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Tall tales from Old Cebu

If not for its horrendous traffic, definitely worse than Manila at times, Cebu is turning into one of my favorite domestic destinations. The food is good, the people are nice, the urban center compact.

And if you don’t mind the heat and humidity, the old heritage district can be explored on foot: Cebu Cathedral where the Santo Niño is enshrined; the nearby “Magellan’ Cross”; the old Spanish Fort; and the surrounding Plaza Independencia that recently coughed out some archeological artifacts that prove Cebu was a busy trading port long before Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived in 1565, and that the history of the island and the city predates even Magellan’s arrival in 1521.

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Last Saturday, I braved the first thunderstorm of the season to visit the ancient Parian district that all taxi drivers know by the “Heritage Monument” made by the late Eduardo Castrillo. There are two nearby heritage houses on the tourist trail: Casa Gorordo run by the Aboitiz Foundation, and the Yap San Diego House that provides a rather romanticized view of life in the past. After all the past has been aptly described as a foreign country because, there and then, people did things differently from the way we do things today.

The latest heritage attractions in Cebu are: the Rosita Arcenas Collection of Oriental Ceramics and Colonial Religious Imagery that fill two halls in the University of San Carlos Museum; the “Jesuit House,” an 18th-century structure hidden inside the Ho Tong Hardware bodega on Zulueta Street, which now offers a tour of the house and a book-lined coffee shop run by the owner, Jimmy Sy.

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Literally walking through heritage required some reading, and I opened my notes on Jose E. Marco’s invented book, “Philippine Folklore,” to share three tall tales from Old Cebu.

The first is the origin of the Ylang-ylang, a tall tale allegedly from the nonexistent The Royal Library of Palembang, Java: “Don Martin, a Spaniard in Cebu fell in love with a native, Maria, but they didn’t speak the same language, so they used sign language. Maria climbed a tree and gave him flowers that he kept in his pocket; she pointed at the tree, saying: Yla (theirs), and when asked again, she repeated, Yla lang Yla (truly their own). Thus the tree became known as Ylang-ylang. Fifty years later Martin was buried below the Ylang-ylang tree in a place that later became the cemetery of San Nicolas, Cebu, where as late as 1881 the ancient tree was still standing, a tree older than the Cathedral of Cebu.”

The second is the Miracle of San Nicolas, about Ny Chong who was baptized Nicolas Gomez. According to Marco: “The original manuscript of this story, written about the year 1581, is in the Museum of Mexico where this copy was obtained. The places mentioned cannot be actually identified in the neighborhood of the actual city of Cebu.” Marco said that up till 1866 in a river on eastern part of Cebu was a boulder shaped like that of a petrified alligator with his mouth open. The stone was used by the Spaniards for public buildings in Cebu, but the story remained: about a converted Chinese chased by an alligator, and when he invoked the intercession of San Nicolas, the alligator turned into a stone. Hence the San Nicolas district, and the church built there in 1563.

The third is about the Holy Child of Solambao: “About the year 1830, a foreign writer had a chance to copy some very ancient records in the Convent of Cebu, where he made up a little work, published in Madrid, Spain, about 1848. Unfortunately, these manuscripts in the Convent of Cebu was ransacked during the revolutionary period and many of them lost forever. Here is one of the stories as published in the small collection prepared by Don Jesus Mendez de Goyena. . .  Antonio and Pilar were a poor couple who lived on fish caught by their solambao. One day they found the image of the Holy Child and kept it in their house. They brought it with them fearing a Moro raid, and on that day their catch was unusually large. Those who tried to steal the image were crippled or disabled. They gave it back when the second Spanish expedition arrived and was made patron of solambao fishermen.”

Eminent historians of Cebu Resil Mojares and Mike Cullinane won’t buy any of Marco’s tall tales.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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