Coffee shops, once the social heart of Filipino towns, are now invaded by video screens which silence the conversation.
| by Efren Gerardino
I was born and raised in La Castellana, a coffee producing town in the province of Negros Occidental, in the Philippines. Our town is well known for its special blend. In fact, a string of coffee shops in Bacolod City, the provincial capital, serves coffee grown here.
Nearly half of the residents are coffee drinkers, and there are 42 kapehan (coffee shops) in the town proper. About a third of these are located in the public market and each can accommodate 20 to 50 people at a time. The rest are in the residential areas where each block (about 3 acres) has one or two coffee stalls. Roughly, there is one kapehan for every 100 households.
The coffee shop is an important hometown commons here. People flock to the kapehan from 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM not just to warm their bellies. It is a one-stop shop for news, business and governance.
The kapehan serves as the community information center. Policemen on patrol and Barangay Tanod (village guards) bring in the first news of the day, which is usually about the events of the previous evening. Fish vendors from shoreline towns bring news from their respective places. The same is true of people who sell mountain products.
One easily can obtain information such as who died, who’s sick, who is celebrating a birthday, and other community details. The proliferation of posters and notices shows the effectiveness of the coffee shop when it comes to disseminating information.
The kapehan also is an informal business hub. Many people go there with business in mind. Market information such as product prices, who buys and sells, and even product quality is openly available. One easily can take on the services of plumbers, carpenters, woodcutters and others from among the coffee drinkers. Farm managers go there to negotiate with suppliers of migrant labor or with truckers. Business deals are smoothly consummated over cups of coffee.
The kapehan plays an important role in local governance as well. Our mayor makes the rounds of them at least three times a week. By doing so, he provides his constituents with a natural channel by which to express their complaints and suggestions. He also acquires information related to local governance that could have taken time to reach his office. Another official, who is an old hand in local legislation, told me that he usually tests out his ideas on coffee shop patrons before he reports to the session hall.
One kapehan owner said that he has seen many personal, business and political conflicts resolved. A waitress told of a man who came in weeping. His wife was in the hospital and needed an operation but her blood type was a rare one. Another patron told him that he knew someone with the same blood type. That morning a life was saved.
That’s how important these coffee commons are to my town. But things are changing, and not for the better. Yesterday morning I visited a kapehan in the public market and what I saw and heard is very different from what I have described above.
The coffee shop was full of people, about 40 of them. They all faced in one direction with eyes and ears fixed to the TV set, which was showing an action film. During the entire movie people kept mum except for cheering and jeering. There was no discussion, no exchange of information, no news – no social interaction whatsoever.
I asked the owner how this came about. He said that it was just a case of business survival. The practice started as a gimmick that clicked. The first kapehan to try it was always brimming with customers. Competition dictated that others follow that lead or else lose money. So it came to pass that most of the coffee shops in the public market, especially the bigger ones, are now early morning movie houses, at which a cup of coffee is the ticket of admission.
For now, most of the shops in the residential blocks have remained as they are – though sad to say, the free movie trick already has been copied by a kapehan in our block. It is possible that others will resist this trend, in which case there will be two types of coffee patrons – the moviegoers and the socializers. The first will go to the public market and the others will continue to patronize the residential coffee shops.
The other possibility is that the coffee shops in the residential areas will succumb to the business logic too. Some will convert; others will have to close. If this happens, the kapehan as a social commons will pretty much be gone, like the grass on the town plaza that I wrote about before.
That loss would be grave. People would hear the news from other parts of world before they knew what was happening in their own town. Business opportunities would bypass ordinary folks who would be out of the loop. Local governance would lose its natural sounding board and feedback mechanism.
Generally, interpersonal communication, which is the fabric of our social life, would decline. Whoever thinks business and competition always make the world better, hasn’t looked very hard.