Cebu: A creative city?

“We are the remnants of a creative city” says Francis Sollano, about his city Cebu in Philippines, as he walks me through the studio and showroom of his previous employer, the famed furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue.  

Furniture is King, but it's a time of turmoil 

Francis  explains that Cebu’s strength as a creative centre in the Philippines is rooted in its furniture industry, one of its biggest economic sectors.   Despite the impact of the global recession  which virtually decimated this once muscular sector, resulting in mass closures and the loss of large numbers of skilled jobs, Cebu still remains the most important production space in the Philippines for furniture.  

Cobonpue, is part of a small core of internationally recognized furniture designers, who are active in the city, producing high quality and innovative pieces, lapped up by consumers from New York to Cape Town.     Much of this success is due to Cebu’s strong handmade tradition.  The use of indigenous approaches of weaving and assembly, the plentitude of cheap and strong materials, such as rattan, bamboo and others; together with a large contingent of skilled crafts persons, means that Cebu draws strongly on its local resources in a core industry.  However, as Francis points out, this strength has also proved to be to some extent its weakness, because handmade traditions are often more laborious and slower, adding additional costs to the production process.  This resulted, since the crisis, in other countries being able to out-price Filipino furniture products on the international market.      

Francis Sollano, creative and activist.  Director of Youth for a Livable Cebu

Francis Sollano, creative and activist.  Director of Youth for a Livable Cebu

Cebu: a Creative City!

Francis was one of a large number of people (including crafters and other creatives), who ended up leaving the full time employ of the furniture houses after the economic collapse.  I met some of his previous colleagues and hear that they often work multiple jobs and at reduced salaries, because of the devastating impact of the economic downturn.   Many of the creatives who once worked here have either moved to other countries, taking jobs where they could.  Or, by necessity, they shifted into other careers such as Cebu’s vibrant BPO and IT sectors.   As Francis points out though, it was the strength of the furniture sector that initially drove the rationale by the British Council to declare Cebu a “Creative City” in East Asia in 2008 as part of its global focus on creative industries.   The richness of culture in Cebu and diversity of creative industries in the city played a significant role in cementing its Creative City reputation and in 2010, Cebu was declared a ASEAN City of Culture for two years.   The development of the South East Asia Creative Cities Network in 2014, brought together secondary cities from around the region, providing Cebu a chance to project itself further as a creative city.  The fourth meeting of the network took place in Cebu in 2015.

Activism for a Livable Cebu

Francis is now director of Youth for a Livable Cebu, a non-profit whose vision is “a more livable Cebu, inspired by its rich heritage and culture, thriving in socially responsible economies, revitalized urban centers, governed by responsible leaders, and transformed by an engaged citizenry.”  YLC is a youth project with its roots in an earlier struggle Movement for a Livable Cebu (MLC), a civil society response initially, to adhoc local government plans to build a series of flyovers in the Cebu in order to alleviate the real challenges of traffic that Cebu and its outlying areas face.  The flyover proposals, without any long term urban development plan informing it, would have severely damaged the City’s character, not necessarily leading to any improvements in traffic.  

The importance of this strong civil society movement cannot be underestimated.   Cebu like many other parts of the Philippines is plagued by corruption, and clearly Cebu’s City Hall is relatively deaf to its citizen’s voices.   Cebu is one of the fastest growing economies in the country, yet the visible deep poverty, abominable traffic, crumbling infrastructure and the extreme shortage of public spaces (other than malls) speak to a local government, that has not yet met the needs, let alone aspirations, of its civil society or business sector.   

sustainable solutions?

For these reasons, MLC is a particularly important initiative as it speaks to the need for a long term urban development plan, advocating, amongst others, transport solutions, such as a Bus Rapid Transport system, more green spaces and non-motorised transport.   These urban development ideas are slowly gaining in the South, drawing on the locally relevant experiences of two key cities  – Curitiba (Brazil) and Bogota (Colombia).   

Sustainability, as any developments of these natures should be framed by, is essentially a people problem and therefore a culture problem.  It requires significant collective effort.   With Cebu’s local government proving to be a difficult and as yet unwilling partner, MLC’s important forward thinking by involving youth into the mix at this stage bodes well as a civil society movement for urban change needs to build capacity for a long haul battle.   In a region where half the median age was under 23 (in 2010), it is vitally important that the youth are involved and youth leadership is facilitated.


Francis sees YLC’s wider mission as more than an urban development one, but a transformational one, highlighting sustainability and employing culture as a key element of societal change.  Besides its project to engage young people to think about waste, recycling and creativity through trash fashion, it has an important initiative to get people to use the public library. 

The Beyond Books initiative takes place at the only public library in the City of Cebu.

The library serves close on a million people (with another 2 million in the surrounding areas who also use Cebu)..   It is a lovely but relatively small space, open during working hours and therefore inaccessible to many.   It is based in a small, but beautiful building in a central area: the Rizal  Memorial Library and Museum, in honor of one of the countries icons, the famous Filipino resistance figure and a writer.  The building itself could be an incredible cultural centre, given some imagination and creative activation. 

The library provides a solid service and has been open to engaging with the youth, within bounds.  With this opportunity, YLC has initiated a series of interactive workshops, screenings. performances and readings, to bring to fore the importance of a library in a modern age as a space of learning.  This innovative and quiet activism, has already had a great deal of success and brought in new users, while YLC slowly attempts to change the mindset of authorities to view this important civic resource differently.    A small intervention at the Ayala Mall, resulted in The Little Free Library - a loan and performance space, drawing in locals and youth where they are most liable to be to be found. 

The pictures above reflect a small selection of events YLC have done over the last few month.  Vibrant illustrations and design courtesy of young local graphic artists are from the Beyond Books and The Little Free Library initiatives, project managed by the passionate Stephania Jarina . Stephania's own story is caught up with the beauty of books and libraries and how fantasy and knowledge can spark new imaginaries.  She understands the importance of re-imagination and its potential for a sustainable city, from local knowledge.

read up more?

YCL has been the conduit for volunteers from the creative community for all its its projects and to great responses from participants.  Sometimes payback is not about money, but about the impact through the act of doing it.   YCLs Facebook page is a great reflection of their creativity and activity, and shows the potential of young Cebuanos, making a difference to their communities, and to Cebu.  Its worth checking it out and liking it.  I have only captured a part of what they do.  

So... is Cebu, Creative then?   We need to see and know more.  One thing we do know, is that the fresh exciting new thinking is most needed  higher up the food change, Cebu's leaders and goal-keepers in various forms. Are there any  levers? 

murals by  young people in the streets of Cebu

murals by  young people in the streets of Cebu

Mindset shifts?..       

Next week we will discover more about Cebu: its history, its beliefs, its sense of self, and how this may have shaped its cultural life. We can consider the impact ofcolonialism, struggle, power and class on indigenous culture and what this means today.  We can see how this is mediated through institutions and cultural projects. 

This will be a precursor for talking a bit about Cebu's cultural spaces and meet other inspiring, younger generation, Cebuano creatives.   Lastly I will conclude by referring to Cebu in the context of cultural policy, and comment on how this plays out at a local level.