“ALEX, ARE THERE ASWANGS HERE IN CAPIZ?” the American woman asks.
Alex, who is sitting behind the wheel of the van, stares at the road ahead, smiles, and then just lets out a frustrated laugh – the kind that betrays the fact that he’s heard this question many times before and probably has expected it to be asked again, even if jokingly.
“Well,” he says, “the concept of aswangs didn’t exclusively originate in Capiz. A lot of places in the Philippines have their own versions of aswangs. But I think the reason Capiz got stuck with that stereotype is that this was one of the least submissive provinces during colonial times. So the Spanish and the Americans used the concept of aswang here more than in any provinces to compel the residents to obey the rules.”
He then pauses a bit. “So the aswang was a means of enforcing the divide-and-conquer strategy.”
Alex is a tour guide from the Capiz-based Las Islas Tours, which does a number of themed tours around Panay Island. Today, he’s giving me and four others a tour of Roxas City, Capiz’s charming capital. Two of today’s participants are an American couple who are interested in knowing about the syncretism of Roman Catholicism and animism in Filipino society.
“That belief of Capiz being a place of aswangs has really resulted in low self-esteem among many locals,” Alex continues.
But for the past couple of hours that we’ve been exploring Roxas City, we have yet to come across any sign of the mythical creature that eats unborn babies and intestines. Instead, what we’re discovering is a place rich with vestiges of the colonial past, laid-back residents who provide the character, and seafood. Lots and lots of seafood.
THE COLONIAL HISTORY OF PANAY ISLAND is pretty much the history of Capiz. When the Spaniards landed on Panay in 1569, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi established a settlement near present-day Roxas City and proclaimed it the capital of the island. This would be the second Spanish settlement in the Philippines after Cebu.
Reminders of the Spanish occupation abound especially in the city center. Foremost is the Immaculate Conception Metropolitan Cathedral in the town center, a significant religious structure that dates back to the late 19th century. In front is an elegant fountain serving as a roundabout.
The Americans have made their presence felt as well with a number of infrastructure. These include the city’s oldest bridge that was built in 1910 and a high school building on top of a small hill.
For tourists however, perhaps the most interesting place is an unassuming structure just beside the city hall. Ang Panublion Museum contains displays showing the history of the province as well as some contemporary artworks from artists both from Capiz and other provinces. Jars plucked from a sunken galleon ship share space with a preserved sea turtle, local traditional weapons, and volumes of a local epic poem. The museum is housed in a former water-storage tank, typifying the resourcefulness of the locals.
CAPIZ AND THE SEA ARE SO INTERTWINED that the province borrows its name from one of its famous products. The kapis, or windowpane oysters (Placuna placenta) have translucent shells that are used for decorations, most notably as glass substitutes in traditionally-designed windows, hence the oyster’s name. These mollusks are abundant in the province’s shores.
In Roxas City, there are a number of workshops where shells from these oyster are transformed into different objects, such as chandeliers, curtains, and even lamp shades. One of these workshops is Kapis Atbp. in the eastern outskirts of the city, where Alex takes us next. Today, a group of women are busy threading flattened pieces of the shells to form lanterns.
Roxas City itself is known as the Seafood Capital of the Philippines, as it ships out tons of seafood every day. Some of these end up in one of the restaurants lining Baybay Beach at the northern edge of the city. Visitors can sample freshly cooked seafood here while enjoying the black-sand beach. Some of the fish that don’t get to be exported or consumed right away are then salted and dried to preserve them and export them as tuyo, a popular Filipino breakfast by itself or with salted egg and tomatoes.
THE LAST PART OF THE TRIP sees Alex taking us to Pueblo de Panay. Here, the city takes on a different character. This sprawling area south of the city proper is actually a master planned development where a number of commercial and residential structures are set to rise. It’s the most ambitious project in Capiz to date, with the developers and the local government hoping to boost the city’s prestige and the province’s revenues in general. The bus terminal is situated here, along with a couple of shops and a grocery store.
The area’s most popular landmark is the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue that overlooks Roxas City from the top of a hill nearby. The structure is reported to be the tallest religious statue in Visayas, if not the Philippines. The statue’s arms were raised instead of outstretched to provide structural stability and is a way of showing how Christ “blesses” the city.
The views in the hill are also divine, so to speak. The serenity on top provides an antithesis to the hectic, tricycle-choked streets of the city center. There’s also some restaurants and an “I Heart Capiz” sign where you can take a selfie to make sure your social media friends know you’re in Capiz.
Alex huddles the group together in front of the sign for our final group picture. “Now you’ve really been to Capiz,” he says.
And then, click.