All flew over the Turtle's Nest: an oral history of the Cebu space where art and freedom thrived

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The closure of Kukuk’s Nest ends a chapter in Cebu’s rich subculture. Photo by ZACH ALDAVE

Almost everyone in Cebu City’s bustling creative scenes has a story to tell about Turtle’s Nest, it seems. Over 26 years, the restaurant, gallery, and artist space has seen generations of artists grow even as urbanization transformed its surroundings.

“It was the last crumbling fort of the weirdos along Gorordo Avenue,” said actress Chai Fonacier, who considered Turtle’s Nest her living room while her acting career was taking off. “A lot of people tried to keep it open for as long as we could.” Turtle’s Nest outlived other beloved venues like Outpost and Handuraw, which were part of the area’s heyday in the 2010s.

On a regular night, you’d find artists, poets, call center agents, students, and an assortment of folks frequenting its tables. It attracted people from nearby universities such as the University of the Philippines Cebu and the University of San Carlos and the IT Park, since Gorordo Avenue was a main road that crossed Mango (now General Maxilom) Avenue. Among its regulars were the visual artist Nunelucio Alvarado, reggae trailblazer Budoy, alternative rock band Urbandub, riot grrrl band Tiger Pussy, and noise rock pioneers Bombo Pluto Ova, and more.

Over 26 years, the restaurant, gallery, and artist space Kukuk's Nest has seen generations of artists grow. Photo by ZACH ALDAVE

“It was the last crumbling fort of the weirdos along Gorordo Avenue,” said actress Chai Fonacier of Kukuk’s Nest. Photo by ZACH ALDAVE

The names Turtle’s Nest and Kukuk’s Nest are used interchangeably, though the latter was originally that of the pension house and inn across the street. When the latter closed, the sign was moved to its present location. The house itself, whose architecture and jalousie windows are straight out of the early nineties, is among the last of its kind amid the low and high-rise buildings on the same block.

Bambi Beltran, the owner of Turtle’s Nest, initially intended for the restaurant to be a library cafe. But given the patronage, they eventually added beer, and the place eventually expanded to involve a gallery. Street artists of Cebu — including those from the Ubec Crew — began to adorn the walls, and events for music and performance would pop up as people gravitated to the place.

“Pag Kukuk’s kasi, you can have a death metal show or a punk hardcore show,” said Jerros Dolino, who has been a member of Urbandub, Sheila and the Insects, and many other bands. “Then the next day, there’s a poetry reading session. The next weekend, it could be a reggae show. Tapos meron art exhibit. It was a space for a lot of artists talaga.” Its welcoming of different genres of music extended as well to what art could take place there.

Ivan Zaldarriaga, son of Kukuk’s owner Bambi Beltran, stands amongst the crowd at one of the many house’s farewell events. Photo by ZACH ALDAVE

On a regular night, you’d find artists, poets, call center agents, students, and an assortment of folks frequenting Kukuk's Nest's tables. In photo: Filmmaker Ron "Gagamboy" Gamboa and rapper/producer Adam Escaño. Photo by ZACH ALDAVE

“Walang pakialaman, may art lang na nangyayari,” recounted Ivan Zaldarriaga, Beltran’s son, street artist, and filmmaker. “Mga tumatambay din doon na non-artists, na-iinfluence din sila. Parang napapalawak ang utak nila na art is not just a painting. Or going out to party, you don’t just watch music or a live band. Maraming alternatives to what you can do.”

One of the most awaited events at Turtle’s Nest was World Monggo Day, the annual year-end party that initially began as a night where each dish had monggo. Each year had a theme, whether it would be a doomsday get-up or a third eye on your forehead.

Other events throughout the year would be Sloppy Firsts, a music event where each band on the lineup had to be playing for the first time. The Really Bad Poets had been holding poetry slams in 2010, long before spoken word poetry rose to mainstream popularity in the Philippines. (After the passing of RBP’s founder and performance artist Alex Uypuanco in 2016, his urn eventually stood amongst the books on the shelves.)

Of course, the list of nights to remember is a long one. But even on regular days, with no scheduled events, things could be happening.

“Because it was 24 hours and Ma’am Bambi herself is an artist, she understood that an artist needed a sounding board or a place to express [themselves],” said Samantha Solidum of media collective Sutukil Sauce, which was conceptualized with Fonacier in Turtle’s Nest itself. “It was one of those rare places where you could just bring what you can to the table, literally, like actual things, or just your ideas. And most probably you could find someone who would latch onto those ideas.” Kurdapya Jones was a persona played by Chai Fonacier that did comedic and incisive documentaries about local issues.

The poster for "Panamilit," a Kukuk's Nest tribute gig. Photo by ZACH ALDAVE

When Turtle’s Nest’s impending closure was announced, Cebu artist groups and collectives like Sutukil Sauce, PAWN Records, Oldfart, Blaxkbox 6000, Ear Infection Records, and more reached out to put up their own tributes. The recent Cebu Art Book Fair gave a grant to a zine titled “Farewell to Kukuk’s” by Fidel Ricafranca, which documented Turtle’s Nest through the words of Erik Tuban of PAWN Press, visual artist Greys Lockheart, and Raymund Fernandez. Its write-up goes: “If CBGB has a documentary, maybe Kukuks[sic] deserves at least a zine before it goes down eternally.”

JB Villagonzalo of Awkward Dancer, Ian Intong of School Girl Classic and The Spirals, and Cebu music scene veteran Dexter Duran at Kukuk's farewell gig last July. Photo by ZACH ALDAVE

The zine “Farewell to Kukuk’s” by Fidel Ricafranca goes: “If CBGB has a documentary, maybe Kukuks[sic] deserves at least a zine before it goes down eternally.” Photo by ZACH ALDAVE

Over the course of August 2023, the front bar closed and the furniture and other objects inside were slowly put up for sale. With Beltran moving away from the bustle of Cebu City, she left selections of her wardrobe — an eclectic selection of vividly-patterned psychedelic prints, bold silhouettes, and quirky heels for people to take with them. Fittingly, Turtle’s Nest slowly settled back down into a house as its doors closed for good.

“The place is notorious enough, and it speaks for itself. Whatever people think of it, okay lang,” said Zaldarriaga. With a storied subcultural history like Turtle’s Nest, no history may ever be definitive. Still, the legacy speaks of itself. People of its community have gone on to cultivate their own movements and practices as other artist-run spaces have popped up around not just the city proper, but also in spaces beyond. While the end of Turtle’s Nest closes a chapter of Cebu’s rich subculture, the momentum that began there is far from slowing down.

ERRATUM: The article previously referred to living visual artist Nunelucio Alvarado as "the late visual artist Nunelucio Alvarado" and mislabeled Adam Escaño as Adam Hechanova. We apologize for these errors.