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Sariaya: A town of heritage enthusiasts

By Lisa Ongpin Periquet, The Philippine STAR Published May 25, 2024 5:00 am

Recently, I wrote about the grand houses of Iloilo, Bacolod, Silay, and Pampanga that were built in the 1920s and ‘30s using wealth derived from a commodity—sugar. In Southern Luzon, there is a unique spot awash with grand houses built using wealth derived from another commodity, in this case, coconut, specifically copra; and this is the beautiful heritage town of Sariaya in Quezon province

A couple of historic events enabled this wealth. First, in 1913 the United States lifted tariffs and quotas on many agricultural imports from the Philippines, which then produced one fourth of the world’s copra. Secondly, when World War I began in 1914, it spurred a huge demand for glycerin derived from coconut oil, which is the main byproduct of copra. The glycerin was mainly used in the manufacture of high explosives in great quantities by Germany and other European countries in the war effort.

Much of Sariaya was planted with coconut, and its byproducts eventually begat the elegant homes we see today. Sariaya became a wealthy town well into the pre-war years of World War II.

The Tomas Baysa house (1927) with its metal window awnings (media aguas) and pierced eaves

My current visit was spurred by an invitation to attend the launch of a heritage book on Sariaya. It is a magnum opus, almost 600 pages, including essays on the town’s history, cultural rituals, legends, personages, landscape architecture and more. Conceived and produced by one of Sariaya’s proud sons, Ysmael Baysa, the book is mainly an oral history intended to preserve the history and heritage of Sariaya, specifically for its youth, lest they forget. Titled Ang Bayan ni Haring Ponse, the attractive book cover depicts a man with a hat and cane overlooking a landscape from a high vantage point with Mount Banahaw in the distance. Sariaya has always lived in that mountain’s shadow, ever respectful of its strength and mystery.

The heritage book Ang Bayan ni Haring Ponse was conceived and produced by Ysmael Baysa, one of the proud sons of Sariaya.

Haring Ponse was a real-life personage of the town in the early 20th century who was well known as an oracle, a Nostradamus of sorts. Ponciano Villadiego was nicknamed “Hari” or King because he always played the role of the king in the Komedya during the time of the town fiesta. Among his famous predictions were the great town fire of 1930, the destruction of a bridge, and the cementing of Sariaya’s roads.

One of the painted walls with Art Nouveau designs in Villa Sariaya (1922)

The book is essentially a collection of various essays penned by Sariayahins (as they call themselves), including Ysmael Baysa; though most pieces were written over a 10-year period by Eric Dedace, recognized as the town’s main heritage advocate, who sadly died about a year before the book was published. A gamut of topics is covered with appealingly quaint titles such as The Town of Haring Ponse, The Old Neighborhood and the Grand Mansions, Doña Margarita—Ang Pilantropa, A Fiesta at the Patio in 1919, Ang Mga Hanapbuhay Noon sa Bayan, Tinapay Sariaya and so on.

The dramatic granolithic stairway at the ground floor entrance of Villa Sariaya (1922)

Although I was unable to attend the book launch, I was keen to visit and experience Sariaya once again, to appreciate the context of the book.

My visit started with a welcome lunch at the immaculately kept and preserved home of the Baysa family. This was a modest 1920s two-story wooden structure painted light blue with original details such as the media aguas—metal window awnings, and the eaves with intricate pierced patterns. A lunch of local specialties prepared by Ysmael’s sister, Emily, was set out buffet-style.

An art deco plaster urn atop the granolithic stairway of Villa Sariaya. Seen behind is the grand wooden stairway leading to the upper floor. 

After the generous and delicious lunch, I was toured around Sariaya by two members of the Herencia Sariaya, a local heritage group — Raul Limbo and Vicky de Villa. Our first stop was the Catalino Rodriguez House built in 1922, renamed Villa Sariaya in the 1990s. The house is as long as a town block with accompanying grand proportions. A dramatic granolithic entrance stairway topped with art deco urns leads one to the wooden landing where another grand wooden stairway leads to a very large sala mayor on the upper floor.

Aside from the lavish wooden carving details of the calados, the house interior is awash with painted walls and ceilings, a distinctive feature that I was to see in another heritage house nearby. Flowers, fruit, and foliage themes abound. A ceiling is painted from end to end with images of a rambutan-like fruit, between narrow beams. Walls are garlanded with painted blooms and art nouveau patterns, which make me think the designs were lifted from pattern books.

Ornate calados at the entryway to the sala mayor of Villa Sariaya (1922)

Vicky then brought us to the home of her family, the Andres Quejada house, also built in 1922. Formerly used as a bakery at the lower level, it was now being spruced up to rent out. The Quejada house is a small villa with lovely decorative plaster touches on the exterior, and again, an interior filled with floral-painted walls and calados with a touch of art nouveau.

A lovely painted vignette of birds and flowers at Villa Sariaya

We wandered down the quiet street to buy some souvenir sweets from a little store down the road attached to a so-called “vernacular” house, made with local materials. The owner of the house was herself tending the store from which we purchased her homemade flavored yemas and specialty pastillas de patatas.

Raul politely cajoled the lady to show us the interior of the house, which originally functioned as a hospital during Spanish times. We visited the upper floor, which contained four small immaculately kept rooms, including two used as a dining room and lounge area. The posts were tree trunks, no nails were used, and the ceiling was made of a beautifully woven pattern of sawali, or flat bamboo strips.

The Gala-Rodriguez house (1930), designed by architect Juan Nakpil

Our last stop for the day was the Gala-Rodriguez ancestral house, which happened to be currently in use as a film location for a teleserye. The owners, Glady and Roger Cabuñag, were apologetic because the original red upholstery was covered with gold cloth and the paintings of her ancestors were replaced with photographs of the teleserye actors. 

The beautifully patterned sawali ceiling of the vernacular house (ca. 1800s)

Built by the architect Juan Nakpil in 1930, the house façade is marked by a prominent breakfront that encases the entrance stairway with its graceful glass canopy; a double-height arched window above then draws the eye upward towards a highly detailed, elegantly curved soffit filled with elaborate art deco forms.

Under the floorboards of the dining room is a secret room where, during World War II, the mother of Glady was hidden away from the attention of the Japanese commanding officer in the town. Replete with several rooms and a bathroom, the hideaway now contains a small display of vintage clothes, shoes, evening bags, and suitcases owned by the family. In the dining room above, we were treated to merienda on vintage plates and a heritage-crocheted tablecloth.

The double-height glass window seen from the second floor azotea 

After a refreshing night at The Seves, an immaculately kept beach resort facing Tayabas Bay, the next day began with a visit to the Sariaya Church of St. Francis, which boasts a lovely sacristy made of adobe blocks. It had a special feature—a sacrarium, a carved stone bowl inset into the wall, which, according to the sacristan of 22 years of service, Ramil Albis, was mainly used for dissolving unused or broken host pieces. The church also contains the image of Santo Cristo de Burgos known as the Mahal na Señor, a special saint to the Sariayahins, for his protection against natural disasters.

The municipio of Sariaya, designed by Juan Arellano (1931)

Directly across the church is the municipio of Sariaya, a lovely art deco building designed by Juan Arellano in the 1930s, but sadly, looking ill-maintained. Across the municipio is a Rizal monument that is well kept at the edge of what is known as the “Park.” Unfortunately, the area is cemented over and dotted with small structures, unsightly signage, and temporary parking tents. A lovely glorietta, or circular gazebo structure, with statues, has been unceremoniously displaced from its original location to one side of the cemented “Park.”

The sacristy of the Sariaya Church with adobe blocks, original tiled floors and exposed wooden beams

The disappointing state of the municipio aside, the beating heart of heritage is strong in Sariaya, and I was able to soak in its stories and folklore while touring the well-kept homes treasured by their owners.

The well-kept Rizal monument (back view) across the municipio of Sariaya

A few days after my visit, Ang Bayan ni Haring Ponse was launched to great fanfare in the town, with special participation from the youth, to whom the book is dedicated. How fortunate that Sariaya has memorialized its heritage with this publication, and may it serve as an inspiration to heritage advocates anywhere.