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Asia's First Living Cultural Park: The Story of Nayong Pilipino

The history of Nayong Pilipino stretches back over half a century.
IMAGE YOUTUBE/KILUSANG BAGONG LIPUNAN
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Schoolkids of a certain age will remember field trips to Nayong Pilipino: a jaunt through some of the most beautiful regions of the Philippines all in the span of one day. There were scale models of the Banaue Rice Terraces in the Cordilleras and Chocolate Hills in Bohol, recreations of the old houses in Vigan and Mindanao, and Magellan’s Cross in Cebu, and, of course, a lifelike, albeit much smaller,  Mayon Volcano. 

What people remember from the old Nayong Pilipino beside the airport in Pasay City no longer exists today. But the push to have a showcase of truly Filipino culture remains. Here’s the long and fascinating history of Nayong Pilipino.

Beginnings of Nayong Pilipino

Not many people know that the park itself was built a full two years before the organization that was meant to manage it. Nayong Pilipino was the brainchild of former First Lady Imelda Marcos, who was also responsible for other cultural institutions in the country, like the Cultural Center of the Philippines. The park covered about 22 hectares over a 47-hectare property adjacent to what was then the Manila International Airport. 

Photo by YouTube screenshot / Kilusang Bagong Lipunan.
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Imelda handpicked Ildefonso P. Santos to design the landscape architectural plan of the park. The concept was to represent the Philippines “through architectural and cultural displays, an aviary, aquarium, fishing lagoon, and a diverse plant collection.” It was essentially a showcase of the best of the Philippines all located within one specific area.

After the park opened in 1970, the Presidential Assistant on National Minorities opened the Museum of Philippine Traditional Culture within the park. The inauguration ceremony was even attended by the Indonesian President Suharto and his wife, Siti Hartinah Suharto.   

Two years later, on November 16, 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos signed Presidential Decree No. 37, which created the Nayong Filipino Foundation. The body’s mission was to “promote, encourage, espouse and/or initiate research and development projects on social sciences and humanities and related fields;” and to “establish parks and recreation centers for the promotion of tourism in this country,” among other things.

Inside Nayong Pilipino 

Nayong Pilipino was divided into six distinct regions. The Tagalog Region featured the Emilio Aguinaldo, a Bulacan house, a Bamboo house, and a Paete house. There was also a Bahay na Tisa, which contained a collection of 19th century furniture and furnishings used by lowland Christian Filipino ilustrados during the Spanish colonial period. There was also a Tagalog Region Pavilion where events were held.

The Emilio Aguinaldo House

Photo by YouTube screenshot / Kilusang Bagong Lipunan.
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There was a Spanish house in the Bicol Region, but, of course, the main attraction was a much-smaller version of the famed Mayon Volcano as well as the ruins of Cagsawa church.

In the Visayas Region, there was a replica of Magellan’s Cross and a boating lagoon that overlooked Bohol province’s Chocolate Hills. There were also full-scale replicas of various houses from Leyte, Bohol, Cebu, and Samar.

Replica of the shrine that houses Magellen's Cross

Photo by YouTube screenshot / Kilusang Bagong Lipunan.

Chocolate Hills

Photo by YouTube screenshot / Kilusang Bagong Lipunan.
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The Mindanao Region featured a mosque, a traditional Samal house, a Princess house, and a Datu house that contained a collection of ethnographic and cultural artifacts from the country’s second-largest island. There was also a Mindanao Pavilion where a dance troupe performed weekly accompanied by the Nayong Pilipino rondalla.

Entrance to the Mindanao Region

Photo by YouTube screenshot / Kilusang Bagong Lipunan.

A recreation of the iconic rice terraces was the main draw at the Cordillera Region. There was also a traditional Ifugao Village.

Finally, the Ilocos Region featured a house modeled after the Spanish colonial-type houses in Vigan. There was also a playground area where guests could play traditional Filipino games such as piko, tumbang preso, luksong baka, and others. 

Nayong Pilipino also contained an aviary and an aquarium, and the aforementioned Museum of Philippine Traditional Culture, which closed in 1983 and was later reopened and renamed as the Philippine Museum of Ethnology.

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While the museum contained everyday objects used by different indigenous groups throughout the country, such as textiles and farming implements, it drew criticism for mainly serving as a vehicle to sell souvenirs.

In the book Towards a Filipino History: A Festschrift for Zeus Salazar, author Bon Jove Bernardo writes, “(t)he touted representations of the Philippine village as an open museum loses much of its credibility when the attitudinal concerns of the guides or docents are mainly economic–-to make visitors buy the varied array of souvenir folk art items or tourist art. The staff of each ‘regional’ house openly welcomes visitors with flashy cameras for they signify ‘buying power.’”

An assassination attempt 

Through the years the park hosted numerous recurring cultural affairs as well as one-off events, including an annual Santo Niño festival, a Pamilihang Bayan where native products from different ethnic groups from the country’s regions were displayed, as well as various exhibitions at the museum. Many of these functions were attended by Imelda Marcos herself, and it was during one of these events, on December 7, 1972, when an attempt was made on the former First Lady’s life. During an awarding ceremony of the National Beautification and Cleanliness Contest, a man identified as Carlito Dimahilig drew a bolo knife and attacked Mrs. Marcos, which led to severe injuries on her hands and arms. Two other participants in the ceremony, Congressman José Aspiras and Linda Amor Robles, secretary of the beautification campaign, also sustained injuries. 

Records say that by the year 1991, the number of visitors at Nayong Pilipino reached one million and was sustained until 1994. However, by the end of 1995, the number of visitors had dwindled, presumably because of the opening of other theme parks. In 1993, then-President Fidel V. Ramos issued Proclamation No. 273, which authorized the Nayong Pilipino Foundation to conduct a year-long National Fund Campaign, noting “the natural ravages of time and wear-and-tear” (that) have caused damage to and gradual, yet threatening, deterioration of the existing cottages, mini-parks, and other structural amenities of the Nayong Pilipino Complex.”

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Moving Nayong Pilipino 

The first mention of moving the Nayong Pilipino occurred in 1999, when then-Tourism Secretary Gemma Cruz Araneta proposed merging the park with the Expo Filipino in Clark, Pampanga. But the plan was shelved following the impeachment complaint and trial of then-President Joseph Estrada.

Nayong Pilipino in Clark, Pampanga

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

However, a year later, officials of the Manila International Airport Authority announced that they needed a portion of the land that Nayong Pilipino occupied in order to comply with the safety standards imposed by the International Civil Aeronautics Organization. The MIAA said the land was required to build an additional parallel taxiway and surface road connection between the Terminal 2 to Terminal 3 of the airport, which by then had been renamed Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).

It took a while before the details of the transfer were worked out, but in June 2002, then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued Executive Order No. 111, which transferred 8.6 hectares of Nayong Pilipino’s land to MIAA. The airport body paid P500 million for the property. In a separate EO (No. 135, issued a few months later in October 2002), President Arroyo authorized the Nayong Pilipino park officials “to look for an alternative new site…for a new Nayong Pilipino that would be appropriate to its objectives as a showcase of Philippine culture.”

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Then-Nayong Pilipino executive director Charito Planas then launched a campaign to relocate the park elsewhere. She spearheaded an architectural design contest for this “new” Nayong Pilipino, which was won by University of Santo Tomas students Jason Buensalido and Karen Cheung.

Closure and reopening 

While EO 111 effectively shut down the park, Nayong Pilipino reopened briefly two years later, on December 12, 2004. By then, certain areas of the park had been demolished, including the entire Tagalog Region, the Mindanao Pavilion, the Chocolate Hills (Bohol area), and certain Visayas sites such as Magellan's Cross. But the park was able to host occasional events and certain areas were opened to private functions.

Meanwhile, Planas and the Nayong Pilipino Foundation kept busy searching for a new home for the park, and they found it at the Clark Expo in Pampanga. This site for the new park was proposed by then-Presidential Adviser for Northern Luzon Secretary Rene Dias. Opened in 2007, the Nayong Pilipino in Clark is built over 3.5 hectares of land and features new attractions that weren’t at the old Nayong Pilipino in Pasay City, including replicas of the Rizal Shrine in Calamba, Laguna, the Mabini Shrine in Tanauan, Batangas, and the Barasoain Church. It also had a Money Museum and a Textiles Museum. The park also featured an “Ancient Island” and Colonial Plaza, a mini amphitheater, and orchidarium.

But impressive as it was, the Nayong Pilipino in Clark isn’t the permanent home of the cultural park. In April 2007, President Arroyo signed another EO (No. 615), which mandated the transfer of Nayong Pilipino to a 15-hectare parcel of land in Parañaque City owned by the Philippine Reclamation Authority.

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Aerial view of the Nayong Pilipino parcel of land in Entertainment City, Parañaque

Photo by Nayong Pilipino Foundation website.

Taken over by the airport

The MIAA, meanwhile, while already owning 8.6 hectares of the old Nayong Pilipino, later on said it needed the remaining parcel of land “for the expansion of Terminal 2 to the north and the development of the New International Cargo Terminal Facility to support the operation of Terminal 3 to accommodate growth in the passenger and aircraft movement” at NAIA.

And so, on September 29, 2011, President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III issued EO No. 58 which transferred the Nayong Pilipino’s remaining 22.3 hectares of land in its original location in Pasay City to the MIAA. According to MIAA, the value of the land at the time of the transfer was about P8.269 billion. 

Officials of the Nayong Pilipino Foundation had initially raised concerns about the EO, mostly insisting that, “if the land is to be reverted back to the State…it should be to the National Government and not to a GOCC (Government Owned and Controlled Corporation).” The Foundation also said that it “should be compensated for the value of the property.” But after a series of consultations, the MIAA said that Nayong Pilipino Foundation had allowed the use of the property “but maintained its reservation on the remuneration for the property.”

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By 2012, the MIAA had taken over the old Nayong Pilipino property and had initially used portions of it as “parking and staging and staging areas for MIAA’s transport concessionaires.” 

As for the New Nayong Pilipino in Parañaque City, the Foundation inked a deal with Landing Resorts Philippines Development Corp, which is the fifth integrated resorts casino granted a license to operate in Entertainment City, Parañaque. The casino project will reportedly include the newest iteration of the Nayong Pilipino theme park. While the project had already broken ground in 2018, it has since suffered a setback after President Rodrigo Duterte fired the entire board of the Nayong Pilipino Foundation.

Time will tell when the sun will rise again on a new, improved, and hopefully permanent Nayong Pilipino.  

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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