When I was around 7 years old, my mother would give us 5 pesos to watch kung fu in what was a house where the living room was transformed into a makeshift theater in the afternoon. This was between the late 80s and early 90s. To me, it was the only incentive for walking to our store and my grandfather’s corn mill from where our house was. It always happened in the afternoon, around the same time we gave our yayas (nannies) a headache for not taking a tap.
Perhaps that was my first encounter with Hong Kong films — although at that time I really did not care where the kung fu movies came from. The swordplay, the flying long hair-men dressed in silk robes, and the fight scenes that almost always started with conversations over bowls of noodles and wine-drinking were simply “Chinese” to me. Everything that sounded Chinese to me as a kid was simply China, never Hong Kong nor Taiwan. In fact, our fascination with Chinese kung fu films went to as far as us mouthing gibberish that at least sounded (but was never at all) Chinese every time we mimicked kung fu fight scenes.
The standard commercial movie theaters at that time catered more to American and Tagalog films. Maybe the appeal of Chinese kung fu films was more present in the makeshift theaters or in homes where around that time VHS tapes were proliferating. My mother only had time to bring us to the commercial theaters in the evening, so most of the movie-watching done in the afternoon was in the makeshift theaters within the same area our business was. I remember there were three then four (then down to one when the first three old ones started to close shop) standard movie theaters that time. When the newest one was gutted down by fire sometime early 2000, we had all eyes set on a shopping mall being constructed. Currently, we have two nice theaters at Robinsons.
There were at least two houses that ran a similar business. Our favorite was closest to the store and corn mill of my grandfather. And because it was located in the same block, it was more preferred as we did not have to cross the highway and risk being run over by the jeepneys and buses (The concept of a busy street is far different now though. Then, a busy street still occasionally featured carabaos pulling sacks of corn for milling or bamboos for sale on a carriage.). The other makeshift theater was in a house across the street from where our favorite was. But the second one was located quite far from the road and made us go through what felt like a maze. The area also appeared more depressed (and that makeshift theater was more daring in running sex-themed movies), so there was always a mix of hesitation and excitement that clouded our every walk towards it.
Our favorite was in a two-story wooden house in Tabuc-tubig Angatan, Dumaguete City. Because of their appearance, I always thought the family that owned the house and ran the makeshift theater were Filipino-Chinese. On the outside, the house was no different from the other houses along the road. There was no signage prominently displayed outside that flashed any announcement on what was showing for the day. You needed to get closer to the main door to browse over the list of movies for the day. The movies were written in chalk on a blackboard or in black ink on a Manila paper, along with the time they were being screened. Sometimes complementing the blackboard were colored promotional materials, which were most likely from magazines or VHS tape covers but not always updated (so the posters did not always correspond the movies being shown). There were at least four movies screened everyday, starting in the afternoon at around 2, when Filipinos would have had their traditional siesta (nap). And there was a break for around an hour in between movies to prevent the TV and VHS equipment from overheating and rendering the house in flames. At the earliest, there was a new batch of movies every after three days.
Running the makeshift theater was a family affair. At the entrance was a wooden chair and a wooden table where the father collected but did not issue any ticket. It was a “first pay, first in” system. The moment you paid, you gained access to the wooden door where what awaited you past it was a dark curtain that served as a partition between the door and the seating area. It also had a practical use because whenever the movie was running and a new customer entered, the curtain minimized the flow of light through the door (Before you could wave open the curtain-partition, you needed to close the door first.). Opposite the collection area that was manned by the father was a sari-sari store (a small store) where the wife sold snack items, like chips, soft drinks, and iced candy or popsicles. This was a similar set-up in the commercial theaters.
Once inside, you see their children fixing the TV set, rearranging the benches, and preparing the place for the next movie. The seating area was no different from a common living room in any Filipino house. What could be among recognizable differences was the sofa set and dining table, now rearranged in one line on one side of the house and forming part of the seating area. The entrance to other parts of the house, like the kitchen and bedrooms, were covered by another curtain. The toilet? Off-limits! So if you needed a “break”, you had to be patient or resourceful so as not to miss a substantial part of the movie. In the middle of the living area were lines of wooden benches that neither had arm nor back rest! Soonest you found your spot, you faced a huge box-type TV set (at least a 32-inch) where atop it was a VHS tape player and connected to it was a stereo set to make the sound close-to-theater. And because there was no air-conditioning unit, you had to compete over the “prime seats” — those hit by the wind from the rotating electric fan.
You knew when the movie was about to start when they start switching off the fluorescent tubes on the ceiling. The room then turns dim (not pitch dark because you could see rays of light from cracks and holes in the wall, and ambient light creeping through the gaps in the jalousies) and the TV displays that distinctive blue light. Excitement picks up soonest the rainbow lines on the TV screen show up. And then you hear that high-pitch musical piece that signals the Chinese movie is starting. As the movie rolls, you are occasionally distracted by other “moviegoers” forcing themselves on the same bench, or the owners telling you to move and make space for another customer, or those behind, beside or in front of you getting too carried away with their reactions. And sometimes, because the benches are of the same height and the floor even, you are unlucky to be seated behind taller customers — you have to wave your eyesight between shoulders to see the TV set in an elevated compartment of a cabinet that seemed to be a mainstay in Filipino homes.
Chinese movies that I watched as a kid had either English voice or text translations. Funny how the English translations appeared less than what the actual conversations in Chinese were trying to deliver. The flow of both speech and text was oftentimes slower than the pace at which the mouths of the Chinese characters moved. It was not a big deal though. As a kid, I did not care if I did not understand the conversations too well. I was after the action. Besides, most of the Chinese movies I watched hardly contained heavy conversations or drama; it was more fight scenes — flying from one roof to the next, claypot-breaking on heads, swordplay and fistfights, and swift arm and foot movements. Whether I understood the plot or storyline, I enjoyed the movie from my own contextualization of the narratives that the fight scenes evoked.
Up until today, I seem to hold connection to actors by face. I easily forget names. Unless I frequently encounter their names and attach them to faces I often see on the internet, in books or on TV, I would most likely not know who they are. The same is true to the Chinese actors in the movies I watched while a kid. I honestly only knew two: Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. They defined Chinese films for me.
So what happened to our favorite makeshift theater? Gone with the wind. It has been torn down to give way to the construction of a building, as with most old houses in the Philippines.