The tales ceramics tell | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

The tales ceramics tell

Cebu, despite the heat and traffic, is growing into one of my favorite cities. Aside from lechon Cebu, the Santo Niño, and the warmth of its people, it has a lot of cultural heritage to offer visitors.

On my recent trip, I visited Ho Tong Hardware on Zulueta street, to see the house hidden inside amidst junk, a house that has the year 1730 carved onto the lintel of one of the doorways, which leads into a thoughtful display of daily life in Old Cebu. It is billed as the “Jesuit House” because it is believed to have been built by the Society of Jesus before the Jesuits’ expulsion from the Philippines in 1768.


So powerful and controversial had the Jesuits become that they were expelled from the Portuguese Empire in 1759, from France in 1764, from the two Sicilies, Malta and Parma and the Spanish Empire in 1767, and finally from Austria and Hungary in 1782. Before 1973, the Swiss Constitution banned the Jesuits from the country that gave us chocolates and the cuckoo clock.

Ho Tong Hardware lies between two old Cebu streets: Zulueta and Binakayan. If you take Binakayan and walk into a small street lined by 18th century lime and coral stone walls, you will find an ancient portal, now protected by an unsightly iron gate from thieves who attempted to steal the medallions carved into the stone with the monograms of Jesus, Mary and Joseph—the trio that gave us the exclamation “Susmariajosep” and the name of the former Vice President Jejomar (from Jesus-Joseph-Mary).


Recently inaugurated in the University of San Carlos Museum are two halls that display the Rosita Arcenas collection of Religious Imagery and Oriental Ceramics. While the ecclesiastical art is more appealing visually, it is the Oriental Ceramics that should be more relevant to Cebu, a busy trading port long before Magellan got killed by Lapu-Lapu in Mactan in 1521.

The wonderfully curated display of ceramics reminded me that Rosita Arcenas was an avid collector of antiques since the 1970s. Her collection consists of over 500 pieces of Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics mostly excavated in the Philippines. The pleasing shapes and varied hues lent color to her home; but now in a museum, we appreciate the same ceramics as tangible proof of a lively maritime trade between the Philippines and its neighbors during the 11th-19th centuries. Most of these ceramics predate the arrival of Magellan in 1521. They are prehistoric, but not so far back to the time of dinosaurs and cavemen.

History is a narrative, and the story in these galleries is told from artifacts rather than from books and archival manuscripts. Our story comes from old pots that illustrate trade and civilization in these islands long before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century; the pots are older than the name “Filipinas.”

The pioneering prehistorian H. Otley Beyer defined the 10th-early 16th centuries as a period different from the Ages of Stone and Iron. Based on his ceramic finds, he aptly described this time as “the Philippines in the Porcelain Age.”

Arab and Chinese traders encountered small seafaring communities by the coasts and waterways of the Philippine archipelago. These communities were headed by chiefs and varied in size and political complexity. Trade was conducted through barter—the Chinese bringing silk, iron, parasols, glass and porcelain to be exchanged for the Filipinos’ pearls, tortoise shell, yellow wax, betel nut, abaca fabric, cotton; as well as for provisions of fresh water, meat, vegetable and fruit for their onward journey.

Traces of this trade are the ceramics. In time, and because of their design and utility, these imported ceramics became prestige objects that proclaimed their owner’s wealth and status. When Magellan arrived in Cebu they were served food on porcelain plates.

The ceramics survived up to our times because they were grave furniture. Ceramics are found in many pre-Spanish Philippine graves: plates were used to cover the face and pubic area of the deceased, while smaller pieces were placed around the head and other parts of the body as pabaon to supply the soul in the afterlife.


Who says dead men tell no tales?

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TAGS: Cebu City, cultural heritage
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