It happens with such frequency in this country that we hardly get shocked anymore: historical buildings being torn down unceremoniously, heritage sites giving way to modern infrastructure, cultural landmarks being photobombed by the dullest, most unaesthetic mounds of concrete. It’s sickening. The dereliction and destruction that the physical evidence of our history and culture are subjected to are unthinkably rampant, tolerated and, in worse cases, even perpetrated by our own government.
This is why while having a look at the antiques and artworks displayed in Sulyap Gallery Cafe, an arboraceous cultural multiplex consisting of a museum, a range of hotel buildings and a restaurant in what is known as Cocoland compound in San Pablo, Laguna, I stood in awe of not only the items’ history and provenance but also of how a private individual could be so devoted to his country’s heritage as to spend a great deal of time, energy and fortune to build something of this scale to celebrate and document it. The government’s efforts to honor and advance our arts and culture leave much to be desired, and here was a person doing more than can be expected of a private citizen.
Roy Empalmado started the museum portion of what would become Sulyap Gallery Cafe, Boutique Hotels and Restaurant with a collection of antiques in the late 1980s. He initially sold items from his assemblage, which was becoming more diverse as it grew thanks to his travels to different parts of the country where he would find and purchase pieces. But he eventually decided he didn’t want to lose any more of what he had acquired, and in 2006, work on the museum that would house the items began. In 2007, the collection, massive for one that’s privately owned, was opened to the public. The antiques, consisting of many household items, artworks and different curiosities, are spread among five large rooms on the first level of a three-floor building, itself full of history, having served as the site for a school, a government bureau, and a hotel at different points in time prior to its present iteration.
Sulyap’s restaurant opened in the same year as the museum. Apropos, Empalmado is also a chef, and the restaurant’s menu is a confluence of his culinary flair and dedication to Filipino culture. Among the heritage gastronomic offerings, what interested us the most was kulawong talong, an eggplant-based dish characterized by “milk” from burned coconut strands. This style of cooking is common in Laguna and the adjacent province of Quezon. Since this was our first time to try this kind of cooking, we balanced things out with a serving of something familiar: good old lechon kawali. The dishes proved to be as good as I had hoped after computing for how much we would be paying for them.
Apart from the delectable selection, another thing to admire about Sulyap’s restaurant is the amazing fact that it makes use of one of the old ancestral houses on the property that had been transported from different towns in Luzon and then rebuilt and refurbished in the compound. The original structures were hauled from Obando in Bulacan, Alitagtag and San Juan in Batangas, and Tiaong in Quezon Province. A fifth house, transplanted there from the neighboring town of Nagcarlan, was currently being renovated in the garden area of the property when we visited. It was the latest old house to be moved to Sulyap Gallery Cafe and was being primed for use as a hotel like the other houses, with the exception of the one dedicated to Sulyap’s culinary wonders.
As we watched the carpenters go about what looked like equally challenging and exciting rebuilding work, we noticed a tree in the vicinity of the house that had the soil around its roots dug out. The roots, along with the soil they clung to, were held together by a re-purposed plastic bag, which meant that the tree was going to be relocated instead of cut down. As if the cultural conservation efforts weren’t impressive enough, the people working in Sulyap Gallery Cafe, Boutique Hotels and Restaurant seem to care about nature too. What’s not to like?