True Progress: Exploring the legacy of Cubao Expo

My mother always said to me just go to Cubao when you get lost and all roads will lead to home. She said this for practical reasons: The city is the center of everything. Every bus terminal, north to south passes by the busy city day in and day out.

Within the smog and hovering buildings in Cubao, there exists a compound that has stood the test of time, leaving a shadow long enough for something to grow: Cubao Expo. Emerging in the ‘60s as a mere hub for shoe stores, it has now evolved into a subculture melting pot that knows no age gap.

It’s a place that unites the unlikely. It gathers everyone and favors no one in particular. Everyone who falls in love with the place’s charm and the people it harbors calls it home. But why is that? Lost archival photos and little to none online literature don’t help. Combining oral accounts and personal photographs from its regulars, we aim to answer the question why X marks home for the people in Cubao Expo.

Expo is now basically an institution and to say that you were there since day one is a feat. —Juan Benjamin Janeo, current owner of Janylin Shoes

Ate Letty, Angel Spirits Antiques
14 years in Cubao Expo

Tells us your history here in Expo.

Noong lumipat kami dito sa Expo noong 2005, parang kami-kami lang [antique sellers.] Dati kasi Marikina Shoe Expo pa ito kaya puro shoes pa ‘yan. Way back 1960s or 1970s, that’s when Cubao Expo started. You look naman at the place, ‘yung structure ng lugar, panahon ng ’60 or ‘70s nandito na sila.  Eh, lumipat na sila sa mga mall ang karamihan at nabakante ‘yung lugar. Kaya kami ang pumalit. Noong kami na ang pumalit, na-maintain naman natin ‘yung dami ng tao.

What are you most proud of during your stay here?

Ako ‘yung unang nagbenta ng vinyl dito sa Expo. Nag-umpisa yan, nakabili ako maramihan dinispose na nung naka-kotse, pinarahan ako kung bumibili daw ba ako ng mga vinyl kasi lilipad na daw sa States. That time, mura pa. Unlike now, libo-libo na ang OPM. Ang OPM ko noon 3 for 100 lang, eh.

Nag-umpisa siya sa mga bata na estudyante, pupunta sila dito namimili na
so meron na silang koleksyon tapos siguro nahikayat silang ibenta rin. Sinubukan nila itaas yung presyo, eh nag-OK, kumagat sila. Ngayon, di na kami makabili sa binibilhan namin ng mura dati.

Juan Benjamin Janeo, current owner of Janylin Shoes
More than 20 years in Cubao Expo

When did Expo’s evolution from shoe stores to a culture hub started?

Around 2010, Expo was reborn. With the development of new tenants and the rise of nostalgia,  it was fittingly brought by Expo’s original stores. The mixture proved to be magical. It attracted different kinds of people including myself. One of the biggest reasons why I started going was the great Mei Bastes’ MEIDAY! MEIDAY! productions that held legendary events.

How does it feel to contribute to the history of the place?

To be completely honest, it makes me feel very proud. Expo is now basically an institution and to say that you were there since day one is a feat.

I think it’s very common din with a lot the spots here, na they do it out of love. —Anjo Joaquin, co-owner of The Four Strings

Drei, Local Musician
More than 10 years in Cubao Expo

What was Expo for you growing up?

First time kong punta wala pang eksena dito. First memory ko ng Expo noong 5-years-old ako. Ayun ‘yung first time kong pumili ng sarili kong sapatos sa mga stores dito. Dati puro shoe store talaga, tapos walang ano, scene, na katulad nung scene ngayon. Dati parang mas pang simpleng tao ‘yung Expo. Ngayon, siguro mas malalim na ‘yung culture ng Expo. Wala pa talaga inuman ‘noon, so parang shoe stores lang talaga siya na pwede kang kumain.

When did the “scene” in Expo start?

Mga early 2000 nagkaroon ng shops at bars. May mga tumatambay nang bands dati nakikita ko nung ‘di pa sila sikat. Expo peeps Ian Tayao, Queso, Greyhoundz, tapos dito palagi ‘yung tambayan nila kasi lokal talaga sila sa eksena ng Cubao. I think doon na nagsimula ang scene.

What makes Expo different from other places?

Ang pinaka-iba sa Expo is merong unspoken requirement ‘pag pumasok ka dito. ‘Di ka nila nire-require na marami kang pera o marami kang dalang alak. Nire-require lang nila rito eh presence mo. The number one requirement nila is, bukod dun sa presence mo, requirement dito maging mabait.

Noong nagsimula ang Expo, magulo ‘yung nangyayari ‘di ba? Minsan ayaw nilang magpatugtog ng metal ngayon sa Expo, not to diss on that scene. May times nga hindi pa siya part ng culture ng mga lokal dito. Hindi nila alam kung pano mag-behave. ‘Di nila kailangang magpaka-feeling rockstar na magbabasag ka ng salamin ng shop para maramdaman mong metal ka. Ayun ‘yung kaibahan sa Expo, na ‘yung scene itself pinupulis nila ‘yung isa’t isa.

When it comes to looking for friends, looking for mentors, ganyan, or looking for a place to chill langwala kang problema ‘pagnandito ka. –Lord Aduca, Resident of The Four Strings

Anjo Joaquin, co-owner of The Four Strings
Five years in Cubao Expo

Do you still see yourself staying here for 10 years?
I just intend to keep going until it’s not worth it anymore, parang I’m doing this mainly out of love. I think it’s very common din with a lot the spots here, na they do it out of love. They’ll keep going because they love what they’re doing, and wherever it takes them, they’ll just go with it. But it’s not necessarily na I want to grow into like the next RJ guitars or what. I want it to be its own thing. As long as there’s something worth going ahead, I’ll just keep going.

What are the people that Cubao Expo welcomes?

You’re from very different walks of life. But at the same time, you’re coming from the same place din. What you’re doing here is what you’re passionate about.  And then you find people who are kind of the same level as you. They’re going through their own journey din, so gets niyo ‘yung napagdadaanan ng isa’t isa. Ang ganda nung parang may sense of camaraderie rin dito.

Lord Aduca, Resident of The Four Strings
Six years in Cubao Expo

What ties the unlikely crowd of Expo together?

Passion din, parang kasi genuine friendship ‘yung nabubuo. You start out as strangers talaga, ‘tas madalas mame-meet mo na sila dito ‘tas kwentuhan na kayo ng kwentuhan up until mapunta na kayo sa part na “ah kase may ganito na ako, may ganyan na ako.”

When it comes to looking for friends, looking for mentors, ganyan, or looking for a place to chill langwala kang problema ‘pag nandito ka. Problema mo na lang kung pa’no ka uuwi kung lasing ka or… cheap food.

What drives people to come back here?

Kaya bumabalik din siguro ‘yung mga tao dito because ‘yung culture iba. Dito ko na-meet lahat ng close friends ko na parang I’d give my life for.

I don’t think they [Cubao Expo admins] want to be part of the gentrification of Araneta or anything. — Josh Soriano, son of the owner of Fred’s/co-partner of Cosmic Gorgons

Josh Soriano, son of the owner of Fred’s/co-partner of Cosmic Gorgons
Six years in Cubao Expo

What do you think about the appeal of Fred’s throughout the years?

Expo is this compound na there’s a street so you could very easily move from one bar to the next, I guess it kinda reminded people of home, I suppose? And then over the years, if you noticed Fred’s, it has so many, like, stickers, posters, pictures, money on the wall.  Nagulat ako na parang over time I started noticing nagkakaroon talaga siya ng character. It was a very organic evolution.

Why do you think Expo retains its charm after so many years?

I don’t think they want to be part of the gentrification of Araneta or anything. Expo being known as a niche for arts, food, etc., that’s one of the biggest reasons. That’s why hindi nakiki-ride ‘yung Expo sa “modernization” of Araneta. Like Mr. Aquino, the admin, really wants this place na for the arts. It’s for people to just find their comfort zones, you know?

Like, kung mahirap ka, mayaman ka, or like sikat ka or hindi, ‘di nagmamatter. You’re just a nobody here [at Cubao Expo]. —Kyle Salindong, work at Somewhere 1109

Kyle Salindong, works at Somewhere 1109
More than 10 years in Cubao Expo

What has changed since the first time you came here?

You can see people from sa side, nasa gutter lang. Kasi ‘yung culture dito, gutter culture talaga, eh. Lalo na mapapansin mo before, ngayon hindi na. Before ‘pag Friday, lahat ng tao bibili ng alak sa Escobar, dati Mogwai, bibili sila ng alak and then ga-gutter. Ngayon, ang dami na ring inuman. ‘Yung mga OG ng Expo, lagi ko nang naririnig ‘to when they come here, sasabihin nila: “Man, sobrang iba na ‘yung vibes nung Expo. It’s not like before na ‘yung vibe na paano siya before.” Pero na-keep pa rin ‘yung tinatangkilik na subculture. Aside from that, hub din kasi ‘to ng mga artists. Like musicians, artists as in like painters, writers—andami. Maganda ‘yung place for creatives ‘cause you tend to a lot of different artists.

What makes the place so inclusive to everyone?

Meron kaming rule: for you to actually know a person and be a friend of that person, meron kayong at least tatlong beses na inuman magkasama. Ang tendency, lasinggero mga tao dito so nakakalimutan ‘yung mga pangalan. Dito sa lugar na ‘to, ‘di nagma-matter ‘yung class. Walang class, kumbaga. Kung mayaman ka, mahirap ka, parehas tayong nasa gutter ngayon. Dito tayo nag-iinuman, so nawawala ‘yung sense of “hindi ko makaka-usap kasi mayaman ‘to” or like you don’t belong in the same class.

What defines the place: the stores or the people?

It’s never been the shops. Marami nang shops dito na nag-come and go, but the people didn’t change. You go here because of the people. The reason why nag-stay ka hanggang madaling araw, like up until 3 a.m. is because of the people. Dito wala ‘yung class, eh. Like, kung mahirap ka, mayaman ka, or like sikat ka or hindi, ‘di nagmamatter. You’re just a nobody here.

Nandito ka sa Expo, ‘tol, wala ka. Wala kang bilang. I mean, ‘di ka importante dito, lahat tayo hindi importante dito.

Cubao Expo is the most unlikely product of the metro’s continuous urbanization. What sprouted, or rather, what remained, was this place that is the opposite of city progress. It united people from different walks of life with conflicting personalities. Artists, local business owners, yuppies, and legends alike.

Here in a place where everybody is a somebody, you’re nobody, which means you can be the most authentic you. It doesn’t necessarily rob a person of individuality. It’s more of shaking off any pretense the urban life leaves on your skin whenever you go up and down the social ladder. A true blue oasis in the fast-paced urban jungle that is Manila.

photography by John Eric Bico
This story was originally published in our 4th Anniversary issue and has been edited for web. The digital copy of Scout’s 32nd issue is accessible here.

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Rogin Losa
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