Notes on a Growing City, Part 3: Development and What We Know

It’s important to listen. Development [and everything else] in a community falls flat on its face when “listening” does not occur and when the culture of the place is not taken in due consideration.

I will try to illustrate this crucial element of culture with two examples.

Let’s start with the opening of Robinsons Place Dumaguete in 2009. Even before the mall opened its doors on November 23 of that year [timed to coincide with the annual fiesta], the city was divided between two groups of people: those who believed Dumaguete did not need a mall, and those who were eager for it because it felt like an aspirational marker — that Dumaguete was joining the ranks of bigger cities with their franchised shops and centralized shopping. But there really was no strong opposition to it, except when environmentalists pointed out that it was being built on marshland, which necessitated a change in the design into only two floors, and the foundation subsequently changed and reinforced. [This explains the cracks all over the place after just one earthquake.] Dumaguete mostly looked at the plans, shrugged, and let everything be. I was eager for the movie theaters myself; it had been several years since Dumaguete had a working movie theatre — Ever was now a shopping center that declared itself a mall, Park became UniTop, and UltraVision burned down on 5 January 2010 and never got around to fixing itself.

It’s important to note that management for most of the divisions of Robinsons Dumaguete [the grocery, the movie theaters, etc.] remains elsewhere — Bacolod, in particular. They hired locals to man the most immediate areas of supervision, but major decisions were executed somewhere else. [This includes what movies got shown on the three screens they had!] Still, when Rob opened, we welcomed its presence in our midst — like an oddball suddenly marking its arrival in a community that regarded it with a mixture of bemusement and a desire to see a “mall” [how cute!] become successful in the context of Dumaguete.

I remember walking in on opening day — and was gutted with an immense and immediate sense of disappointment, which I later learned was shared by so many other people. This is it? we all shook our heads. Mao ra ni sya? The cavernous two-story space was just a simple L-shaped thing — usa ka tuyok, humana na. That alone did not bode well for Dumagueteños from the start; we felt insulted and patronized by a langyaw’s underwhelming offering. Coming from three centuries of Spanish neglect in favor of Cebu, Iloilo, and Bacolod, we were [and still are] nursing a grudge. In a previous installment of this series, I discussed the notorious pickiness of Dumaguete people — and the mall was a disappointment in that regard right from the get-go. But still, local businesses were game enough to welcome it, opening satellite stalls and branches inside the mall, essentially replicating the business landscape of the city in the microcosm of the new shopping place. (Within a year, most would close down those branches.)

And contrary to popular belief, the mall did not displace local businesses — the city itself in its smallness was already a kind of a strip mall, and certainly more accessible, and “not far.” This proved consequential for some stores: National Bookstore had a thriving branch in Portal West along Silliman Avenue — but abandoned it in favor of a spot in Robinsons. Foot traffic dropped.

What does this say about the Dumagueteño? That we love our “downtown” — and our thriving concept of it lies within the space of the Spanish colonial tradition of “encircle and protect,” which was naming the streets surrounding and threading through the poblacion after saints [e.g. Calle Santa Cecilia (old name of Silliman Avenue), Calle San Jose, Calle San Juan, Calle Sta. Catalina, and Calle Sta. Rosa] and after Spanish rulers and personalities [e.g. Calle Alfonso XIII (old name of Perdices Street), Calle Maria Christina, Calle Colon (old name of Cong. Lorenzo G. Teves Street), Calle Cervantes (old name of Mayor Joe Pro Teves Street), and Calle Real (old name of the national highway now known as Veterans Avenue and Mayor Ramon Pastor Teves Street) — although some streets retained their original descriptive names [e.g. Calle Marina (old name of Rizal Avenue)]. Beyond this space of “encircle and protect” are the “nether regions” of Dumaguete — which is why, even until the 2000s, many places like Bantayan, Daro, Piapi, Motong, Calindagan, Banilad, Pulangtubig, and many others remained in the minds of many locals as being “too far.” Certainly, Robinsons Place in Calindagan was “too far.”

But the parking story is even more representative about “development without listening or taking note of local culture.” A few days after Robinsonsplace opened, management banned motorcycles from their parking lots, insisting that these were reserved only for four-wheeled vehicles, with the thinking that “motorcycle parking was messy.”

The mall management asked people with motorcycles to park along the street or in nearby empty lots — which was a complete misreading of Dumaguete culture. Dumaguete, at least at that time, meant motorcycles. For many years, we were even given the moniker of “Motorcycle Capital of the Philippines.” The ill-advised mall policy was an inconvenience for a population that went around in motorcycles, and not cars. So while the mall parking lot remained mostly empty, the byways of nearby streets were choked with motorcycle parking. And then, several weeks later, the foot traffic in the new mall dropped precipitously — and management scrambled to address this, one of which was to reverse their earlier policy of banning motorcycles from their parking lots.

“By then,” biologist Richard Pavia remembered, “people were already fed up — and realized Rob was not the ‘mall of malls’ that it was promised. It was also too far from the city center, and was in reality an ‘epithelial mall’ — meaning it occupies a large area, but the stores are only along the inner periphery. In my honest opinion, going to the mall was not worth the trip. Their parking policy already showed they did not do their research on Dumaguete culture.”

There was also the case of Frontrow Entertainment bringing the controversial play M Butterfly to Dumaguete in 2019. By and large, it was a successful staging in terms of enthusiastic public response — but it was the first time a theatre company dared put on a production that lasted for several days in succession on a Dumaguete stage, including matinees. Considering the capacity of the Luce Auditorium, the ambitious staging required patronage [e.g., ticket sales] that had to go beyond Silliman University, which co-sponsored it, and even beyond Dumaguete — possibly enticing audiences from the nearby towns and even the nearby provinces.

This required marketing of such precision.

And the production’s marketing staff, flown in from Manila, did their work — but mostly patterned their techniques on how things were done in bigger cities, like Manila or Cebu, one of which was holding a press conference.

Dumaguete locals who do events know this by heart: press conferences do not really work in Dumaguete. They only work in two specific contexts: beauty pageants and politicians making revelations about a policy or a controversy; and sometimes a restaurant opening — but even this is not a guarantee that something will be written about it for print or broadcast. When a press conference was scheduled for the M Butterfly cast and creative staff in Robinsons a day or two before the premiere of the play, nobody came. “But we contacted the media ourselves!” the marketing staff told us. And I remember thinking: If only you asked us if this was feasible.

Another case of langyaw who do not do their research on Dumaguete culture.

In the proper categorization of heritage items, this type of culture is what we call “secret knowledge” which is under the category of “intangible culture.” Intangible culture is defined by the UNESCO as the practice, representation, expression, knowledge, or skill consisting of nonphysical intellectual wealth. This includes local languages, folk beliefs and superstitions, festivals, rituals, songs and musical compositions, dances, local technologies, local sports and games, literary arts, culinary arts, local jokes, local healing arts, and of course, secret knowledge.

What is “secret knowledge”? It is difficult to define, but perfectly easy to demonstrate. It’s essentially the knowledge of the practical variety that is shared by many in a cultural community that everyone subscribes to and believes in, without it being properly defined or delineated in studies or books. These are things “we just know,” and pass on to the next generation through sheer osmosis.

In Dumaguete, for example, we “just know” that we demand our goods to be cheap but without sacrificing high quality. A dish in a restaurant that costs more than P150 is already “very expensive.” [KRI famously built a thriving restaurant culture by starting off with all the dishes in its menu not costing more than P99. When chef Ritchie Armogenia was asked by visitors from Manila why he priced his dishes so low, he answered: “You don’t know Dumaguete.”]

Other things:

We “just know” that Bantayan is “far,” and the barangays traversed by Larena Drive are “bukid na man na.”

We “just know” that if you’re downtown and you want to catch a tricycle going to Piapi, you will have to flag one down at the corner of Union Drug, if you come from Lee Super Plaza, or at the corner near Jo’s Chicken Inato, if you come from Portal West.

We “just know” that when we tell tricycle drivers we want to go to Orchids or Bricks or Golden Rule, they know exactly where we want to go, even if these are currently non-existent landmarks.

We “just know” that pedicabs and tricycles are one and the same — although they’re really not. [A pedicab is technically something you “pedal,” like a put-put — but we don’t really care.]

We “just know” that the remedy for fevers is Mirinda Tru-Orange with raw egg thrown in for good measure.

We “just know” that “L” differentiates us from the Binisaya of more powerful centers of culture in the region, especially Cebu — and we relish that “L” in our pronunciation of things.

We “just know” that restaurants along the Rizal Boulevard are for tourists and expats, and if you want the real Dumaguete deal, you had to go restaurants somewhere else visitors would not know about — like Qyosko, or Hayahay [although this one is increasingly becoming known], or Manang Siony’s.

We “just know” there is a huge community of expats in our midst, which we tend to ignore — and are surprised when our visitors are themselves “surprised” to see “so many foreigners” in Dumaguete.

We “just know” that when it comes to doing things, it can be a fine balance of pleasing the four major universities in town. [“Pang-Silliman ra man na,” “Pang-Foundation ra man na,” etc. — and the loyalties can run deep, and can even spill over to strange contentiousness.]

We “just know” that even though Siquijor is a completely separate province, it’s still part of our landscape of what “home” means — even among Siquijodnons themselves.

There are so many other kinds of secret knowledge only people who have stayed in Dumaguete for years and years would come to know in all their strange nuances.

But above all, we “just know” that central to our identity as Dumagueteños is the easy access to both sea and mountain. Straddled between Bohol Sea to the east and Cuernos de Negros to the west, Dumaguete worships the icons of both: the Rizal Boulevard is our temple to the sea [and the frame to our idea of sunrise], and our regular hikes to Mount Talinis is our pilgrimage to the mountain gods. To attempt to destroy both, even in small ways, is a stake through the very heart of what “we know” about being Dumagueteño.

When the Philippine National Oil Company [PNOC, now the Energy Development Corporation or EDC] attempted to encroach in 2003 on the natural bounty of the Lake Balinsasayao Natural Park — which is essentially the colorful front door of Cuernos de Negros — for the reason of “geothermal exploration,” which required cutting more than half of the area’s forest cover, we rose in arms and protested, and we won.

We already protested an earlier attempt at reclamation by the Philippine Port Authority of the sea off the Rizal Boulevard in 2007 — and we also won. Now that another, and more pervasive, reclamation project is underway, there’s no denying the vehemence of the opposition. It’s essentially sacrilege, and this partly explains the anger towards the plan.

In our hearts, this “Smart City” reclamation is perfectly anti-Dumaguete, given what we know about ourselves and our community. This is an unsolicited proposal from another langyaw which somehow gained traction among the powers that be, and this feels very much like an invasion into the heart of ourselves.

I shall continue this essay in another installment.