Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A few months ago, Four Strings, a ukelele specialty shop, put a microphone on the street out front. The spoken-word artist Ninno Rodriguez stepped up. “Hey,” he said. “I love Cubao Expo. This is my life. Thank you for listening to me.” He then proceeded to put the microphone away and rap right off the curb. A crowd of 80 or so gathered around him to listen to what he was saying. “It was a spoken-word throwdown,” says Kayo Cosio, who owns Kendo Creative across the street. He smiles. “This is the kind of place where that will happen.”
When you ask people about Cubao Expo, they would probably say that it was once Marikina Shoe Expo, that it eventually became a community — a haven for the fringe and the offbeat, a museum of subcultures. “Dati, ito yung parang haven ng mga graffiti artist,” says Dino Sarmiento, co-owner of the clothing shop THE. “So lahat ng taong eccentric, or lahat na lang ng ka-weirdo-han ng tao, nandito dati.”
The longer the stories go on, however, the more they diverge. Almost every single person you’ll find in Cubao Expo — also known as Cubao X — has a personal history with it, a different path or passion that landed them on that small curved compound in Brgy. Socorro in Quezon City. “Yung mga college kids dati, tatambay dito after school nila,” Sarmiento says. “Hanggang grumaduate na sila, magwo-work na sila, so serious na sila sa business nila. Another generation na yung pupunta dito.”
And as these students grew up, so did Cubao Expo, in some way. Gone are the alternative lifestyle shops that used to define the area’s character — from Mogwai Cinematheque, to the treasure trove Vintage Pop, to the distinct alien goop that covered the facade of Sputnik Comics, to the rowdy nightlife purveyor Today x Future, which still exists but has moved a few blocks away from Cubao Expo. In their place are cafes, buzzy restaurants, and even a tea shop that stands out with its pinkness, opened just this week. “There is a concerted effort by the ownership of Cubao Expo to make sure that there’s variation,” says Cosio, who admires that the Expo is able to “reinvent itself over and over.” “You don’t see closed doors in Cubao Expo,” he adds. “They’re either renovating, or they’re open.”
Below is a list of shops that make up Cubao Expo’s new microcosm of character.
With handwritten signboards, vintage rock ‘n’ roll decor, and old-school barber’s chairs, Talas Manileño feels both like a classic gentleman’s club and your neighborhood barbero, which, come to think of it, aren’t quite that different. The shop offers a variety of precise but creative haircuts (like the signature pompadour), shaving, different pomades, and even coffee or beer. The requisite barbershop talk and camaraderie come free. “Old-school tradition talaga yun, eh,” says one of its co-owners, the actor Jericho Rosales. “So you throw in a beer, relax. This is your ‘me’ time. Chill ka lang. If you want to think, grab a coffee.”
For Rosales, to open it in Cubao Expo was a no-brainer. “I’m a barbershop fan, and I’ve been actually waiting for years to find that right location,” he says. “I wanted a barbershop that has that surfing and motorcycle vibe, with music. And then a spot opened here sa Cubao Expo.” He believes that Talas Manileño is right at home in the compound. “It’s just alive,” he explains. “This is the perfect place for Talas Manileño. You get the music crowd, the skate crowd, the biker crowd. Dito lahat sila.” He adds: “It’s tulog in the morning, but in the evening buhay siya. I like it. I like the people here, I love the place. It’s a very small community na creative, artsy, filled with life.”
Most collections of LPs have to start somewhere, and for most citizens of Metro Manila, it can be argued that Cubao Expo is their gateway, especially with the Vinyl Dump, famously featured in Marie Jamora’s “Ang Nawawala." The owners of Gold Digger, a newer record store across the street, were well aware of this. “We decided to open a different kind,” says Allan Bautista, one of the owners.
To set itself apart, Gold Digger stocks professional DJ equipment, shoes, clothing, and other knick-knacks and collectibles, along with a wider range of genres in its vinyl selection. According to Bautista, it’s all in an effort to encourage people to go back to an old-school lifestyle; there’s even a bar conveniently located out front. Gold Digger hasn’t been in Cubao Expo that long, but Bautista has no doubt that it’ll stay. “I think Cubao is changing,” he says. “We just decided to put [the store] here because we know that in the future, Cubao Expo will be different.” And of course, who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
If stores themselves made up the Cubao Expo community instead of people — and sometimes, it definitely seems that way — then Geo Shop would be among the older and the wise. The shop, which specializes in organic, eco-friendly, and locally sourced products, has been around the compound for more than 15 years. Outside, it has a definite corner-store feel to it, with its curved white door and products lined up along the windows, obscuring the view inside and therefore inviting the curious to come in and take a look.
Ofelia Asuncion, along with her daughter, owns and operates Geo Shop. “Kasi yung boss ko dati, into ganitong business,” she explains. “Help with restaurants, tapos mga helping with the lifestyle. Namana ko lang.” Despite this, it’s easy to see that she enjoys what she does, and the shop continues to flourish, catering to both regulars and people who are just now discovering it. Its choice products, most of which come directly from farmers and small homegrown companies, include virgin coconut oil, its own lemongrass concentrate, rice, tofu chips and other health food, natural bath and body products like gugo, and alternative ingredients such as salts, oils, and sugar.
The owners of THE Clothing didn’t have to think twice before opening their shop in Cubao. “Before pa kami nagkaroon ng store, parang tambay na kami sa Cubao X,” says Auggie Fontanilla. “As in gutter punks lang kami, nag-iinuman.” The group, rounded out by Jerick Robleza, was already selling shirts in the area, through events and even ad lib meet-ups, in the late 2000s. “Dito na talaga kami lumaki ever since,” adds Dino Sarmiento.
It’s fitting, then, that THE looks to be very reminiscent of the street culture that Fontanilla and Sarmiento had been a part of, but in a way that’s more put-together. Its walls are made up of un-laminated wood planks with a thin layer of white paint, a neon sign hangs in the window, and off to one side is a park bench, where the THE gang can often be found sitting and talking. Skate and music videos are in constant rotation on the TV. The products themselves, ranging from shirts to hoodies, display this combination of minimalism and attitude — either black or white, with tasteful photographs and various iterations of the THE logo. “We’re not trying to fit in,” Fontanilla says of whether the store embodies the Cubao Expo identity. “We’re just here to share the love, the passion, the culture that we deliver sa tao. Lahat naman magfi-fit in dito.”
Kendo Creative used to be the surfwear shop Coast Thru Life, which in turn used to be the furniture and lifestyle store Heima. The most obvious marker of this is the small collection of stickers, each with its own story, on the wall beside the front door.
It’s hard to pin down what Kendo Creative really is. Kayo Cosio, one of its owners, calls it a postmodern space, a multidisciplinary studio. It stocks postcards, art, and apparel from Coast Thru Life, among others. It holds workshops, from stamp making to cactus styling. There's cold brew and specialty coffee — only served black, no sugar, no milk — made the way the staff believes coffee is supposed to taste. It even recently held a “Thrilla in Manila” screening, projecting the iconic fight on one of its plain white walls.
It’s also a coworking space — with the noted exception that it doesn’t have Internet service. Cosio, who once operated a coworking space in EDSA BDG, laments that having to pay for the Internet makes coworking expensive, so for Kendo, he decided to do away with it. “Instead the focus is just on having great people in the space and getting productivity,” he says. People can come in, sit down, and work or hang out for hours without judgment — aptly exemplifying another facet to Cubao Expo. “We just wanted a place where we can do all this stuff,” he adds, “and not be limited by saying that, ‘Oh, it’s an art store.’ You can’t just sit around in an art store and do nothing. Here at Kendo, it’s very different. Like at night, it’s a great place to work, and you just look outside the window and see all the gulo.”