Cebu’s Yap-Sandiego home a favorite of foreign tourists 2
Facade of the Yap-Sandiego Ancestral House in Parian, Cebu City.

Visiting this Cebu cultural jewel is like time-traveling to circa 1700 Philippines

Originally owned by Chinese merchants, it was only declared as a National cultural property by the National Museum in 2020
Clint Holton Potestas | Dec 17 2022

The Yap-Sandiego Ancestral House has through the years become a landmark in the historic district of Parian. Compared to other heritage houses in Cebu City, it is much smaller in size, and simpler for a structure that was once witness to trade and commerce activities, and political events, of the Filipino-Chinese residents in the area. 

Originally owned by Chinese merchants Juan Yap and Maria Florido, the house might have been completed sometime between 1675 and 1700. It was built across the former St. John the Baptist Parish, an indication that the owners were people of privilege, able to erect a building in the central district as stakeholders of the religious organization. 

Val Sandiego, current owner and caretaker of the house, with his wife Ofelia.
Val Sandiego, current owner and caretaker of the house, with his wife Ofelia. Photo courtesy of Val Sandiego

The eldest of three Yap children, also named Maria, married Mariano Sandiego from Obando, Bulacan. Mariano was then only traveling to Cebu to accompany a priest assigned in Parian but would meet Maria in Parian. The two settled in the Yap residence after their wedding up to when he became the area’s cabeza de barangay or district head.

“Since then, the house had become busy with activities,” Val Sandiego tells ANCX. Val is Mariano’s great grandson who is the property’s current owner and caretaker. “For me, this follows the evolution of a Filipino ancestral house that came from ‘bahay na bato’ and ‘bahay kubo.’ So it’s shorter and homey than colonial houses.”

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The exposed ceiling of the house showcases its original red tile roofing or tisa built between 1675 and 1700. Photo courtesy of Val Sandiego.

But the structure is still two levels. The ground floor is now a lounge area where both antique Catholic and secular objects are displayed. It also has bricked coral stone walls which bear the weight of the wooden structure of the upper floor, supported by beams made of hewn tree trunks.

On the way to the second floor area, visitors will begin to notice the beautiful tiled roof or tisa sloping in four directions, which also strategically hover above the four main halls. The foyer welcomes guests after ascending on the wooden staircase decorated with guardian angels. There is also a parlor which offers a full view of the Jardin de Rafael.

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Sandiego’s Jardin de Rafael is now a venue for social functions. Photo courtesy of Val Sandiego

Adjacent is the comedor or dining room decorated with crocheted table runners and curtains while the bedroom still has the old wooden canopy bed with glossy rails and carved finials, footboard, and bed posts. As in many local homes, Christian details such as the altar of the Immaculate Conception of Mary share the same prominence as Chinese trinkets like an abacus and mahjong tiles. 

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Archbishop of Cebu Jose Palma pays the ancestral house a visit. Photo courtesy of Val Sandiego

The house is featured in Ronald G. Knapp’s book “Chinese Houses of Southeast Asia: the Eclectic Architecture of Sojourners and Settlers” (2010) which means, as per the foreword of Wang Gungwu, chair of East Asian Institute at the University of Singapore, the Yap-Sandiego mansion is “some of the finest and best preserved or restored in Southeast Asia.” It was only in 2020 that the National Museum of the Philippines declared it as an “important cultural property.”

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The bedroom. Photo courtesy of Damn Good Travels on Facebook

According to PG Guba, a registered tour guide, international clients often seek out a special visit to the house. “The fact that different generations have preserved and conserved it and that it is still standing now amaze them,” Guba shares. “Its collection represents different eras in the Philippines and how Filipinos lived before. They like that side of the tour.”

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The sitting room features Val Sandiego’s religious images. Photo courtesy of Damn Good Travels on Facebook

Val began restoring the house in 2004 and opened it to the public five years later as a museum. He recalls pulling out all the large wood planks and numbering each of them in sequence for reinstallation. He hired carpenters from Tabuelan (far Midwest of Cebu) and would sleep over on site to man the restoration process.

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The main hall is composed of the dining room and the parlor overlooking the garden. Photo courtesy of Damn Good Travels

“It was really a struggle for me. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. If I look back, I won’t do this again in another lifetime. I have to sacrifice time and money. It was not really my intention to open it to the public. But how can I shout out my advocacy in cultural preservation if I just keep it to myself and to my family?” Val says.

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Another part of the old house, which has now been utilized as a lounge area for visitors. Photo courtesy of Damn Good Travels

Apart from running the museum, Val also leads the Car-Car Heritage Conservation Society and founded the Kab-Kaban Festival in his paternal hometown of Car-Car City, south of Cebu. He is also the founder and lead choreographer of Sandiego Dance Studio, famous for its award-winning Sinulog troupe. Last December 15, he received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice from Pope Francis for his contribution in local evangelization. It is the highest award a Pontiff of the Catholic Church gives to lay people and the clergy.

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The Well of St. John the Baptist in the garden. Photo courtesy of Damn Good Travels on Facebook

“Cebu is not just about beaches. It has heritage jewels and treasures that we would like to tell people about,” says Val. “The hardest part there is how to sustain it—how to sustain our love for it.”