I'VE never met Ernest Santiago. But growing up, I often read and heard stories of his famous disco, the Coco Banana in Malate, Manila. I saw photos of his glorious parties and the veritable who's who in Manila's cafe society and fashionistas (the term had yet to be invented then) who went there, and had a grand time often in costume, dancing with the latest Studio 54 disco sounds pumping in the background. For what some would probably call a buddding babaeng bakla then, I was furious at not being old enough to go out and have fun as Ernest and all his friends did. It was the iconic bar of the 1970s which defined the era when everyone just had a great time with no thought of the consequences.
I also recall passing by his atelier in Remedios Circle with his brand Santiago de Manila on his wall, whenever my family and I would eat in the area. He was Manila's foremost fashion designer in his day, and brought the terno, a traditional Filipino dress, to the modern era in its flamboyant oversized dimensions. Whenever his fans speak of Ernest's designs, they will often mention his show-stopping creations for people like Imee Marcos who wore such a modern Maria Clara at one film festival (herself another babaeng bakla, of course). I loved his designs because I sensed a kindred spirit, a rebel against all traditions our family and society forces on us. Tired of fashion designing, he turned to interiors.
In the last couple of years, Ernest's name was constantly popping up in the newspapers' lifestyle sections again after he opened his restaurant Cafe Gallery 83 in Pagsanjan, Laguna and helped found the Viaje del Sol, which led tourists to the wonderful sights and sounds of Laguna and Quezon. He was also building a resort in Quezon which I remember making a mental note to visit with my travel buddies. Last Holy Week, as my friends and I were on our way to Paete, we drove by his restaurant in Pagsanjan, which looked nondescript from the outside, but which I hear served the most fabulous home-cooked meals, sometimes lovingly prepared by Ernest himself.
Early this year, a glossy society magazine held its anniversary party and its editors asked Ernest to dress up the hotel function room like his legendary Coco Banana. While not a lot of people were in costume as the parties and shows in his infamous bar as before (when one gets to a certain age, it makes him tentative and conscious of his appearance), everyone obviously had a grand time.
I wish I had known this great man because his life touched mine in so many, albeit vicarious, ways. He may have died a cruel death, but he lived a fabulous life that people will speak of and remember forever. Greatness endures. This story from the Philippine Star and Inquirer about Ernest's life and times. (Photos from Manila Standard/MST web sites.)