Vigan City: A stupid question & a National Folk Artist

A day at Vigan’s Burnayan could easily be predictable and boring, especially for us who’ve been to the place so many times in the past during family trips or school field trips.

Our last visit, however, couldn’t be any less extraordinary. But we didn’t realize it until we left its familiar gates—which, that time, didn’t look quite as familiar as we have always thought.

TWO2TRAVEL | Ilocos | Vigan | Burnayan
From sand to jar: this is how the typical Vigan burnay looks like from start to finish

Vigan City in Ilocos Sur, noted for its well preserved colonial villages, is 10 hours north of Metro Manila but a quick three-hour ride from our hometown La Union. It is also known for its terracotta industry—most products are jars locally known as burnay where wine and other food products are stored. There are also plant pots, souvenir items, and other products made from this molded clay. Chinese families living in Vigan before the Spanish occupation started terracotta-making in this part of Ilocos.

TWO2TRAVEL | Ilocos | Vigan | Burnayan
Rows upon rows of jars at Ruby’s Pottery

The burnay is an earthenware jar crafted by a potter’s hands with the aid of a potter’s wheel. It uses fine sand (anay) as a tempering material and fired at a high temperature in a huge brick-and-clay ground kiln that makes it harder and more durable than other terra cotta. The local bagoong (fish sauce), sugarcane vinegar and basi wine would not taste as good if not fermented in stoneware burnay jars. [Source]

TWO2TRAVEL | Ilocos | Vigan | Burnayan

As luck would have it, the man doing the usual demo to tourists at Ruby Pottery (probably the biggest in the city) was its owner, the white-haired and bespectacled Fidel Go. Mr. Go, as we would later learn as we exited the Burnayan, also happens to be a National Folk Artist.

TWO2TRAVEL | Ilocos | Vigan | Burnayan

That’s Mr. Go in the middle of the demo, in front of the potter’s wheel. Notice him making the thumbs up sign?

We sensed early on that he wasn’t just one of the usual artisans who would explain how a terracotta jar is made, and then mold one effortlessly on the spinning table. That’s how it has always been in the past, which was why we had second thoughts about coming here on our last visit. We already knew what to expect. Or so we thought, of course.

TWO2TRAVEL | Ilocos | Vigan | Burnayan

L: Mr. Go molding a jar on the potter’s wheel
R: Before the clay is even put onto the wheel for molding, it has to be kneaded repeatedly to achieve the fine consistency needed

For one, he greeted both of us a rather booming Good Morning when we appeared. He did it like a homeowner would when welcoming guests to his home. We were surprised, but we returned the favor just the same.

Mr. White-Haired guy wasn’t about to leave us in peace taking photos of his workshop either. In between explanations of the molding process, he would turn to us and ask us where we’re from and what we do. And then finally he asked us if we had any more questions he can answer.

TWO2TRAVEL | Ilocos | Vigan | Burnayan
Every jar artisan has to manually remove stone bits and other foreign materials that find themselves
into the mixture. This guy kneaded the clay for a good 10 minutes before it could be used on the wheel.

Curious at this much-ado-about-nothing attitude (or at least that’s how it appeared to us then), we decided to take him up on his offer. And so we asked his name (we were ignorant just like that).

We know—it was a very stupid question to ask, but we didn’t know any better then. We just thought that if we were to blog about this in the future, we would at least have to put the artisan’s name on the caption, LOL.

Fidel Go was his quick reply. It’s difficult to recall how his face looked as he spoke, because neither of us really knew we were missing something.

In between shots and small talk with the ladies from Davao, Mr. Go would dish in about his life. He started helping his father with his terracotta business in 1961 when he was 22. “That makes me 73 now,” he said, like a teacher would address wide-eyed students.

TWO2TRAVEL | Ilocos | Vigan | Burnayan
L: An assistant helps Mr. Go spin the potter’s wheel, which needs to spin continuously to shape the jar properly
R: This carabao gets first dibs on the clay. It has to step on it to get the istency needed for molding.
His father, he said, was Chinese, while his mother was a Pinay from Vigan. An Ilocana. He’s with his second wife now (or is it third? We could not be too sure). Making burnay has always been their family’s main source of livelihood (and fittingly so, because they’re of Chinese lineage). According to accounts from the city government of Vigan, Mr. Go is a descendant of Pedro Go, the first Chinese settler in Vigan to set up the burnay industry.

He didn’t tell us upfront though that he was a National Folk Artist. But maybe he thought we knew, which was why he kept asking us if we had more questions to ask.

We bid goodbye even before the tourists from Davao could leave. We were debating where we’d go next, and then we saw this sign on the gate we had been ignoring all these years:

TWO2TRAVEL | Ilocos | Vigan | Burnayan
The marker reads: Fidel Antiporda Go, National Folk Artist (Manlilikha ng Bayan Awardee)
He was recognized by the National Commission on Culture and the Arts in 1990 “for his exceptional skill and ingenuity in the traditional craft of jar making thereby significantly contributing to the ervation of the precious cultural heritage of Vigan.”

The marker also gives a short history of the burnay industry in Vigan: It “preceded the arrival of the Spanish colonizers in the Philippines… the “Burnay” served as an all weather container of local products for shipment to China and other Asian kingdoms in pre-colonial times. “Burnay” is also used in the fermentation of fish sauce, vinegar, and “Basi,” the Ilocano wine from sugarcane juice.”

TWO2TRAVEL | Ilocos | Vigan | Burnayan
Oh well, at least we took a photo of his hands. :P
TWO2TRAVEL | Ilocos | Vigan | Burnayan
A piece of art and history we’re glad to have come across, and a stupid question we’re thankful to have asked anyway.
Read more about Fidel Go here.

We didn’t know going carless in Ilocos would be this memorable.

  • killerfillers

    same thing happened to us when we went here last January. Sabi sa amin “picture kayo ng picture hindi nyo pa alam pangalan ko”. Buti na lang sinabi ko na Ilocano din ako.:)

    • Two2Travel

      Haha! We were so embarrassed to return and ask more questions when we learned who he was. Pero cool naman siya, parang lolo lang na nakikipag usap sa mga apo. :))