November 12, 2018
Next to the Villanueva Building—you know, that “iconic” building in downtown Iloilo that seems to be a favorite among photographers—I argue that the Regent Theater might probably be in the running as one of the more prominent historic structures in Calle Real, if only for the fact that out of the many standalone moviehouses Iloilo City had from the 19th to the early 20th century, it’s the only one with its facade still relatively intact. That, by itself, is a BIG deal, considering its peers have already been converted to banks and baratilyo bins. It seems to have managed to stay alive to see Iloilo’s “heritage boom”. Sounds good, right?
Despite that, Regent stands there today like… this:
Regent Theater is a landmark rich history; an item mentioned in every Iloilo-centric trivia we’ve ever encountered—basically, something that locals have long-known to be part of the city’s social fabric. So, what happened?
If you’ve been following recent news that dealt with local heritage issues—the more infamous probably being the battle between the Alimodian town council and local heritage advocates over the construction of a multipurpose structure in the plaza—then it won’t surprise you that things really are more complicated than simply showing a picture of an old building and calling on someone to fix it.
For one, as much as it’s one of Iloilo City’s few, existing links to the colonial-era business district, we can’t just will Regent Theater to get renovated since it still remains a private property, like many of its neighboring buildings where generations of families have taken root and ran their businesses from.
Besides, we have so many old structures in Iloilo. So why make a fuss about Regent?
The simple answer to that: because we were already on our way there a few years ago.
Of course, it would help if we take a look back at how Regent came to be the way it is now. And much like how Iloilo defines itself today, it’s mainly a story about conservative values butting heads with modernity.
Regent Theater might have symbolized Calle Real’s glorious past, but it might also be appropriate to have it stand in for the general disrepute and notoriety that later befell the area—a perception that still persists today, even amidst Iloilo’s much-touted economic development.
Constructed in 1927 during the full swing of American colonization in the country, Regent (then originally named as “Cine Palace”) was one of the major establishments synonymous with an Iloilo City flush with money from trade and investment. Commerce was booming and new buildings seemed to pop up every day. Regent’s location was even entered into public history when details from Jose Rizal’s notes about buying a buri hat from a bazaar there were published (Imagine if Manny Pacquiao bought a sandal at your shop and you had pictures of him plastered all over your place. Maybe.). When you consider all of these, it’s not hard to draw parallels from the Iloilo City of yesterday to the Iloilo of today, where huge, shopping mall complexes and commercial townships are becoming the norm.
As the 20th century steamrolled through Iloilo, Regent Theater survived commercially for its remainder, even as the city began to adopt a more modernistic shopping culture that saw cinemas getting included as part of the mall-going experience during the late ‘90s. A few years later, those new and sophisticated consumer complexes have effectively classified Regent—and, of course, the rest of Iloilo’s old business district—into a commercial ghetto; downtown Iloilo simply became a place for getting cheap products and services. Also, it’s hard to combat that image if you have a younger generation accustomed to buying all their needs from air-conditioned shopping malls that sell everything.
This was the environment that Regent saw itself in at the end of the last decade; with decreasing profit margins, it was forced to fight against its classier competitors by showing a film genre that no family-friendly establishment would ever consider screening: Rated-18 movies, particularly of the “titillating” kind. In predominantly-Catholic Philippines, they’re otherwise known as “bold movies”.
SM Cinema’s blanket ban on all R-18 movies—regardless of said film’s genre or box-office credentials—meant it was impossible to watch any “adult” film inside a mall. So, showing R-18 films became carte blanche not just for Regent, but for all struggling moviehouses of the last decade. And if you’re a moviehouse operator screening nothing but bomba films all the time… well, what else are you gonna expect?
If you want to have an idea of the kind of moral crusading being levelled against Regent during those years, this opinion piece from journalist Alex Vidal should give you a good idea of that era’s outrage:
Dingy and squalid, the place is reportedly being frequented by sexual predators, prostituted women, call boys, and sometimes teenagers who cut classes.
City Hall and the Motion and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) should do something to repair the moral decay wrought by this theater in the populace, restore the building’s old glory and save its tattered reputation. Health authorities must also get involve (sic) in order to arrest the possible spread of communicable sex-related diseases.
City officials squabble on the pedestrianization of Calle Real, but ignore this alarming moral eyesore right in the front door of the metropolis. Beautification should not be limited only in the facade of the city but in the citizens’ moral fiber, as well. A citizenry with a healthy mind makes a healthy city or nation.”
(Also, his last line, “Let’s speak, write, think good and be wholesome. Let’s think God.” sounds like it might have worked when internet trolls weren’t weaponized then. Sadly, we now know that good intentions on Facebook can only take you so far. Moving on…)
Regent, as expected, shut down not long after. And just like everything we’ve been conditioned to ignore in the city like yearly flooding and potholes during road projects, we might have even been expected to overlook the theater. But the various heritage movements that have started here in Iloilo assured that we won’t be looking at centuries-old buildings the same way ever again.
Heritage: that’s the entire bedrock for the many tourist activities marketed in Iloilo for the past few years. If you ask me though, valuing something for its “cultural” value just isn’t us. The country’s known existence has, in part, been defined by being poor underdogs to past colonizers and, presently, to our more financially-stable neighbors. “Heritage” can’t be easily quantified, but money is.
So, should anyone be surprised that corporate initiatives were why the restorations of Molo Mansion and Casa Gamboa even took place? Adaptive reuse, the process of “reusing (a) building to new purposes”, seemed to be one of the more effective ways for Iloilo to preserve its old buildings. So, what’s preventing Regent Theater from getting the same treatment?
As discussed above, there’s the issue of ownership; Molo Mansion and Casa Gamboa got new leases on life because their current owners bankrolled their respective restoration projects. While many Ilonggos were alarmed at the prospect of private companies owning Ilonggo structures, it can also be argued that the restoration efforts for both of those structures became possible because someone bankrolled those projects in the first place.
While the Iloilo City Cultural Heritage Conservation Council—and, by extension, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts through the 2010 Cultural Heritage Act—had done a great job of cataloguing all the old structures in the city (and—perhaps as belated acknowledgment of the internet’s power of curation—an open inventory was made available to anyone wanting to contribute to the city’s documented “cultural properties”), public funding for the organization is still limited to “assist(ing) building owners in rehabilitation procedure & other related matters except financial aid”—which is probably a necessary safeguard to ensuring that no one would ever get the idea of using the organization for… err, other purposes.
However, Regent’s value as a heritage structure might have increased because of an experiment that, in hindsight, might have been ahead of its time…
In 2014, Jason Gonzales—then an Iloilo City councilor—proposed a ‘Carless Weekend’ for Calle Real, which was implemented for three months. While he admitted that the inspiration behind the project was seeing the Times Square Pedestrian Plaza in New York, it’s not hard to see why he came up with the idea: Calle Real, with its colonial-era buildings and storied streets, lent itself well to casual strolls. Of course, it’s also important to note that Gonzales took pains to spell out that opening Calle Real to pedestrian activities would “(increase) economic activity since higher foot traffic insinuates higher sales.”
However, “support local” wasn’t much of a buzzword during that year, and the project fizzled after its initial run. However, the first few weeks were heady; while local merchants enjoyed a common place to sell their products and wares, it was the cultural presentations that served as the backbone for it all. I was already back in the city during the height of Calle Real’s pedestrianization efforts, so that was my first exposure to local performers who were given a public platform to stage their own events outside of their respective communities.
What it also signalled, though, was the existence of a creative and entrepreneurial class in Iloilo—overlooked and underserved all those years—ready to make their marks on their own terms. Imagine how many local festivals, trade fairs, art spaces, and events were organized and produced from that period onwards. Yes, even Project Iloilo’s own Urban Baylehan was partly influenced by it. In addition, many of the things that were standardized from the Calle Real experiment were applied to Produkto Lokal, where Gonzales would have a hand in supporting the first one and, three years on, would became one of the many enduring weekend trade fairs in the city.
Regent Arcade, which has since encompassed Regent Theater, exhibits that “adaptive reuse” principle, of course; it houses eateries, clinics, and photocopying services that provide an indispensable service to people going to downtown, particularly to people with errands to government offices located in the nearby premises.
But come on now, we all know Regent can do better: as a gallery, as an event space, as a restaurant, or—as shown by FDCP Cinematheque at Solis Street—a small-scale movie theater. Heck, there’s probably a lot more it can be done with than what I just mentioned. Just look at nearby Villanueva Building: it already has Gallery i on its second floor, which is a far, far cry from the kinds of places many Ilonggos associate with downtown Iloilo these days.
Regent Theater might have started as a movie house, but I’m sure it’s now an essential part of Iloilo today. If we’re really serious about preserving Iloilo’s heritage, then there’s no better area to focus on than the one that is most accessible to everyone, regardless of the social class they identify with.
And now, this humble usisero awaits your comments below…
Research assistance provided by the Iloilo Public Library.
The first version of this article mistakenly credited Mr. Gonzales to be one of the first organizers for Produkto Lokal. Project Iloilo apologizes for the error.