What was Vigan like before the UNESCO Heritage fame?
The survival of Vigan through the centuries is a miracle. Learn from the experience of heritage conservation pioneer Fernando Nakpil Zialcita.
April 13, 2018
Introduction by Dominic Galicia
Photographed by John Roux and Ulysses Galgo
The survival of Vigan through the centuries is a miracle, considering its bloody history. The town bore witness to revolutions against the Spaniards during the 17th century, the most famous of which was the revolt by Diego and Gabriela Silang. During World War II, Vigan came close to destruction at the hands of the Japanese, if not for a priest taking in the Filipino wife and child of the city’s Japanese military commander, on the condition that Vigan be spared.
In the ‘70s, the town became a battleground once more, this time between the Crisologo and Singson clans as they vied for control of Ilocos. Today, Vigan’s inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List is a draw for many tourists. People forget the state of decay the city went through in the decades before the 1990s, when its residents were driven out by the violent conflict between the Crisologo and Singson political clans. The state of Vigan then was far from the tourist destination that it is now.
In 1990, a group of locals and heritage lovers banded together for the revival of Vigan, from a battleground between political clans to a cultural treasure. BluPrint was able to interview one of the men behind this success story: Dr. Fernando “Butch” Nakpil Zialcita, head of the Cultural Heritage Studies Program of Ateneo de Manila University, and past member of the National Committee of Monuments and Sites of the NCCA, or National Commission of Culture and the Arts.
BluPrint: Tell us about the beginning of the efforts in Vigan.
Zialcita: I want to give credit to a friend of mine who has been ignored by the press, who in a sense was the one who started it all—Luis Acosta, my classmate in Ateneo, from Vigan. He’s Ilonggo but he’s also Ilokano. He has a 19th century house in Vigan. Back in college, in the early ‘60s, he was already taking pictures of the city. After I came back from Vigan with my family for the first time, I and some of our classmates went back with Luis there. At the time, people in Vigan found our taking of pictures to be strange, but we persisted.
In the late ‘70s, I would pass there on my way to Ilocos Norte for my thesis. It was horrible and dark at night. I remember we stayed at a friend’s hotel, and to walk to the plaza was scary because the streets were dark. Vigan was twothirds empty at this time. Of course, the warfare between Singson and Crisologo is another reason why many residents moved out—the battle between warlords. There were no tourists in Vigan at that time.
Why was there no appreciation for old things?
Just to show you how difficult it was, the mentality of people, Odette Alcantara informally asked people in Vigan what they thought. They said old houses are malas (bad luck). They said that’s why Vigan is not progressing because of all the old houses, these homes of bad spirits.
Who were saying these things?
Ordinary people. But that notion is common all over the Philippines. People say those things about our house [the 1914 Nakpil-Bautista ancestral home] in Quiapo. They ask me whether there are spirits wandering around in the rooms. Like, one time, there was a friend who came to our house, and his driver was afraid of going up to our house because he was afraid of seeing mumu (ghosts).
Then, I remember there was a time I went with a group of NCCA staffers to Vigan, one of the staffers claimed that she was having headaches because there were spirits in Villa Angela (the hotel of Marjo Gasser) that were entering her.
You’re saying people don’t have a natural sense of loving old things?
Definitely! Because Filipinos are afraid of luma (the old), and of silences. We’re very afraid of silences and we don’t like being alone. The moment they’re alone they keep imagining spirits.
From where does that stem?
Well, it’s two things. They have this illusion of modernity. We want to be modern and we think that—following the American system— anything over 20 years should be demolished. Of course it’s a false notion, because Americans them-selves preserve [their heritage structures]. It’s an illusion, a very superficial understanding of the United States fostered by media.
The second thing is fear of silence. Remember, Filipinos are trained from childhood to always be around other people. Always. In fact, the stereotype of people who are all alone is that they are dangerous, baka they are mangkukulam (maybe they are witches). Yes, it’s a popular belief. Baka kunin ng mga espirito (they might be possessed by spirits). In the barrios, and even in the city, it’s the same. When you’re all alone you start getting this uncanny feeling.
It crosses educational lines.
It cuts across social lines. That’s why I always believe that animation is important.
To make the place come alive.
Yes, you have to create events to make these places come alive.
How about Imelda Marcos, didn’t she promote Vigan in her time?
No, the focus of the government was just Crisologo Street, it wasn’t on the entire town. That was the surprising thing. You could preserve Crisologo Street, but what about the surrounding streets?
What were they doing in Crisologo Street? Was it good preservation?
They paved it, but the cobblestones were fake. They paved in such a way that even the drainage was wrong. Typically, in old towns, the drainage runs in the middle, not on the sides, so it actually worsened the flooding. What happens is the water ran on the sides, which is actually bad for the houses.
Plus, they wanted to make houses look old, so they started removing the plaster, which was even worse! In fact, I was talking to a Vigeño who had a shop on Crisologo, and he said, “Pag may kwarta na ko, papabakbak ko yung aking bahay.” (When I have money, I will have my house chipped of plaster.) That was in the ‘70s.
Is it true that Vigan houses used to be very colorful, and it was only during Imelda’s time that everything was painted white?
Yes! People were going with the stereotype that because it’s from the past, the houses were either gray, or blindingly white, not realizing that they were actually multi-colored. There were houses that were indigo blue, mustard yellow, like in Mexico. It stems from a lack of attention to history, which is not so surprising.
The ironic thing is, before, there was a prejudice against the old. When people saw the commercial value of these houses, they wanted to retain the old look all of a sudden. They went to the opposite extreme. They let homes get dusty and grimy, they stopped painting them, let them fall apart; they didn’t know that [in the old days] these places were kept tidy, repainted regularly.
Going back to Viva Vigan, what were its objectives?
We organized Viva Vigan to call attention to the potential of Vigan as a tourist destination, as well as to the structures themselves. So I got in touch with Tanghalang Ateneo’s Dr. Ricardo G. Abad. He’s a sociologist, but one of his fortes is directing plays. I asked if they could stage the recent production of Romeo and Juliet in Vigan using the house of Fr. Burgos as a backdrop. I thought that would animate it.
The reception to it was exciting! There were chairs in the street for honored guests. It was a two-hour presentation, and the house of Fr. Burgos was lit up. I guess we were inspired by the Avignon festival, and the festivals in Mexico, where they stage plays in the street using architecture as a backdrop.
Luis also organized a kalesa competition, for the best decorated kalesa. The idea was to bring performers also. In successive years we would hold other events in the street. So one year, we had a fashion show on a part of Crisologo Street, with the chairs on the side. On another year, we had another one in front of the Arzobispado.
Our dream for Viva Vigan was to make it an annual festival, and eventually world-class, like Avignon. But if you want to bring in international talents, you need investment for that. Problem is, you also need appreciation.
Definitely the doyenne, the queen of it all, was Marjo Villanueva Gasser. She comes from a very old family. Marjo was one of the guiding spirits, and she spent her own money. As it started to take off, (I remember, it was during the second year), we organized the first Vigan International Conference. We called it “international” because I had two Spanish friends, invited architects. Javier Galvan, who became the director of Instituto Cervantes. He was traveling around with another architect friend, so it was international! [laughs]
How were the locals reacting?
They couldn’t understand what we were doing…“What are you trying to do? Are you trying to stop progress by controlling the demolitions?” This was in 1990.
What were you seeing as the vision for Vigan?
Eventually, a government body to oversee conservation, and a booming tourism district that is culturally oriented. At that time it was all still up in the air, although there were already some beginnings. Because of these efforts, some friends in Manila who were also from Vigan, like Belen Sales Dualan, said, “Can we form a group and can you help us?” So Toti Villalon and Odette Alcantara joined us in 1991.
Odette was an antique collector and dealer, wife of Mario Alcantara. She had a fabulous heritage gallery made up of various parts of houses. Her house burned down, was struck by lightning. She had this house in Blue Ridge made of odds and ends. She’s a writer. We formed an association of associations: Katipunan ng Ikauunlad ng Vigan, or KaiVigan. Belen King, first cousin of Marjo and wife of Angelo King, was also active. And Dita Sandico opened a nice shop.
When did tourists start to come in?
There was a coincidence of factors. First of all, direct flights were opened between Manila and Laoag. Secondly, there were direct flights from Taiwan to Fort Ilocandia, because there was a casino there. The big question was how to get tourists to spend more than an afternoon in Vigan, instead of them just milling around Plaza Salcedo. This is so that the town could benefit. In a sense, the Viva Vigan festival began to draw a lot of national attention, publicity. Articles began to appear. The local families began to see the economic benefit as well.
In 1997, we organized the 2nd International Conference of Vigan. We invited NCCA to fund, and UNESCO to participate. UNESCO Bangkok responded, sent Richard Englehart, regional director of UNESCO in Asia. UNESCO said that if we’re going to rehabilitate the city, we should not focus only on tourism, but also on the people. Cartagena, Colombia, unfortunately, is too tourist-oriented, alive only on weekends, so we had to avoid that.
There’s actually money for funding restoration of buildings, but there has to be a social purpose. International agencies will never fund restoration if it’s only to serve the owners who are wealthy. So they said, why not think of moving into restoration for social housing, rental housing, because there’s a shortage of housing especially in the Philippines? So they brought in a French NGO, Pact Arim, who spoke about their successes in rehabilitating buildings in Parisian suburbs— beautiful but decrepit buildings—into rental housing. They were suggesting we do the same. Get international agencies to fund, but open them to rental.
That was controversial, because they said we have to rent to the poor. Of course, they said if we are afraid that it will be vandalized, we have to institute a process of reorientation, integration. And of course there is a contract that has to be signed. In one way, the property owners will benefit (by restoring the property), and you earn. We proposed it to Eva Medina-Singson, who didn’t like it, because of the whole idea na baka mababoy (that houses could just get trashed). [But] you also have to give credit to her; she herself was concerned about architectural heritage.
That, for me, was the key insight of the conference. Of course, they proposed other things as well, like extending the core zone (Crisologo Street, the mestizo district), and to have a buffer zone (the frame of the streets).
Were you already talking about the idea of a UNESCO nomination?
It crystallized during that conference. In the late ‘90s, some of us set out to write a proposal to UNESCO— Toti [Villalon], Marjo [Villanueva-Gasser], myself and Ricardo Favis, another property owner, who was working with UNESCO in Bangkok then. UNESCO wanted someone who could work with them, technical assistance, so we suggested Ricardo and he worked for them for several years.
UNESCO sent several teams of experts to assess. They also wanted political will. Fortunately, the mayor, Eva, gave her full support. She had the backing of Chavit Singson, who was governor. But there were problems because of disagreements on how preservation should be done.
For instance, there was a big store in the mestizo district owned by a Chinese-Ilokano, who was criticized by friends for not doing it properly. Some of the locals were upset that people from Manila were getting involved. But they were mostly people from Vigan living in Manila. I thought that was natural, for people to resent outsiders “meddling in their affairs.”
Our group also brought in Agencia Espanola Cooperacion Internacional before 1997. They’d just opened their office in Manila. I sought out the first director and asked if he could work on Vigan. He went, was interested in it, but it was the third director who actually opened the project to help Vigan. To help Vigan, the first order of business was drainage. They also imposed things that were never implemented— rerouting, traffic, [control of] tricycles.
I bet ‘97-‘99 was an interesting period, because you were able to gain national attention, UNESCO effort was gaining publicity, tourists were coming in.
In trickles, more than in the past. The challenge was to get them to stay for more than a few hours. But I think the locals began to see the possibilities because the governor himself opened a hotel. The problem of food began to be resolved when his sister Germy Singson-Goulart converted a house of theirs in Crisologo Street to Café Leona. I think those efforts started to make people realize the importance of conservation.
How did the announcement of the declaration come to you?
Easily naman. From Toti [Villalon] and UNESCO friends in Bangkok. I think by that time we were already expecting it [laughs].
Before you began to expect it, what did you think would keep you from getting it?
Sustainability, perhaps. Accessibility, and will. The big question is always political will on the part of the locals. How much political will is there? Fortunately, Eva Medina-Singson showed her full support. If it was another mayor, we might have had a hard time.
The UNESCO declaration was in 1999. How did Vigan receive it, what was the impact?
Hard to say. Probably ordinary people didn’t appreciate what we had done. One workshop we had, people in the barrios did not appreciate. The town is associated with the wealthy. Poorer families in the outskirts, the barrios, didn’t appreciate it. They were thinking, “Bakit kailangan pumunta sa Vigan, bakit di na lang pumunta sa bayan namin.” (Why is there need to go to Vigan?Why not just come to our village?)
When did we start seeing the large influx of tourists?
Over the past 10 years. You can see it in the number of hotels being built. Unfortunately for me, I haven’t been able to keep track because I realized Manila has its own problems. I said to myself, let me focus also on Manila, because I owe it to Manila. Plus, we opened our Ateneo Cultural Laboratory, so I cannot go to Vigan anymore.
Vigan has become an icon of heritage conservation.
It’s an example of how an entire town can be preserved, if the different sectors agree, and if there’s a consensus. But how to build that consensus is a challenge. It’s also an example of how a community can benefit materially from preservation. It’s interesting also the benefit spiritually, in the sense of psychic rewards, pride of place.
What’s interesting is that there are other attractions in Vigan now. My concern has always been, what are the other attractions to offer? Now, Chavit has a baluarte, a zoo. Flores opened a nature garden. Eva Medina- Singson opened a children’s museum in a new area, with models of the houses. I think that’s great. I think if children are exposed early, they will appreciate their culture much better.
What role do you think BluPrint can play in helping the cause?
I think BluPrint is doing a lot because it has made preservation glamorous. I think many architects appreciated it, but it has been given legitimacy because practically every issue has an article on preservation. I only wish the study of architectural history could be institutionalized, because some architects themselves don’t seem to know it!