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BEING immersed at this chapter of my life with travel and tourism, I truly believe that we can best sell our country by being the best tour guides ourselves.

Revisiting Vigan and hiring a tour guide, we thought that we could have more insights into the place but much to our dismay, her knowledge of the city she was promoting was close to zero.

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Not wanting to miss out on the more important facts and interesting stories that envelop Vigan, I sought out information to make my stay more than just usual.

We all know that Vigan is the best preserved example of a colonial town in Asia exhibiting a unique European flair. The town was established in the 6th century. At the center of the city, lie remnants of old Spanish architecture in ancestral homes built by rich Chinese traders and merchants. Big houses made of red brick walls and plastered with red clay and tiled roofs to withstand earthquake still stand tall.

In this Mestizo district, called Crisologo Street, hundreds of homes are lined side by side. Like walking through time, you gawked and awed of the cobblestones that pave the streets and the calesas that are the only allowed means of transportation in the UNESCO declared heritage town.

Why were there so many rich Chinese in the yesteryears? The story of Vigan is very different from the history of Negros. Vigan is geographically situated to be very near Fujian, China. It is said that if one were to travel by ship to the Philippines from Fujian, he would reach Vigan by nightfall if he left Fujian at daybreak. And since there was a long history of trade with the natives, Vigan became a favorite port of entry to the Philippines.

Vigan was a prime example of how Chinese assimilation into Philippine society came about. The Chinese in Vigan employed many natives or naturales for their businesses which helped make the town prosper. In time, the Chinese intermarried with the naturales and thus gave rise to the mestizos. These mestizos eventually became the elite of Vigan society.

Very typical of the assimilation of the Chinese-Spanish into the Filipino society is evidenced in the Quema House owned by the family of my good friend Josie Quema Puey who with husband Victor owns the White Sand Island of Lakawon off Cadiz Viejo. The famous Crisologo Street is named after the great grandfather of Josie who was the first governor of Vigan, Ilocos Sur, and his name is Mena Crisologo. Governor Mena’s 3rd wife Teresa is Josie’s grandmother who married a Chinese, Enrique Que Ma.

It was quite latish in the afternoon when we got to the Quema house but bright enough to admire the elegance of the house that dates back to the 1820’s. It portrays the design characteristics of the time– the capiz shell windows, the ventanillas, and the wide plank hardwood floors. However, the Quema house had on it walls and ceilings some floral and other interesting designs which are not common to the era.

I love the grand staircase of the Quema home and the landing which served as the foyer. The pictures too that hanged on the walls were so circa of that long gone generation and it portrayed a family that was well to do enough to have sent their children to school abroad and who in turn echoed what they have seen and learned from their environs and travels in architecture and artistry.

According to Josie, her ancestors must have engaged in trading and industry at the time. Gold must have been an abundant commodity because at the wedding of her lolo and lola, their giveaways were toothpicks made of gold. Her lola was a home maker and particular to the time only spoke Ilocano and Spanish.

I remember clearly too my lolo in Talisay, Papa Ande, never spoke English only Ilongo and Spanish. The only English her lola knew was Alan Ladd, the Hollywood star who must have been the Brad Pitt of the time. She was a hoarder who kept all gifts with inscriptions at the back of the box the name of the giver. Josie would spend the summers in this beautiful home and reminisces that the Oracion (the Angelus) was prayed religiously in Spanish. Her grandfather died when her Dad was just 6 years old but memorabilia shows that he must have been very rich dealing with maguey and other commodities. He was not a politician like his father, the Governor, but was more of a king maker. Aparadors and closets in the Quema house are laden with books and transactions, mementos and pictures that vividly tell of the life of Don Enrique and Doña Teresa Quema.

In every Vigan ancestral home, there is a large high chair that overlooks the window. We do not find this in the old homes in Negros. In fact it was taboo for the women to look out of the windows. Asking Josie this, she said, since the mestizo street was bustling community, a preoccupation was to watch the people go by and exchange pleasantries.

As I looked out of the window of the Quema house, indeed life in the Mestizo district is still bustling as ever. Although the passage of time has brought new trades and industries, new mores and lifestyles, it is good to have memories of an era so long past, very well documented in the Quema household. A good tour guide should enter into the lives and lifestyles of destinations for an in-depth story and history of the places visited. Places become more meaningful when people are injected into the scenario. Places are mere places but it is the people who make life in the given place more interesting and colorful. Their lives after all are the ones that design the course of history, culture and the arts and future generations.