by Louella Eslao-Alix
Cebu was known far and wide in the Visayas long before Ferdinand Magellan set foot on its shore in 1521. Here is an excerpt from the account of Antonio Pigafetta, the Italian chronicler of Magellan’s epic but tragic voyage across the vast Pacific Ocean:
After dinner we all returned in our dress coats, and we went together with the two kings to the middle of the highest mountain we could find, and there the cross was planted. After that the two kings and the captain rested themselves; and, while conversing, I asked where was the best port for obtaining victuals. They replied that there were three, that is to say, Ceylon, Zzubu, and Calaghan, but that Zzubu was the largest and of the most traffic.
Zzubu of course is Zebu or Cebu. Magellan and his crew did not stay for a long period and did not alter the state of things in Cebu.
The arrival of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi some 40 years later spelled the end of Cebu’s independent state. Legaspi instituted racial segregation and marked the area near the port as the
Ciudad which was for the Spaniards and farther to the south he designated an area for the natives and called it Poblacion de Naturales. Later on, another settlement would rise on the east of the Ciudad , the Parian.
The Parian was peopled by the Chinese who have regularly traded with Cebu . It is said that the word Pari-an was a Mexican word which means marketplace. Here the Chinese set up their wares but some would unload their goods from their ships and transfer them to smaller flat-bottomed boats called cascos to navigate through a nearby estuary to reach the inner areas of the city. This estuary was later named Estero de Parian.
An estuary is defined as a tidal channel used as a drainage canal in populated districts. In marine biology, it is described as an inlet or arm of the sea, especially the wide mouth of a river, where the tide meets the current. In most accounts of Parian, the estero, the Spanish word for estuary, is always mentioned. However, Resil Mojares, in his book Casa Gorordo in Cebu writes that “There is also an ecological reason for the change of character of Parian, from a commercial to residential district. The small Parian river that ran through the district had began to silt up and was no longer navigable.”
This now begs the question, did this river become the Estero we refer to today? A study of the 1913 map of Parian shows that there was a short river in the Tinago area which is at least a kilometer away from the estuary in Tabacalera. The Tinago body of water also runs parallel to A. Bonifacio Street, far from the course of Estero de Parian.
Concepcion G. Briones, in her book Life in Old Parian writes about the estero:
Centuries ago, the Estero de Parian was wide and deep, its waters flowing constantly. Sailing vessels loaded with merchandise from such exotic places as Siam, Arabia and China navigated the waterway that snaked east to west, traversing three streets of Old Parian. Much larger Chinese and Malaysian ships docked near the somnolent seashore indented by a road which was later named Calle de Los Martires ( now M. J. Cuenco Avenue); or, near the tip of a road later named Calle Alfonso Trece ( still later named Norte America and now D. Jakosalem) near the Carbon where the seashore was also quiet and peaceful. The intrepid traders of that misty period must have transferred their goods to their own smaller junks which navigated easily the Estero de Parian for unloading close to Calle Colon and peripheral calles where the big-time Chinese merchants conducted their brisk and profitable trading.
The Bridges of Parian
A 1913 map clearly shows the flow of the Estero de Parian from the wide mouth of the estuary near the Tabacalera up to its canal-sized tip before it reaches Calle Legaspi. We can trace its travel through four quaint stone bridges. The first one is on D. Jakosalem Street, near the corner of Colon Street. Here we can see remnants of the arched stone bridge. Going eastward, the estero flows under another stone bridge that traverses Mabini Street. Still farther down towards the sea, the estero flows through the Logarta Street bridge and then makes a side trip through the Zulueta Street bridge before it goes under the Tabacalera bridge and on to the sea.
Stone Bridges evoke memories of late afternoon walks or paseos, of a less hurried pace of life when people in the city could afford the time to walk towards Plaza Hamabar near the Cathedral and farther on to Plaza Independencia to catch the sea breeze. Houses made of stone and tejas ( clay tiles) lined the streets, flowers from their gardens wafted their scents as passersby greeted each other. It was indeed a gentler time when the bridges of Parian were not the untended, neglected and abused structures they are today, a time when clean water flowed through their arches.