A 17th century house in Cebu

September 1, 2009 - Built between 1675 and 1700, this wooden house features Cebu-made furniture made in various eras between the 17th and 20th century. (Photo by BIBSY M. CARBALLO)
Built between 1675 and 1700, this wooden house features Cebu-made furniture made in various eras between the 17th and 20th century. (Photo by BIBSY M. CARBALLO)

At the corner of Lopez Jaena and the main thoroughfare of Mabini in Cebu City in the Chinese Parian district stands a house that its caretaker Val San Diego says is a testimony of love and cooperation among family members. A lot of people owned the house at one time or another, Val says. As a young boy, he listened to his father telling stories of how he had once lived in the house. Why don’t we buy back the house, he challenged his dad, who replied that it would be a difficult task.

But Val was not one to surrender a dream that easily as later years were to prove. When his dad died, he went about talking to his uncles and aunties who possibly were taken in by his passion for this ancestral home. Soon enough Val became the caretaker and owner of this small wooden house, which stands on a 280 square meter lot.

It was said to be built between 1675 and 1700 by Chinese artisans. Noted journalist of the 1940s Cornelio Faigao had said that in terms of the amount of original materials that remain intact, this is arguably the oldest house in the country. That the Yap Sandiego house as it is now called has remained in its original state is also a cause of wonderment to even Val himself. It had undergone changes and once served as a boarding house for students with divisions installed to create more rooms. A group of architects later used it as an office. Despite all these incarnations this house had taken on, its basic foundation was never touched.

Val unbelievingly enthuses that through these roughly 320 years, no one thought of putting window panes or jalousies, of installing bars, or even painting the house! Someone, however, did install a ceiling and electric wiring when electricity was introduced. But all these changes – the divisions, the ceiling and wiring – could easily be taken out without causing any damage to the house.

Val acquired the property in 2003 and went about restoring the house. Although an accounting graduate, he says his heart belongs to antiquity and preservation. With the help of eight street children he housed and fed, and two senior citizen carpenters who were familiar with ancestral homes, Val went about his task. He also asked donations from friends and relatives to help shoulder the maintenance costs. “I felt like Noah building an ark all by myself,” he laughs.

It is a small simple house. The windows are made of wooden slabs, that had no ventanillas (jalousies of wood that slide open to allow the air in) underneath, which are common in Vigan houses. When Capiz became the rage in the 1800s, no one bothered to replace the windows. “The house is just a cube, an evolution of the bahay kubo to bahay na bato. The stones in the bottom part have been cut in different manners; a very primitive way of building a house,” says Val.

The simple wooden slab ventanillas on the wall divisions are all original. The art nouveau callado ventanillas were added years later at the turn of the 20th century. The roof was made of terracotta tiles and when the ceiling and wiring were taken out, the soot from oil lamps made the tiles black but simple water and rubbing with cloth brought them back to their original state. All the wood used were either molave or balayong hardwood which is naturally termite resistant. Balayong is also called iron wood and used to make canoes and utilized by the galleons. All the furniture in the house was made in Cebu in various time periods. The crocheted curtains and table cloths are all original and came with the house.

Today, Val feels he is reaping the fruits of his labor. Bea Zobel came to visit and offered encouraging words. Network executive Charo Santos wants the house to be the focal point of an episode of the TV anthology “Maala-ala Mo Kaya.” The Tourism Bureau of Cebu has recently come out with a map, dubbed “Pasiyo sa Kabilin” or Heritage Walk, and it mentions the house as one of the attractions tourists ought to visit.

A special guest last Holy Week was Hong Kong based-photographer Chester Ong who documented the the house for a book focusing on Asian architecture. To be written by the American author Ronald Knapp, the book will feature about 70 houses in South East Asia, all of which had been built by 17th to 19th century Chinese settlers. Ong already shot a house in Jaboneros in the old San Nicolas district of Binondo, and the Syquia mansion in Vigan. Then somebody told him about the Yap Sandiego house in Cebu. The famous photographer was beside himself with excitement as he called Ron in New York to report his amazing find. The house, he said, reminded him of the old houses in Malacca.

This new book will be available in the spring of 2010. Chester promised Val the book will devote eight pages on his house. It certainly looks like the world is discovering the wonders of this little old house in Cebu. (Manila Bulletin)

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