Experience Iloilo City’s old-school charm

Lester V Ledesma visits some of Iloilo’s landmark cafés, restaurants and buildings, and gets a glimpse of the city’s good old days

Iloilo City's JM Basa Street

Tucked away inside a bustling market in Iloilo’s La Paz district, the small and understated Madge Café throbs lazily to the rhythm of another era. This old-school coffeehouse has been a local hangout since 1939, its plywood interiors adorned with gaudy hangings, bare lightbulbs and creaky ceiling fans.

The internet doesn’t exist in these premises. Instead, the air is filled with the lively sound of chattering customers. Here, fish vendors and office clerks rub shoulders with businessmen, students and wealthy old haciendero (plantation owners). Around them, waitresses in purple T-shirts serve up cups of strong, sock-brewed barako (Liberica) coffee. A large sign on one wall half-heartedly reminds the roomful of lounging customers that “time is gold”. On another wall, an array of personalized mugs bear the handwritten names of favored patrons.

In these provincial environs, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that Madge Café is renowned throughout Iloilo, with two other branches in the city. While this original eatery has remained virtually unchanged for the last 78 years, its newer stores sport a funky-hip vibe (not to mention free WiFi) that caters to a more cosmopolitan clientele.

Kapeng barako being prepared at Madge Cafe
Kapeng barako being prepared at Madge Cafe

Madge Café is a nostalgic glimpse into an earlier era, but it is by no means unique in this corner of the Philippines. Outside this traditional cafeteria, the rest of Iloilo City — the regional center of Western Visayas — sprawls out for over 78.3 sq km. Ranking eighth in the National Competitiveness Council’s 2016 index of the country’s most competitive, highly urbanized cities, it is a modern commercial hub and a major base for international business process outsourcing (BPO) operations. Yet it is also a city that seems to prefer living just a little bit in the past; I notice this in many instances throughout its neighborhoods. From vintage establishments like Madge Café, to antique buildings lining the streets, Iloilo City’s old-school charm is a joy to experience.

Port city of the south

Perhaps, given the city’s history, it isn’t so surprising that the past is easily seen and felt here. Established in 1581, Iloilo is one of the oldest cities in the Philippines. It was a major trading port during the Spanish era, and was once regarded as the second most important city after the capital, Manila. Its main export was sugar, the commodity making its way from vast haciendas (plantations) in the countryside to warehouses on the banks of the Iloilo River, and later to tables all over the world.

Business was so good that this city amassed wealth said to rival that of Manila. In the late 1800s when la industria azucarera (the sugar industry) was at its peak, Iloilo had direct shipping lines to Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Europe and America. And because they could afford it, the Ilonggos were among the first in Asia to enjoy modern trappings like electricity, telephone service, railways, automobiles, department stores
and even a golf course.

Javellana Building
Javellana Building

This affluence was also displayed in the buildings of the era, many of which are showcases of opulence and contemporary design. I trace the results of this sugarcane-fueled progress when I visit some of Iloilo’s oldest neighborhoods. In Jaro, I stroll down a town plaza laid out in typical Spanish colonial-era style, with a centuries-old church at the center surrounded by government offices and homes of the local elite. Following the decline of the sugar industry after World War II, many of these structures have been adapted for more frugal uses.

At one corner of the square, I marvel at a particularly striking relic of the good old days. The old Jaro Municipal Hall, with its glorious 1930s Art Deco lines, looks more like a movie set than an administrative hall. It has reopened after recent restoration works, and now houses a satellite office of the Philippine National Museum. A stone’s throw away, an ancestral home of the Jalandoni clan proudly displays its eclectic renaissance arches and balustrades alongside a huge signboard promoting money remittance services on the building’s ground floor.

This adaptive reuse is seen in many other aging abodes. In Molo district on Iloilo’s west side, I learn how the Yusay-Consing mansion sat for years in a dilapidated state until a private developer purchased and restored the property. Now known as the Molo Mansion, it serves as both museum and a flagship boutique for SM Group’s Kultura stores.

Camiña Balay nga Bato
Camiña Balay nga Bato

Most impressive of all these heritage houses, though, is the one known as Camiña Balay nga Bato. Unlike most of the other grand buildings, which were built around the 1920s, this one is much older: its construction dates back to 1865. Luth Camiña, the fourth-generation owner, explains how the Avanceña clan made their fortunes exporting handwoven hablon or woven textiles before sugar took over the local economy. The abode that the old-timers built is a classic example of Philippine bahay na bato — a house made of wood and stone, mixing elements of native kubo (nipa hut) design and European architecture adapted to tropical climates. Restored beautifully over the course of a decade, the structure boasts wide hardwood floors, mother-of-pearl capiz windows and genuine period furniture. Today it serves as both a private residence and a lifestyle museum.

Remnants of the past

Later in the evening, I meet up with a pair of local friends for dinner. Our venue of choice is the spanking new Festive Walk Parade, but with its European-styled façades carefully crafted to evoke a sense of days gone by, it certainly doesn’t feel like a regular mall. Between mouthfuls of piping hot, savory La Paz batchoy noodle soup — still a popular staple despite the availability of other, more international dishes — we talk about what it’s like to live in a city with so much history.

“Yes, there are so many reminders of the past around us. The old buildings, the laid-back lifestyle — it’s part of everyday life for Ilonggos, whether they know it or not,” affirms Frances, a Doha-based professional who frequently returns to Iloilo. “I think we’re so used to them being there that we sometimes fail to appreciate it. It was only when I started traveling abroad that I realized how lucky we are to have this strong connection to the past. Many modern cities look and feel the same. They may be efficient and rich, but they don’t have character and soul. Iloilo has both.”
Our other companion, Rodgen, agrees, but worries that progress is opening the city up to new influences. “We’re getting new malls, restaurants and condos every year. And there’s an international airport with direct flights to other countries now,” reflects the high school teacher. “Many young Ilonggos are picking up foreign ways and you can see it in their hairstyle, music or choice of activities.”

Molo district
Molo district

Nevertheless, Rodgen is quick to say that the Ilonggo youth have not yet forgotten their roots. “They remain down-to-earth and affectionate, and they’re in touch with their identity. I think the proof is in the presence of many homegrown stores and restaurants competing with the foreign brands.” He refers to places like Madge Café and the restaurant we are dining in, Teodorico’s — one of three time-honored batchuyan (batchoy joints) that claim to have invented the dish in the 1940s. “They’re thriving because we Ilonggos remain simple and we still prefer our own products and food,” Rodgen declares.

My dinner companions are both hopeful that Iloilo will stick to its old-school ways, although they concede that their city’s continuing progress may eventually change that. Perhaps a time may come when a faster paced, more cosmopolitan lifestyle will be the norm in this city. But sitting in this retro-inspired mall, eating delectable traditional noodles, it feels like this won’t happen anytime soon.

The following morning, I go out for a stroll in the heart of downtown Iloilo. An area bordered by JM Basa, Iznart and Rizal Streets, this used to be the nerve center of the sugar trade, and where the city’s old-school vibe is at its strongest. Here, I look up at more antique buildings built by the Ilonggo elite, the family names still visible on their grand façades. I traverse busy walkways lined with aging shops from another era. Here, family-run panaderias (bakeries), comidas (eateries) and panciterias (noodle houses) still sit in their original locations, selling the same items that they sold back in the pre-war days. I smile and bask in the sweet nostalgia of this bustling neighborhood. The Ilonggos may not notice it, but they are living and breathing their history.

This story first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Smile magazine.

Written and Photographed

Lester Ledesma

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