Inside the Storied City of Silay
As a first time traveller to the city of Silay, I didn’t know what to expect exactly. Situated in the province of Negros Occidental, it is an incredibly quaint city filled with beautiful landscapes seemingly painted by Amorsolo himself. Vast plantations, heritage homes, and warm smiles from locals make the city easy to fall in love with. Once the centre of commerce in the south, Silay opened the Negros region to trade and foreign investment during the early Spanish period. The remnants of these relations can still be seen in the city's architecture, art, and produce. Once dubbed as the 'Paris of Negros' and still considered as one of the largest sugar producers in the country, there's a lot to discover here.
More than thirty houses in Silay have been declared official heritage landmarks by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. Neighbour to the bustling Bacolod city, one can easily trade-up urban landscapes with long stretches of grass and clear skies any given afternoon.
If you're a fan of the Peque Gallaga film entitled, Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Bad Luck), it might delight you to know that some of its scenes were shot in Manapla (beside Silay) —particularly in the Gaston Mansion. Nestled in the heart of Hacienda Rosalia (which is also home to Hacienda Crafts), the Gaston Mansion is beautifully preserved and is usually a venue for local art activities and events. At the time we visited, there was a youth rondalla orchestra that greeted us with their various renditions.
Hacienda Rosalia is also home to 'The Church of Cartwheels', which is a landmark in and of itself. One of the most poignant attempts at indigenising Catholic dogma in the Philippines after the Vatican II, the church's architecture and design is greatly inspired by inculturation. Made with giant cartwheels and 16 pillars (inspired by the 16 documents of the Vatican II), the Church of Cartwheels regularly holds mass for the locals in the vernacular with personalised teachings of the gospel.
Ossorio's 'Angry Christ'
Alfonso Ossorio was an abstract impressionist born to a prominent sugar milling family business. One of his most prominent works is the Angry Christ mural found in the St. Joseph the Worker Parish inside Victorias city. The city-cum-milling complex is home to the world's largest integrated sugar mill, sitting on a 7,000-hectare compound. Driving around Victorias City is like a walk down memory lane. With architecture seemingly stuck in mid-century aesthetics, it's easy to imagine the once-bustling city. Now less busy and more idyllic, Victorias is a quiet nostalgic town.
Ossorio's 'Angry Christ' is a well-preserved piece of art and interpretation of Catholic symbols. A far cry from the more Spanish-inspired churches you'll find in and around the Metro; a piece that has long interested theology and art scholars alike.
Lunch at the Bali-inspired 'Gary's Place'
Tucked in the outskirts of Silay is Punong Gary's or Gary's Place — a beautifully minimalist restaurant and event destination. Tranquil in its strong winds, the graceful swaying of trees, and hand-crafted swings, the scenery is enough reason to try out a meal here. A five-course meal that features the freshest produce and wonderful renditions of local flavours may be one of the best this side of the province.
History Preserved — Balay Negrense and the Hofileña Mansion
Balay Negrense, Hiligaynon for 'Negrense House', is one of the most well-preserved properties in the area. Officially a museum, Balay Negrense is home to several activities to locals. When strolling in, it's best to walk around with an official tour guide to be able to know insider stories and anecdotes about the house's history. Once home to the Gaston family, it is a perfect showcase of what at 19th-century sugar baron's life was like. With paraphernalia preserved and carefully positioned in the rooms around the house, there are a lot of details to discover. Old technology and what one would hesitate to call 'home appliances' pervade the museum. Old irons, vintage toilets, and turn-of-the-century kitchenware are incredible to see — all preserved and storied.
Not to miss is the Hofileña Mansion whose priceless art falls second to curator-owner, Ramon Hofileña — a firecracker if there ever was one. Incredibly quirky, chatty, and a treasure trove of insider stories, Ramon is more than happy to tour visitors around the house. From invaluable china, trinkets and books to memorabilia from the incredibly cultured family that once lived there, the house is educational as it is astonishingly beautiful.
The second floor, however, is the ticket-item in the entire house (dare I say, the whole town). With numerous paintings (not available to the public and photographs not allowed) from almost every conceivable national artist, it's a treat to see such carefully preserved treasures. Paintings of similar calibre often find themselves in the halls of museums or in the hands of private collectors. Ramon's stories of how he acquired each one is entirely fascinating.
The Hacienda Life
A visit to Hacienda Adela was one of the most touching and educational parts of the trip. With farmers and their families providing warm smiles and demonstrations of their fiesta and prayers, it was such a sight to see. Hearing their stories about the hardships of sugar milling and how their families emigrated to Silay for better pastures are stark reminders of the reality of life's challenges. In true Filipino fashion, however, everyone was incredibly eager to showcase their talent in singing! With an entire afternoon filled with makeshift karaoke and fanfare, it was suddenly time to go. After sharing a meal of piaya and tsokolate-e, we said our goodbyes.
The trip to Silay was inspiring, to say the least. It is a living reminder of the storied history of not only the region but also the Philippines itself. With strong remnants of Spanish, American, and indigenous art and culture, the city serves as a picturesque time capsule. When travelling to Bacolod, make sure to stop by Silay. You just might find more places to explore, old art to rediscover, and the warmest people to share stories with.
- Photography Dorynna Untivero