“Pandemic. We look at it from a very medical and economic point of view,” said Gin Kai Chan, a film producer speaking at a panel of Southeast Asian creatives. “We should also look at it from an emotional point of view. Depression, loneliness, worries, feelings of being upset, marriages breaking apart. The pandemic has created a lot of emotional distraction in society. This is where the creatives can play a role.” Chan, who produced films like “Eerie,” was speaking at a rare gathering titled “Umpukan sa Nayon: Nayong Pilipino Foundation as a Creative Hub.”
Streamed live via Zoom and through the digital platforms of the Nayong Pilipino Foundation (NPF) and the Creative Content Creators Association of the Philippines (SIKAP), the panel discussion had an important topic: the ambition to develop the 9.5-hectare property in Parañaque into a creative hub.
Not to be confused with the now-defunct Nayong Pilipino in Pasay — the cultural theme park of the ‘70s to ‘90s, which housed compact versions of the Mayon Volcano, Chocolate Hills and other tourist destinations — the new Nayong Pilipino, this time located in Entertainment City, New Seaside Road in Parañaque, is an attempt to encourage “the rediscovery of our Filipino roots.”
To recall, the old theme park, designed by National Artist Ildefonso P. Santos, was built to "represent the Philippines through architectural and cultural displays, an aviary, aquarium, fishing lagoon, and a diverse plant collection.” Despite its success, it closed in 2002 to make way for a critical expansion of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. There were several attempts to reopen but they never really took off.
The park briefly opened in 2004, and then closed again, and then another theme park was opened at the Clark Freeport Zone in Pampanga. It is unclear when it closed again.
For its revival, Nayong Pilipino aims to be more than just a theme park. It aspires to be a creative hub: a space for “training resources, research resources, culture technology support, incubation, creative entrepreneurship, opportunities for linkages with investors and partners.” On its official website, the NPF declares that it “has the potential to be an aggregator and thus provide a place for nurturing Filipino creatives.” It is currently working to implement its three-year phased development, with a soft opening for an interim park to commence in the second quarter of 2022.
But in the meantime, it is being touted as a “healing space.” Following the announcement of Republic Act 11469 Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, the NPF was ordered to temporarily “suspend the implementation of the project” and “direct all efforts in averting the public health and economic crisis brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.” The property was instead delegated as a site for new quarantine facilities in Metro Manila — putting the NPF’s plans for a creative hub temporarily on hold.
In a lengthy statement in September 2020, the NPF said: “When this is all over, we can look forward to a Nayong Pilipino as we had envisioned it: a world-class tourism hub and a platform for reimagining the nation.” How does the creative hub figure in this vision, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic?
The creative class: a driving force of the economy
One of the works mentioned during the panel discussion was American sociologist Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life.” In his work, he describes the creative class as a “key driving force” for economic development, particularly of post-industrial cities in the United States.
According to Jasni Zain, a Malaysian policy advocate passionate about building the digital creative content industry in emerging markets, the “geographical proximity and stacking of hubs, [with] creatives working and feeding off each other works [is crucial] in creating and co-creating [society].” This model of having a physical hub, which was inspired by Florida’s work, became the basis for the animation hub founded in 2010 in Malaysia: the Malaysia Animation Creative Content Centre (MAC3), now called Kre8tif! Inc., a content accelerator. It leverages on the idea that creating digital content, especially those that can be marketed globally, shouldn’t be a solitary activity — it requires access to world-class creative technology and a supportive business community.
Last year, Malaysian publication The Malaysian Reserve cited figures from the Department of Statistics in Malaysia that pegged the country’s exports of creative goods in 2019 — just before the pandemic — at RM220 million, over ₱2 billion when converted. Today, while the pandemic has affected the industry, it still contributes approximately 2% to Malaysia’s GDP. It also employs around one million people.
“At the end of the day, having a commercial angle, something that would drive private money and investment in… gives you value,” Zain said. “In Malaysia, we strive hard to [follow] the Korean [creative industry] model, with heavy public sector investment [and] involvement from creators. But the bottom line is everyone has to be commercially ready.”
“I think that’s probably what you can do as well in your space,” he said about the planned creative hub. “While it’s a great effort [to make it heritage-driven], [making it] commercially driven is one of the most effective uses of what you have right now.”
The Philippine government has ambitious goals for the country’s creative industry. In 2019, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) laid out a long-term plan to make the country the leading creative economy in ASEAN by 2030.
It goes without saying that the NPF’s plan to build a creative hub aligns with this ambitious target. NPF Executive Director Kay Malilong-Isberto reiterates, “Nayong Pilipino is a government corporation. It has a duty to support creatives and cultural workers.”
And during this time of physical distancing, particularly where other previously profitable sectors like tourism have begun to suffer, governments can leverage cultural export.
Arts in an era of physical distancing
But how can we empower creatives in a singular physical hub in an era of social distancing, where physical connection is heavily restricted?
Zain suggests exploring a hybrid format, with both physical and virtual aspects to unify creatives.
In this regard, the NPF seems to be on the right track. Umpukan sa Nayon itself, for example, which was designed as a series of multi-sectoral consultations for the development of programs, is ubiquitous on digital formats. Conversations are accessible via Facebook, YouTube, and even Spotify, riding the wave of accelerated digital transformation.
Digital transformation also seems to be the silver lining in this pandemic, even for the creative industry. “There’s a strange [occurrence in this pandemic],” Zain said. “We’re getting increased reach.”
Circling back to Gin Kai Chan’s proposition to view the pandemic via an emotional lens, the arts seems to enjoy a newfound appreciation at this time of struggle.
Stuck at home, isolated from family and friends, people have been comforted by stories — exported, no less, in creative formats. Right now, he observed, the message of these stories is: “Across the world, we are all going through the same experience.”
In a similar vein, a creative hub brings together people from all walks of life to speak about an experience from different perspectives. “In art and other forms of cultural expression, disagreement is accepted and embraced as an essential ingredient,” wrote Olafur Eliasson in “Why art has the power to change the world” for the World Economic Forum. “In this sense, the community created by arts and culture is potentially a great source of inspiration for politicians and activists who work to transcend the polarising populism and stigmatization of other people, positions, and worldviews that is sadly so endemic in public discourse today.”
There is no question that the pandemic has devastated the world. In the near future, more lives will be lost, and more societies will be thrown into financial hardship. But when the dust finally settles, we can depend on the arts to connect us all again. Art unifies societies — that value is intangible.