Shopping Around for Handumanan

Ian Casocot lists the different items unique to Negros Oriental that one can buy when in Dumaguete.

By Ian Rosales Casocot
July 06, 2011

It would be considered a stretch of the imagination to think of Dumaguete as a shopping mecca--no small-town Macau here, no Hong Kong or Singapore in miniature. Similar to most cities its size, cheap off-off-the-rack fashion lies in the ubiquitous ukay, and downtown--which is essentially the entire strip called Perdices Street--is a concentration of brick-and-mortar businesses that count among their lot a few retail outlets and a number of establishments that are, more or less, department stores of varying degrees of patronage and respectability. Perdices Street used to be Avenida Alfonso Trese, a more romantic-sounding name that marked old Dumaguete's burgeoning business district, which is really an extension of the more academic air of Hibbard Avenue, the acacia-lined street that cuts through the heart of Silliman Campus.


Walk along this main thoroughfare of two names, and you will have touched Dumaguete's history in one go, even if all you can think about, especially if you are a tourist, is how short this street is, how nevertheless confusing it is as a commercial artery, how utterly... disjointed--though not necessarily in a bad way: here, things and functions and architectural styles and snippets of history simply jut into each other, unheeding of any attempt at organization or taste. An old 1950s vocational school, its all-wood structure long-shuttered, is now home to a bric-a-brac-in-brass store and a fruit stand, which neighbors a haphazard collection of stores and fastfood outlets called Ever Mall, which used to be a theater of first-run American movies; another wooden remnant from the 1950s--a fire-hazard affair that looks quaint for its sheer resistance to time and weather--houses a hostel on the second floor and a beauty parlor, a cellphone shop, and a boutique on the first; along the rest of the stretch, there are hardware stores, banks, eyewear stores, pizza parlors, a Penshoppe outlet, a Jollibee/ChowKing combo, a McDonald's, a Dunkin' Donuts, assorted pharmacies, smaller cellphone shops, the Ongs' textile and gift shop, some photo-processing centers, a radio station, a bakery, one or two restaurants that have defied fire or the locals' changing tastes, the Quiamcos' small and venerable FortuneMart (where Dumagueteños of a certain class used to do their shopping away from the hoi polloi that congregate in the nearby public wet market), and some other establishments that would not look out of place in the inner-city concrete staidness you will find in, say, Cebu or Iloilo.

In the center of things, where San Juan crosses Perdices, there is Lee Super Plaza, a shopping behemoth of the Gaisano kind that sells everything. It used to rival in presence the old Cang's Inc., Dumaguete's signature local one-stop shop, which has since transferred to bigger space in the less-competitive harbor of Dumaguete's North Road. Their two lesser cousins--the curious failure of MartOne (where nobody goes) and the class-free success of UniTop (housed in an old and elegant Art Deco building, now unfortunately grimy with peeling yellow-and-blue paint)--are along the same route. From a bird's eye point of view, all of this is shopping ground zero, Dumaguete-style--unpretentious, gloriously haphazard, gregarious, small-town-ish.

But the city lives in a kind of strange bubble: by certain accounts, it is a rich city of well-to-do folk--especially if you take into consideration the mushrooming businesses everywhere, the number of banks crowded into its downtown and outlying areas, and the sheer number of hotels springing to accommodate the increasing number of tourists and businessmen traveling into it.

What Dumaguete can't seem to deal with is its image as an emerging cosmopolitan hub. Take for example the new mall in its midst: Robinson's Place in Calindagan, only a year old, but it took almost all of that time to become part and parcel of Dumaguete life. It took many months, once the mall opened its doors, for locals to really process this thought: A mall in Dumaguete? What a strange idea! And so, with much growing pain, we have now also taken our shopping there--but we have since conscripted the whole establishment to fit our roguish sense of pride in our kind of smallness: Robinson's, really, is less a mall than a thriving community center, with shops. (Perhaps this is the only mall in the country where ball games are actually held in the center atrium.)

And yet, given this image, this is a city with money to spare. It has a sizable expat community. It is also a city where having the newest BMW or Ford seems de rigeur. Also a city that has an overwhelmingly successful iStore, only the fourth city in the Philippines (after Manila, Cebu, and Bacolod) to have an outlet officially blessed by Apple. (The iStore is located in the first floor of Robinson's.) I asked Angeline Dy, its proprietor, what explains Dumagueteños' love for Apple gadgets: "I guess we're just smart buyers," she said without missing a single beat.

But the question remains: what can one buy in Dumaguete? There are, of course, the knick knacks you get from the public market, which would include the colorful banigs, or straw mats, from Siaton town. If you are more environmentally-conscious, you might start with the handbags made of recycled magazines from the creative people living near the city's dumpsite. Or you can do an entire tour of the province's wide-ranging products by visiting the trade and tourism showroom at Sidlakang Negros along E.J. Blanco Drive.


But for the fashionista, one starts with accessories, locally-made, from Giftsfashion. "Giftsfashion is all about unusual, offbeat pieces that make a statement. They have a real impact. And they completely transform an outfit," says general manager Gift Sarne Regalado.

Gift created her first piece on her kitchen table in 2002--and what started out as something she did to complement her own ensemble when money was tight, soon turned into a very profitable business, with family and friends buying her designs and clamoring for more. That led to a 2007 opening of her showroom along Sta. Catalina Street, and going into it is stepping into a lifestyle in accessories made from sea glass, driftwood, mother-of-pearl, fibers, seeds, horns, bones, wood, crystals, and semi-precious stones.

Three of her best products are the Chunky Turbo wire-wrapped necklace ("inspired by the sea," she says) which is made of exotic seashells, semi-precious stones, crystal, and glass beads; the Natural Mother of Pearl Flower design, part of a commissioned work as tokens for foreign dignitaries of an Asian summit; and her Sea-Glass Cuff Bracelet/Sea-Glass Collection, made of found objects and crystal, pearls, and semi-precious stone, which, according to Gift, is "our way of contributing to a sustainable environment, to help revitalize, replenish, and preserve our natural resources."

For those with an interior design itch to fix, one goes for the unique furniture creations of Buglas Bamboo Institute, which uses bamboo with more than just a nod to living space aesthetics. This is design with a social component. Hatched in the mid-1990s by transplanted German Carmelite missionary Franz Kleine Koerkamp, Buglas--which is named after the ancient name of Negros Island--was to harness the ubiquitous bamboo as a means of livelihood for marginalized farmers living around Dauin town. Today, BBI's biggest products range from raw bamboo materials, to elegant traditional or engineered house or outdoor furniture (including beds, chairs, tables, night stands, and storage units), accessories and lamps, to the construction of houses and gazebos. Since its success in the 2005 Cebu Exposition, where it won a Mugna Award for Best Outdoor Design for an intricately conceived lounge chair, sales of its products have gone up.

For the traveler itching to buy a unique-enough pasalubong, the handcrafted knick knacks of Negros Oriental Arts and Heritage are must-haves. The Bacong-based enterprise, more popularly known as NOAH, has an array of products--ornate boxes and containers, candle holders, dining ware, photo frames, pots and vases, clocks, wall decor, and assorted others--all made from marble, which are inlaid with various local gemstones such as jade, agate, jasper, onyx, petrified wood, seashells, cavestone, mountainstone, fossils, riverstones, and other minerals.

Or we come back to Perdices Street, where there is always Handumanan--the local word for "souvenir"--which is the city's oldest-running nook for travelers with a thing for quick tokens--the shirts with old Silliman Hall splashed in front in colorful design, the keychains with Dumaguete's famed Bell Tower in miniature, the penholders with logos of the city's universities painted on them. The shop has always been there in everyone's farthest stretch of memory, an affair of green-painted amakan containing shelves upon shelves of everything pasalubong cliché you can think of.

But it is a beloved cliché, one that most have grown to love like a memory, a sturdy little corner that sells the city and its charms through little throwaway things. Quaint, eternal, like the small city itself. Basta Pinas, Suroy Dayon!


Ian Rosales Casocot is a multi-awarded writer, having received honors from the Don Carlos Palanca, NVM Gonzales and PBBY-Salanga Awards. His first novel was long-listed in the 2008 Man-Asia Literary Prize. He currently holds a faculty post in Silliman University.