Family portrait: Quest for a 19th-century backdrop

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The dream shot…not!


THE LIKELIHOOD that we had spent more than one lifetime together lent a comedic spin to my family’s recent visit to Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bagac, Bataan, 125 kilometers northwest of Manila.

We agreed to document the trip in a way that none of our numerous previous outings had been. Into overnight bags went outfits that we hoped would pass for vintage wear and make us look like proper dwellers in any one of the bahay na bato among 27 Spanish colonial structures gathered on the sprawling (400 hectares) beach-front property. Dressed in those improvised costumes, we would take a family portrait in one of those ancestral houses. Fun, more than authenticity, was the goal. The outfits should be easy to put on and take off, the peg being: a flash pictorial.


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But secretly, I mused, since there are no accidents in life, each one’s random choices of photo-op outfits might in fact provide insights into our past personalities and relationships. I had packed a lace top and matching lace skirt; seven-year-old Amira, a kimona and patadyong from a school program. Her mother Kler brought a fashionable jusi wrap that she could throw over a tank top, plus a printed sarong that she hoped would cover her legs, down to her Nike Air Maxes. The men in our little party—Amira’s dad Ricky (my son) and her elder brothers Carlos and Raja—meant to simply fold their pants, farm-hands style, and hang hand towels around their necks over plain camisas de chino. Were servants in the olden times allowed to join their masters in photographs? Maybe just as photo bombers, and at the risk of flogging or death as punishment. I verbalized none of this.

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Hotel row:  Charming replicas that sport authentic parts of knocked-down old buildings.

Once we were checked into the hotel area—a row of replicas that sported authentic parts from knocked-down old buildings—and preparing for the guided tour, the only question that remained was… timing. When should we do it? The first stop would be ideal, as Casa Mexico, in the website photographs, seemed open, airy and well-lit. But we imagined that the rest of the people in our tour group, about 11 strangers, would not take lightly any delays on our account. We imagined right.

Hurriedly, everybody went snap, snap, snap in Casa Mexico’s dining room, living room, bedroom, balcony…including us, but not (yet) in our lace, jusi or camisas. If all the stops were programmed this way, we figured, we would never get that fantasy family pic.

So we let the guide in on our little scheme and sought her advice. “Do it during our third stop,” she said. That sounded like a green light and thus we were keyed up as we walked across the cobblestone plaza and into another ancestral home. In anticipation of that third stop, we became a little giddy.

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Carl checks for light inside Casa Luna. Note the corridors circling the rooms. In “olden times,” the guide said, servants  stood there awaiting instructions because they were not allowed inside.

And then suddenly we were there: Casa Luna. It was more interesting, historically, than Casa Mexico, but there wasn’t enough room, as there was too much stuff, nor enough light, largely owing to one distinct architectural feature, the corridors for servants, which ringed the rooms and effectively blocked the sun.

What to do?

When the guide announced, “Casa Binan, the next house, is our last stop,” we were gripped in a now-or-never moment. The courtyard looked familiar. Ah, it was in the movie, “Heneral Luna”! But it was not the setting we had hoped for; in a photograph it would look like any one of many theme restaurants in and around Manila. A surprise awaited us, though, at the top of the stairs.

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Stripped-bare sala of Casa Binan. It was perfect.

Casa Binan is just a replica of the ancestral home of the family of Teodora Alonzo, mother of Dr. Jose Rizal. Meaning, a minimum of the original parts was incorporated in the Las Casas structure— a great part of the real thing, said to have been built in 1765, still stands in the Alonzos’ Laguna hometown. (Details of unsuccessful purchase deals between the living descendants and the Las Casas operators, New San Jose Builders led by businessman Jose “Gerry” Acuzar, are available in several online sites.)

That said, it was still our perfect bahay na bato!

By the time we heard the guide’s final “Thank you, everybody!” we had found our perfect corner in the wide-open sala and picked our perfect brick wall. End result: See below. We were earlier told that it was not the norm in “those times” to smile in photographs. That was cool; we were happy to comply.

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Ghosts? Nope. Just us.

We didn’t get it right the first three shots. Amira’s maong jeans kept peeking from under her patadyong and Carl, who was setting the camera timer, could not run back into the frame fast enough. So we did it again and again (at least twice after we had slipped out of our costumes, we slipped in again) till we were satisfied.

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Ah, there. Just ignore the little girl’s  maong pants under the patadyong. From left: Amira, Kler, Raja, Emmie, Ricky, Carl.

Having done what we set out to do, we continued, still in character, on an un-guided part of our Las Casas walk-around—in kimona, jusi wraps and camisas (trip lang). But this time around, we were all smiles.

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Taking it to the streets, in character.

*About Las Casas: We didn’t expect much, and were more than pleasantly surprised at what we found. A feast for the eyes? Certainly. The guides are efficient, equal to the job, and equipped with enough fun trivia to take the edge off possibly heavy historical content. While we were shooting our portrait, another tour group arrived with another guide, who proceeded to crack the same jokes as ours did. We still laughed.

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Uh, where are we again?

It is not often pointed out that Las Casas is a “heritage resort by the sea.” It gets crowded weekends, since day tours are doable all the way from Manila. Weekday visitors who opt to stay the night, or two, are rewarded with lots of space and enough time to leisurely take in the sights (occasionally, rooms in some of the houses are rented out and are therefore not open for walking tours), ride the tram and enjoy the swimming pool.

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Reconstructed Hotel De Oriente at dusk. For some reason, it reminded Carl, Raja and myself of “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

The pool is small but—but—it is situated across a reconstructed Hotel De Oriente, said to be the first hotel (built either in the 1850s or late 1880s— reports vary) in the country. It doesn’t look like its old photographs. However, it evoked in me and my grandsons Carl and Raja feelings like the ones that melted our hearts in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

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Raja:Venice on his mind?
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One of the newer acquisitions.

As I write, two months later, I need help from Google and previously published materials in matching the houses with their names. However, in my mind, I remember exactly where they stand on the property in relation to one another. As if I had grown up in a neighbourhood—or close to one—which looked exactly like that a few lifetimes ago, when members of my present family probably had families of their own unrelated to mine.

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Not a painting, folks.

(Many thanks to Ricky Velarde, Carlos Velarde and Raja Batino for the awesome photos here.)

2 thoughts on “Family portrait: Quest for a 19th-century backdrop

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