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Nostalgia: Moving Forward from Yolanda

When the monster typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, hit Central Philippines, it left in its wake unimaginable destruction of property and human life—as well as an admirable outpouring of generosity and solidarity from all walks of life that proves that, through the devastation, the human spirit is battered but not broken.

At 6:30am, Wednesday, 12 November 2013. It is a typical beautiful warm sunny day in the Philippines. The light is spectacular and the skies are a brilliant blue with wisps of clouds across its expanse. There is a cool, refreshing breeze. It seems like another perfect day, but it isn’t. Less that 60km north of where I sit at my desk at home is devastation. On Friday, 8 November, with winds of over 335kph, Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Typhoon Yolanda left a wide swath of destruction across the Central Philippines including Northern Cebu. In too many areas, towns and cities were ravaged and 80% of all homes were destroyed. People are desperate. They’ve lost their homes, their families, their friends and their livelihoods. Where were you on Friday, 8 December 2013?

7:10am, 8 November 2013. Metro Cebu is quiet. I was up early. I tried to stay in bed to get as much rest as possible before the storm but couldn’t. I was restless. In three hours or so, “Yolanda” was supposed to be at its closest to the City. At home everything was battened down and protected to the best of our abilities. We hopefully had enough water, batteries and food to weather any storm. A couple of days before at the supermarkets, it was funny to see shopping carts laden with water, canned goods, batteries and then funnily, piled with chips, cookies and junk food. People were obviously hunkering down for the long haul. But junk food? I had to ask myself if these guys knew something I didn’t.

By 10:00am, the wind began to blow and the familiar feeling of unease began to set in. Cebu had just been through a terrible earthquake that left Bohol seriously damaged and everyone collectively anxious after thousands of aftershocks. A few short weeks later we sat waiting for another monster to hit Cebu: “Yolanda”, the strongest typhoon in human history. I tried to convince myself that there was no point worrying. According to the latest weather reports, Metro Cebu was going to be spared and we were protected, and our larders were stocked.

Little did we in the City know that, as we sat nervous but dry, vast areas of our country where the monster typhoon had passed and was passing, the relentless wind literally screamed like a horde of banshees, forming the rain into unending, painful horizontal sheets of needle-like spikes. It was effortlessly destroying homes and buildings, toppling trees, and sending debris flying and careening dangerously. Little did we know that a storm surge five to seven meters high was wreaking havoc and misery across wide areas of the Central Philippines killing thousands of people and destroying even more homes and peoples lives. On the morning of 8 November we were naturally worried about ourselves, but completely clueless to the epic human tragedy that was quickly unfolding.

Today, it is still unimaginable and near impossible to understand what it was like to live through the worst day of fear in the lives of millions, and millions of Filipinos. Till today, it is still very difficult to imagine and comprehend the tragedy that followed in the desperate hours and days immediately after super-typhoon “Yolanda”. And unless it has happened to you, it is still impossible to appreciate what it is to be a homeless refugee sleeping on the streets, sitting in the sun, bereft of family, food and water, surrounded by the ruins of your home.

My heart breaks every time I see the news. The tales of suffering are endless.

5:12pm, Saturday, 16 November 2013. I received a text from my friend, economist and professor, Perry Fajardo. It read, “I am very disturbed these days by these people that have done nothing but criticize the relief operation. It hurts the thousands who are sacrificing everything to help.”

Perry’s sentiment is correct. There is a fine line between expressing frustration, as many of us did, and unending criticism for political opportunism. While there is a yawning chasm between sincerity and the ‘pretension of assistance for political gain,’ the time for action is now. “Eastern Samar is gone” read a recent headline of The Philippine Star, underlining the urgent need to coalesce, to link our arms in support of millions of Filipinos instead of indulging in shallow political games.

11:06pm, 16 November 2013. From a Facebook friend Ronna Mae O’Connell: “Hi Dondi, I was informed that Bantayan Island needs relief badly. Please ask info from Alex Badayos and Felipe Tariman.”

I am sure everyone is getting calls, messages and texts like these constantly. The need is great. My first reaction was to jump and start hollering for help but after a moment of reflection, I decided to try to find out who was organizing to help Bantayan – to see if they were already in action. They were. Bantayan Island was wrecked and is one of dozens in dire need of assistance. All across Visayas, South Luzon and Northern Palawan are islands, islets, villages and settlements that need urgent assistance. Even the one-time leper colony of Culion is in dire need of relief and medical care. We all need to keep this kind of information flowing so we can help make sure no one gets left behind.

While I have never in my life seen this sheer scale of suffering in the Philippines, I have also never seen this sheer scale of profound outpouring of generosity, and the willingness and determination to help in whatever way possible. I shouldn’t be surprised. It is the heart of the Filipino and in the hearts of the friends of Filipinos.

Today, on social media and on the local and foreign news, there are expressions and stories of personal initiatives of concern and care even as inspiring tales of individual and civic heroism are emerging. All over Cebu, all over the Philippines, pockets of friends, employees, foreign residents, neighbors, classmates, government and social workers, businessmen, and even tourists are working hand in hand to help in whichever way they can. Foreign-based Filipinos are organizing, and ordinary people in many countries are donating what they can to help, even those with little or no particular affinity for the Philippines. In most cases, these generous souls weren’t asked to help. They just asked how they could help – and they did and they are helping – just as so many Filipinos are helping, even at the sacrifice of their finances, family, school and work time, and even their businesses.

Make no mistake. It may take only weeks or months to rebuild homes, but it will take years to replace lost livelihoods and to heal hearts torn apart by loss. Our relief work will not end in a few weeks, or even in a few months. We will have to stay focused and continue helping our brothers and sisters rebuild their lives, even as the sense of urgency wanes, and even when the next hot news story hits the headlines. We must never forget Yolanda – not only for the sake of those who suffered, but for the sake of those who survived and still live in the peril of more catastrophes – as we all do.

Nor can we neglect the Boholanos who are still rebuilding their lives after the terrible earthquake. They still need you.

Yolanda has left her profound footprint on the Philippines. In all likelihood she will not be the last super-storm to bludgeon its way through our country. I shudder to think of what will happen if another angry typhoon follows on heels of Yolanda. In today’s world of mutated weather, as certain as an angry woman’s slap, another Yolanda, Ruping, Dading, Ondoy or Pepang will come. We can no longer be ill-prepared and we only have to look at how many other countries prepare for and respond to disasters: the USA, Fukushima in Japan, and even in India in 2012, where 800,000 people were forcibly evacuated following a major typhoon warning. The storm hit and only a handful of lives were lost. Seventeen years earlier a similar typhoon hit the same area of India and 10,000 people died. They learned. They prepared. They lived.

Time is short, and the waters may rise again.

Professor Perry, I have been guilty of being critical, constructively I hope, because like many others I can’t help but think, in the clarity of hindsight, that more could have been done before the typhoon, when the red light warnings were flashing, and immediately after when it became crystal clear that Yolanda wreaked immeasurable havoc. We can and should do the post-mortems later – after this growing human catastrophe is averted. And hopefully, just hopefully, this painful lesson will help our country leapfrog from spastic adolescence to deeper political and social maturity as we put aside petty political differences in the interest of the common good of all Filipinos – once and for all. This was a humanly expensive and painful lesson that must never, ever happen again.

If anyone would like to assist, there are three ways to help: the first is to volunteer time. There are many companies, organizations, and private initiatives that collect, organize and distribute relief goods. If you live abroad, come to Cebu in the Philippines and help in these relief operations. Or send your kids. We will look after them. It will be a great human experience and we can point people in the right direction and put them in contact with the right organizations, formal or informal. The second is to donate funds. The expenses are enormous. The third is to hope and keep the Philippines and those who were affected close to your hearts, in your thoughts and if you pray, in your prayers.

The Filipino is a wonderful resilient person and I have no doubt that even now as I sit at my desk, in the face of immense hardship and suffering, the Filipinos affected by this disaster will once again begin to smile and hope – and sing – as they always do. Bangon Pilipinas!


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Here Are the Highlights of Fete de la Musique 2019

Local talent took centerstage at _ACOUSTIC: Fete de la Musique 2019.

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The Return of the Best-Tasting Lechon in Cebu, Rico’s Lechon

Cebuanos, rejoice! Rico’s Lechon makes a comeback in the city.

Several minutes to 11:00 on a cloudy Friday morning, a man clad in a pineapple print polo shirt stood in a tight circle of eager faces. His neutral-colored top contrasted with the boldness of their red uniforms. The man wore a serious look occasionally interrupted by a smile as he addressed his small crowd. He meant business. His hand gestures displayed a purposefulness that did not cause distraction but drew attention. The team huddle ended on a positive note as everyone placed their hands atop each other’s in the middle of the circle and recited their chant for the day, smiling all the while. The man’s smile was among the brightest, and it stayed that way for as long as he was in the room, welcoming people—young and old, foreign and local—to a restaurant that came back to serve the best tasting lechon in the city.

The man was Mr. George Pua, president of Meat Concepts Corporation and new owner of Rico’s Lechon. And the restaurant was the biggest one in the chain, which started officially serving the public on June 28, 2019. George had his hands full even before the restaurant opened, but he seemed to have drunk from the well of never-ending energy and enthusiasm as he tirelessly talked with and offered friends and guests a smile. My colleague and I were two of its many recipients. In an exclusive interview in one of the restaurant’s function rooms on the second floor, I learned that George’s enthusiasm went beyond the successful opening of another business. He was happy to not only be eating Cebu’s best lechon but also sharing it with his fellow and potential “lechon fanatics.”

L-R: Assistant to the President Meat Concepts Corporation Mari-Jo T. Barles, Vice President Meat Concepts Corporation Jay R. Lazaro, President of Meat Concepts Corporation George N. Pua, Sales and Marketing Manager Cebu, Rico’s Lechon Michael “Pops” S. Bacatan

A Long-Time Love for Lechon

“Lechon fanatic,” was what George called himself when he told us how his young self fell in love with the dish. “I lived in Baclaran, and every time I opened my window, it’s all lechon. It’s all lechon being paraded. Every time I opened my window I would see lechon and I would ask the maid to buy me ¼ kilo. Every time I opened my window.” The repetition in his response left no room for doubt; he was—is—indeed a real lechon fan.

Rico’s Lechon comes in orignal and spicy variants.

It was this love that brought him on a 5-day trip in the Queen City of the South six years ago, eating nothing else for lunch and dinner but lechon. He was on a mission: to taste the best lechon. He tried all brands he could get his hands on, even when it meant going as far as Talisay and Carcar. One store in the former, which was his host friend’s favorite, secured the second spot in George’s brief list of best lechon brands. Rico’s Lechon came first.

George’s list was no surprise. I’m not the biggest lechon fan—I don’t crave it when I’m overseas—but I appreciate a great dish when I taste one, Rico’s Lechon included. I liked how tender and flavorful the meat was that I didn’t even have to dip it in sauce. The skin was not fatty and had just the right crispness, which saved me from feeling jaw pain because of excessive chewing. There was an added sense of gastronomic satisfaction from seeing how the lechon was chopped before it arrived at our table. I might have eaten more than what I intended to.

A Determined Man

George liked the tenderness of the lechon he tasted in Talisay, but the brand only offered the original variant whereas Rico’s Lechon offered both original and spicy. “If you are a good businessman, or if you have a business acumen, you would want the original and the spicy,” he said.

He soon met Enrico “Rico” Dionson, founder of Rico’s Lechon. At that time, George only wanted to know the man who perfected the recipe to the best tasting lechon; he had no intentions of buying or franchising the brand. But he did ask him of potential plans to open a store in Manila, to which the latter responded with a firm no. Since then, George made it a point to eat at Rico’s Lechon and chat with Rico every time he visited Cebu. The question of opening a branch in Manila would sometimes come up in these conversations. The third time it did, George took a different approach and asked whether he could instead franchise the brand. Rico was steadfast in his initial response.

Things started to take shape when a common friend reintroduced George to Rico in 2015. This connection solidified the former’s love for lechon to the latter, who finally saw George as more than just a businessman eyeing a new venture. And in 2017, amid a busy night of setting up one of his restaurants and preparing for a flight to Japan the next day, George received an unexpected call from Rico. The call caught him off guard that he momentarily forgot who Rico Dionson was. “I should know him because he’s in my phonebook,” he said with a laugh. He picked up the call, and it was then that thoughts of eating Cebu’s best tasting lechon in Manila became reality—Rico offered to sell the entire brand. George had no hesitation in saying yes.

Before the official contract signing in February 2018, George’s Feng Shui master came to Manila to “read” him for the next year. George, who then wanted to know his compatibility with Rico as a business partner, asked his ninong to also do a quick reading of Rico. Rico consented. Then the reading happened. “You have a good heart, but you talk too much,” George quoted.

Nevertheless, the Feng Shui master gave them his blessings and they soon signed a contract. By May of the same year, Meat Concepts Corp. took over the entire operations. In August, they opened their first Manila store in Bonifacio Global City; in September, Glorietta 1; October, Tiendesitas; November, UP Town Center; and in February 2019, SM Mall of Asia. It was a productive year for George.

“Old Cebu with a Twist”

The success of the great RICOmeback seemed to suggest that this year will be as busy, if not more, as the last. The brand’s flagship outlet can accommodate 300 people and has four function rooms, whose names refer to the places where Rico’s Lechon used to stand. “We wanted to be reminded of our roots,” George explained.

George chose the location because it fits his criteria—not in Cebu City but near it. His friends’ opinion, that the area is a new segment of progress in Mandaue, made decision making easier for him.

The dining area of Rico’s Lechon Mandaue boasts Sinulog colors

He was also very much involved in the conceptualization of the restaurant’s interior design. He wanted to showcase the “Old Cebu with a Twist,” so he incorporated elements of Sinulog into the restaurant. Instead of hanging buntings like people do during fiestas, which can look messy inside a confined space, George asked his Cebuano chair manufacturer to paint the backrests of chairs in bright yellow, green, apple blue, and red. “So, when you lay out the seating arrangement, you all see the different colors. It’s like a bunting,” he said.

Other Cebuano-made items included tables and hanging lamps. What I found most interesting about the restaurant’s interior, however, was the lechon plate chandelier. George revealed that it was the last fixture added and its creation materialized mostly out of a desire to avoid wasting resource. George ordered these plates with the intent of using them for what they really were, but the vendor shipped them to him in the wrong size. Instead of complaining about what went wrong, George focused on the positive and asked his manufacturer to make a chandelier using his oversized lechon plates.

A Foodie’s Menu

Rico’s Lechon’s expansion is evident not only in the restaurant’s space but also in its menu. Other than their renowned lechon, they now serve more Filipino favorites like Special Boneless Bangus, Sizzling Lechon Sisig, Monggos, and Bicol Express. New additions to the list include Grilled Pork Belly, Sinigang na Baka at Baboy, Sisig Fried Rice, and Buttered Mixed Seafoods.

The new management may have tweaked the menu, but George promised that they did not and will never change the original lechon recipe. “There’s no ego here. I always say [that] it’s not who runs it or who owns it. It’s just the way that you present it to be the best and only the best, and make people smile and happy. That’s the most important thing. It doesn’t matter who owns it anymore,” he explained.

As a foodie, George understands the feeling of going to one’s favorite restaurant and finding out—a true foodie will, almost always immediately—that the management changed their recipe. He does not want his food to be “bastardized,” and he assured me that it will never happen in his restaurant.

George shared that he can be adventurous and instinctive when it comes to food. When he goes to a restaurant, he orders a lot and eats them all (food waste is a no-deal). He cited his recent solo travel to Spain as an example, where he ordered about 12 plates of Spanish food for lunch. All for himself. The look on his face as he was narrating this story told me that he still could not believe what he did. And on the 4th day, to change things a bit, he had lunch at KFC.

After sharing a good laugh, I decided to bring the interview to a close. I wished George sincere congratulations and expressed my anticipation for brighter days ahead. With his familiar smile, he thanked me then said: “I promise with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my power, [that] we will maintain the same taste of lechon.”


Visit Rico’s Lechon Mandaue at Unit F1 Jamestown, Mantawi International Drive, Mandaue City. They are open daily from 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM.



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Art Curator Maris Holopainen Recommends Top 5 Young Cebuano Artists You Should Know About Now

Having worked with many artists through Qube Gallery and an avid art collector herself, Maris Holopainen has been advocating young and local talent.

Originally published in Zee Digital Vol. 1.
Photography by Kyla Estoya

Having worked with many artists through Qube Gallery and an avid art collector herself, Maris Holopainen has been advocating young and local talent. Besides representing Cebuano artists at shows around the world, the gallery is also a platform of sorts for creatives who are hoping to make a name for themselves in the industry. Maris shares five up-and-coming artists she believes will soon become buzzed about in the local art scene.

GI Pongasi, Painter

Describe your art.
Mixed media, non-figurative.

How did you break into the industry?
I joined different group exhibitions, and eventually had a chance to mount my own solo exhibit.

Plans for 2018?
After a successful one man show this January, I will continue to create a new series of work, and will be joining group exhibitions. Also, I’m planning to join major art competitions.


Borj Padron, Sculptor

Describe your art.
I am into metal. Even when I was doing my thesis, I was working with metal cables, and stuff like that. Now, I like working with stainless steel.

How did you get into art?
Even when I was a kid, I was into arts. My parents didn’t send me to art school; they made me take engineering. when I got to my senior year, I shifted from
engineering and pursued art.

Plans for 2018?
I want to do collaborations with my coartists. I also plan on studying more on metal and wood.

Almun Rey Logronio, Sculptor

Describe your art.
My art is about comedy. I wanted to avoid the problems, so I converted them into something happy. At least for a moment, I can relieve your stress through my artwork. I experimented with 3D
painting and other materials, and some challenging techniques. For materials, I use polymer resin. My subjects are usually normal people that you’d see everyday.

How did you get into art?
I studied painting in college, but when I went to Dubai, I saw and discovered that I could do sculptures. I practiced and experimented with the materials.

Plans for 2018?
I have plans on doing another exhibit, and continuing making comedy as a statement. I want everyone to be happy. I hope I can make better pieces, and that people will like it more. And I’m planning
to add painting to my sculptures soon.

Mark Belicario, Painter

Describe your art.
My art is realism with a bit of surreal, it has some imagination. My medium is oil on canvas.

How did you break into the industry?
I started painting in 2008, together with my co-artists. They have influenced me to do the same. I was inspired by their work. From there, I attended exhibits, competitions, that’s where it all started.

Plans for 2018?
To conduct more exhibitions here and abroad, and create another painting. Maybe try a different style of my art.

Francisca Ricablanca, Painter

Describe your art.
I describe my art as realism, because in realism I can express my feelings and appreciate the beauty of nature. I feel like I have been enlightened by the Lord, because of what I’ve seen and what I put
in my art.

How did you get into art?
I started painting when I was 16 years old, and encouraged by a co-artist to join a trip to Samboan. I had no idea
what we were going to do there, I thought it was just another trip. It turned out they were going to do paintings on the spot. One day, they gave me a small canvas, and I finished my painting right away. The next day, they gave me a bigger canvas, and I started painting the guava tree; they were surprised that I was so quiet. I was actually drawing each leaf individually. That’s when I started.

Plans for 2018?
I want to continue, and strive harder so that I can make artwork that’s even better than what I did last year. I want to continue my career as an artist.

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