Penman No. 40: Some Things Fishy in New GenSan

Microtel

Penman for Monday, April 1, 2013

THE FIRST thing I realized when I flew down to GenSan last weekend was how big the plane was—a wide-bodied Airbus A340 that seated eight people across—and how the plane was almost full for our early morning flight. This wasn’t going to be some spit of land under a clump of coconut trees.

Oddly enough, in my nearly 60 years, I’ve been to almost all corners of this country and about two dozen others, but had never visited General Santos City, not even back when it was still called Dadiangas. I simply had no reason to, which explained why I was there this time—to help tell the story of the city and of its entrepreneurial spirit through a biography of one of its business pioneers and of his family. I had told my client that his story had to be the story of the city as well, and that my sheer ignorance of it—beyond a few touristic slogans and clichés I’d heard about the place being the country’s tuna capital and the home of boxing champs both faded and fabled—was a good thing, because I was going to be interested in everything about the city, as I always am especially on a first visit.

So I read as much as I could, online, about GenSan before coming over. I came across the story of how, back in the days of President Quezon, a group of 62 Christian settlers led by Gen. Paulino Santos arrived on a steamship on the shores of Sarangani Bay. They were the spearhead of thousands more who followed them from Luzon and the Visayas, displacing the native B’laan, who called the place Dadiangas, after a tree. Dadiangas was then just part of the municipality of Buayan. In 1954, Buayan was renamed General Santos, which became a city in 1968, and was reclassified into a highly urbanized city in 1988.

“Highly urbanized” might suggest something like Cebu or Davao, with sprawling suburbs, heavy traffic, and crowded malls, but GenSan clearly—and perhaps thankfully—isn’t in that same category yet. As your plane prepares to land at the new international airport in Bgy. Tambler—built with significant and some say suspicious American support, its runway is big enough to take Boeing jumbo jets and even the new Airbus A380—the view at the window is that of rolling hills and even of mountains in the distance. That tall, cone-shaped mountain looming almost 2,300 meters over the plains is an active volcano called Mt. Matutum, South Cotabato’s highest point. (On the flight home at dusk, these mountains would turn velvet, laced by low-hanging clouds.)

GenSan’s city center is about a 20-minute drive from the airport, and the businesses along the tree-lined highway still suggest the old frontier: rough-hewn lumber, hardware, heavy machinery. A familiar face pops out of a billboard beside a shop selling bottled water—but this isn’t just any water, it’s “PacMan H2O, Ang Pambansang Tubig.” This is Manny Pacquiao country—or would have been, more convincingly, if he hadn’t lost in that congressional bid some years ago to Darlene Custodio, now GenSan’s incumbent mayor. Congressman Pacquiao of course now represents neighboring Sarangani just across the river, but he remains very much a presence in GenSan, maintaining two big houses there (“Mansion 1” and “Mansion 2,” as the locals called them), plus a gym.

I was billeted at the Floirendo-owned Microtel, GenSan’s newest landmark along the national highway, not too far from the East Asia Royale Hotel, the city’s grandest. The Microtel was neat and comfortable, as a business hotel should be, and was flanked by an equally new strip of restaurants, culminating in a big McDonald’s fronting the highway (across, inevitably, a Jollibee). This sense of newness in this city of more than 500,000 people and almost 500 square kilometers was pervasive—down Santiago Boulevard off the main highway was GenSan’s own SM (what’s a Pinoy city without an SM?), which opened just last August and was already drawing crowds from the older Robinson’s, Gaisano, and the homegrown KCC mall. Not surprisingly, the vehicle of choice hereabouts was the SUV or its pickup variant, especially in white, with rows of them lining the parking lots.

Gen. Santos

So what happened to the old GenSan? The former Buayan airport had been converted to an Air Force station, with goats and cows grazing beside the runway. I asked my guide to bring me to the older and poorer part of town, near the wharf and up Pioneer Avenue, towards City Hall. Now and then a house from the 1940s turned up, its paint long scoured and blistered by time and by the swirling dust that Gensan oldtimers remember. But even later structures looked forlorn or boarded up. “Everyone’s moved to SM,” said my guide. We got off a the park in front of City Hall to visit the statue of Gen. Santos, who headed Quezon’s land settlement program, and also to look for a living specimen of the dadiangas tree; surprisingly, we couldn’t find any, even when we went to a nearby plant nursery. “It has thorns and has yellow blossoms” was all the older people could tell us. There was no museum we could visit to look up the tree or a history of GenSan for that matter (and I’d be grateful for any leads from readers to a good history of Dadiangas or GenSan).

Most of my three-day visit went to work—interviews with my subjects and tours of plants and facilities—but it was very pleasurably punctuated by sorties to the local restaurants, and as a seafood addict, I found that I’d gone to heaven. I had to arm-wrestle the gargantuan crabs at Gusteau in the newish Sun City Suites complex (another popular local restaurant was Grab a Crab) and, of course, we were served schools of luscious tuna in all manner of preparation.

The sea being the source (excluding PacMan) of much of GenSan’s present wealth, I asked to see the city’s fish port in operation, and even as we arrived too late to observe the day’s tuna catch being unloaded for auction at 5:30 in the morning, the port was still abuzz with activity an hour later, with batches of tuna being graded, weighed and sorted out for resale to various end-buyers. I got a fascinating crash course in what we archipelagic Pinoys should know by heart but barely do—Tuna 101, or some things fishy in our economy and culture.

IMG_0925

I learned how tuna came in three basic varieties—bluefin (the premium kind that gets sold for record prices in Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji market—a 222-kg fish recently brought in US$1.78 million, or almost $8,000 per kilo); the more common yellowfin, which was what I saw that morning; and skipjack, the much smaller tuna that goes into canning and eventually onto your sliced bread. A Class A yellowfin could fetch P400 per kilo at the fish port, while its Class C brother could go for P180; the fish traders have to know which is which by sight and by an instinct honed through years of experience, although they could—only after buying their fish—take core samples from a natural slit under the dorsal fin to confirm their judgments.

I learned how the wooden boats that brought them in ventured out for weeks as far as the edge of the Indonesian border, the smaller ones returning with about 200 fish in their bellies, the larger with about 500. (The modern and large steel-hulled catchers of my hosts, the RD Corporation, remain at sea—with licenses to fish in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea—for as long as two years, employing helicopters to help track the migratory tuna; the “master fishermen” directing these operations on every vessel could earn as much as P200,000 a month—so get out of that call center, and learn to catch tuna!)

That afternoon, I visited a canning plant—the frustrated engineer in me would rather tour a factory than linger at a boutique—and saw how a skipjack gets thawed, pre-cooked, and stripped to its most useful parts by hand before it gets sterilized and canned for shipment in containers to the US, Europe, and Japan, among others. (The tuna that gets used in a Subway sandwich in New York and comes in a Subway-labeled can might have come from GenSan.)

Such was the energy fueling the new General Santos—but alas, it was more to be found in people than in the power lines, as the city remains plagued by chronic brownouts occurring twice a day in 3.5-hour stretches. Beyond another mall, GenSan needs more juice for its ice plants, its canneries, and its factories—in other words, for its future—and it can’t hurt to have even a small museum with a dadiangas tree in front to let weekend visitors like me know a little more about its past.

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