Pressed against Javier’s arm as they waited for the band to begin, Georgie studied his barong tagalog. It was simple ivory with a plain collar—elegant and traditional—not dyed or striped or ruffled. He had also chosen geometric embroidery over floral. Still, it was not a modest garment. Though the piña felt sturdy and substantial where it brushed her skin, it was so sheer that it displayed his snug undershirt with remarkable definition.
“Why wear a shirt so thin that you need a second layer?” she asked, eyes fixed where his short sleeve revealed some bicep. “Isn’t that hot?”
One eyebrow shot up. “It depends with whom I am dancing.”
But he’s not entirely wrong. There is a rare intersection of sexy and convenient going on here. The barong tagalog (the “Tagalog shirt”), or just barong, is the formal garment for men in the Philippines. No tie. No tucking the darn thing in. What’s not to like? At least, that’s my husband’s attitude. He actually went to fancy dress parties and weddings in Manila, as a result. He’s even worn his here in the States.
He doesn’t look this good in his—shhh, don’t tell him—but he looks pretty good:
If you do a little research on the barong, you’ll run into an urban myth—at least, from what I could find, it is an urban myth. I’ll let Javier tell it:
He flicked the loose tail of his shirt. “I’ve always been told that the Spanish required the indios to wear these so we couldn’t hide our daggers underneath.”
Georgie wondered if these islands had ever known peace. “Is that true?”
“It’s certainly the kind of thing the Crown would have done, but there’s no specific law anyone can point to.” Javier paused, his brown eyes studying her. “It makes a good story—and at Spanish expense, too, which makes it even better—but in truth the barong is probably all Filipino. Do you like it?”
Georgie looked up the shirt line and across his chest. “I do.”
He leaned down and whispered in her ear. “I would wear anything to catch your attention, Ina. Or nothing.”
You can find some historic examples of barongs at my Pinterest site on traditional Philippine dress. And if you keep digging, you’ll find there’s lots of variety: ruffles, fabrics, cuffs, length, and more. Some have floral designs, and others geometric. Some are dyed, others are natural piña. All look pretty terrific on a handsome man, though, and isn’t that all we want in the end?
EPILOGUE: My husband thought that I left out the most famous non-Filipino to wear a barong, Quentin Tarantino. But there is a problem with Tarantino’s high-profile debut of the garment at the 65th Annual Golden Globes Nomination ceremony in December 2007: he forgot the undershirt. And he left it unbuttoned at the collar, which made the lack of undershirt even worse. His general look of dishevelment did not help matters. As a result, many Filipinos felt he did not present the Tesorobarong at its best. (It was a gift by the Film Development Council of the Philippines, by the way, and Tesoro’s made it in a day. The source is quick to add that Tarantino was, in fact, given an XXL undershirt.) At least the filmmaker wore it with genuine affection, and isn’t that the most important thing?
What is the chief end of man?—to get rich. In what way?—dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must. Who is God, the one only and true? Money is God. God and Greenbacks and Stock—father, son, and the ghost of same—three persons in one; these are the true and only God, mighty and supreme…
—Mark Twain, in “The Revised Catechism,” printed in the New York Tribune on September 27, 1871
Twain didn’t hold back, especially not when criticizing society’s ills. In fact, he is the one who coined the term the “Gilded Age” to describe a time of conspicuous consumption, wealth disparity, and pervasive corruption. Sound familiar? In fact, esteemed economists (here and here) claim that we are smack dab in the middle of a new Gilded Age: the era of the one-percenters.
The robber barons of Twain’s time were innovators, though, not fund managers. They were builders, notfirm-breakers. Not to say they were moral or just men—they were definitely not—but they were self-made men who harnessed the raw power of the industrial age. Carnegie casted the steel, Rockefeller drilled the oil, and Vanderbilt laid the railroad track. Though not of noble birth—far from it—they were still the new kings, and they lived like them.
I recently traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, where the Gilded Age rich of New York spent hundreds of millions of today’s dollars building “cottages” that they lived in for only 8-12 weeks in the summer. Let me say that again: the equivalent of $30-200 million on a house used two months out of the year!
These days, the houses of Newport’s Cliff Walk and Bellevue Avenue are open to the public. Crowds mill through The Breakers, but I actually prefer The Elms, which was built by coal tycoon Edward Julius Berwind. It seems more livable—or just more endearingly excessive.
While the Vanderbilts built Italian palazzos and French châteaux, the Berwinds added mahjong and black lacquer wall panels to the mix.
An Asian touch was fitting since the Americans were not the only ones who lived large at the turn of the twentieth century. Prominent Filipino ilustrados had risen to the top by virtue of their education, their enterprise, and their mestizo connections, and they had their own gilded treasures, as the León Gallery’s recent exhibition in Manila shows.
The gallery was able to repatriate previously unknown artwork produced by Filipinos, often for European patrons, including pieces produced by Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo for the General Exposition of the Philippines Islands, Madrid, 1887. The gallery owners wanted to show us that the Philippine Gilded Age was just as progressive and cosmopolitan as that of their arriving American conquerors. Javier Altarejos would agree.
Since I am stuck in New England, I had to send my always-curious friend Suzette de Borja to investigate. (Thank you, Suzette!) The furniture was beautiful. Suzette’s daughter especially loved the Manila aparador made from kamagong wood (above left), with a price tag of only P25 million, or about US$500,000.
Suzette and I have more modest tastes. I liked the bahay kubo painted on a local oyster shell, and she liked the drawing of the man with his fighting cock because it reminded her of this line of Under the Sugar Sun: “A local wag once said that in case of fire a Filipino would rescue his rooster before his wife and children—and hadn’t Georgie witnessed that with her own eyes in Manila?” You can also see a casco in the background, which is the type of boat that Della Berget comes ashore in at the beginning of Hotel Oriente. Though Filipino artists wanted to immortalize these average scenes of local life, they did so on items sold only to the very rich.
But I know what you’re saying: weren’t these robber barons or hacenderos bad people? Why are we so fascinated with them?
Well, this is romance, so we romanticize them, of course. I romanticized Hacienda Altarejos, and I knew it while I was doing it. The true history of sugar in the Philippines is a story of great injustice. If you did not know that, there is a new documentary out there to guide you through that reality called Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar. The Gilded Age was fraught with labor disputes on the other side of the Pacific, as well: the Pullman Strike, the Haymarket Riots, the Coal Strike of 1902, just to name a few. This was the other reason Twain used the term Gilded Age, because all that glitters is not gold.
But historical romance is fascinated with the obscenely rich, and the more chaotic our current lives the more we seek a lifestyle of security. Many of us were raised on fairy tales of prince charmings of one sort or another—and we hardly spared a thought about the peasants of the kingdom. I teach my students about the horrible injustices of the early industrial age, but you better believe that John Thornton of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South gets my engine going! (And, yes, it helps that he is played by Richard Armitage in the BBC version on Netflix.) Gaskell wrote her novel in 1855—smack dab in the worst excesses of this period—and she still made a factory owner swoon-worthy.
What about our Regency bookshelf? We don’t ask where Fitzwilliam Darcy got his ten thousand (pounds) a year—which, in present value, could be close to $6 million, or, in prestige value, maybe as much as $18 million. Yes, he earned interest on government bonds, but where did he get his principal wealth? From the sweat on the brows of farmers on “his” estate, of course. And, according to Joanna Trollope, Pemberly was built on the proceeds of coal mines. As a granddaughter of a coal miner, I can tell you that line of work not only sucks but will also kill you.
And it gets worse: men like Darcy were probably invested in another lucrative crop, one grown across the Atlantic in the West Indies. You guessed it. Sugar again! This was the “dark underbelly” of the British peerage, according to Trollope. And the sugar industry in the Caribbean and South America was the worst in the world: the average life of a slave there was five years. Hacienda Altarejos is practically a hippie commune, in comparison.
So, if we squint hard, we don’t see the nasty side of our historical romances, leaving only the great parties, the family sagas, and the romantic intrigue. (See an expanded discussion of the fabricated chronotopes of historical romance from a paper I presented at IASPR in Sydney in June 2018.)
The thing about Gilded Age tycoons—whether American or Filipino—in comparison to our Regency heroes is that at least they had to do something to earn their money. This was the era of (at times toxic) manliness. You were supposed to roll up your shirtsleeves and get your hands dirty:
Javier placed the shovel in line with the stones, put his foot on the top of the blade, and pushed it deep. It slid into the soil. Georgie watched Javier reach down and grip the handle low, a position that gave him more control. He lifted the earth and placed it carefully to the side. When he raised his foot again to the top of the blade, the tight line of his trousers revealed a strong thigh and backside. Color rose to her cheeks. She felt a whole different kind of dirty watching him.
If you want more Gilded Age romance, Joanna Shupe’s Knickerbocker Club series has a very delicious hero, Emmett Cavanaugh, whose rags-to-riches story was the embodiment of everyone’s hopes and dreams in the period.
Emmett is rough, yet gentle. Arrogant, but thoughtful. He’s that classic Type A hero we love so much, but instead of spending his excess energy whoring or hunting as a peer would do, he’s actually got shit to do. (He does box, though.)
Another Gilded Age merchant-on-the-rise can be found in Marrying Winterborne by Lisa Kleypas. Rhys Winterborne is a Welsh department store owner, a terrific choice of occupation since these diverse enterprises, selling all types of ready-made goods to the blossoming middle class, were an industrial age phenomenon—a true “retail revolution.”
Do not forget that all of these men would have been snubbed by the vaunted ton of London. John Thornton, Emmett Cavanaugh, Rhys Winterborne, and Javier Altarejos—none would have received an invitation to Almack’s. But, as Kleypas herself said: “There’s something invigorating about a hero who has created his own success.”
If you want Gilded Age romance that transcends the chronotope, check out Piper Huguley’s Migrations of the Heart series that “follows the loves and lives of African American sisters during America’s greatest internal migration in the first part of the twentieth century.”
Last week I discussed the clever, airy design of a native cube house on stilts, the bahay kubo. The Spanish saw these kubos and thought: how we could steal their environmentally-intelligent design, yet make it a whole lot more posh and expensive? The original bahay na bato (stone house) was born.
Though the stilts of the bahay na bato are hidden by a stone wall “curtain,” the concept is really the same. This bottom story, or zaguan—vaguely resembling a dungeon—is a combination garage, warehouse, office, and stables. From my character Javier Altarejos’s perspective, it is a highly practical design: “The stone base of the house served as a storeroom for everything that made the hacienda hum: carriages, rice, tools, chickens, and—of course—sugar.”
In fact, Casa Altarejos was modeled on the Museo De La Salle at De La Salle University-Dasmariñas, an ilustrado lifestyle museum built upon the models of the Constantino house in Balagtas, Bulacan; the Arnedo-Gonzales house in Sulipan, Apalit, Pampanga; and the Santos-Joven-Panlilio house in Bacolor, Pampanga. One thing a visitor will immediately notice at Museo de la Salle is that the building is a perfect square—a bahay kubo writ large. Georgina’s impression of Casa Altarejos mirrored mine at the Museo de la Salle: “A wooden top floor overhung the gray stone foundation by a few feet on all sides, an elegant-yet-clumsy layer cake decorated in white and green frosting.”
Javier again focuses on the logic of the construction: “The architecture was a…patchwork of foreign and native elements: stone foundations topped by light wood structures, an elegant yet practical design in earthquake country. Huge sliding panels opened up to the breeze, their rectangular frames checkered with iridescent capiz shells that let in light but wouldn’t shatter at every tremor. It was a mongrel style, and it suited Javier.”
A hacienda guest would enter through the zaguan, walk past the overseer’s desk and waiting workers, and ascend up to the second story: “The ‘princess’ steps had been fashioned deliberately shallow to allow for the modest ascent of a young lady in her skirts. Javier had stumbled down them many times, both as a child and an adult, and he never failed to swear up a storm as he did. Sometimes he wanted to take an axe to them, and he might have done that long ago if they were not such a rich Narra wood.” That’s such a guy thing to think, I suppose. Men didn’t have to wear full skirts with tiny slippers, nor did they have to worry about the grace of their entrance.
Like a bahay kubo, the real house is upstairs: the caida (foyer), sala mayor (sitting room), comedor (dining room), the cuartos (bedrooms), the cocina or kusina (kitchen), despacho (office), comun or banyo (toilet), often an azotea (open balcony), and maybe an oratorio (prayer room). None of these “rooms” are really separate, though. Georgina notices right away that “carved moldings—the design as fine as lace—divided the large space into separate salons.” In other words, none of the walls were complete. Air circulated freely through the entire story, and so did noise. As one author points out:
So much for privacy. However, in houses like these, residents found enough privacy to conceive, deliver and nurse babies, to care for the sick and the aged….When in need of solitude, a thin cloth curtain strung over an opening stakes out a private section. Temporary as the privacy may turn out to be, the fluttering illusion of an unlatchable door screens the rest of the family out. Blissful seclusion means not being able to see the others, but still remaining within full hearing range.
According to a friend of mine who is descended from Bacolod sugar royalty, everyone could hear a couple having sex, so this meant that enterprising couples stole any moment they could: dressed or not, standing or lying down, in a secluded corner or in the open portico walk that lined the house. The growing pack of children of Hacienda Altarejos will be proof that Javier and Georgina manage to find a little privacy wherever they can.
Wealthy doñas, notoriously late risers, would bathe and dress just in time to catch the evening breeze that cooled the bay and blew away the mosquitos. Once there, they would catch up on the latest tsismis, gossip passed from calesa to calesa like a tattler’s telegraph. Then they would be off to eat and dance at a friend’s house, returning home shortly before dawn to sleep through another morning. Meanwhile, their servants ran their households, farms, and shops.
Javier’s carriage got in line with the others circling in comfort, leaving the poor to walk the shoreline. Calling the Luneta a park was a bit generous, considering the utter lack of trees or foliage. The only decorations were incandescent gas lanterns circling the perimeter, sort of like candles on a vast birthday cake.
Called the “Champs-Elysées of the Philippines” by a French physician in the early nineteenth century, Luneta Park was also dubbed “the favorite drive of the wealthy [and] the favorite walk of the poor people.”
There were three good reasons for this. First, as one American wrote: “The sunsets from the Luneta have been more than pyrotechnic, and I now believe that nowhere do you see such displays of color as in the Orient, Land of the Sunrise.” Troubling Orientalist fetish aside, I think he’s right. And the sunsets may have actually gotten better with pollution, as long as you like the color red. Hey, don’t blame me—Scientific American actually agrees.
The second and third reasons for the popularity of the Luneta come from Edith Moses, wife of one of the first Philippine commissioners: “There is always a breeze and there are no mosquitoes; besides that, one meets everyone he knows, and ladies visit in each other’s carriages in an informal way….There is the comfort of dispensing with hat and gloves, and many ladies and almost all young girls drive in low-necked dinner or evening dresses.” It boils down to (2) no mosquitos and (3) a serious party.
If the Luneta was the place to be, naturally it was where Javier took Georgina on their first “date,” though she did not realize that’s what it was. He’s a sly dog, that Javier. He’s also part Spanish, and the Spanish were the first to ritualize visits at the Luneta, including the rules of the road, prompting Georgina to ask:
“What would happen if we turned the carriage around and circled in the other direction?”
Javier laughed. “You are a rebel, Maestra.”
“No, really,” she urged on. “This whole orderly migration—I just can’t reconcile it with the chaos of the rest of the city.”
“That’s why the Spanish liked it,” he answered. “Only the archbishop and governor-generals’ carriages were allowed to pass against the line. That way you had no excuse but to recognize and salute them as they passed.”
“You could get in trouble for forgetting?”
“Absolutely. The Peninsulares believed it important to punish people for small sins lest they attempt any larger ones. It’s not an uncommon assumption among occupiers.”
Ouch. Javier was not a huge fan of the newly-arrived Americans, as most readers know, which is why of course he was destined to fall in love with one. But he had a point: the Yankees ultimately ruined a good thing.
Maybe it was because the Luneta was not grand enough for them. The wife of Governor William Howard Taft was underwhelmed at first:
“And now we come to the far-famed Luneta,’ said Mr. Taft, quite proudly.
“Where?” I asked. I had heard much of the Luneta and expected it to be a beautiful spot.
“Why, here. You’re on it now,” he replied. An oval drive, with a bandstand inside at either end—not unlike a half-mile race track—in an open space on the bay shore; glaringly open. Not a tree; not a sprig of anything except a few patches of unhappy looking grass. There were a few dusty benches around the bandstands, nothing else—and all burning in the white glare of the noonday sun.
While Helen Taft did eventually warm to this “unique and very delightful institution,” it was not love at first sight. She was not the only one, either. One American wrote a letter back to her friend in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which the friend sought fit to publish in the local Republicannewspaper: “The Luneta is crowded every afternoon with officers dressed in spotless white from their heads to their heels driving fast horses and flirting with other men’s wives. The husbands, as a rule, are at the front and only get in occasionally, tired out and dirty, and it makes me sick.” Some Americans certainly brought their puritanical brand of Protestantism with them.
What harm in a bit of flirting? There had always been a social side to what went on at the park—innocent courtship right under the friars’ and nuns’ noses—which is why the place was an early favorite of my character Allegra. And officers flirting was common enough that it was captured in this awesome 1899 Harper’s Weekly centerfold, of which an original hangs in my dining room (because eBay makes such delights possible).
There seems to have always been music at the Luneta—small bands were ubiquitous in the islands, and every village had at least one—but the Americans congratulated themselves for adding the Philippine Constabulary Band to the regular roster. These musicians, led by African American conductor Lt. Walter H. Loving, were widely noted for their excellence. They not only traveled to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair, but they were also invited to play at President Taft’s 1909 inauguration.
One of the Constabulary Band’s favorite numbers was one Americans would still recognize, as it is played by modern university marching bands at football games:
“Hey, that’s ‘Hot Time in the Old Town,’” Georgina exclaimed. “How’d they learn American music?”
“The ‘Hototay’ we call it,” Allegra said. She sat between Javier and Georgina, but she was too tiny to be much of a barrier. “The song is everywhere, even funerals. Filipinos think it is your national anthem.”
Georgina laughed. “Maybe it should become yours.”
“You suggest we adopt the drinking song of an occupying army?” Even before Javier finished the question, he regretted asking it. Hay sus, why couldn’t he keep his mouth shut?
Maybe Javier was a bit sensitive, but Georgina certainly did arrive in the Philippines with the “benevolent assimilation” bias of the other Insulares and Thomasites, though she will take her mission to an interesting and sexy extreme. Though it is important to point out that even at the beginning, she was not hateful. Many were. Take the author of those 1900 letters published in the Scranton Republican, who said: “As soon as the concert is over, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is played…Every soldier and sailor and all the Filipinos (deceitful wretches) stand with uncovered heads until the last strains die away….” Manila was still a field of battle in the Philippine-American War, true, but this author failed to realize that the Americans were the Redcoats here, not the patriots!
As an aside, my husband gave me a huge coffee table book from 1899 entitled Our Islands and Their People—a threatening premise, as if “their people” are infesting “our islands,” and how dare they! The text of the book is pretty neutral, and the photographs themselves beautiful, but the captions are outrageous. You can read more on the racism of the day here.
The Americans believed that they were improving the islands, but they did not improve the Luneta. In fact, they may have ruined it. If you have been the Luneta, you are probably confused by everything written above because the main body of the park is most definitely not along the shoreline—not anymore. In the construction of the port of Manila in 1909, the Americans reclaimed 60 hectares of land, the first of many expansions.
By 1913, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “Today the Luneta remains as it was in the old Spanish days, but its chief charm, the seaward view, is gone. This is due to the filling in of the harbor front, which has left the Luneta a quarter of a mile from the waterfront.” On their new land, the Americans built a “Gringo Luneta,” in the words of Nick Joaquin, and it was here that they eventually put their own exclusive social clubs, like the Elks Club, the Army and Navy Club, and the Manila Hotel—all gated or indoor establishments. They managed to keep the seaside space for themselves and relegate the poor and non-white to their own homes. Shame—especially since Mrs. Taft brought the idea of the Luneta back to Washington D.C. with the rededication of the Potomac Drive. Don’t ruin the original and then rebuild it halfway across the world.
One thing that hasn’t changed in Manila since 1900 is the traffic. The anonymous visitor who called the Filipinos “deceitful wretches” also said about the end of the evening: “there is a crack of the whip and a grand hurrah and one mad dash for the different homes. I wonder there are not dozen smash-ups each afternoon, but there are not. I used to melt and close my eyes, expecting to be dashed into eternity any moment, but I have learned to like it, and I don’t want anyone to pass me on the road.” We’ve all been there.
Some park goers did not wait for the end of the evening to race, though. With the old shoreline, the water went right up to the walls of Fort Santiago—or almost. There was a single open road there, called the Malecón, where carriages practically flew:
The two vehicles ate up the open road. Georgie did not consider herself a coward, but she was torn between fearing for the horses’ safety and for her own. Maybe sensing that, Javier put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer to his side. It was too cozy by half, but it steadied her enough to make the frenetic motion bearable.
The two nags kept changing the lead. One would break out in a small burst of speed, and then slow in recovery while the other made his move. They had at least a mile to go until the “finish” at Fort Santiago, and it seemed that Georgie’s original prediction was on the mark: the sole surviving animal would win. It was less a race than a gladiatorial bout. Unfortunately, their own horse showed signs of exhaustion first, probably because he pulled an extra passenger. His movements became choppy. His head drifted to the side, and he kept jerking it forward, again and again, as if the motion could create the winning momentum.
With every spasm of the horse’s head, the carriage jolted. Soon, the frame on Georgie’s side started shaking. The roof above them was supported by three thin pieces of bamboo, and she watched one pull out of its fastener. The front corner of fabric flapped wildly in the wind, pulling hard at the other two rods. Even more worrisome was the squeak of the wooden wheel to her left. If that splintered, the whole apparatus would collapse, probably pulling the two men and the horse right on top of her. The sound of hooves, wind, and screaming jockeys drowned out Georgie’s increasingly frantic warnings.
Or so she thought.
Javier tapped the driver’s shoulder. Hard. When the man didn’t respond, he grabbed the fellow’s arm and shouted. The driver argued back, probably insisting his animal could still win. Javier glanced over at Georgie briefly and added something in Spanish about “the lady.” He signaled again, this time his face quite stern. Javier’s scowl was, no doubt, the most effective weapon he had.
Georgie was grateful. They were finally slowing down. “The carriage is falling apart,” she tried to explain when she could finally be heard over the din.
“I know,” Javier said in quick English, peering over her lap to the wheel beneath. “We’ll make it, don’t worry. But I blamed quitting on you, so act like you might swoon.”
Georgie fanned herself wildly with her hand and threw back her head. Was that right? She had never before tried to feign fragility—it was not a safe thing to do in South Boston.
Javier watched her for a second, an unreadable expression on his face. Then he laughed—at her this time, not with her. “Wow, you do that badly.”
She gave him a little swat on the arm. “What a terrible thing to say.”
One eyebrow rose. “I don’t think so. I dislike weak women.”
“Then why put on a charade for the driver?”
Javier glanced up at the disappointed Filipino. “So he and his horse wouldn’t lose face. Honor matters even for a Manila cabbie, so I thought a little play-acting from you would be an easy solution. Now I’m not so sure.”
Georgie did not like her competency questioned, even in such a ridiculous arena. “I had no idea that theater was required. How convincing does this have to be?”
He looked at her intently. “Very.”
She slumped back in the seat, trying again to look helpless.
“Ridiculous,” Javier murmured under his breath as he reached out to her. Before she could react, he pulled her close, tucking her right shoulder under his arm and pressing her solidly against his chest. He gently brushed her cheek with his fingertips, the way one might soothe a skittish child. Up until that moment, Georgie had only pretended to faint; now she actually felt light-headed.
“Are you okay, mi cariño?” His words played to the driver, but they felt genuine enough to her.
She looked up. This close, she could see honey-colored circles in his brown irises. They looked like rings on a tree. Did she see in them the same fire she felt, or was this a part of the show?
Gently Javier tilted her chin up, his lips now inches away. No one had ever tried to kiss her, not even Archie–his amorous attentions had all been by pen. She thought about resisting, but that was all it was, a thought. Javier’s breath was clean. Only the smallest bite of scotch lingered from lunch. Given her past, Georgie had never believed alcohol could be an aphrodisiac, but on this man the crisp scent was provocative. He smelled of confidence and power, yet his lips looked surprisingly soft—
There is the real town of Bais, incorporated in 1901, and the Bais of my books—and while the two are related, they are not the same. The chapel below is real: it is the Mojon Chapel on the grounds of the Central Azucarera de Bais, the largest sugar refinery in Negros Oriental. However, it did not exist until at least 1918, when the sugar central was built. Nevermind. I turned it into San Honorato de Amiens, named after the patron saint of confectioners, and made it the chapel of ease on Hacienda Altarejos. Writing is fun.
Bais was truly a prosperous center of sugar, settled by a diverse mix of Europeans, Latin Americans, and Chinese mestizos in the nineteenth century. I imagined Javier’s grandfather, Hilario Altarejos, as one of these men. However, while no one says it, I also assume that many of these first hacenderos were half-scoundrel, like their American carpetbagger successors. Hilario certainly was. An officer in the Spanish army, he decided to stay in the Philippines with his Filipino querida—effectively abandoning his family back in his hometown of Altarejos, near Cuenca, Spain. Rather than admit to a priest his real name, he took the “de Altarejos” moniker and gave his sweetheart the pretense of a legitimate marriage. A dynasty was born.
Hilario Altarejos settled in Bais back when the Spanish considered it empty land. It originally took three to five days to travel by land from Dumaguete to Tanjay, and the main road ended there. By Javier’s time, it would have taken only four to five hours on horseback to travel the whole 30 miles, but it would have still felt like the middle of nowhere. Still, at the end of the road would be Hacienda Altarejos, with its bahay na bato modeled on the Museo de la Salle in Dasmariñas, Cavite. See more images of impressive ancestral houses from the Philippines at my Pinterest site.
Even though the hacenderos of Bais became prosperous, they were not numerous. In fact, all of Bais was between 5,000-9,000 people, depending on which census you trust. These days Bais is relatively easy to access by bus (45 minutes from Dumaguete), and you can stay in comfort in between swims with the whale sharks. But for Boston-native Georgina Potter, the adventure was real and potentially dangerous. It is worth noting that two of the real Thomasites posted to Bais died: a woman of hyperemesis gravidarum (excessive morning sickness), and a man by drowning during passage across the Tañon Strait from Cebu. One wonders how the latter managed to “fall off” his banca? Sounds sketchy. Fortunately, though, the worst trouble Georgina manages to find is love…