Friday, August 31, 2007

Opus's Day

At a corner of Metrowalk, a small dining and shopping complex at the edge of the Ortigas business center, the newly opened Opus glows in white paint and blue lights. The restaurant-bar can accommodate only about 40 persons, but it exudes an air of mock elegance with its minimalist interiors, clean lines and immaculate paint. One may think the food being served here is “sanitized” -- too chic to be flavorful and too safe to be exciting. On the contrary, unlike many restaurants in the area that are too big in atmosphere to mask food either not given much attention or overly tinkered with, Opus holds a few surprises.

“I love white,” says owner Danielle Lee, explaining that the color connotes a bit about herself: Simple, a catch-all word to mean something straightforward, easy, unburdened with affectation or anything regarded to be complicated, and thus good. Many things surrounding Lee are not really “simple,” however, considering she is only 19 years old. That is one surprise: the owner is too young to own and manage a restaurant.

With a very pretty face and a comfortable background, she is supposed to be partying, studying and if doing some work on the side, modeling. Lee, like her older sister Divine, has done some modeling, and is studying to become an entrepreneur. She says her parents raised her in a strict manner, which has made her quite disciplined. And independent, too, now that she is living on her own in a condo unit, doing many of the chores and now earning her keep.

With a restaurant, she breaks the common notion about people of her age and stature, but confirms conception on her ethnic background. Being of Chinese descent, she must have inherited the business acumen and started early. The business acumen will be seen in time. About the matter of starting early in business, Lee worked for a time in her full-blooded Chinese father’s real estate and condominium company Globe Asiatique. While her sister Divine became vice president for sales in the company, she chose to put up her own business.

It was only last April that she really seriously thought of putting up a restaurant. It was a dream of hers, to share her passion for food and cooking. This she inherited from her mother Maria Victoria Lee, who used to own a flower shop. At a very early age, her mother allowed her to tinker around the kitchen. Lee says she learned how to cook at the age of three, which meant she didn't burn the hotdogs. But by six, by the guidance of her mother, she knew how to cook the complicated kare-kare from scratch. Next she learned to cook Chinese and started experimenting.

“I want to share my food,” she says, recalling that she would have friends over and cook for them. Now, she wants to share her food with the larger public, so a restaurant is but a logical next step.

From April until its opening on Aug. 8, an auspicious date for the Chinese, Lee has been hands-on from the interiors to the recipes. She even trained the waiters herself, she relates, and to an amusing degree. She told them how to serve, even though she had no background in restaurant management. She just happened to know how, she says. She even designed their uniforms and gave them grooming kits, which the waiters really like. They even wear scents recommended by her. Everything reflects herself, Lee adds.

The menu is of personal importance. It is virtually a compilation of her favorites. Thus compiled, she had it looked over by the chefs. For the food, she got some help from chef Blanche Hontiveros and consultant Redd Agustin, who both have impressive culinary backgrounds.

“I love them!” she exclaims about her helpful staff. And she also loves her food.

The menu is largely Filipino. There is a sprinkling of Ilocano influence, which more likely comes from her boyfriend Ryan Singson, son of former Ilocos Sur governor Chavit Singson. He also taught her how to drink, she relates. She is proud of her bar menu.

The Filipino in the food here is a more encompassing term, which includes the traditional, as well as the ones that have become part of the Filipino's ordinary diet, like corned beef.

Lee calls her food “updated” or “modern Filipino cuisine.” For her, this is simply put as Filipino dishes served on modern plates instead of palayok and banana leaves. It may sound a tad simplistic, but it has a point. To be served on chic square plates, the dishes must be very presentable, and Filipino dishes traditionally and largely lack in visual appeal. To be more precise, the dishes are given modern twists, and it is not fusion, the chefs aver. As part of the update, the dishes are given modern names, sometimes fancy.

Opus’s menu lists 54 dishes. The top eight, which was an excruciating selection, according to Lee, are called her Eight Masterpieces. It includes North and South, the pork sisig rolls, Twisted Pate, Big Boy, bulalo con sinigang, bangus and pork crackling, tuna salad and crisp chicken and pork pasta.

The certified bestseller of the restaurant, even this early, is North and South (P200), so named because it combines two recognizable food items of the Ilocos region of northern Luzon and General Santos City in Mindanao: the bagnet and the tuna. Chunks of the crunchy pork and raw tuna meat are mixed together with a dressing of sinamak, the coconut water vinegar popular in the Visayas, and coconut milk.

Another bagnet dish in the menu is the bagnet salad. The bagnet salad combines two quintessential Vigan fares: the bagnet and the KBL. KBL stands for kamatis (tomato), bagoong and lasona (the local shallot). The tomato and shallot are diced and drizzled with fish bagoong, making a delicious side salad, a favorite among the Ilocanos.

Chunks of bagnet are mixed with diced tomatoes and onions. Chef Redd thought of using another kind of bagoong, the bagoong alamang, mixing it with honey and vinegar to make a very delectable dressing. The dish is topped with sprigs of cilantro, one of my favorite herbs. I would pick the leaves off the stem and carefully skewer a leaf with my fork together with a piece of tomato, onion and bagnet. The result is a pleasurable symphony of textures and flavors.

Opus took the favorite pulutan, which originated in Pampanga, and has it neatly wrapped like a lumpia. The pork sisig rolls (P160) contains grilled pork and liver, diced and sautéed with spices and held together by egg batter. This is wrapped in lumpia wrapper and then fried. The rolls are served with a Thai chili glaze.

An American food item that has become a favorite of Filipinos is the hamburger. Here, it is served hefty. The Big Boy burger, they call it, and it is grilled sirloin beef burger topped with fried egg, bacon, melted cheddar cheese and sautéed mushrooms. This is served with tomatoes and lettuce on the side.

The Italian pasta has also crept into the Filipino table. Here, the pasta is served with a Filipino flair. Crisp chicken and pork pasta (P190) has linguine pasta drenched with a savory adobo-infused cream sauce and topped with chicken and pork adobo flakes. It is surprisingly yummy.

The tuna salad (190) is more Japanese-inspired. The tuna is perfectly seared and encrusted with sesame seeds. It is nestled on a bed of mixed greens drizzled with honey-wasabi-ginger vinaigrette, another dish worth a try.

The more familiar milkfish comes as bangus and pork crackling (P180), which is boneless bangus cooked in sisig-style marinade.

Of course, every Filipino menu must have the sour soup sinigang. Here, two favorite soups are blended together with surprising results. The Bulalo con sinigang is bulalo and sinigang in one dish. The beef chunks and bone marrow are cooked with traditional sinigang vegetables in tamarind nam pla broth. Served with jasmine rice, this is perfect for rainy days.

The restaurant also serves other sinigang variations, including sinigang na liempo at spare ribs (pork belly and spare rib sour soup) and sinigang na sugpo at puso ng saging (prawn and banana blossom sour soup).

The most exotic in the list is the Twisted pate (P130). The Southeast Asian delicacy of duck embryo, which is sold here on the streets, is given a “gourmet” treatment. The balut and chicken liver are pureed with thyme and cream, and spiked with local rum. Then the blend is spread on crostinis. What a lovely way to make a dish out of the balut.

Another balut dish in the menu is not for the squeamish. The balut and prawns (P190) has whole shelled balut and prawns cooked in oyster sauce and chili sauce reduction.

There are other notable items in the menu, which could have made it to the Eight Masterpieces. One is the corned beef steak, which has a large chunk of corned beef served with roasted onions, mushroom, garlic mashed potato and soy infused gravy. The seafood in ginger coco cream consists of prawns, tuna, snapper, squid cooked in coconut cream. Then there are the usual treats-kare-kare, crispy pata, gambas -- which are also recommendable.

The dessert list is limited but special. The cheesecake is light and smooth. The brownies are round, moist and drenched with chocolate icing. These are serves with fruit salsa, diced fruits in sugar ginger syrup.

Among the rows of flashy restaurants, Opus, with its uncluttered look and creative dishes, is a pleasant surprise.

Published in The Daily Tribune, September 03, 2007, Page 12.

Opus Resto-Bar is open 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Friday, August 24, 2007

X Radio: The Other Thing Out There

All we hear is radio ga ga,
Radio blah blah.
Radio, what's new?
Radio, someone still loves you!
- Queen, “Radio Ga Ga ”

Like the music it is playing, the new 92.3 xFM radio station quietly launched into the airwaves and trickled into homes, offices and cars, few of them at first. Then slowly more people started tuning in, and writing and talking about it, mostly in the Internet and in blogs. The new management team is optimistic. The newly-installed CEO and president of the radio station owned by the National Broadcasting Corporation, Raymund Miranda, credits this to the music and its being different.
The mass media veteran, who worked with the channels GMA 7 and Disney, said that about 16 out of about 20 radio stations are playing the same kind of music, without differentiation. Pop music and talk radio, which put emphasis on personality, dominate the airwaves. This sameness leads to the decrease in radio patronage.
“Radio listening is declining,” he said. “It means there is an audience out there that is not being served by radio. It’s not because of MP3 and the Internet…It is because of the sameness of programming. They want things that are not being played.”
In an effort to curve this trend, NBC brought in a new management team, appointing them on Jan. 1 this year. On April 8, Easter Sunday, the former Joey station was transformed and launched as X FM with a sound that is “refreshing” and “new.”
“We are given the opportunity to offer something new in terms of music and format,” Miranda related. “And we want to bring radio back to basics, which is good music, good programming. Most importantly, [we want to] make radio again a music authority.”
By being a music authority, he meant being “able to offer music that is not accessible in the market widely.”
Miranda said, “to show people that there are other things out there, we arrived at this format. We call it ‘down-tempo.’ Under it, there are chill-out, trip-hop, house, etc.”
The term is an over-arching one, comprising several music genres or being called by other names. Aside from what Miranda mentioned, down-tempo music can include electronica, new jazz, ambient and lounge.
“It is relaxing music that you keep there all the time. You can work to it, sleep to it, relax to it, entertain to it,” he explained.
This type of music, he further explained, is not really new and not alien to Filipino ears. “It sounds refreshing, but in truth, this music has been around for a long, long time. It's been around for over 25 years in various forms,” he said. “There is no present form, and that’s why it continues to have survived over the years. It is constantly evolving and in mutation.”
Down-tempo can be heard on elevators and malls. It can be heard in movies like American Beauty and Cruel Intentions, and TV series like House, Grey’s Anatomy and 4400.
“People have been listening to this music all over the place,” said Miranda. “Clubs, bars, TV, commercials, ring tones—everywhere but never in one single place on FM in Mega Manila…until today.”
Miranda remembered a crucial incident that made decide on the music: he bought a cell phone and the ring tones were chill-out. “How mainstream can you get?” he exclaimed.
Aside from this, the music is his personal choice. In fact, many of the tracks being played come from his personal library.
Miranda said 90 percent of their music is sourced from overseas. They import their CDs from the United Kingdom , the United States, Japan and around Southeast Asia . They often order online, the Internet being a singular important factor in changing the landscape of music and patronage. “We’re using technology to bring the music here,” he said.
Among these, the station is also playing local acts.
“Together with this mix, we’ve also added a bit of house and indie,” says X FM's managing director Al Torres. “A lot of great Filipino artists have been performing this music over the years, and we’re pleased that they’ve been supportive of the station.”
In the beginning, there was a concern if the new format would click to the Filipinos. But ever since, Miranda always believed in an audience out there for it.
“We found a pent-up demand among listeners who had deserted the FM band,” he said. “They wanted a unique sound. They wanted to listen to music again, and they were again looking to radio to be the music expert it used to be in the past.”
There was also concern about the new format being too “sosyal”, but Miranda pooh-poohed the idea, asking what is masa and mass culture. He thinks that is a nebulous grouping that no one can actually define, and if it really exists. He said that he heard a taxi tuned in to X FM. “Music preference is not influenced by the income bracket,” he concluded. “X FM is about conveying emotion, a feeling.”
What they considered in the beginning is the age grouping and the challenges it presented. They pegged the demographic at 18 to 39 years old, but this is more as handle for advertisers than anything else, Miranda said.
“The challenge is do I grow with my audience?” he said. “We stick to the 18 to 39 age group.” With that constant, the music will be variable, thus the one meaning of X in the station name, as they adjust to the taste of the audience as time goes. “X will be changing. The sound will be different from one year to another,” he added.
With evolving taste of listeners, the new radio station promises to be there to cater to it. The station embraces change, Miranda said, exhorting not to be afraid of it. Clearly, he wants to make a mark in radio history by being different, a practice that is not new. There are milestones in recent radio history, which he calls inflection points, that changed the landscape of music listening because of innovative programming.
“RT came around late ‘70s with Top 40s. Then naging masa ng konti ang FM with Smile Radio,” he recounted. “In the late ‘80s, Citilite became a big thing. Then in the mid-90s, there was NU 107. After that pare-pareho na.” Miranda thinks this is a right time for another inflection point, and timing plays a crucial role in radio.
As much as it moves with the times, X FM is a bit ahead of it.
“The great tennis players will always hit the ball at the peak of the arc. Jimmy Connors will always hit the ball on its way up. Mas mabilis ang response niya,” Miranda explained. “That is what we’re trying to do in X FM. We’re not waiting for a peak and riding on that peak. We’re seeing this crest rising. That’s why one of our taglines is ‘culture on the rise.’ It’s not a culture that exists but a culture that’s arriving. ‘Yun ‘yung Jimmy Connors swing. We’re aiming for it on its way up. That’s really how you’ll spot what’s next.”
And we will listen.

One can tune in to 92.3 X FM on the radio, or listen online via xSTREAM at

Published in The Daily Tribune, 18 August 2007, page 12.

The Panoly Resort Hotel Renews its Vision

The four-star Panoly Resort Hotel, at the northern part of Boracay Island, reaffirms its initial vision of being a first-class luxury establishment in the Philippines’ most popular beach tourist destination. The resort has been undergoing refurbishment and redevelopment since 2006. Although delayed by typhoons last year, the upgrade is about 70 percent done and is expected to be completed by the end of 2007, according to Tommy Chia, the president of the resort.
Aside from the makeovers of the existing rooms and facilities, the Panoly is building a 100-unit condotel, a spa and more recreational and dining facilities. With these new developments, the resort is also enlivening its promotional activities, having been low-profile in the past years.
The Panoly Resort Hotel is one of the pioneering resorts in Boracay, just off the northwestern tip of the province Aklan and the island of Panay. “In 1988, we started building,” reminisced Chia, Singaporean former pilot, who jocularly calls himself a “Singapino,” during a press conference in Makati City. “Boracay in those days consisted of shanty guesthouses operated by foreigners catering to foreign backpackers.”
Chia had been visiting the Philippines many times and went to Boracay during one of his diving excursions. He noticed a shortage, if not a total lack, of quality hotels. Jose Antonio Gonzales, then secretary of the Department of Tourism, encouraged and then supported him in building a hotel. Chia said that he was going against conventional wisdom in establishing a resort. Plunging into the resort business for the first time, he didn’t make any feasibility studies, and during that time, there was no regular transportation to the island nor a supply of power and water. Despite this, he had an audacious vision of establishing the first luxury resort in Boracay.
In 1989, Club Panoly, owned by the Singapore-based CTW Groups, opened and was given a Triple A rating by the Department of Tourism, the first to be accredited as such on the island. In 1996, the resort explored the timeshare concept by affiliating with Resorts Condominium International (RCI), opening Club Panoly Membership Division. In 2004, it was renamed the Panoly Resort Hotel.
The Panoly Resort Hotel is located at a secluded cove in Punta Bunga at the northwestern tip of Boracay, a few kilometers from the much developed and famed White Beach area. On its four-hectare beach front property are nine octagonal clusters of five cottages and a four-storey building containing 55 deluxe rooms and suites. The rooms of the hotel, which sits further inland, have verandas that afford guests a panoramic view of the beach and the surrounding landscape. All rooms are equipped with the requisites of a luxury resort, from cable television to full air-conditioning. The eight suites have their own Jacuzzis and mini kitchens. The rooms and the resort itself are said to be designed mixing the native and the contemporary.
There are ample dining options inside the resort, with three restaurants serving Asian, Italian and Continental cuisines. At the center of the resort is Cafe Punta Bunga, which offers pastas, sandwiches, native and international favorites, cakes, pastries and gourmet dishes prepared by their executive chef. The Yum Yum Restaurant serves seafood and Asian dishes, particularly Singaporean. Cafe Havana affects a Cuban atmosphere with its music. On the other hand, Panoly has two bars: the Bikini Bar, which serves drinks and finger food at a uniquely designed bar by the pool; and the Voodoo Bar, which is a chill-out place by the beach with salsa and Caribbean music.
The resort offers a range of recreational and sports activities including golf, boat tours, jet skiing, parasailing, kayaking, pedal boat, fly fishing, banana boating, snorkeling and scuba diving. Its spa has a range of body and beauty treatments for tired souls.
The Panoly is building a bigger spa, housed in a two-storey structure being built near the beachfront. The building will also house a coffee shop and a Chinese restaurant.
After all the years and with the developments, Chia said that they are still true to the initial vision, that they are still “holding on to our dreams.” They said their efforts have paid off. Numerous investments have been and major developments have transpired on Boracay. On the Punta Bunga, where the resort is, the surrounding hills sprouted little cottages where residential estates are planned. The major development in the area and on the whole of the island is the coming in of the Shangri-la group, a major chain of luxury resorts and hotels. “Our perseverance attracted hoteliers like the Shangri-la group, which invested $100 million next to us,” said Chia.
“Credit must be given to the private sector, which contributed to the success of Boracay,” added Chia, who is one of the founders of the Boracay Foundation.
Established in 1996, the local business association, which is made up by establishments on the island including big resorts and hotels, airlines, restaurants, dive shops, water sport stations, banks, market stalls, island organizations, residents and expatriates, aims to promote its businesses as well as address environmental and social concerns. Thus, according to Chia, the environment is taken into account in any of their endeavors.
Although most of the development is concentrated along the White Beach area, Chia aims at making the relatively less-crowded northern part of Boracay a location for “discerning tourists,” those in search of quality and of the high-end away from the highly “commercialized” area of the island. He said that they are trying to be an alternative choice for those tourists, offering some sort of exclusivity and maintaining a “cosmopolitan ambiance.”

Published in The Daily Tribune, 09 August 2007, page 12.

Contact Information
The Panoly Resort Hotel is located at Punta Bunga, Boracay, Malay, Aklan, with telephone number +63-36-288-3011 and fax number +63-36-288-3134. The Manila sales and marketing office is at the ground floor of ACT Tower, 135 Sen. Gil Puyat Ave., Salcedo Village, Makati City, with telephone number +632 812-2233 (local 401 for sales and marketing, 403 for reservation, and 101 for member services), and fax numbers +632 812-6455 and +632 812-6434. Email at, (for member services) or (for reservations). Log on to

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri: Inspirations from the Edge of the World

Asking about arts and culture in Puerto Princesa twenty years ago would have elicited puzzled looks. Now, people will more likely point you to Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri, which has become a tourist attraction in the capital of Palawan, an elongated province at the westernmost side of the Philippines.
Past the airport, in the barangay of Bancao-Bancao south of the city center, Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri sits in about a hectare of land planted with balayong (Palawan cherry), bamboo and other flora endemic to the place. Bird’s nest ferns and placards dispensing reminders and quotes about the environment hang from the branches of trees. Ground lanterns and driftwood stools and tables pop out between vegetation where the afternoon sunlight gets through and bathes the ground dappled with fallen leaves that conceal crude, small pebble paths. The place gets to feel like a botanical garden until Kamarikutan rises in the middle, a large hut with a gurgling pond lined with smooth rocks. Bright orange and yellow kois like slivers of sunlight swim languidly in the pond.
The porch, actually a trellis for rain vines, provides a shower of roots, preparing visitors for a vision of the interiors: posts of coconut trunks; chairs and divans made of bamboo, its natural sinuous forms remaining intact; ethnic musical instruments; artworks on the walls; a curious cavity on the floor with sand, rocks and pots; lanterns of handmade paper and bamboo with lovely and strange shapes; more coconut lumber as flooring and beams; and more bamboo as walls, racks and stairs.
Kamarikutan is actually made of two contiguous structures: one a circular hut and the other a large rectangular space. The former is a café where coffee, sandwiches and pastas are served; and the latter an art gallery where the consumption is for the soul.
Almost part of the structure and definitely one of the charms of the place is 66-year-old Angelita Macasaet, one of the owners, who is often present chatting up visitors, raconteur that she is, an attraction herself as much as Kamarikutan is. She is fondly called Nanay Dayang, and she tells that she escaped the snake pit that is the corporate world and found sanctuary here.
Nanay Dayang and largely her family are from here. The other owner, thirtysomething visual artist and Dayang’s daughter Maria Teodora Conde Prieto, popularly called Dinggot and a quieter but deeper presence, tells that her grandfather migrated here from Batangas in 1917. Most people in Puerto Princesa are migrants who came to what was considered the Philippines’ last frontier and tried to make their fortune. Dinggot’s grandfather was into many ventures, some with the native Tagbanuas as partners. Her mother was born in 1941. It was World War II, and little Angelita was entrusted to her father’s Tagbanua friends who hid her in the mountains. It was supposed to be a lean season but it turned out to be a time of bounty. The Tagbanuas regarded her as a lucky charm and christened her Dayang.
Dinggot wondered why her mother was named Angelita in the first place when she is a “demonyita.” She laughed loudly but fondly, her curls gently cascading down her temples and nape. I saw similarities between mother and daughter. Both are headstrong and engaging, very interesting characters. Both can speak their minds and talk persuasively and intelligently.
The story is almost mythical and romantic. It seems that stories from journeys to here, that transpired here, can become romantic and beautiful. At least for the two women.
Even as her forebears had cleared the path in the frontier, Dinggot has her own frontier journey and clearing of path, that of “planting the seeds of creativity” that blossomed into something like Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri.
During a rainy night of late March, Kamarikutan had an exhibit opening. I arrived late. A few visitors were left, and Dinggot was with a few friends. Nanay Dayang had retired for the night. She had not been feeling well lately. I drew Dinggot out for some drinks and stories. I got a warm and pleasant lemongrass-flavored tea, and she got her cigarettes. Her lanterns were all lit up, big, beautiful and strangely-shaped fireflies in the middle of a forest.
“I was born and raised in Baguio. My mother is from Palawan but I didn’t live here,” Dinggot related, still a tad giddy from all the activities earlier. She said her father was a geologist who got a job with a mining company in Baguio City and moved his small family to the country’s summer capital high in the Cordillera Mountains.
“I came here as a child for six months. I was about seven or eight years old. And I never came back until fourteen years later, when I was already in college doing my thesis,” Dinggot continued. “I did my thesis here then I left again, went back to Baguio. Then I moved back here only in 1989. When I got back here it was a little depressing because Puerto Princesa then was not the same as it is now. There was only one ship a week. The flights were not daily. Of course, I didn’t grow up here so I didn’t have any friends.”
Dinggot considers Baguio the home of her heart and art. “My mom is from Palawan. My dad is from Manila. I am from Baguio,” she frequently tells people who ask her where she is from.
Although her father, being a man of science, discouraged Dinggot from studying fine arts because he did not want to send her daughter to college only to starve later, popular and proverbial notion, driving her to take up comparative literature and philosophy, a more “lucrative” course, instead at the University of the Philippines, Dinggot still followed her passion, and Baguio seemed the perfect place to nurture that.
“In Baguio—at that time at least and I suppose up to today—there were more artists per square foot than anywhere else I had ever known,” she described. “And I grew up with that, you know, a lot of the senior artists. They were very good friends. Some of them have gone on to the Great Beyond.”
Moving to Puerto Princesa was disconcerting for the young artist. “When I moved here, although there were artists, [they were] kalat-kalat (scattered), you know. There was no unifying force,” she said. “And my mom comes from a very big clan here. So it was a formidable shadow. So people would go, ‘Oy, ikaw is Dinggot, anak ni Dayang. Oy, ikaw si Dinggot, asawa ni ganito.’ (So you’re Dinggot, daughter of Dayang. So you’re Dinggot, wife of this) Always I was an appendage. So it was a challenge to sort of make a statement na may pangalan din ako, may alam din akong gawin (that I also have a name, that I can also do other things).”
The desire to create an identity and a home in Puerto Princesa developed into an idea of putting up a gallery. “It started out as a quite selfish proposition,” she regarded the birth of Kamarikutan.
One day, Dinggot approached her mother about renting her property. “What will you do?” Nanay Dayang asked. “I want to build a gallery,” she replied. Nanay Dayang was receptive of the idea.
“Of all the people I mentioned that thing, siya lang ‘yung (she was the only who went) ‘Oh, okay,’” Dinggot related and took a puff from her cigarette. “Everybody was like ‘What? A gallery in Puerto Princesa?’ This was in 1993. Can you imagine? Talagang lahat sila ay (Everybody was really like) ‘Are you crazy?’ Si Nanay lang ang ‘Okey, sige. (It was only Nanay who said ‘Okay, go.’) But don’t lease na lang. Let’s be partners.’”
Then Dinggot provided a glimpse of their working relationship: “Sometime between then and now, ‘pag nag-aaway kami (when we are arguing), [she goes,] ‘Sige buhatin mo ‘yung building mo.’ (Go and get your building) Ako naman, ‘Sige maghanap ka ng developer.’ (And I would go, ‘Okay, find yourself a developer.’)”
She laughed and continued, “But there is a lot of democratic space between us naman. The garden is hers. The interiors are mine. That is her forte. This is my forte.”
I looked out to garden, now all dark. I could here insects singing and the rustling of the leaves. The rain became a light drizzle, and the air was muggy. Inside, we were bathed in the mellow glow of the lanterns. At the other end, lights were on for the newly mounted paintings.
Despite the indifference of the people around her, the gallery opened in 1994. “When it first opened, it was a pretty lonely struggle to introduce the concept of a gallery to a place like Palawan, which blossomed very late,” Dinggot said. “It was very hard. To begin with, there were only a few of us practicing artists. There were six or seven of us who were active.”
“You cannot naman…” she continued. “There was six of us. What? Every two months shuffle kami?. Hindi puwede. Isusuka kami ng mga tao rito. Mauubusan kami ng inspirasyon. (That could not be. People here would be sick of us. We will run out of inspiration.) Every once in a while, we invite other artists to come by, visual artists in and out of Palawan. In the first year, we only had two exhibits. The following year we had four or five. And then it came to a point na four years after, ayun, every month na.”
The café part just sprang up. “It was an afterthought,” she said.
People who dropped by the gallery asked for coffee, so they offered coffee. Then guests would ask for sandwich, so they add sandwiches to their meager menu. Before long, they asked for meals. Whenever they asked for food, Dinggot would make a dash to the market for ingredients and Nanay Dayang would entertain the guests, chatting them up so they would not notice that the food was taking long to be served.
Dinggot remembered the kitchen as a small shack with no walls and only a gas stove for cooking. They had no freezer, and only a coffeemaker. After a year or two, they came up with an ala carte menu. The menu now lists different coffees, breakfast meals from dried fish to toast, sandwiches, pastas, rice meals, shakes and beer. But then and until now, they would advise visiting groups to let them know in advance the number of people coming and their orders. But they now can handle sizeable events.
“The beauty of Kamarikutan is that we are like family,” Dinggot said. They have only a staff of five working on shifts, but when it gets too busy, everybody pitches in. “Like the gardener becomes a dishwasher or one who grates the coconut. Everybody helps. So even though our staff is lean, we can still handle bigger functions,” she explained.
“But this is more of a coffee place,” Dinggot emphasized. “If you look at the structure, the gallery is bigger. And this (the café) is an addition.”
It is a curious thing how the two structures fuse so well together as to be one. I surveyed the place again and saw the division: the hut-café and the building-gallery.
“It is a fusion of both my roots,” Dinggot revealed. “I was born and raised in Baguio, so this is patterned after the Ifugao house. And the gallery is patterned after the Palawan kalangbanwa, which means ‘big house.’ It is communal. The beauty of it is that the space is defined not by division or rooms but by levels of flooring.”
That explained the sandy rectangle pit in the middle of the gallery. The area is usually used during performances. As much as the design the materials used define the place, giving it character, almost dictating the aspects of the design itself. The practice of its construction was influenced by a movement that was burgeoning in and influencing Puerto Princesa.
“When we were building this, the seeds of environmental awareness were being planted in Puerto Princesa,” Dinggot said. “So all of the sudden, there was a total log ban. And I noticed it was changing the landscape of the city somehow in the sense that everyone was building in concrete and metal kasi bawal na nga ang kahoy (because the use of wood is illegal).”
Coconut lumber were used in the construction of Kamarikutan, and at that time Dinggot felt lucky that many had not yet discovered coconut lumber, a sturdy building material, and they could order as much as they want. They are now the beams, posts and flooring, still original. Some have holes in them where nails used to be. The acidic property of the material corroded the nails. The flaws interestingly come across as part of the design. They are avoiding nails as much as possible, and instead are using rattan strips in assembling things. Bamboo, different kinds, makes up for the rest, especially the furniture, its curves and waves offsetting the straight lines of the coconut components. The roof rustles with dried cogon grass.
“Part of the statement of Kamarikutan is you can still build aesthetically using organic, native materials, things that are here lang,” Dinggot explained. “Through the years we managed to fuse our convictions, our visions, into one like the garden. There is no foreign species here. It’s all endemic the same way all the materials being used are from Palawan, from nature.”
The only foreign things in the place are the colorful fishes, which were given as gifts by Dinggot’s brother-in-law eight years ago, and they were “too beautiful to refuse.” Now, they have grown fat and big, their colors resplendent against the moss-dark stones, and have become one of the attractions of Kamarikutan.
The materials used in the building of the Kamarikutan are not usual for a formal establishment like a gallery but it is Dinggot’s way of making another statement, this one on the concept of the gallery itself. “When you think of an art gallery parang it is so ‘sterile,’ so formal, so elitist,” she elaborated. “So the idea was to bring art closer to the community by way of deconstructing the idea of a gallery. We don’t subscribe to the formal white cube theory of galleries kasi nga (because) it is so sterile, so intimidating. So what we did is we just ‘indigenized’ the concept of a gallery. I mean, we’re just a big bahay kubo (hut) basically. The walls are very neutral so people don’t feel like masyadong elitista (it’s very elitist). We indigenized and popularized the concept of an art gallery so people can come in their shorts, tsinelas (slippers), and they will still be in a gallery. And at the same time, we like to think that we have given a home to local artists, visiting artists and to culture as well, culture and the environment.”
Defining one’s own art space and acquiring acceptance from the community are one matter, and then there is the matter of selling the exhibited artworks. Artists have to be compensated for their labor and have to market their works, Dinggot believes. Materials can cost a lot, and most of the times they have source them from Manila, she explains.
Despite the birth pangs and the veering away from common notions (or perhaps precisely because of it), the gallery garnered good reception from the community, and surprisingly for a place where art and art making is arguably still in its infancy, good patronage for the works.
“We’ve sold quite a number in our thirteen years,” Dinggot beamed. “'Di kami na-zezero (We haven’t experienced having zero sales).”
But there is a concession for this: they have to sell at low rates. “We don’t like to scare away people,” she said. “We have to sacrifice [by having] low prices in building up a patronage.” And besides, “the level of art is not mature [enough] to command [high] prices,” she explained.
She imposes a ceiling on the prices of works. The most costs about Php25,000 to Php30,000, and that is for a major work that can stand up to four feet. To compensate though, the gallery is friendly to artists by getting only a twenty percent cut, as opposed to the thirty to forty percent going rate in Manila, and by taking care of promotions, cocktails and receptions.
However, the patronage here proves to be insular, and this presents a problem in the future. “Although we have many patrons, they are the same people. Eventually, they will run out of wall space. We have to think about that,” Dinggot pondered, but she tried to look at the positive side of it.
“In a way, this limitation is good,” she said, “because it challenges us to experiment with different media. Hindi naman puro (not just all) painting.”
And so Kamarikutan began to be a catalyst for artists aside from providing home, and as home it fully realizes its existence by being a nest, a place for the birth and growth of artists and the arts in general.
For several years now, Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri has been known to hold the Pagdiwata Festival, a week of workshops and performances, a celebration of arts and culture in general. The workshops do not only include the familiar modules of painting, drawing and music, but also of dance, creative writing, and arts and crafts like batik making, pottery and textile weaving. Every April, senior artists and artisans and students learn from each other. At nights, they watch performances, which are mounted for free.
Dinggot appropriated the name Pagdiwata, a Tagbanua ritual of thanksgiving for bountiful harvests. “This was inspired by [the fact that] despite the challenges and the perceived difficulties of building an art center in Palawan we did pretty well,” she explained. “By way of giving back to the community and by way of promoting arts and culture, the festival was conceived.”
Dinggot looked back at how her gallery was warmly accepted. “We were well-received by the community partly because we didn’t shoved it down their throats,” she reasoned. “Imagine, first, two exhibits. It took us four years to fill up the calendar. Kasi unti-unti lang (Because we did it gradually). We have to explain to people when you come here you are not obliged to buy. You wanna come just to look, just appreciate, that’s part of the advocacy of Kamarikutan.”
Though the advocacy has always been here, the arts festival happened by accident.
“In 1998, there was a wave of artists from Bacolod City (in Negros Occidental),” Dinggot related. “They had to wait for the next boat. In the meantime, we did something. We did workshops. We started with four workshops. Students namin mga twenty lang ‘ata. In the evening we had nothing to do. So we played music and the artists were jamming. I thought gawin kaya nating festival ito (let’s make this into a festival). I mean, we were doing it already. Why not formalize it?”
From twenty students, the workshops attracted more until it reached its record number of enrollees in 2006 with 101, excluding the scholars. They did a wonderful show for their culminating activity, Dinggot reminisced. Students from different fields came together for a collaborative effort and contributed what they had learnt. These students, as well as the former ones, come from different backgrounds and in different ages. From all brackets, Dinggot said.
As with the students, Dinggot also has the good fortune in finding artists and teachers to facilitate the workshops and also to perform during nights.
“A lot of the facilitators are not from here. There has to be growth. It cannot be the same people teaching the same things to the same people all the time,” she said.
Dinggot was able to invite facilitators, some have made marks already like music artists Joey Ayala and Noel Cabangon. At first they thought the idea to be a bit foolish, especially about not charging for the performances, but as they saw what was happening, they even went out of their way to help out like finding ways to cover their airfares. While the workshop fees increased from Php800 in the first year to Php1,500 now, the fees for the facilitators remain the same, and they did not ask for more. They have considered Pagdiwata their own outreach.
“For us, it is a learning experience. For them, it is an inspiring experience. So it is a very good relationship,” Dinggot said.
On the other hand, her relationship with the Puetro Princesa community, from which she regularly solicit financial support, has also been good.
“By way of involving the community, every February, we pop our begging bowls and sort of invite businessmen, people from the government sector to pitch in a little bit for culture and the arts, and the environment,” Dinggot related.
Pitch in they did. Some are eager enough to volunteer. Sponsorship rate is minimal, and for a little amount sponsors or donors are entitled to adopt scholars. They can actually get their own kids in as scholars through their sponsorship.
Dinggot is leery on approaching big corporations though lest the festival would become a commercial event. “Para hindi mawala ang soul (So it will not lose its soul),” she said.
“It’s a very intimate festival. Because of its intimacy, we are able to maintain its quality and integrity,” she added.
There was one student, Dinggot reminisced, who approached her about exhibiting his works in Kamarikutan. The student started going to the Pagdiwata workshops since he was in grade four. When he was already a fourth-year high school student and ready for college, he went to her. He wanted his own exhibit because his grandmother was going home from the United States, and it would be great thing to show; because his girlfriend was going away for college in Iloilo and it would make a great going-away event; and because he himself was going to University of Santo Tomas in Manila, and the income from the exhibit would help fund his studies. When Dinggot checked on his works, she was amazed to see ninety-six paintings. The same boy sent her a laminated newspaper clipping in which his name appeared. He was one of the winners of a cartoon contest of a newspaper. Dinggot was moved. For her, it is enough that her efforts have inspired even one. “And to see how far he goes. That’s enough,” she sighed.
For the past thirteen years, Dinggot poured her energy into her gallery and in promulgating arts and culture in general. In those years, she has not produced much artwork. It got to the point when she began questioning why she is creating art. She reasoned that she paints because she has something to say. But then her message or statement may not get across to everyone, to those who may not understand her medium. When people buy her work and stashed it in their homes, what happens to her statement?
One day she realized that her art has changed medium. It has resurged in a different canvas, a bigger canvas that is Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri, and the advocacy for the arts and culture in Palawan.
Dinggot finished her cigarette, her mocha complexion glistening in the mellow light of the lamps she fashioned herself and her curls catching that light. The rain has completely stopped. It was near midnight, too late for her to go home. She lives sixteen kilometers out in the barangay of Irawan. She decided to stay in her halfway house behind the gallery, an open hut with a studio and a sleeping area on the upper floor.
I thanked her and said goodbye. I forgot to ask where she got her nickname. Maybe it was from ingot, I speculated, a mold in which metal is cast. Dinggot: Someone who has wrought something beautiful here in Puerto Princesa.

Getting There
Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri is along Rizal Avenue Extension in the barangay of Bancao-Bancao, Puerto Princesa City. It is near the airport. One can take any multicab (tricycle) plying the city to the gallery. Regular fare is Php7. Rate for hiring the multicab is from Php20 to Php50.

Contact Information
Kamarikutan Kape at Galeri can be reached through telephone numbers (048) 433-5182 and 433-9088, and email One can contact co-owner Dinggot Conde Prieto through her mobile phone number 0918-9095571 or email