Tracing the Sugar Barons in the Philippines

by Frank Wigand Grosse-Oetringhaus - 2 years, 2 months ago

The most important sugar barons of the world are in Puerto Rico, J. R. Fernandez, in Natal, Sir M. Campbell, in Cuba, the Fanjul brothers and J. Lobo, in Hawaii, W. N. Hooper. A world-wide story, but it is particularly associated with the West Indies. Matthew Parker has written one of the most famous books on this topic, which covers comprehensively the importance of the “white gold” for Britain and the connection to slave trade, exploitation, genocide and excessive sexual misuse, in short an extreme horror story within the British history. Like so often a British perception which is influential on the thinking of many because of language and marketing, but a perception which doesn’t cover the full story. It doesn’t cover the story of Brazil and the Philippines, because this story is in Spanish and Portugese.

People in our club think that traveling is moving from one place to the other, to cross borders and to collect points. This is a poor perception of traveling. More enriching is to go from one highlight to the other in order to cover the most important. But even more enriching is traveling from one place with one topic to another place with the same topic till you have covered the most important places for this topic of the same category in order to understand the global context. We call it theme traveling: Two examples: All the gold sites, all the sites which show the human development. In this story the theme is sugar, the white gold of the past.

All the sugar stories are connected with slavery, so they are not sweet at all. But not this one. This story plays on the sugar island, Negros. It is a story of blending the Spanish with the Filipino culture. The children of the “blend” were offsprings of mutual agreement not rape, they are among the most beautiful people in the world, women who can compete with Elizabeth Taylor.

The right place to start is the Sugarland hotel in Bacolod in the Northwest of Negros. It is probably not the best but the most traditional. Your trip will go from Bacolod to nearby cities, Victorias City, Silay and Talisay. We call this trip the Sugar Trail, an appropriate name for this cultural landscape. Like always we spent some time in selecting the best guide - here a well-informed taxi driver. The hotel gave us a very good tipp.

If you approach Victorias you will pass huge sugar plantations like you have seen everywhere in Negros. We have chosen the right time, sugar is being harvested. And like in so many places in the Philippines the people are very welcoming. If you want a photo of the hard working people harvesting the sugar cane all the people will give you a bright smile and they will do anything for your best photo. Filipinos are not shy, they are world-open, most of the families have someone working abroad, either as nurse, maid or seaman. And they are definitely the most adaptable people in the world. So they make an ideal travel companion. And being a partner of an Ex-Filipino, Teo, for 34 years I know what I am talking about. But let us do the sugar works their harvesting and continue to Victorias.

In this nice town you will see one of the biggest sugar mills in the world, definitely once the biggest in Asia, still active. You will also see a town for the workers with hospitals, schools, a cemetery and a church. A social model that would delight the UNESCO, but they haven’t discovered the “Sugar Trail” yet. We already have quite a few of those social models on the list. But this one is missing. Not only the mill and the associate buildings are impressive. In the church you will get almost a shock.

You step into the “Church of the Angry Christ”. The whole altar wall and all the adjacent parts are all covered by a painting you have never seen before. For me this Christ is not angry, he is extremely strong and powerful. His expression is unique. But see for yourself. This picture is compelling because it is painted in the style of expressionism. Painted by Alfonso Ossario. He was a member of a sugar baron family. Being gay he immigrated to the US, looking for more freedom. He became one of the closest friends of Jackson Pollock, like him an abstract expressionist. Pollock is the leader in this field, his paintings rank among the most expensive in the world having sold for more than some of Van Gogh.

You continue to Silay with many original houses of the sugar barons. Not overdone, just stylish, a fine blend of Filipino and Spanish. One of the best is the Jalandoni House, today the leading museum. Watch the pictures of the wall, watch how beautiful many of the family members are.

You stroll or drive slowly through the streets. It is a shame that some families cannot afford their houses to maintain. Some are ruins, some are dilapidated. The Hofilena House is a well maintained one, here the life style of the sugar barons will come to life. Here you are as close to authenticity as possible. Our young guide loves his job, he guides with utmost passion. You walk among great paintings, a remarkable art collection of Filipino and international art. Historical photos show the life style. A real blend of Spanish and Filipino.

Similar is the Gaston House nearby, popularly known as Balay Negrense. Here you see some of the most beautiful women you have ever seen, like Elizabeth Taylor in “Suddenly last Summer”.

You continue to Talisay almost back to Bacolod. For many – especially Filipinos – the highlight of the tour. You visit the Lacson Mansion. Because only the walls and the floors are standing they call it “The Ruins”. This title is misleading, it is a very beautiful ruin. Thus it is called the Taj Mahal of Negros. It is the home of a heart warming love story of Don Lacson and Maria Braga. The photos and the videos again enliven the life-style of the sugar barons and in this case the love story as well.

You have seen the history of the sugar barons, so different from the West Indies, so sweet, so beautiful – Filipino style. The “Sugar trail” reveals very much of the Filipino character, sweet, smiling and friendly. But it shows another character as well, hard working – that is why the Filipinos are so popular around the world.

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