Digging out Cebu's Spanish treasures

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 April, 1998, 12:00am

The last place you would expect to have your money stolen would be inside a church. But in Cebu's Santo Nino Basilica the sign left no doubt: Beware of pickpockets.

So as I later made my way through the narrow alleys of the city's sprawling street market, I held on tight to my wallet.

But Cebu, the Philippines' oldest city, with a population of about one million, is actually one of the archipelago's safest. Crime here is surprisingly low.

It is also regarded as the most progressive city in the Philippines, and in spite of the economic downturn in Southeast Asia, tourism is thriving.

Nearby Mactan island is famous among Filipinos for repelling foreign visitors, namely the leader of the first Spanish expeditionary force, Ferdinand Magellan, and his men.

Magellan was speared to death by the island's chief, Lapu Lapu, whose warriors attacked the Spaniard's party as they waded ashore in 1521.

Now Mactan puts out the welcome signs and is the main conduit of tourism in the Visayas region of the Philippines.

Mactan's international airport has direct flights from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, and many are whisked away to resorts on Mactan, where they spend their whole holiday.

They return home praising the delights of Cebu, when in fact they have not even visited Cebu.

To do so you must cross the narrow road bridge that connects Mactan with Cebu City and the 200-kilometre-long island of the same name.

But not to visit Cebu City is a bit like eating strawberries and throwing away the cream.

For though Cebu City is expanding rapidly, and most of the colonial buildings along Colon Street have fallen to the demolition hammer within only the past two decades, there are still some historic gems to explore.

And the best way to see them is on a tour. Tour? I hate tours. But on Mactan, you book a private tour. Your own car and driver, plus your own guide. And it is inexpensive, at US$40 (about HK$300) per person.

It should have lasted only three hours, but we arrived back at the Mactan Island Shangri-La after five hours, and no extra charge.

Guides often rely on making a commission, of course, and I was invited to visit a guitar factory as we set off. But I made it clear I could not play a guitar, and that I was not interested in buying one.

After this, it was plain sailing, and we even went to one or two places in the city that I suggested visiting, and were not part of the itinerary.

I even stocked up with fruit at the public market in downtown Cebu. The island is the mango capital of the Philippines and it is now the height of the season, so they are very cheap.

If you want to shop for designer goods you go to the area known locally as Uptown, a few kilometres away, at shopping complexes like the Ayala Centre, one of the many new high-rises which are changing the city's skyline.

Shoppers have turned their backs on downtown Cebu which is looking a bit worse for wear, but if you want an insight into the city's historic roots, then this area is a must.

This June the Philippines will celebrate the 100th anniversary of independence from Spain, though in 1898 it immediately started to serve another master, the United States.

But the Spanish influence is still strong. Many Tagalog words are Spanish, as are people's surnames, and of course the Philippines is the only Catholic nation in Asia.

They take their religion seriously here. On Good Friday dozens of Filipinos are proud to be nailed to the cross, and self-flagellation is commonplace.

So I was not surprised to see a long queue outside the Santo Nino Basilica, which was built by the Spanish in 1740. Three earlier churches, the first of which was built in 1565, were made of wood and destroyed by fire.

There are queues here all day every day of the year, as people patiently wait to pay homage to a small wooden doll in a glass case, covered with a cloak studded with precious stones.

This effigy of the infant Jesus was given to Cebu's King Humabon by Magellan, and is the patron saint of Cebuanos.

You do not have to queue all day, though. Edge your way down the side to the front. If you are a foreign visitor, the locals do not mind you jumping the queue.

Outside the church, middle-aged women sell candles which you can light at the altar. Tell them your name and they will go through a ritual dance, with incantations they say will ensure your good luck.

It is a carnival atmosphere outside the church, and vendors jostle to sell bunches of helium-filled balloons and religious icons.

Christianity was introduced to the Philippines nearby in 1521 when the king and several hundred islanders were baptised.

The four-metre-high wooden cross which Magellan erected on the spot still stands there, although it has been reinforced with new wood.

Pilgrims were in the habit of chipping a piece off for a keepsake, and the cross was in danger of being 'felled'.

How do you combat marauding pirates? Well, you take several thousand egg whites, beat them well until they froth, and add to crushed coral. That was what the Spaniards did, and it proved quite effective.

The first fortress in Cebu was made of wood, but the colonisers decided they needed to replace it with a stronger structure. They decided to use local coral rock, but there was no cement in those days, so they used the egg whites instead.

This triangular-shaped fort San Pedro has a chequered history. It was used as a barracks for American soldiers, a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and was badly battered during the liberation struggle.

It later had the ignominy of being used as a zoo before the Filipinos finally realised its historic significance. It has been restored and houses a small museum.

For me the most impressive building in Cebu is the Gorordo residence near Colon Street. This family produced the first bishop of Cebu. The two-storey 19th-century wooden building has been fully restored, and its original furniture is still there, including a four-poster bed.

It is called a museum, but you can walk through all of the rooms, and it is far from stuffy.

You step back in time from the moment you walk into the servants' quarters, where a rattan sofa has a caged base where visiting tradesmen kept their hens.

Upstairs, the floor is mahogany (known locally as narra), as is the dining table, which is one slice from a huge narra tree trunk, big enough to allow eight people to dine.

There is a prayer room where an old table has a number of burn marks. It was fashionable in those days to purposely mark tables in this way, to impress visitors who would think the residents were extremely religious, burning their candles low into the late evening as they prayed. Life-size religious icons here were stuffed with the family savings. No god-fearing burglar would have dared tamper with them.

The living area is a long, narrow room, sectioned off into three areas by folding wooden partitions. Two chairs face each other across a table. Here a daughter would meet her suitor. Another chair, for the chaperon, is placed discreetly a few feet to the side.

The kitchen would have been outside in a separate building originally because of the danger of fire, but it has been re-created in one of the bedrooms, complete with the utensils of those days, including a charcoal-burning iron.

It must have been incredibly hot working in the kitchens in those days, bearing in mind that in summer the temperatures outside hit 35 degrees Celsius. Indeed, the heat has driven Cebu's wealthiest citizens into Beverly Hills, a few kilometres away, which offer fine views of the coast, and cool breezes.

About 15 per cent of Cebu's residents are Chinese, and up here they have built a colourful Taoist temple and a mini-'Great Wall'.

It is open to the public and is a breath of fresh air, literally, after the heat and dust of downtown Cebu, a nice place to stop before returning to the resort world of Mactan.