Cebu: A City of Culture

last week i asked the question is: cebu a creative city?  in this one we find out thats it's a rich cultural place. 

Cebu City, together with other urban areas making up the Cebu metropolitan area, have a deep and complex cultural life.  This has implications for how the place functions. In the last piece, we discussed some of its urban challenges, but to fully understand Cebu, we need to appreciate its cultural makeup.  In particular its sense of self.

A bit of history first

Cebu was already a well-established trading hub in the area when the Spaniards first tried to take it. The indigenous population under the leadership of Rajah Lapu Lapu trounced them.  The famed Spanish explorer, Magellan, was killed here during one of the skirmishes, his remains never recovered.  Later the area became the first capital of the Spanish East Indies Company in the archipelago.   Magellan started the conversation of locals to Catholicism, with the venerated icon of Santo Niño de Cebú a key pivot. Today it is the oldest Christian province in the Philippines, its first urban centre.  

When the Philippines was eventually colonized by the Spanish. in the late 1500's, Manila emerged as its capital. After a 333 year rule, the Spanish ceded the Phillipines, as compensation to the USA, who ruled from 1899-1935.  Then came the hard years of Japanese occupation during WW2.  Throughout these long centuries of occupation, the locals fought back strongly and unsuccessfully - much blood was shed.  In 1946  the country became independent.  It was a moment of great joy and idealism for the many who fought in the resistance. Later, after a difficult and long dictatorship, and the successful People Power Revolution, it regained democratic form in 1986.  Today however, it is trapped in a deeply corrupt state apparatus and has a controversial new president, who has much popular support.      

Like the rest of Phillipines, Cebu is staunchly Catholic, with over 80% of its population practicing. 

a unique culture

When the local Filipinos embraced Christianity, they infused it with much of their indigenous practices.  This also happened across  language, cuisine and culture, creating a unique fusion.  The annual festival of Sinulog held in Cebu is the centre of Santo Niño celebrations in the country and is emblemic of the syncretic nature of Filipino Catholicism.  Filipino cultural life and the arts has thus developed as a hybrid form, with locals proud of their indigenous roots. and a number of artists have explored their roots through their art making.     

The presence of Chinese in the Philippines predated the Spanish and a large proportion of the Filipino population have some Chinese descent.  As one of the key trading classes, many of the Chinese Filipinos, had close relations with the Spanish.  They are present in all cities, including Cebu.

Like in many postcolonial countries, it is often those, who were closest to the colonial powers of the past, in blood or in orientation, who emerge, as the strongest economic class, and often its key leaders and influencers.    

class matters

One of the significant challenges Cebu faces is the complex class system connected to its colonial past that exists in the city, not always clearly visible to the uninitiated eye.   Here your surname, tells where you come from and where you fit into the class system.   Inevitably those with Spanish blood have more power, as does those with Chinese.

In my short interaction and through dialogue with a more aware younger generation, I discovered that while community matters greatly, there are huge divides along class lines - those considered higher in the class chain have a great deal more influence than others.   And this is apparent in the arts as well 

Magellans Cross can be  found in the building on your far left

Magellans Cross can be  found in the building on your far left

class and culture

Take for example the Arts Council of Cebu, a body established in 1960, by artists around 7 art forms, and which eventually became the defacto organizing entity for the arts in the City.   Consisting primarily of persons from the more elite classes, the body tends to focus heavily on classical arts through programmes and previously via a scholarship scheme and a festival.  Although the body is currently going through a transition phase and its new and younger board members are beginning to look beyond itself to include “younger influencers” and to be more “relevant”, there is still much to be done.  Making the necessary mindshift change to a more postcolonial approach to thinking requires an ability to critically reflect on power relations and positionality and make fundamental changes in respect to the organisation’s mission, partners, goals and operations. 

The elder elite classes have a strong Eurocentric approach to art, recognizing value largely in art forms that reflect this colonial tinged perspective, without valuing other forms of creativity similarly.  This means folk practices are not placed at the same level, nor are contemporary forms of art making, nor the everyday.   As a result practitioners who work outside of the old eurocentric mode struggle to find support. Creativity needs to be defined more  broadly than art, and art in a contemporary Cebu needs more discussion around postcolonial histories and realities

Support for culture and heritage

To enable the broader population, the have nots, to recognise their innate creativity and to work with their localness in more productive ways, could have immense value for the city.  Supporting artists and others to work creativity with  local cultural resources, recognising both tangible, and especially, intangible forms of heritage, has much potential for addressing challenges of inclusivity and of sustainability.    We will come across examples over the next few months.  As we shall see later in the Cebu story, some of these ideas were already central to the country's cultural policy, when it was developed post colonialism.   However support is challenging, and as in many other cities, government is the entity with the least interest in supporting culture or heritage. 

innovative work in cebu 

I was impressed to encounter a number of interesting artists, working in as varied a medium as filmmaking, photography and street art, who were doing amazing work, drawing on local heritage resources.  They are asking challenging societal questions about the past and the present.    

Support for artistic production and that works innovatively with intangible and/or tangible heritage, however, is  not easy to come by in Cebu.  Much of the resources for the creation of new work of this nature is in Manila. The cultural policy centralizes much of its key arts institutions and key cultural support there.  Cebuanos have few places to look for support, other than themselves and their broader communities. 

the state may not care 

Local government, i found in the cities in SE Asia i visited, seemed to have little care for the protection heritage in its built form.  Coming from a  city where heritage in its built and natural form is protected jealously (often in the interest of class/race struggles), but which invariably forms the backbone of good public space, i was surprised to see  a weak protection of built heritage and/or its incorporation into vibrant spaces in Cebu.  I usually see this as an indication that the city does not care for its intangible heritage either.  The state run museums in Cebu do not offer the most inspiring displays on local heritage.  They respond often to the city from its colonial past out, rather than considering a view  from its indigenous history, or via its recent histories post independence.  Reflection and challenge seems absent. 


The  quaint Fort San Pedro and its surrounding heritage buildings offer a potentially beautiful public space connecting it to the Basilica del Minore Sto. Niño and the site of Magellan's Cross pictured above.  These key heritage sites are  potential spaces to draw visitors, who often bypass urban areas on their way to visit the Phillipines beautiful natural sites.  But the areas in much need of care.  

These historic sites are near the harbor in an area that is planned for redevelopment.  They abut the old town of Cebu starting on Colon Street.  The street and the old town are an architectural disaster as a result of mass uncontrolled construction over time, with no heritage preservation taken into account.  Still, in its visual monstrosity, it is a busy active and important area for the working class.  Connecting these various sites could be an opportunity for an innovative Cebuano architectural response.  Interventions here could provide much needed cultural and public space, so lacking in Cebu today.   is this an opportunity for new forms of urbanism that respond to local cultural contexts and lived realities, drawing on the past, beyond the built?    But i can still see my Cebuano friend who rolled his eyes at me when I suggested it, uttering one word, corruption.  I shrugged in response i guess its the same everywhere in the South". 

Community, culture and identity

And while old buildings are not very important to everyone, community and family matters a great deal in the Philippines, as it should.  Rooted in the country's spirituality is a rich sense of support for family and community.  And in Cebu, as elsewhere, there appears to be a rich fabric of community centered development bodies and much support for those less privileged.     

heritage comes alive

One of these bodies is the impressive Ramon Aboitiz Foundation (RAFI).  It's a leading supporter of development work in Cebu that builds strong civil society. Its motto  “touching People, shaping the future.”   RAFI’s focus areas are integrated development, micro-finance and entrepreneurship, culture and heritage, leadership and citizenship, and education.

This forward looking approach to culture in the city, recognizes the magnitude of building on the past in order to move ahead.  While also providing the capacity building tools that allow people to play a role in making their city from below.  Its aims are to be collaborative, holistic and people centered - ultimately serving as a role model for Cebu, sharing innovative practises.

In its cultural work it advocates for the preservation and promotion of Cebuano culture and heritage.  It runs its own Casa Gorordo Museum, which sounds like a great museum (under renovations when I visited - pictured above).  It also runs a range of heritage awareness programs targeting adults, youth and children.  Amongst these is the support for the excellent and long running annual Gabii sa Kabilin (Night of Heritage) which activates many independent and state museum spaces with innovative programming that recognizes heritage as something alive and meaningful for locals.  It is embraced by all and provides a unique platform for showcasing the cultural life of the city.   

in its grant making role RAFI provides support to a number of great initiatives with cultural and community development outputs.  These include  Sistemang Pilipino with its focus on musical excellence and social transformation.  As Lianne Sala, its director explains. the project builds on the "golden years of orchestral education" in Cebu between 1991 - 2001 when many were educated in music.  Basing its model on the successful Sistema Venezuela, Sistemang Pilipino is a unique local adaptation, rooted in Lianne's deep spirituality and her desire to be of service to her community.  As a non profit it is geared primarily at young people from underserved areas. The motto of the organization is "Building a nation of servant leaders, uniting the world through music".   This inspiring message is played out in the success stories coming of of its five years of existence.  Many young people are exposed to the beauty of music and at the same time are exposed to important life skills. 

There are a number of independent museums in the city, including the very sweet 1730 Jesuit House museum.  Its based inside the Ho Tong Hardware, and small tours are provided hourly.  Once the current owner  recognized the importance of the building architecturally and historically, he began using his own funds to develop the space and it will eventually stand as a museum in its own right, privately supported.   Essentially a period piece museum, it has an interesting permanent collection about Cebu through the eyes of the site.   

and next week...

in the coming week, we look at the issues of cultural space.  I'll be asking what Cebu has to offer in spaces for art, music and design.  What are the milieus and audiences around these? 

You will encounter a music scene around the Handuraw Pizza Events Cafe, the tasty Sugbo Mercado Market and a dynamic mix of young creatives - designers, illustrators, artists, crafters, It startups - around CrossRoads Mall.    

You will see here the energy and vibrancy of Cebu's creative industries world..