The Crazy Man in the Bichara

August 25, 2011

Naga City  is the  capital of the province of Camarines Sur in the Philippines. To most, this would sound like a line from a boring school geography textbook, but to me it is the floodgate of so many rich memories. When I served in the Peace Corps from 1970 to 1972, this was a place I spent much time. It’s not likely that I will ever forget it.

The word “city” has a certain connotation to Americans that conjures up images  of skyscrapers, museums, subways, and neon lights. This, however, was not the case for most cities in the provinces of the Philippines. The only real reason for its classification as a city was its large concentration of people. No skyscrapers, unless a two-story building or two would qualify. No museums. No subways or neon lights.

It did, though, have its attractions for the volunteers who were living in relatively primitive conditions out in the boondocks. There were, for example, actual restaurants. My usual haunt was the Sampaguita, a simple single room joint next to the Alatco bus station. Aside from the local fare, one could order such exquisite American specialties like Vienna sausage (straight from the can). I became somewhat famous there after my first few visits when I kept ordering fried mosquito for dinner (in the local dialect, chicken was “manuk” and mosquito was “namuk,” a confusion I thankfully straightened out). After washing the meal down with a few San Miguels, the fine local beer,  it was as worthy an establishment as the Four Seasons in our eyes.

There were hotels. True, the star system of ratings wouldn’t apply to them (unless perhaps there could be a One Asteroid level) since there was no room service, air conditioning, TV, furniture other than a bed, or soundproofing. But the price was right, and they made you glad to see the coming of the next morning.

But the best thing about Naga was the Bichara Theater. This was a movie theater in the heart of Naga,  named after the daughter of the owner. Locally produced movies were shown there (the big star at the time was a teen named Nora Anor), but American movies also somehow found their way onto the billing. And the Bichara was one of the few buildings in Naga that was air conditioned.

Most Americans appreciate their air conditioners, I’m sure, but not the  same way we did. Living in the tropics is an adjustment of major proportion. A native New Jerseyan, I was familiar with the reality of “hot and humid” from my twenty-one summers here, but that was no match for the steam bath of this archipelago. The blazing sun alternated with short-lived but heavy rainfalls inevitably followed by steam rising from every surface with the cycle repeating itself throughout the day. Mildew was the norm when it came to towels and clothing. I saved a headline from a local paper bemoaning a “cold spell” with a record low of — gasp! — 64 degrees.

Whenever I had to go to Naga for a meeting with the Provincial school personnel, I would pass by the Bichara to see if anything of interest (other than Flying Kick Killer) was playing. The first movie that attracted my attention was Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run. I was not a big movie goer back then, but I was aware that Woody was a funny guy and I had some time to kill before my meeting, so I paid my two pesos and went in.

The theater was empty, or more precisely, the seats were empty. There were a few clusters of people on the floor in the aisles and in the orchestra area under the screen. I settled in midway down the rows and smack in the middle seat. While waiting for the film to start, I took a closer look around. It became clear that the locals that had come were not here for the movie but rather for the luxury of the cool theater air. The families present were either lying down in preparation for a climate-controled snooze or setting up for a comfortable meal.

The already dim theater grew dark, and on the screen appeared the majestically waving Philippine flag. The national anthem blared from the sound system, and all in attendance rose, some singing along, “Bayang magiliw, perlas ng Silanganan, alang ng puso, sa dibdib mo’y buhay…” I realized this was a required occurrence at all theaters; annoying, perhaps, but I surely learned the anthem. Then, as the opening credits ran, the Filipinos resumed their napping or eating.

Now, I must tell you that Woody Allen is one of those comedic actors whose mere presence, even without doing anything,  makes me chuckle, so I was predisposed to react as I did. Within the first five minutes, I was howling, bent over and in tears. Heads began to pop up, at first anxiously looking to see if there was a crazy man with them in the center of the Bichara Theater. Soon those heads began to swivel, first from me to the screen after realizing that this strange American in their midst was actually laughing at the movie, and then, after several mystified minutes of confused viewing, from me to each other with the unmistakable look, even in the muted movie light, of “What the heck does he find so funny about this incomprehensible babble?!” Clearly, Woody’s humor was lost in cultural translation. They eventually  blocked out my further assorted snickers, hoots, and guffaws and went back to their own pursuits, no doubt with the added benefit of having a story to tell their neighbors when they arrived back home. This exact scenario was repeated a year later when Woody’s Bananas hit the Bichara, although there was somewhat less attention paid to me. I guess some of them were there the last time or else had heard of the oddball foreigner in the middle seat.

To this day, if I am up late flipping through the cable movie channels and come upon Take the Money and Run or Bananas, my thoughts jump back four decades to those delightfully cool afternoons of entertainment fueled by Woody as well as those theatergoers, and I watch again. I chuckle anew, but now not only about the antics on the screen, but because of my memories of those unforgettable tropical matinees as the crazy man in the center seat at the Bichara.



  1. Hello, I really enjoyed reading your post. I’m based here in Naga City (though I myself was from Manila before I settled here during the mid 90s), and your story gave me a good, funny insight at how Naga from way back 70s. I’m glad you had such a memorable experience then. Naga City nowadays looks a lot different from the time you were here. There remains one local Bichara cinema remaining (first time I came here, there were like more than a dozen movie houses), since people prefer watching in the big malls (yes, we have a huge two-story mall here now! lol.) /myke

    • Thanks. What is it you do in Naga City? I’d be interested in knowing more about what it is like there now.

      • Hi, thanks for the quick reply.

        A bit of my self… My father started out with a business venture here, and later asked me to manage it since he’s too busy in Manila. Since I enjoyed it alot, I decided to stay here even after we closed the business (it’s a communications service center, more like those two-way walkie talkie radios that were very common before mobile phones came into existence and wipe the radios into extinction). I’m into I.T., and work as a programmer, technician, instructor, trainer and online virtual worker.

        Naga City nowadays: Im sure you’re familiar with the SM malls, one of the biggest mall branches here in the Philippines. Naga City now has one SM mall, the only one in the Bicol Region. Since it has the best cinemas (4 cinemas to choose from), the movie chains owned by Bichara slowly closed down until to this day, only one remains. I could still remember being friends with one of the Bichara siblings, and we would install and maintain their two-way radio communications in all their movie houses all over Camarines Sur.

        Naga City today looks more modern than before, although there are still a lot of things that should look familiar, like the small street along the main “centro”. I think during your time, the provincial capitol lies in the very centro of Naga, but now it’s not anymore. There are 4 plazas, Plaza Rizal, the one that’s directly in front of the place where the provincial capitol used to lie, the Plaza Quezon, which is beside Plaza Rizal, Plaza Quince Martires, and the other one in front of the market.

        Outside centro lies the Central Business District 2 (CBD2), where I believed during your time is all but vast stretch of lands. Even the diversion road, and along the railway lines, all of these are now covered with lines of buildings, houses, warehouses. I’ll try to grab some picture and maybe you’ll try to recall these places…

        By the way, do you have some pictures of Naga City during your time? When was the last time you were here?

        Thank you.


      • Myke,

        I’ll have to check for pictures of Naga City. There are some other photos in my other posts (category Peace Corps). I haven’t been there since my Peace Corps days (I left in 1972). Is the Sampaguita Restaurant still there (it was next to the Alatco bus station)? How about the University of Nueva Caceres? I have many fond memories of not only Naga City but the Philippines.


  2. Great post 😉

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