Want to learn more about the setting of the Sugar Sun series? Click on any of the graphics below. To find these places on maps of the Philippines & Manila, click here to go straight to the bottom of this post. Enjoy your visit!
I could easily live in Dumaguete. Despite the advent of modernity—traffic, diesel, plastic, and concrete—this is still the same city that charmed the early Presbyterian missionaries who chose it over Cebu and Iloilo for their new industrial-institute-cum-university, Silliman. In the words of Reverend Arthur J. Brown, D.D., location scout for the Board of Missions in 1901:
The location is the most healthful and beautiful that I saw in the Philippines. The land rises gently from a pebbly beach to a noble mountain range.The lower levels are covered with plantations of tobacco and sugar cane, higher slopes with hemp, and the summits of the mountains with heavy forests of hard woods. Across the clear water, the islands of Siquijor and Cebu are seen, and farther away, but in plain view, are the outlines of Bohol and Mindanao.
You can see on the above image, a vintage postcard from the turn of the century, there was no port or esplanade to speak of back then. Visitors had to be brought up to the beach by banca—or, for those with loftier colonial preferences, be carried by litter.
Once on shore a visitor would stroll through a lovely town dominated by the local Catholic church, St. Catherine’s, and its old stone belfry.
Though the iconic Silliman Hall (below) would not be built until 1909, the university has nevertheless dominated the landscape of this city for a full 115 years, ever since its founding in 1901.
Yet I never mention Silliman once in my books. This presents an interesting question for my readers: how closely do I keep to the facts? One person recently noticed that the Americans in my version of Dumaguete do not come off well, which was the observation that inspired me to put together this post.
Alas, fans of Dumaguete history, do not despair! First, if I bother to rename someone or something, it is because I plan to use artistic license in service to the needs of my story. So the Silliman Institute, named after donor Horace Brinsmade Silliman, became the Brinsmade Institute instead. (Maybe not so clever, but it sounded good.) Real founders David and Laura Hibbard became the fictional couple, Daniel and Mary Stinnett. While there is some passing resemblance between the two men, Daniel Stinnett was designed as a conflation of the many American missionaries who helped colonize the Philippines. Some of the self-righteous words that come out of Daniel’s mouth can be attributed to the real David Hibbard, and others are from his contemporary brethren, but much of his personality I entirely made up—plucked it right out of my head and threw it on the page. And in an upcoming novella, Daniel will truly outdo himself with priggishness—because my story needs that conflict. It won’t be out of step with American attitudes of the time, but it is still fiction. See how my hero Jonas Vanderburg of Tempting Hymn will find his way through this prickly history with his heroine, Rosa Ramos.
So don’t get too hung up on my intentions. Mostly, I want the story to feel grounded in a real place with real people, but I take lots of liberties on dialogue, characters, and sexual mores (and how!). The real Silliman University is an outstanding institution, and I especially enjoyed its anthropology, history, and environmental sciences museums, all open to visitors.
If you get the chance, you should go visit, and while you’re here check out Bais, too. I’m already jealous…
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…