Bittersweet Memories of Maao Sugar Central
It was MassKara weekend in Bacólod City in Negros Occidental and I was about to cover it. However, I prefer to go the other way around than the usual Talisay-Silay-Victorias route which tourists would flock before MassKara higlight. Good thing though, Rain Varela, a great friend of mine was glad to tour me in his hometown, this time down south—at Bago City. The city is the bailiwick of the Araneta clan, one of the most influential clans in the Philippines, and within it lies what was once the pulsating sugar central of Ma-ao.
Ma-ao Sugar Central, or Maao Central for short, is an hour and a half drive from Bacolod City. Located approximately 40 kilometers away from the capital city, 20 kilometers from Bago, Ma-ao Central was once a booming agro-industrial estate was founded by the Araneta clan, notably by Don Juan himself, the general that stood up against the Spanish colonizers in 1898. It is also one of the oldest sugar milling areas in the province of Negros Occidental.
During its heydays, the central was a bustling city on its own right. Chugging old iron dinosaurs come in and out of the mill coming from hectares of sugar plantation, the chimneys vent out steam and smoke, the sweet smell of muscovado fills up the air and the community was as vibrant as a busy street. Maao Central has its own church, own housing for its staff, own market, own bank, park and recreational facilities and all others. Maao’s workforce enjoys privileges such as housing, free scholarship for their children, and several other perks. Some would even say that Maao can even become an independent town on its own.
On one side of the central is one of the ancestral houses of the Araneta Clan, the “Balay Dakû” or “The Big House.” It has been a witness on the history of the family and the sugar central that they manage. The two storey home is made of concrete built with columns and a bit of European accent, enough to be dominant in the Central community, as it faces the Maao Sugar Mill just a few meters away.
The sugar mills rolled on as the seasons of tiempo muerto and milling-planting goes on and on. However, several years ago, Maao Central ceased to operate. Some blamed on the effects of the sugarcane economy as it is not as profitable as it was. However, there is another story that the ones who were supposed to manage the sugar central have shifted its focus into their urban development business, leaving the heirloom on its downward spiral. One of the largest and oldest sugar centrals in Negros Occidental—just died. I was even surprised that Maao Central ceased to function, for I thought it was still operating just like the other sugar centrals in the province.
Today, Maao Central is like a silent barrio in a far flung area, smacked in the middle of the sugarcane plantations. The steel sugar mill and chimneys still stands, yet it is no longer busy and noisy. The old railroad tracks disappeared gradually—perhaps to the looters. The iron dinosaurs were brought to extinction. The community is no longer buzzing with business, only that tranquil provincial calm prevails. Houses have deteriorated over time and elements, and the great Balay Daku stands mute as a reminder of its fortunes and glorious days.
Goats are the new occupants of the central—they’re everywhere! Carabaos roam and people who were either former workers of the central, or new migrants, go on with their everyday life—without the humming noise of the mills and the trains.
Yet hope lingers. Rumors have it that Maao Central will be revived once more. Not as a sugar central that it was, but an ethanol production plant. Also, there have been reports that someone from Manila has already purchased the old sugar central. Hence, people may see the steam from the mill’s skyline rise up again.
Maao Central still stands silent for now. A witness of the way Negros Occidental was, the economy, society and its bittersweet stories and histories.
Getting there and out of Maao Central
Going there is as easy as pie. Take a Roadstar or Jetstar Mini Bus at Bacolod City’s Libertad Market’s South Terminal. These buses have a sign “Maao” on their windshield. It can get crowded especially on weekends and milling seasons. Fare costs more or less P40 (US$1) for an hour and a half trip that would pass by downtown Bago City. Please take note that Barrio Maao is different from Maao Central. Have the conductor remind you to disembark at “Central.”
View Bacolod City to Maao Route in a larger map