Historic Trading Towns and Cities in Southeast Asia

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My interest in UNESCO World Heritage Sites started some 10 years ago. Ever since then, I have always patterned my trips towards seeing as many of these sites as I can. I have also been lucky enough with a few sites as I was able to pay them proper visits because of fieldwork and assignments. I consider this as my little addiction.

For my next article here, I would like to discuss more the five historic trading port towns in East and Southeast Asia. I just need to find that much sought after spare time to write down my thoughts and observations on Hoi An, Vigan, Macao, Malacca and George Town.

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Hoi An Ancient Town, the best example of a traditional trading port in Southeast Asia dating from the 15th to the 19th century (Viet Nam).

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Historic Town of Vigan, the best preserved planned Spanish colonial town in Asia that was established in the 16th century (the Philippines).

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Historic Centre of Macao, the first European enclave in the region and an outstanding representation of the interchange between Chinese and Western civilizations since the mid 16th century (China).

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Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca: Melaka, a strategic 15th century Malay port that developed further during the Portuguese and Dutch periods beginning in the early 16th century (Malaysia).

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Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca: George Town, a remarkable example of a British-built city in Southeast Asia from the end of the 18th century (Malaysia).

 

For now, may these photos continue to supply me the needed motivation, optimism, and determination to be able to finally sit down, gather my thoughts properly, and write again one of these days.

This is an article in progress.

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Filipino Culture & History through the Northern Philippines

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The Philippines has a rich history and culture, but we sometimes do not understand the country well enough to realize to what extent. It is not a question of whether we have it or not. Rather, it is of how much we really know and are aware. One way to get reacquainted with the Filipino identity and our past is by taking what I would call as a heritage trail up north. The beauty of Northern Philippines lies on the fact that it is home to four UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites.

What does this mean?

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A UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) is any given natural or cultural place, monument or landscape that holds outstanding universal values critical to the development of humanity, and which reflect diversity. Some of the more popular WHS around the world include the Great Wall of China, the Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, Chitchen Itza, the Table Mountain, the Great Barrier Reefs, and even the Statue of Liberty. Regardless of popularity and fame, however, all of these places are treated with equal degree of cultural and historical importance.

With the recent addition of Mt. Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary in Mindanao in 2014, the Philippines now has six sites listed as WHS. Two of which are marine natural sites in Palawan, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park and Tubattaha Reefs Marine Park. Both of these sites are also declared as Ramsar wetlands of international importance. The other three are cultural sites found in Northern Philippines: the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, the Historic Town of Vigan, and the Baroque Churches of the Philippines.

From Manila — where San Agustin church, another WHS, is found inside Intramuros — one can make a Do-It-Yourself trip in taking on this heritage trail. A bus from Manila can take you to Banaue, the jump-off point for the rice terraces. From there, vans can be arranged to bring you down to Vigan. Sta. Maria is also along the way to Vigan, and finally, going further north by bus will bring you to Paoay in Ilocos Norte. Each place offers a taste of the depth of Philippine history and Filipino ingenuity.

Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras

Agricultural terracing is not unique to the Philippines. China, Indonesia, and Viet Nam have it. Peru and even Switzerland have this method, too. What makes the rice terraces in the Philippines unique is that they are the oldest and most extensive continually-used rice terraces in the world. As a comparison, these rice terraces have been around much longer than Machu Picchu or Angkor have! The more noticeable distinguishing marks of these engineering marvels would be their heights that reach as high as 1,500 metres from the base, and their steepness that defies limits with 70 degrees maximum angulation.

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The incredible mixture of purely man-made terraces, the mountains, the muyongs (forest caps), traditional hamlets, and other visible cultural artifacts in the region certainly does not disappoint. The Food and Agriculture Organization has cited the rice terraces as an outstanding example of “worldwide, specific agricultural systems and landscapes (that) have been created, shaped and maintained by generations of farmers and herders based on diverse natural resources, using locally adapted management practices.” The American Society of Civil Engineers also named the rice terraces as a ‘Historic Engineering Landmark’ for water supply and control. In 1997, the same group came to the Philippines and formally declared (through a marker) the rice terraces as the [original] 8th Wonder of the World.

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For the Filipinos, with the mode of farming and the people’s lifestyles largely unchanged, these ancient rice terraces are an enduring portrait of the ways of life of the Ifugao for over 2,000 years. The WHS-listed clusters are Batad, Bangaan, Hungduan, Mayoyao and Nagacadan rice terraces. Hungduan is also one rare site in the world as it is home to no just one but two UNESCO Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the Hudhud chants and the Punnuk.

Historic Town of Vigan

Why does this small town merit a special place in the collective memory of the Filipino people? It is one of the few towns in the country that was spared from destruction during the World War II (Intramuros, Manila’s walled district, was razed to the ground and only one building was left standing there after the war). Being the best preserved Spanish colonial-era trading town in Asia, Vigan presents itself as an intact and authentic old town. It boasts a good collection of original houses wherein the ground floors are characterized as Hispanic, while its upper floors and windows suggest Chinese and Oriental influences. The best of these houses can be seen along Calle Crisologo, a re-created cobblestone street.

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One will notice that the town faithfully follows the historical “quadricula” or “grid” street plan. This, believe it or not, is the most ‘Hispanic’ feature of the town. The interior of a typical Vigan villa can be seen when visiting the likes of the Sy-Quia mansion, the family house of the former President Quirino.

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In 2012, Vigan bagged the ‘Best Management Practices for a World Heritage City’ award in a worldwide competition by UNESCO. And again, three years later, Vigan was voted as one of the Seven New Wonder Cities in the World through a global online poll.

Baroque Churches of the Philippines: Sta. Maria

Aside from the San Agustin church inside Intramuros and the Miag-ao church in Iloilo, the Northern Philippines boasts two of the best examples of Philippine Spanish-era churches. The town of Sta. Maria, some 40 minutes south of Vigan, houses a citadel church built on top of a fortified man-made hill. In the older days, the only way to reach the church is through the 82-step staircase made of granite slabs, making the complex easily defended.

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Made of red bricks, the Asuncion de la Sta. Maria church boasts a set of massive buttresses that supports the structure from the damages of earthquakes. The pagoda-shaped bell tower is leaning due to the collapsing retaining walls around the hill, which placed this church in the ’100 Most Endangered Sites’ in 2010 by the World Monument Watch of the World Monument Fund.

Baroque Churches of the Philippines: Paoay

The crowning gem of the “earthquake baroque architecture” is the San Agustin church in Paoay. This edifice is largely made of coral stones that have been glued together using egg whites, lime powder and molasses. This important church features a mixture of Oriental, Malay, and Western influences in its design. This comes as no surprise as long before the Spaniards reached present-day Paoay, the site was already a trading settlement known as Bombay in earlier records.

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Keen eyes will notice some fading carvings and bas-reliefs around the church. The most important exponents of this church are definitely its beautifully-constructed massive buttresses. Paoay church is considered to be a masterpiece of the Filipino reinterpretation of the baroque movement, fusing European principles with local Filipino craftsmanship. The bell tower is also separated from the church as a precautionary measure against the effects of earthquakes – this architectural innovation is unique to Philippine churches.

The churches of the Philippines are unique, and, thus, cannot be compared to those found in Europe or Latin America. As religious monuments, they are key in spreading further the Christian faith in the region (Southeast and East Asia, and the Pacific Islands). While as cultural specimens, they embody the artistic, technological, and intellectual interchange between the West and the East for more than three centuries.

While knowing and understanding Philippine history and culture is a large part of what I do as a heritage advocate, the biggest challenge is in making others see and appreciate things the way I do.

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I often have a hard time convincing friends who have already settled abroad to come back home to re-experience their native land. Most of them would rather spend their vacations going around Europe or elsewhere in Asia to see cultural and grand ancient monuments or old towns, believing none exist here.

 

Melaka and George Town: Trade Hegemons of Colonial-era Southeast Asia

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Since there is not much noise being made about George Town while unanimous praises are given to Melaka (Malacca), I was surprised to find out that the former component-city would be the highlight of Malaysia’s first UNESCO cultural world heritage site that was inscribed in 2008. The character of George Town is definitely more presentable.


Melaka has a rich cultural and trading history, and the role it once played in regional commerce cannot be underestimated. Its current condition, however, does not live up to its glorious past anymore. Without knowing its history, the city simply looks like any other Chinese-Malay trading town.

The red Dutch Square, the most recognizable exponent of Melaka.

Its history dates back to the well-networked and influential Malaccan sultanate, and later gained greater worldwide interest when it was occupied by the Portuguese and the Dutch successively. Though Melaka was never made as a capital of the Dutch East Indies (VOC), it served as the most important Dutch-controlled port-town between India and Batavia (present day Jakarta), monopolizing the trade movements over the narrow Straits of Malacca. Melaka was such a strong city then that it even rivaled the might and wealth of Ayutthaya in Thailand, yet it fell with the rise of the British control over the peninsula.

Porta da Santiago, or A' Famosa, is the only remaining section of the old walls that once protected Melaka.

This ancient city’s important monuments  can be easily explored in a day, on foot. I started off in the residential/commercial district of the core zone, just across the bridge over the Melaka River. From how I recall, nothing really stood out in that area, and its main thoroughfare Jonker Street (popularly pronounced nowadays as /djongker/ despite its original Dutch pronunciation /Yongker/) was a bit sober and empty during my visit as it was post-election time; most shops were closed in protest against the recent results. The spirit of Jonker Street, nevertheless, went to life when I visited some of the shop houses, learning some few things from store-keepers about the items that they sell. Only then can one feel that he is truly in a multi-cultural trading town.

Shop houses along Jonker Street in Melaka

The Street of Harmony, situated parallel to Jonker Street,  is nice, but its religious monuments are not as spectacular compared to those of George Town. The urban planning concept of putting houses of worships along one lane is one of the unique features of the two historic cities.

The oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy (Cheng Hoon Teng Temple)

The Dutch Square, also called Red Square, is small but very recognizable. While it is indeed picturesque, there is not much that the plaza has to offer other than four monuments: the Dutch Stadthuys  and Christ Church, Tan Beng Swee Clock Tower, and the British Queen Victoria Fountain. The red color of the city is often seen as impressive, but I’m not quite sure if I share the same assessment. After all, the old historic Dutch buildings were originally painted white. 

The better exponent of Melaka where one can feel its colonial past more would be the A’ Famosa – St. Paul’s Hill area. Inside St. Paul’s ruins, there are numerous 16th to 17th century Dutch gravestones on display. This site was also the first resting place of the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier before it was transferred to Goa in India. It is said that during the canonization of the saint, the Vatican asked for his right hand as a relic for its safekeeping. Interestingly, the statue of St. Francis Xavier in front of the ruins is missing its right hand! Apparently, a branch of the tree fell over and broke it.

Dutch gravestones inside the ruins of St. Paul church.

The St. Paul ruins also offers a commanding view of the city and the straits. Other interesting monuments in Melaka would be the watermill along the river, just beside the ruins of the old Portuguese and Dutch ramparts, and the small windmill near the Dutch Square.

The Malacca Sultan Watermill along the Melaka River.


George Town, on the other hand, was a real surprise. Historically, this British-era city rose to prominence with the decline and demise of Melaka. Without expecting much, I originally planned to stay there just for a night. But, seeing how lovely the place was, I ended up staying for three days. I enjoyed going around the city on a bike. Aside from surveying the main sites, there are other things to do here like checking out the street arts (which became a big craze after a Lithuanian artist did some wonderful works in the city), as well as treating oneself with the famous Penang dishes like Penang laksa and char kway cheow.

Georgian architecture-inspired George Town City Hall.

There are more monuments in George Town, and they are more grand, colorful, and definitely better maintained than those in Melaka. Key British legacies include the impressive Georgian-inspired City and Town Halls, the bit worn-out and empty Fort Cornwallis, the two mid-sized churches, and the colonial-era buildings along Lebuh Pantai, the old business lane of the city. By seeing some old photos of George Town, I was surprised to learn that there were more British colonial buildings that stood there before, creating a real “Little Europe” atmosphere during its heyday.

mix-architecture houses in George Town. Most are shop houses.

George Town was intended to be the successor to Melaka’s trade hegemony, as well as the crowning glory of the British empire’s might and supremacy in Southeast Asia. In comparison to Melaka, the historic centre of George Town is larger and that there are more shop houses around.

Fort Cornwallis, a brick fortification built upon the site where Sir Francis Light first landed in Penang.

Furthermore, I enjoyed the city a lot as local colours are much vibrant there. Its Little India, for example, is one of the better Indian quarters I’ve seen so far in the region; Muslim communities (Southern Indians and Malays alike) are largely concentrated around George Town’s three mosques; and the Chinese clan temples are richly decorated. In experiencing the straits Chinese-Malay culture, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion in George Town appears to be better than the Baba Nyonya Museum in Melaka. Also, George Town’s Teochew Temple and Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion have been conferred by UNESCO Asia-Pacific with the Best in Heritage Conservation Awards as well.

Masjid Kapitan Kelling along the Street of Harmony in George Town

Melaka is one reminder of Asia’s close contact with the Portuguese and the Dutch; George Town, with the British. Key to a better appreciation of these sites is to see each city holistically and to understand the diversity and cultural uniqueness that each has to offer.

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As with any South and Southeast Asian trading town such as Vigan, Hoi An, Macao and Galle, the biggest threats at present to the two cities are urban developmental pressures. Buffer zones are obviously weak in some areas. The waterfront face-lifting of the Melaka River and the intrusive development plan in the historic enclave of George Town have been frowned upon by the World Monuments Fund and other international organizations.

Street art in George Town - this is the biggest! Here's a photo of my newly found friends doing some rounds around the city at 2AM (after a night of booze!) :p


PS. Is it possible to have Singapore inscribed, too? Trade control in the Straits of Malacca started in Melaka, then transferred to George Town, and eventually ended in Singapore. It would be nice to see Singapore alongside the two inscribed sites in representing the complete trading history along the straits. The difficulty with Singapore, however, is that much of its old district landscape has already been altered, modernized and compromised.

** Visited George Town and Malacca in May 2013

Tumauini and Piat: Culture and Faith in Cagayan Valley

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It was one of those crazy impulsive decisions to head to another place rather than to go straight back home after the long-weekend stay in Manila. This time around, I went to Isabela and Cagayan not only to visit a few places there that I wanted to see, but also to catch up with a good journalist friend of mine whom I have not seen for almost six months already.

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The province of Isabela was a big surprise! I did not know that some parts are largely developed and urbanized already (Santiago City, for example, is definitely bigger and more vibrant than Laoag City). Upon arrival, I immediately met up April for breakfast and headed to the town of Tumauini.

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Tumauini is home to one of the most precious Spanish colonial era monuments in the country: the 18th century church of St. Matthias. This religious structure boasts the most artistic expression of brick baroque craftsmanship there is to find in the Philippines. Also worth noting is its rather fancy-looking wedding cake-inspired cylindrical bell tower and its circular pediment, which have no parallel in the Orient.

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While most other blogs would highlight the intricate artworks on its facade, I, on the other hand, was particularly impressed by its interior decorations – or what’s left of them after being a casualty to the World War 2. In the Philippines, a lot of churches display amazing exteriors, but their structural interiors often appear to be lacking in grace and are just too plain. This, however, was not the case of Tumauini church.

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Tumauini church is a declared National Historical Landmark and a National Cultural Treasure. It, together with Boljoon church in Cebu and Lazi church in Siquijor, is also included in the proposed extension to the serial Baroque Churches of the Philippines UNESCO World Heritage Site. In my opinion, this church is a real gem that Filipinos can truly be proud of.

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After Tumauini, driven by our yearning for spiritual guidance and some other needs, we were determined as well to visit the “Pilgrimage Capital of the North”, the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Piat. Although the site is relatively close to where I live, this was my first visit to the said place. The architecture of the church is of the neo-Romanesque tradition; and the venerated Marian image is thought to be from the 16th century, making it one of the oldest religious articles in the country.

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After saying our intentions, we headed back to Tuguegarao, the capital city of the province of Cagayan, where we quickly visited the cathedral before we parted ways.

Some “culture and faith” day trip, indeed! 🙂

The Philippines through the Hands of Ten Filipinos

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A Tingguian bamboo split weaver in the province of Abra in the Cordillera Administrative Region. The Tingguian people, also known as Isneg, are a lowland indigenous people group that traces their ancestry to the much older Itneg group of the highlands.

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Hand of a Tagbanua bird’s nest (an expensive ingredient for an exotic soup) hunter holding a locally-prepared torch used to lighten up the deepest parts of the caves in Coron Island of Palawan. Gathering bird’s nest is known to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The Tagbanua people are sea-dwellers and are some of the first to occupy the archipelago.

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A traditional healer performing “bulo-bulo” (a form of cleansing done by blowing a water-filled glass containing an amulet) to a curious patient in Siquijor. Sometimes, just right after the ritual, foreign objects — such as sand, pebbles, and even worms — emerge inside the glass! This small island is notorious for its history of sorcery, witchcraft and the dark arts.

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A Taubuid Mangyan showing a pipe he made using a bamboo twig and clay with some tribal etchings. These people inhabit the central parts of Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park, and are some of the oldest known groups in the Philippines. They have an ancient writing system identified as a paleograph and is registered in the Memory of the World list.

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A local potter in the “Pagburnayan” village in the historic town of Vigan, a World Heritage Site. Pottery was introduced by Chinese merchant-craftsmen who have been trading with earlier Filipinos since time immemorial. The Pagburnayan village is home to one of the longest extant dragon kilns outside mainland China.

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An Ifugao preparing a “moma”, a bettelnut chew in Banaue. The Ifugao are the same people who constructed the world-famous rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras (a World Heritage Site), and are, likewise, the guardians of the “Hudhud” chants (a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity).

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An Iraya, a lowland Mangyan sub-group, making a broom out of tiger grasses in Tamisan, a village on the foot of Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park, an ASEAN Heritage Park. Even with extensive and heavy use, these local brooms are known to last for years.

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Hands of a Maranao woman inlaying mother of pearls to a wooden chest. The Maranao people of Tugaya beside Lake Lanao are some of the most artistic groups in the Philippines. Nearly all households in town are engaged in various traditional ‘okir’-based crafts such as wood carving, weaving, brass-ware making, among others.

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An Ilocano showing an heirloom “abel” textile from Paoay in Ilocos Norte. The half century-old textile featured in this photo follows the “sinukitan” technique. Abel are loom-woven textiles that are known for their versatility, sturdiness and creative patterns, as well as the critical role they played during the galleon trade years with Mexico and Spain.

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A Tagalog tourist holding a newly hatched Hawksbill turtle in Puerto Galera, a declared World Biosphere Reserve. The Philippines is recognized by the scientific community as the center of the famed Coral Triangle, a region home to the highest concentration of marine biodiversity in the world.

Guling-guling 2014

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In the Philippines, it is only my hometown Paoay that celebrates Fat Tuesday, the last day of merry-making before entering the Lenten season. Guling-guling, a four-century old tradition, involves street dancing, cooking dodol (a Malay deli), and smearing the sign of the cross (using ash or rice flour mixtures) on the foreheads of devote Christians – which is interesting as, in this town, this religious practice is done prior to Ash Wednesday. Modern-day celebrations now culminate in a dance showdown in front of the UNESCO World Heritage listed San Agustin church, the crowning glory of the earthquake baroque architecture.

The dancers sport the loom-woven textile called abel Iloco, one of the products that my humble town is known for.

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