Wednesday, December 30, 2009

IN MEMORY OF OAR ] Miguel Ongpin writes about what was once a second home


Miguel Ongpin, who is now an editor at the Manila Bulletin, wrote this story for the defunct Metro Him middle of last year. It was our glass-raising gesture to the reopening of Oarhouse, accompanied by vintage photographs from another Oar habitue, the photographer Ben Razon. Tonight, we raise our glasses, bottles, roses, for the last time in this, a place where we met new friends, flirted with boys, hung out with be-scarfed phototojournalists, and took heart that our drinks were being served by a guy who has opened bottles for us for many years. The Oar is dead. Long live Oarhouse.

Oh the fabled Oar House. It is best described in the physical sense as a tiny little wooden bar immediately next to where the legendary Hobbit House once stood. Through the years the Oar House has illuminated itself as a very rare, brilliant little jewel niched in Manila as an imagined port city. I will always remember it as a dim lighted place where myself and many others blindly gravitated toward like moths to a flame seeking cold beer and hopefully quiet and intellectual conversation in an escape from Manila’s deafening and often nonsensical mundane noise.

It’s funny how life is. Recently, I received a text message from a close friend Reg Hernandez; who now runs the Oar House full time, that Australia and Port Barton, Palawan-based painter Diokno Pasilan was at the bar. It was in fact Diokno who first took me to the Oar House in the early days of our poetry-painting collaborative years right at the beginning of the 90’s. Subsequently, much later I would be the first person ever to take Reg into The Oar House. Now he’s there running things every night the place is open. Full Circle. Neat.

Again recently I was at The Oar House nursing a cold pale pilsen in the early morning hours just past midnight when and odd lull in the conversation occurred and I heard Reg ask: “Bakit kaya tinawag na Oar House ito?”

“Hindi mo alam?” I replied.

I began to explain.

It was then that I realized that something that all along had been obvious to me; may not have been obvious to The Oar House’s Manila clientele. During the latter years of my high school in Massachusetts it seems I was recruited for my small stature (small compared to my 6 foot 5 boatmates) as a Coxswain for Varsity Crew’s 2nd Boat(The 1st Varsity Crew boat was steered by a pretty Italian-American girl even smaller than I was in those days.). The role of a Coxswain is the guy who steers the Crew Boat and rhythmically calls out the number of strokes as they row in practice or in a race. So he is not unlike the guy with the big drum in those Dragon Boat races we have here in the Far East. Part of a Coxswain’s duties are to issue the commands of lifting the boat out of the water and setting the delicate wooden hull (or in the modern era now fibreglass) onto it’s rack inside the Boat House…or as Some may term The Oar House (assuming there was a separate one exclusively for the very long oars.) A Coxswain had to issue these commands out loud like a drill-sergeant to ensure everyone acted in unison to prevent the boat from being dropped or damaged.

The Oar House’s footprint is very unusual. The area of the front door is only about four meters wide while the depth of the bar is about twelve meters. It has almost the exact dimensions of a Boat or Oar House. That was what must have been in the mind of retired US Naval Aviator Charles “Chuck” Monroe when he named and opened the place in 1977.

When that happened I was only five years old. So if the History of The Oar House in a timeline can be likened to a basketball game; I came in around the third quarter. That would be 1992.

The physical description of The Oar House is not difficult to remember. The place was built by a ship’s carpenter form Hull, England. It was about soft light and warm wooden hues. An atmosphere not dissimilar from what one would imagine the interior sub-deck quarters of a galleon might look like. There were some surrealistic aspects to the interior. I remember for instance the entire ceiling being draped by a fishnet that gradually gathered soot from the second hand smoke of the bar’s patrons’ cigarettes. Within that blackened space was a warren of strewn objects. I recall a small bouy, a plastic baby infant doll with oddly cherubic features, a fishing rod, dingy paddle, a plastic floating fish pool toy, and other strange objects with arcane nautical connotations.

The wall immediately behind the bar at eye-level had dusty front pages of newspapers from bygone eras beyond my birth date bearing headlines like…”Manila Liberated”…”Marshall Law Declared”…followed by more recent events like…”Marcos Flees”. On the walls were framed posters of productions staged by Repertory Philippines, almost all of them musicals (Given by actor-patrons, no doubt). To the right of the bar were some framed photographs taken by photojournalist friends of the resident bartender of my time, Chino Medina. One depicted Nur Misuari’s son with an M-16 equipped with an M203 rifle grenade launcher that had a extreme-modified banana clip magazine that held fifty rounds. Another had a fellow biting the sides of a pineapple-type hand grenade. Other photographs appeared to depict government troops aboard small flat-bed trucks driving into market areas of conflict-torn towns in what appeared to be Mindanao.

“Parang babaeng may amoy na hindi maintindihan.”-Pinikpikan founding member percussionist and IT professional, Butch Aldana

The Spiritual Dimesions or “The Vibe” of The Oar House is far, far more difficult to ascertain. It is maddeningly confusing. It is not unlike a modern-day Filipino trying to make sense of say… ”British (or even recently Italian) Football Hooliganism, Cricket (You know that weird Anglo game nobody here understands?) Fanaticism in India (Death Threats aimed at the National Team that lost), Neo-Nazism in Russia (Didn’t these guys fight a World War against the Nazis?), and say…Berlin’s Annual Love Parade.

You kind of had to have been there. To understand.

The Oar House is hard to understand. When I first saw it I never knew a bar could be so small. It was more like someone’s walk-in closet fitted with a wooden bar, a tiny bumper-pool table, a minute bathroom, and a few small tables. Many things about The Oar House are difficult to comprehend. A German Chef friend used to regularly hide in the bathroom following a bust-up in any one of the Honky-Tonk bars of the Pre-(Fred)Lim era. I worked with Felipe “Jun” Medina for 8 months before I figured out he was Chino’s father.

It was a psycho-spiritual Tribal Thing. Long before the advent of the internet, the film The Beach, and budget airlines The Oar House functioned like a Trading Post of sorts. Postcards and letters came in from all over the world; some waiting for foreigners living in “Far Out” rural areas to make their occasional, necessary trip to Manila and The Oar House to receive their mail. There were various cliques that often frequented The Oar House, the local neighborhood residents (many from surrounding apartments), the thespians form Repertory Philippines, various members of the Philippine Media, Artists, Writers, Sagadans and Sagadaphiles, and Strange Foreigners of all types; the Peace Corps, US Manila Embassy Staff (“The Spookies”), French Aid Workers, and global backpackers.

Commonalties in this instance are hard to identify. But let me shed light on one very obvious thing.

Sadly, the very European concept of “The Pub” is lost on the majority of Filipinos. A good pub is not about having fake antiques, Irish cultural reference icons, scripted service bartender-waiter pick-up lines, and the Super-Sized portions of menu items.

It’s more about knowing what the client drinks, making them feel genuinely carefree and at home; and hell, maybe the occasional free drink.

Older people have often been asked “Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?” or more recently many others have been asked. “Where were you when 9-11 happened?”

I was a Fly-On-The-Wall that accursed night when the Infamous Oar House Bust Up occurred…and event that ultimately caused the demise of The Oar House’s Medina Era. It was the beginning of the end of one Truly Good Thing. It was utter chaos. I did not and could not understand what was happening. Two guys came in and beat up Chino and his friend Lyle and busted the place up. One guy was a Fil-Am more than six feet tall. I wanted it all to stop. I wanted to intervene. I didn’t want this to happen. But it wasn’t my fight and I had no idea whatsoever of what was going on. Even now looking back I would certainly have been beaten up very badly if I got involved. That night I had to drive Lyle to the hospital to get his eyelid stitched up.

Gone was the Good Time. I remember those tender early pre-dawn hours of an unimaginably blissful moments of quiet conversations with Chino, “Manong”, and a few others and then being greeted moments later by the stark callousness of Manila’s after-midnight traffic bustle on Mabini Street once I exited the front door to hail a taxi.

The Oar House then entered The Undead Period; a kind of Dark Age period in the bar’s history. The Medinas had left the place and The Oar House had “Gone Bamboo”. Anything related to wood and true character was viciously ripped out in a tasteless and atrocious aesthetic crime. The place resembled a 24-hour roadside cigarette/betel nut kiosk in Taiwan. The name was changed to The Ore House. Die-Hard characters led by the likes photographers Ben Razon, Mon Acasio, The Sepe Brothers, Tim Alipalo, and Derek Soriano and a few other stubborn stragglers still showed up in beer-fueled denial. For the memory of what the place used to be.

Many people with related sympathies as the aforementioned would years later lose the legendary Jesus Armas of Casa Armas fame. He was a generous man and an eternal friend to many. But to people like myself and the mentioned extended clique; we are in an emotional denial of Jesus’ and The Old Oar House’s absence. We consciously know they physically are gone…but they continue to live in our hearts every day.

When the abhorrent Ore House closed doors The Oar House Location suffered further insult to injury and became a roast duck restaurant with headache-inducing pink flourescent lights.

“Oo nga e maraming dumarating dito na naghahanap ng beer,” the then proprietor told me.

Until finally even that closed; and The Oar House was just gone.

A few years back logistics expert Nonoy Tan endeavoured the heroic and reopened The Oar House. It half-worked for a while but time would prove that the place hungered for full-time attention. Eventually this is where Reg Hernandez and Redgie Cinco came in. At the start of the year these two veterans of years of running bars took over The Oar House and now steer the place the way it was meant to be; by people with heart and soul who were once patrons.

Printed with permission from the writer.


  1. Brought me back to being the second daughter of ERNEST in the COCO daze. I miss him a lot.

  2. Miguel Ongpin? Did you write the three poems on the literary section of the latest edition of the Philippine Graphic? I don't know maybe you just have the same name.

  3. @defeliciano. Yes that was me.

  4. Hello, How do I get in touch with you? There is no email or contact info listed .. please advise .. thanks .. Mary. Please contact me maryregency at gmail dot com