Postal Code 5315, Philippines

We were back in Culion, Palawan for a brief visit for two main reasons. The Teen was planning to write a short article on the Culion Sanitarium or former leprosarium; it still remains home to a few patients with Hansen’s disease (leprosy), a couple of whom just recently admitted with the disease. The hospital is also a center for continuing treatment of other survivors of the disease who live in the town of Culion. She was conducting her interviews for her article and as if the serendipity gods were shining upon her, she also managed to capture over a dozen unplanned portraits of patients who had been treated for the disease. Without the benefit of studio lighting, nor much set up time at all, she took an amazing number of incredibly powerful photos in natural light that we hope she will use wisely in future. Many, many thanks to the kind folks of Culion who generously granted her permission for the photographs, and who shared their stories with her. She has since printed an 8×10 copy for each subject and will be sending them back to the island soon as a thank you…

The second reason we were in Culion was at the invitation of the local Loyola college, for the Teen to speak to college freshmen about her schooling, travel experiences and a bit about life abroad since so many of these students think being an OFW is the answer to all their problems. This was in tandem with a session I was giving on entrepreneurship and setting up small businesses for the same batch of students. During a lull in a very busy schedule, Mrs. MM, the Teen and I managed to stroll up from the Sanitarium towards the hills and see some of the older buildings that date back nearly 100 years or more. We were amazed to find this post office, apparently in the old municipal hall. It looked like it had been there for decades…

The spacious room within had sorting cubicles for the mail, which I imagine was mostly incoming rather than outgoing. At one point, mail was an incredibly sensitive matter on the island, as ignorance or lack of knowledge in the early 1900’s meant that mail coming from the island could possibly be armed with leprosy germs that would infect perfectly healthy people on the “mainland”… of course, today we know better. This was the same logic for having separate currency/bills/coins on the island earlier in its history. But a couple of things about the post office forced one to take pause — a stamped iron ceiling, reminiscent of European or North American interiors of roughly 100 years ago; a formidable set of bars to separate the inside from the outside of the post office; a thick iron “gate” which was opened during office hours and through which the mail was delivered or collected… Definitely a nostalgic blast from the past.

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16 Responses

  1. There was this heroic character in James Michener’s Hawaii who so dreaded leprosy which at the time was believed to mainly afflict Chinese immigrants that every evening throughout her whole life, before retiring to bed, she would scan her body for tell-tale signs of the disease. She was so paranoid of being taken away to exile in Molokai which was no different from being marked for isolation in Culion.

  2. Footloose, funny you should mention that; at the museum in Culion, there is a room reserved for the treatment of children of lepers–a topic which intrigued the Teen. When we talked to folks who remembered the 1940’s-1960’s on the island, the kids distinctly recall the weekly full body inspections by doctors who checked one’s every nook and cranny for signs that they might have the disease. Apparently, each kid was given one or two lemon drops at the conclusion of the weekly inspection, so that many actually looked forward to the event, if only for the sweet treat that followed.

  3. I’ve read that book 2x–a favorite, and the part about those afflicted i remember the most. also the rise of the Japanese and Chinese migrants among the ranks in the island.

    MM, there is also a Sanitarium in Santa Barbara, Iloilo, still with a few patients and their family.

  4. funny that my friend just mentioned visiting the culion sanitarium and the misconceptions about leprosy. didnt know they had separate bills/coins for the island. mm could you recommend a school/organization that conducts entrepreneurship classes? i am starting a business with some friends and could use a refresher course. DOT offers classes for SMEs at the PTTC in roxas boulevard at affordable prices but its just too far from where i live.

  5. I remember those body inspection. We were marched in a single line from school to Dr. Lara’s examination room. Climb up a revolving examination table, every skin rash inspected and poked under a magnifying glass, told to count 1 every time I feel the light touch of paper or a pin and getting candy before alighting from the table. All part of growing up in Culion. It was a great place for a kid to grow up. Peaceful, clean, safe, excellent school, big outdoor to play and sea to swim. Happy times!

    Life there was good!

  6. We visited the island during our Culion/Coron 2010 trip. Among the highlights of our trip were the visit to the sanitarium and nearby beautiful church with the tower that offers panoramic view of the island. The visit was especially nostalgic to my husband because his father and uncle were among those dedicated doctors who treated the lepers in the 40’s-50’s. The township would not want to accept our donation in honor of both men but of course, we insisted as the town badly needed infusion of funds. MM, it’s heartening to know that you’re somehow helping the town. I also met a young man who’s working on a Culion documentary film and tried to connect him with a film student at NYU but the project fell through as we never heard from him again. Btw, call it serependity, on our way back to Coron from a day-long Culion visit, we were given a “show” by hundreds of dilis-like fishes jumping in front of our banca…….same experience that you had, MM. Those are fond memories that we cannot forget…..thanks MM.

  7. Well done Teen for choosing to write about this place. I heard about it from my cousin’s girlfriend back during my college days. Amazed din ako noon na meron silang sariling pera and how the community evolved. Frankly, I am quite interested on the Teen’s reflection . Gannon pa man, I remembered she cooked this viand made of pork with beans with soy sauce in it .Masarap sya , Di naman sya paksiw o adobo tawag nya Lang dito ay “lutong Cullionnin” I wonder if you have tasted it there? Or probably someone can share this recipe?

  8. I hope the Teen can share her writings about this too. It’s a very interesting topic, one that I haven’t heard about before. I didn’t realize that Palawan had that history.

  9. It’s heartwarming to know about your family’s efforts to help the people of Culion, and kudos to the Teen for choosing to document a subject that is a neglected and not exactly a “popular” one. I spent a few weeks in Culion more than 15 years ago for a project and was able to visit the hospital and interact with previous patients and their families. I remember the first time I saw a group of former patients, and the mix of fascination, fear, and admittedly repulsion that I felt when I had to shake their “hands” most of which had missing fingers or were just stumps. I forced myself to overcome what society had ingrained so deeply into my consciousness or more accurately, subconsciousness about regarding “different” people differently. It was an awakening for me, and along the course of short interaction with this community, I began to see them in a new way as I realised that their being “different” only exists in our minds. I admire the Teen’s maturity to tackle this subject — it would be nice to know what her reflections are.

  10. I hope you could post more photos (and perhaps her article?) the Teen took of the Culion leper colony, that is, if it’s not a problem. An uncle of mine worked there as a doctor forty-odd years ago before migrating to the US and I would like to send him this link, as he never really talked about whatever experiences he had there.

  11. Jade186 et al, the Teen still doing more research so it will be a while before she finishes her article and the photos are being used for another purpose so again it will be a while before I can get second dibs on them. :)

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