard perfect. There was now a set of faux-antique lampposts lining the walkway, as well as a meticulously cultivated landscape of carabao grass with brick (and later, brown slate) borders. Families could picnic in the new Boulevard in the daytime, and nocturnal creatures could cruise a thriving scene after hours, drinks permitted.

The famed Sugar Houses along the Boulevard stretch, long “abandoned” by their hacendero owners to the ravages of time and fortune and the red blinking lights of streetwalkers, were suddenly being spruced up. Tocino Country—the collective name of the mass of barbecue stands that dotted the Boulevard—was transferred to the vacant lot fronting West City Elementary School, where it thrived for years. (Now it is situated on the lot beside the City Engineer’s Office in Lo-oc.) New restaurants were opening along the stretch, and new hotels, too. Bethel Guest House, the Cang family’s idea of a “Christian” hotel, was a swanky addition to the Boulevard cityscape—and Honeycomb followed suit, settling in the old Medina mansion, which was refurbished to suit its new function. The Lees, too, took over the old house where the legendary local mystic Father Tropa used to house his exotic pets, and made it into a slick bar called Lighthouse. This became the nightly hub of the young social set. (This is now Shakey’s.)

Over at the other end of the stretch, near Silliman University, some things strained to get on with the bandwagon—like Ocean’s Eleven across old Silliman Hall. (This is now Blue Monkey Grill). The restaurant didn’t quite catch on, and for years, the place was reduced to a rubble of an empty lot. But, near it, Hotel Al Mar suddenly became a more posh La Residencia; across the street, the honky-tonkish building housing a pub called The Office became a private condominium where Globelines now is; and the barely-used lot beside The Office became an outdoor grill and beer garden called Ang Boulevard. Much later, that beer garden became a popular bar done up in a ‘50s diner-style and was called, appropriately, Happy Days. (This soon became the short-lived Grin Life, and is now CocoAmigos.)

Happy Days… This was where Tina Alcuaz, the proprietress of exceeding proportions (a cheerful demeanor included), reigned over the black and white chessboard-tiled floor, flanked by screaming red walls with framed posters of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the whole pantheon of classic Hollywood icons… This was where her friend Zaldy would tether his horse outside, after a gallop at the Boulevard. (Yes, a horse…) This was where the A and B Crowd descended regularly for their fix of Budweiser, then the beer of choice. In the island bar that dominated the middle, a kind of social Mount Olympus existed. On one end, Vincent Joey Alar—the 1990s poster boy for partying—trafficked the crowd, introducing everybody to everybody else. “Gideon of Caballes Printing Press,” he would say, for example, “this is Star of Wuthering Heights. Say hi to each other.” The placed buzzed with beso-besos everywhere… Every night was dance night. This was where Wednesdays happened, before there was ever a Reggae Wednesday in Hayahay… This was where we held plenty of erotic poetry readings—courtesy of the shenanigans of the posse of the resident intellectuals Eva Repollo, Jean Claire Dy, Bombee Dionaldo, Jesselle Baylon, Tintin Ongpin, and Aivy Nicolas—complete with smoke machines, a ceiling full of condom balloons, and throaty deliveries and a lot of moaning… This was where Tuesday Nights were Girls Nights, Thursday Nights were (unofficially) Gay Nights, and the rest of the weekend a merry mix of Everybody Else.

Those days, indeed, were happy.

It suddenly seemed that Dumaguete was becoming truer to its cityhood. It was starting to feel like one; it was no longer so much an overgrown town, although much of its charm was still derived from a lingering sense of smallness as well.

It became a kind of secret destination, a Filipino city that was like no other. Soon, celebrities—film and TV actors and singers of all stripes—were constantly flying in from Manila, not to perform, but to bask in the Dumaguete sunlight as adopted locals. Here, they could not be harassed as they would be in Manila’s public places. They could walk the main stretch of Alfonso Trese (which was renamed Perdices Street), and not be gawked or rushed at by hysterical fans.

Then again, it was an old Dumaguete (now gone) that didn’t care much about local celebrities, nor fawned over them. It was a city that was not capable of being star-struck. (The teleseryes of ABS-CBN and GMA had yet to come in with such popularity to make a bakya masa of all of us.)

It was a city where actors like Mark Gil could come in to set up shop. In the old Perdices mansion along the Boulevard, where Mamia’s is now, the actor opened Limelight—a grand forerunner of El Camino Blanco, only better—which was a fine dining restaurant by day (and all throughout dinnertime) and a VIP club by night. This was where the best parties happened—its kidney-shape bar overflowing with the partying days of Daniel Fernandez, who was Dumaguete’s Party King and Ultimate Ringleader.

And the city, of course, felt like partying with him. It partied for the rest of that decade, to the soundtrack of Paul Van Dyk, Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill and Madonna’s Ray of Light.

“In 1996,” now Manila-based Dr. Gideon Caballes recalled, “the place to hang out in was El Amigo, our version of Minimik. It had great food, cheap too, but it was generally a nice place to chat over beer. And I remember Orient Garden, fronting what is now Gold Label Bakeshop. It was around from 1987 until probably 1990. It had a band famous for overplaying ‘The Name Game’ song. I remember hanging out at St. Moritz in Agan-an a lot. It was a nice seaside place to have a cheap date. This was the place to go to before Escaño became popular. Then there was Colors Disco in front of West City Elementary School. Then there was Music Box and that disco on the second floor of Gemini Building around 1991 or 1992. In 1996, there was Gimmick. Remember when Warren Cimafranca first broached the idea of opening an outdoors bar in the family property in the middle of all those residences in Claytown? We all told him the idea won’t work. That it would flop. We ate crow later on, didn’t we? We had no idea it would become so successful. Is it still the place to be seen in right now?”

The long party would go on until a little beyond the worldwide welcome for the new millennium (which unleashed the biggest Boulevard party in local history—complete with fireworks and spontaneous dancing in the streets).

The party would go on into the frenetic months of the Silliman Centennial, culminating in August 2001 when—for an entire month—Dumaguete did not sleep. That August was the peak of Dumaguete’s partying: it was filled with hundreds of random 24-hour parties everywhere, lasting all of its 31 days. How busy was it? Imagine the ultimate in traffic gridlock—at four o’clock in the morning, every day.

Then September 11 happened. When we all lost our innocence that day, our world shattered and shaken, the party ground down to a halt. For the next five years or so, all we had were shadows and memories.

Every generation in Dumaguete’s social set always has a muse who sets the tone for the party scene of the moment—a list that would include Jacqueline Veloso, Lua Khanum Padilla, and Christine Torres.

Flashback to 1996. Campus beauty Cherokee Dawn Esguerra—known more affectionately as C.D.—decided that she wanted to remember her twenty-first birthday the best way possible and in a manner that staid Dumaguete had never seen before. She was then the reigning Miss Silliman, and she would have none of the usual birthday buffets. None of the usual inuman at St. Moritz either. And none of the usual beach parties in the Bais sandbar, or Dauin. The speculation she hatched that soon raced through town like wildfire and had every one clamoring for the “exclusive” invitation to the shindig was—what if she invited the Who’s Who of the young Dumaguete set and ask them to dress up in 70s vintage costume, would they come?

A costume party. In the bell-bottomed, tie-dyed, sideburned, miniskirted gloriousness of the Bee Gees and their 1970s ilk.

The idea worked, for the most part, because of the promise of exclusivity. You were either invited, or you were not. For days before the party, those who still did not get the purple envelope with instructions to descend in full vintage regalia on the Joshua Room of Bethel Guest House—then the newest hotel in town—were feverish from anticipation and worry. It became, so to speak, a question of sociable existentialism: if you did not get the invitation, were you in fact a nobody?

In retrospect, the theme of the party was perched on an idea of risky novelty, given the notorious tendency of many Dumaguteños to spoil the fun in the name of “keeping a low and humble profile.” This is often the excuse for dressing down and going around in typical pambalay wear—a plain shirt (several sizes loose), a pair of “city shorts,” and sandals or espadrilles. Even for parties. And yet, perhaps for the first time ever, people heeded the sartorial challenge and began digging into their parents’ kabans. I went in as Elvis Presley in his Las Vegas years, minus the drugs and the paunch and the air of eventual doom. My pair of bell-bottoms was hot purple, my shirt a blazing LSD rainbow in brilliant Technicolor. My hair was too short, however, to be coifed into the standard Presley style—but I promptly made do by sporting fake sideburns. Everybody else—save for a staggering few who came in dressed as typical Dumaguete killjoys—dressed to the nines, and came in droves to the Boulevard, down to Bethel. They became a spectacle the likes of which this small city has never seen before. Everybody danced to the merry hits of the Village People and the Bee Gees and Gloria Gaynor until the wee hours, and soon everybody spread out around the city to satellite social hubs—the neighboring Lighthouse Bar was the next best thing—to prolong the party.

And for the longest time, that 1970s shindig was billed as the ultimate Dumaguete party to beat. It took five more years—with the month-long centennial celebration of Silliman last 2001—and another eight years—with the Philip Morris party last August—before the sheer audacity of C.D.’s party could be eclipsed. Great parties in Dumaguete, we soon learned, always came far between.

But in the final analysis, the 1990s would forever be marked as the decade where the city flowered and changed. Variety bloomed, for one thing. “In my time,” artist Sharon Dadang-Rafols said, “it was Silliman beach and Wuthering Heights, and it was always ‘action’ with friends, inom, tsika, poetry readings…”

“The places we went to,” recalled Silliman University’s students activity head Jojo Antonio, “were Lighthouse and Gimmick. In Lighthouse, new bands played every two to three weeks, and they were all from Manila and Cebu. The music ranged from the usual latest pop hits to retro. Everybody knew everybody then, and one didn’t worry over getting stabbed and shot after the late night fun. We could even leave our rhum or tequila bottles in the bar with our names scribbled on them, ready for consumption for the next day’s hangout.”

“Limelight was the ultimate!” remembered medical representative Jesselle Baylon. “It was great because of its cool house music. Great service, too. And in Lighthouse, we got different bands from all over the country, every month. And for your last stop if you felt like partying at 2 AM onwards, there was Detour. I loved that placed. It was hard to get another drink, and you just stand the entire time because there were no chairs—but people danced like crazy and you couldn’t help but bust your own moves… Dumaguete party places back then were better—but the number of people who knew how to party was even less than we have now. Now you have cross-generations of partygoers from their teens, their 20s and 30s. I wonder why they don’t open any more bars or clubs…”

Ian Rosales Casocot teaches literature, creative writing, and film at Silliman University in Dumaguete City, Philippines where he was Founding Coordinator of the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center. He is the author of several books, including the fiction collections Don’t Tell Anyone, Bamboo Girls, Heartbreak & Magic, and Beautiful Accidents. In 2008, his novel Sugar Land was longlisted in the Man Asian Literary Prize. He was Writer-in-Residence for the International Writers Program of the University of Iowa in 2010.

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