October 11, 2007

The Bar Formerly Known as Penguin Cafe

By: Guillermo Ramos

True enough, the photojournalists’ strategy and camera blocking for EDSA 1 and the RAM-engineered coup attempts that followed were planned and drafted at Penguin Café. Paging Nancy Collins! Where art thou?


Penguin Café Gallery defined the artistic/bohemian life of Malate in the early 80s. I know that’s a sweeping statement, but it’s the truth. At least my truth, with apologies to the late Ishmael Bernal of “…Gray November” and “Indios Bravos” and to Larry Cruz of Café Adriatico.

Penguin Café Gallery once stood on the insignificant corner of Adriatico and San Andres Streets, until it moved to its present location near the Remedios Circle, in what the überstylemeisters define as the geography of “stylish Malate”: from Nakpil to Remedios (North to South) and M. Orosa to Adriatico (East to West). Anything outside of this imaginary boundary is purely marginal. I’m talking about Penguin in its early days—the fringe and the marginal.

This was the early 80s, the height of the Halakhakan Parties. Larry Cruz was holding court at Café Adriatico as the Sultan of the Circle, establishing his gastronomic empire on the Remedios and Adriatico quadrant. Ernest Santiago, the Emperatriz of the Kingdom of Coco Banana hung on to the bastion of the last days of the disco, and a few blocks away on M. Orosa Street, Virgie Moreno the High Priestess of Poetry and Film performed the Pagdiwata to a group of captive poets in her temple, The Café Orfeo.

Penguin Café democratized European cuisine, fine wine and world music to the “starving artists”. In return, the artists gave Penguin cutting-edge exhibitions and performance art by the likes of Cesare and Jean Marie Syjuco, Peng Olaguera and the late Santi Bose. It was an exciting time. This was the vision of Ami Miciano and Maryann Ubaldo, the two women who conceptualized Penguin Café. Ami and Maryann brought with them fresh ideas for a bohemian- style artist’s café in Manila. The country was then reeling from the effects of martial law and its miasma of mass-media suppression, intellectual stupor and artistic mediocrity. Armed with degrees in Hotel and Restaurant Management and Photography from schools in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, Ami and Maryann were ready to build a spiritual home for artists in the coming years.

I had my first one-person show at Penguin. It was called “Ang mga Pahinang Pinilas mula sa Notebook ni Narcissus-X” (Pages Torn from the Notebook of Narcissus-X). It was a series of personal autobiographical collages photocopied and individually hand-colored with Stabilo highlighter. It didn’t get reviews, much less sales, but I was happy just to show my stuff. Laida Lim-Perez liked it so much that she brought the show to her gallery in Baguio. So it never made a dent in the art scene, I really didn’t care. I was 19.

Penguin was my spiritual home, next to the CCP. I was still in college when I discovered the place through my friend Glenna Aquino. I would go there in my uniform—white polo shirt and jeans, with school props: big bayong bag, T-square, stretched canvas, rolls of tracing paper, etc. What I loved about Penguin was that the people there treated me like an adult. I could drink beer in my uniform, without the bartender harassing me, and participate in adult conversation. I was myself in Penguin, although the older people referred to me as bagets and being bagets meant that I was not to be taken seriously (Obviously the geezers were just bitter.)

Penguin was the center of my universe, the extension of my education, and the elective subject that I truly enjoyed. Its interior had a peculiar smell of musk, coffee and tobacco. It was decorated like a quaint Parisian or an Easter European café—marble top tables, glass globe lamps and ox-blood red upholstery. The prices of food and drink were atrociously cheap: red wine at P4.50 a glass, spaghetti carbonara at P9.50 a plate and bratwurst with fries at P8.50! This was in pre-inflation Manila, when the dollar exchange rate was 14 to 1.

Penguin was like an airport coffee shop. People who dropped by were either arriving or departing. Some overstayed and became part of the furniture, like good old Pepito Bosch, who was the local Pilosopo Tasyo, and the utterly talented Jess Abejo, who could play Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto better than Cecille Licad. May they rest in peace. There was a time when Penguin was a social weather barometer, and the mere presence of foreign photojournalists munching peanuts and drinking San Miguel beer at 6:45 in the evening was enough to give you the creeps. True enough, the photojournalists’ strategy and camera blocking for EDSA 1 and the RAM-engineered coup attempts that followed were planned and drafted at Penguin Café. Paging Nancy Collins! Where art thou?

Penguin was also the place for after-theater drinks. When Oro, Plata, Mata had its premiere in December 1982, the entire cast and crew all repaired to Penguin. Reading the film credits (Jed Arboleda, Gerry Fernandez, Rodell Cruz…) at the 20th anniversary screening of Oro, Plata, Mata set off a wave of memories. I remembered Peque Gallaga and Butch Perez debating about Kubrick. The 21 year-old peaches and cream Joel Torre conscious of his accent, wasn’t shaving yet. Punk-rocker Ronnie Lazaro, looking like Sid Vicious with earrings, safety pins, black torn t-shirt and all, became a regular pilgrim. He eventually met his wife there—Lola, a Spanish teacher at the Instituto Cervantes. Then you had guys from CCP, Ballet Philippines and Bulwagang Gantimpala (people too many to mention) and the defunct Shadow Visual Design Group, whose Neal Oshima, Mark Gary, Jo Chua and Nap Jamir were all regulars.

The place influenced me and my best friend Jake de Asis so much that our tastes can be traced back to the Penguin days. The books we read, music that we listened to, the food we ate, and the friends we made (Grace Amilbangsa, Chito Valenzuela, Jayjay Sevilla) were determined by Penguin. Laurie Anderson, Japan, Roxy Music, Kate Bush, The Clash, The Police, and Talking Heads were the musicians playing the soundtrack of our lives. The scripts were supplied by Still Life with a Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and the short stories of Yukio Mishima. We were so poor then, we had to invent our own outfits courtesy of the CCP costume department, second hand shoes from Carriedo, and vintage clothing from Bambang. None of us looked homogeneous or pre-packaged like the kids nowadays (Now who’s the geezer)—our personalities surfaced more than our clothes. We were young, we were brave, and we were angst-ridden, but we never had fashion hang-ups or designer brand-related dilemmas.

The highlight of the year for Penguin was the celebration of the Chinese New Year. Pinikpikan, the batik and bongo collective from Baguio, had their first and many gigs at Penguin until they finally decided to become serious musicians. They would play at Penguin’s notorious street parties headed by the resident shaman Pepito Bosch and Boy Yuchengco.

It is a sad fact that Penguin had to close its doors in December 2002. The amount of emotional baggage attached to the place was so enormous, we thought it couldn’t possibly end. True enough, it opened in March 2003 with the same furniture—marble top tables, globe glass lamps and ox blood red upholstery—warm and familiar, but minus the Penguin resin statue and the Penguin Café neon sign. It was rechristened Café Patagonia or is it 604 Café. For me it will always be the Bar Formerly Known as Penguin Café.

PS. Penguin Cafe is once again open for business. It was bought by kind hearted souls who gave Penguin a new lease on life. Meanwhile, Amy Miciano is trekking the Himalayas and jamming with her favorite sherpas. She plans to open another Penguin to a place where snow is abundant.


Also read: Lilet's Little Secret

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2 comments:

THE ANiTOKiD said...

Requesting pics on the bar, kabayan!

maubaldo said...

After all these years....

Penguin Cafe continues to live in the hearts of its bohemian patrons. It will always be a special part of my life.

mary ann ubaldo
new york city
nov. 11,2007



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