General Santos: Convergent

HIGHLY URBANIZED General Santos City – the Philippines’ southernmost city, and the political and economic center of the SOCCSKSARGEN region – is considered mainly a gateway to other nearby destinations, and is thus lacking in traditional sights. For the determined traveler, though, GenSan’s undersung sights can fill up half a day of exploring.

The last time I was here was in 1994 and it was a stopover to Koronadal, my dad’s hometown, an hour drive northwest. I haven’t clocked enough days staying in the city, and I would be lying to say I know the place well. But I’m now here with some friends from Alliance Gospel Church for the National Alliance Youth Congress held in Lagao Gymnasium in the center of the city.

So I decide that I’m gonna spend one afternoon outside the event and create a personal trip, and do as I always do: get to really know the city’s neighborhoods. I’m in town for a couple of days so I’m going to walk up the the side streets, select a cheap roadside stall for dinner, get lost.

Left, the Queen Tuna Park pays tribute to the fish that gives fame to the city. Right, a solitary structure stares out to the Sarangani Bay.
Locals enjoy the Sarangani Bay’s waters on a cloudy afternoon.
The Old Mosque towers over houses in a Muslim neighborhood near the city’s public market.

The nomadic B’laan people were the first inhabitants of GenSan, which they called Dadiangas after a thorny plant that was once abundant in the area. As time went on, various immigrants from other parts of the Philippines, as well as from other countries, settled and lived in harmony with the B’laans.

In 1939, President Manuel L. Quezon ordered General Paulino Santos to lead a group of Christians from Luzon to settle in Dadiangas and cultivate the land. The mission was part of the National Land Settlement Administration, which sparked a wave of relocation of Luzon and Visayas immigrants in succeeding years.

The eventual transformation of the town’s character was highlighted in 1954, when Dadiangas was renamed General Santos. Owing to the region’s fertile volcanic soil, GenSan’s economy boomed in the 1960s with a number of agro-industrial companies in the city, most notably Dole Philippines, which maintains a large pineapple plantation in neighboring Polomolok.

GenSan also accounts for the largest catch of sashimi-grade tuna, earning it the title “Tuna Capital of the Philippines,” although in recent years there have been controversies on the sustainability of the trade. Nevertheless, GenSan has a number of tuna processing plants, and its fishport stands on a large area and is equipped with modern facilities that comply with international standards on fish catch handling.

The statue of General Paulino Santos, who led the relocation of Christians to the city and whose name the city now uses, stands in the middle of Plaza Heneral Santos.
The relatively peaceful and verdant surroundings of Plaza Heneral Santos makes for a worthwhile place to hang out.
General Santos City’s malls offer a respite from the stifling heat and pollution of the city.

It’s on my second day that I leave Lagao Gymnasium and explore the area around the city hall and the public market. The park is the geographical center of GenSan, acting as the city’s kilometer zero and facing the City Hall at the other side of the road. With paved paths lined by trees and manicured gardens, the serene park serves as an oasis of sorts to the otherwise congested and busy city. It has become the most visited and considered as one of the busiest parks in General Santos.

After a few minutes strolling around the park, I proceed a few kilometers southeast, near the public market, to the Queen Tuna Park. The place around the park is gritty and can be bit intimidating, but the locals are surprisingly really friendly, and the ocean is a pleasant respite from the urban hustle. This afternoon, a couple of boys with surfboards are testing the waters along with families enjoying the sea breeze and the waves.

The National Alliance Youth Philippines held its congress in the Lagao Gymnasium.
Alliance Gospel Church delegates take a break from the congress in London Beach Resort.

Back in Lagao Gym in the evening, I’m glad I have given GenSan to show more than her rough edges. It’s easy to dismiss the city as nothing more than a stopover, but just a few hours of seeing some of its neighborhoods allow you to get a glimpse of what makes this place tick – more than the tuna and the former boxer-turned-senator who calls the city home.

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