The old Junquera St., named after the turn of the century governor who built it, would later be known as Cebu’s “red light district”. To old timers it was called “Hongkong” or “HK” and to my friends in the local newspaper outfit located across Barangay Kamagayan, where Junquera belongs, it was simply called “Planet K.”
During my college days, when I used to live in a boarding house nearby, I would often haunt the place to have dinner at the smoky barbecue stalls. At that time, the students in my university did not have qualms sharing the table with the pimps and whores. It was even hard to tell which is which when the students were not in uniform.
In fact, our own student paper once ran an interview with two schoolmates working part time as bar girls after school. We titled the piece “Prostituition” and it became an overnight sensation in the campus.
When I worked in a real newspaper, I sometimes joined my friends hang out at Planet K after office hours to have a beer or two. I would later see their own recollections about the place expressed in poetry or fiction in not a few literary anthologies.
These days, the neon lights have dimmed a little bit and fewer pimps are seen in the streets approaching potential customers among the late night commuters. Kamagayan itself went through some kind of renewal. It is now known for its eco-waste management system and community gardening. In recent years, the place has seen the rise of new apartments and commercial buildings advertising more wholesome trades like banking, fastfood, and internet.
The latter is perhaps the main reason why the flesh trade in Junquera is no longer as lucrative as before. Perhaps, even the girls there now go to Junquera’s internet cafes to sell themselves directly to clients who now come from all over the world. At least in the information superhighway, there is no need for a middle man.
From the façade of its buildings, Planet K looks cleaner and more decent now. But the old shortcuts to Colon through the narrow alleys in the slum are still there, serving as memory lane. It still brings back the sights and smell of the proverbial Hongkong in Cebu.
The same attempt to translate memories of a place into a visual experience seems to be the idea behind “HK by Night”, the latest solo exhibition of the artist Vidal “Ondo” Alcoseba, Jr., which runs from August 5-16 at the 856 G Gallery, at A.S. Fortuna St.
I have known the artist only very recently but it is clear that he has intimate knowledge of his subject in this show. It was in a meeting with artists who belong to the yoga group Ananda Marga that I first met Ondo. After the meeting, we had vegetarian burgers and Persian tea in a restaurant in IT Park. It was in the conversations with him and our vegan friends that I learned that he used to be one of the pioneering members of the group back in the 70s.
Like most artists who belonged to the hippie generation, Ondo became a true bohemian as he studied fine arts in UP Cebu, where he became a student of Martino Abellana. Ondo now only has fond recollections of the Cebuano master, whom he describes as a “full” person (“Puno kaayo to siyang tawhana.”). Full of ideas is probably an understatement, noting the sense of awe Ondo had for his teacher.
Yet it’s hard to detect the influence of Abellana on Ondo’s work in this exhibit. The late Maestro was more known for his Amorsoloesque landscapes and portraits while Ondo presents us with a series of abstractions.
Of course, Abellana was known to have briefly tried his hand in a few abstract paintings, but the project would be quickly abandoned for the more convenient style. Still Ondo recalls endless conversation about Picasso with the master, as he would apply reflexeology on the ailing master’s feet (I can’t help the Biblical allusion) during his visits to him in Carcar.
I could see hints of Picasso in Ondo’s skillful use of Cubist techniques, his affinity for collage, use of texts, and simulated textures. The vignettes of a place and all the intimate memories that go with them are all transformed into an explosion of colors, contrasting lines, and overlapping textures that bring me back to Picasso’s own pioneering cubist painting of prostitutes in a red light district in Barcelona, “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon.”
Whether intended or not, Ondo has made his own tribute to Picasso, whom he learned to love, perhaps through another mentor, Martino Abellana. In this sense, the show pays tribute to the two masters.