By Nicholas Stoodley
And they were mad indeed. Ernest Santiago, in many ways, was the embodiment of those insane, crazy, free-wheeling days (and nights)... actually more the nights! that tore through Manila in the 70's and 80's. He designed clothes but that was really a second placer compared with his genius as a showman - an impresario of glitz and glamor and the outrageous focused on his disco COCO BANANA just off Remedios Circle in Malate. But wow was it so much more than just a disco! This was where the electricity that made those years hum and whirl and dance was generated. This was where the movers and shakers of the Wild Side wilded, and wild they did!
The air was balmy with forbidden pleasures as we made our way up dimly lit streets towards COCO for in those days there was still a mini forest in the center of Remedios Circle and the mayor at that time hadn't considered the garish searchlights that now illuminate the new squalor of that area in a hydrogenated light that turns the skin green! They totterered on improbably high Cuban heels which made small boys tall and careened and preened in stiletto heels that made other boys girls. They were dropped off in fancy cars by drivers at the door who had walkie talkies before cell phones were invented and a blur of St Laurent would be lost in the swirl of ravers milling around the entrance.
Petusa was always there... I had first seen her on Mabini posing at the side of the road as Marilyn Monroe, pirouetting and posing for visiting tourists and his own vague amusement. And he did it well. The sons and daughters of politicians and foreigners looking for an easy lay mingled in an easy embrace with call boys, designers, social climbers and even those who had reached the top and stayed there. And me. In a town so easily divided by class and caste and money and power and poverty and glamor and grime, COCO was unique in that it mixed it all up together and it worked. And standing in the entrance as always was Ernest - an immense Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland smile on his face just loving every damned intoxicating moment of it. And I mean this was a disco yet the flower arrangements were fabulous. Flowers! This wasn't a disco at all, It was a social experiment where we all came together with Donna Summer and screamed and just lost it with no inhibitions at all. With flowers!
Then there was the show. Transvestites miming to the usual greats but with such zest and verve and, actually, great talent, that for those moments it didn't feel like a drag show at all. It was REAL. The tourists couldn't believe it and sat there opened mouthed until somebody sunk their lips upon that mouth and they became one. Pinks and Gold and tulle and froth and satin and improbable feathers swayed before us in a chorus line of hedonistic excess that somehow always teetered on the edge of decency without managing to crash into the shadows. Fabulous. To say nothing of the music. Sure, it sounds like a typical comment of one who is getting on a bit but honestly kids these days don't know what they're missing! I could go on and on but I won't. This was for you Ernest! And for all of us that were there. Ernest Santiago was murdered a few days ago in his house in Laguna.
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