Vigan! or entanglement of the “foreigns” and the local in a Southeast Asian City

In 2021, the Philippines will commemorate 500 years of Hispanic colonial “legacy” in the archipelago. The most celebrated Hispanic legacy in the islands is Catholicism. Hence, in 2021, the Philippines will also commemorate 500 years of Catholicism in East Asia.  

Up north in the Ilocos region, Spain’s legacy remained intact through the preservation of colonial houses, pavements made of cobblestones, baroque tradition in designs of religious sanctuaries, the commedia and zarzuela in the theatrical performances in one of its urban centers: Vigan!

Located on the western coast of Luzon and facing the infamous South China Sea (West Philippine Sea in the Philippines), Vigan is a heritage city inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO World Heritage Convention in 1999. The city is one of the few Philippine urban centers where colonial structures remained intact and a unique architectural infusion of the colonial, native and Chinese motifs adds an amazing charm to its cultural landscape.

Vigan was a coastal trading post even before the arrival of the conquistadors. Chinese from the Fujian province were the early traders of the people of this coastal town. Traders often entered the city from the West Philippine Sea via the Mestizo River that surrounded the city. In the museum at the center of the city, the curatorial notes explains that indigenous peoples from the mountains of the Cordilleras (a nearby mountainous region) would often go down to Vigan and brought with them gold, beeswax and other mountain products to trade goods from other Asian kingdoms.

While 21 March 1521 is known to many as the start of Hispanic colonial era in the islands, the colonial era in Vigan only began in 1572 right after Miguel Lopez de Legazpi decided to travel up north in Manila with the intention of establishing a new colonial capital due to the immanent hostilities of the Visayan people against them. It is not unknown to the Spaniards that the Island of Luzon is the largest in terms of land area. With this, King Philip II assigned Captain Juan de Salcedo to explore the northern most part of Luzon for other opportunities. The exploration led Salcedo’s team to arrive in Vigan on 13 June 1572. And the rest as they say . . . . (drumrolls please) is history!.

Salcedo was responsible for the urban landscape that became Vigan today. The plan back then was to make the city almost similar to the plan of the Spanish king to Old Manila in Intramuros. Of course, urban planners then followed a basic pattern that can be observed in most Hispanic colonial cities. Under Hispanic Law, streets were to follow a grid pattern, the center of which being a plaza or central park and next to it, administrative buildings, the church, a seminary, and a school.

Today, the central park in Vigan is called Plaza Salcedo. Named after Juan de Salcedo, the plaza is both the city’s central attraction and the center-most area of the city. As a commemoration to the birth of a modern Vigan, a  17th-century monument of Juan de Salcedo is erected at the middle of the park.

Much like any old Spanish settlement in the Philippines (such as the one in Carcar, Cebu or in Intramuros in the nation’s capital), Plaza Salcedo is surrounded by other important structures in the city: the city hall (the municipio), the regional hall (Vigan is also the region’s capital), a school (St. Paul College) shopping centers/specialty shops, and a religious sanctuary (St. Paul Cathedral). Today, Vigan, like most city-centers, is surrounded by fast food restaurants.

Calle Crisologo Marker (Photo: SAPT)
The Hispanic vibe of Calle Crisologo (Photo: SAPT)
An obligatory pose at Calle Crisologo
The best way to see the city is through a kalesa
Former Provincial Jail, now the Provincial Museum (Photo: SAPT)
Plaza Burgos (Photo: SAPT)
Saint Paul Cathedral (Photo: SAPT)
A Chinese Bell, one of the Chinese influences in the decorations of the Historic Houses (Photo: SAPT)
Costume parade with my colleagues at the Arce Mansion
Calle Crisologo at Night

In the early days of revolts against Spanish colonialism (not yet the Philippine revolution as we know it in Philippine history), Gabriela Silang, widow of the revolutionary Diego Silang was executed by public hanging in the Plaza on 20 September 1763. Gabriela was the first woman leader of a Philippine insurgency against Hispanic oppression. It is with this reason that often the Plaza is associated with the heroism of Gabriela Silang. Some locals even advocate for the change of the name of the plaza from Plaza Salcedo to Plaza Gabriela Silang. On a personal note, the latter sounds better and more appropriate, considering the role of this woman in Philippine history. In a way, renaming the plaza may be considered as a recuperation of the role of women in the history of Philippine revolutions against the atrocities of Hispanic colonialism.

One of the attraction of the park/plaza is the dancing fountain, which more or less comparable to the dancing fountains in other historical cities such as the one in Barcelona. The dancing fountain starts at 7 pm every night, taking place every 30 minutes.

My millenial sister suggested that his generation would love Plaza Salcedo as it could generate a magnificent foreground when they take photos of the five century-old Cathedral (NOTE: it was originally built as a chapel, later became a church in 1641 and was rebuilt in the 1800s).

Adjacent to the cathedral is the Plaza Burgos, a small plaza dedicated to Father Jose P. Burgos of the GomBurZa fame. A Vigan native, Father Burgos was one of Vigan’s illustrious sons put to death by the Spaniards. One of the few early Filipino clergies, Father Burgos fought for ecclesiastical reforms. Together with Fathers Gomez and Zamoras, he was fighting to ease the sufferings and discriminations experienced by Filipino clergymen. On another personal note, I am glad that a plaza is dedicated to a native/local. Today, Plaza Burgos is best-known for empanadas (a local delicacy of meat and vegetable-filled pastry) and other street food. Surrounding the plaza are food stalls selling the popular delicacy.

A few yards away the town plaza, is the major attraction of Vigan: Calle Crisologo (Crisologo Street). Here is a heritage city where the colonial era is frozen in time. The street is popular for its preserved colonial houses which are described in many tourist web pages as “simple but lovely subjects ready for picture-perfect shots with their roofs of red tiles, thick walls, huge doors and stair cases leading to rooms of high ceilings and sliding capiz shell windows.” Many of the houses are privately owned, making it difficult for anyone to enter. However, several houses were already transformed into museums, shops, and hotels.

A case in point is the Syquia Mansion – where the owners happily welcome visitors and retell the history of the house vis-a-vis the colonial era (i.e. how the mansion contributed to the revolution, how colonial era gave birth to European social classes that somehow resonate until the present). Then, there’s the Arce Mansion – where visitors may don on costumes or dresses of the colonial days. For a fee of PhP 150.00 (USD 3.00) per costume, one can be a Hispanic friar or an ilustrado, or a senyora or any character from the infamous novels Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo by Jose Rizal.

The best way to see the historic city is through the kalesa (horse carriage). The experience with the kalesa completes the Spanish colonial era. Good thing: the street is car-free. It is pedestrian friendly unlike the other Hispanic cities in the archipelago where vehicles congest the plazas, and pedestrians are not observed with respect.

Anyhow, I hope in the near future, other Historic Cities of the same motifs will be considered by the State as possible entries to UNESCO World Heritage Site. Carcar in Cebu, for example is a good candidate. I wonder why Taal Heritage Town in Batangas was not even in the Philippine Tentative List. Magalang in Pampanga, Malolos in Bulacan are also good examples of preserve colonial towns.

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