Tang Ben as he tells his story of how he started as a Calesa maker

Motor vehicles are a fast and efficient way mode of transport. Back in the old days, a Calesa, or horse-drawn carriage, was the “King of the road”.

Calesa tour in the City of San Fernando’s heritage sites

The Calesa was introduced by the Spaniards to the country in the 18th century. It was originally reserved for the nobles and high-ranking civic officials during that time. Nowadays, it is still being used in the old centers of Manila like Intramuros, Divisoria and Binondo. It is also being used in mainly tourist areas in Ilocos and Pampanga, especially in the City of San Fernando where one man is trying to preserve the art and heritage of the humble calesa.

Benjamin Lingad, is a 78-year old, third generation, calesa-maker from Brgy. San Jose. The business was started by his grandfather in the early 1900s through making garetas, a carabao-pulled vehicle that delivers supplies for the Pampanga Sugar Development Company (PASUDECO). Their garetas made the transportation of sugar canes to the refinery easier and faster. The Lingad Calesa shop or karoserya has been producing calesas and carruajes with world-renowned quality and craftsmanship for three generations already.

Tang Ben demonstrates how he makes a part of Calesa

Tang Ben, as what the locals call him, started making calesas in 1959 when he was 19 years old.

“Kasalukuyan kasi noon na nagbu-boom ang kalesa kaya ganoon nalang din ako na-engganyo. Hindi ko na tinuloy ‘yung pag-aaral ko kasi kumikita na rin naman kami dito at simula noon tumulong nalang ako dito.” (Back then, calesas were very much in demand so I got into the craft of making it. I stopped my schooling because we were already earning enough so I just helped out with the family.)

During its heyday, the Calesa industry was booming that they had to work overtime just to finish dozens of orders at a time. One calesa can take one month to make.

Tang Ben’s sample materials and a calesa he’s repairing.

At a very young age, Tang Ben chose to continue his family’s calesa-making legacy since he’s the only one who got interested in it. “Kaya ako nalang nag-asikaso kasi sayang naman kung walang maiiwan at magmamana nito.” (I’m the one handling [it] because it would be a waste if I leave without anyone to inherit it.) But soon, modernization came and with it the rise of electric vehicles. The industry took a hit and soon, demands became fewer and slower.

Admittedly, when the industry was facing uncertainties, he did not pass onto his children the knowledge and skills to continue the craft. Instead, he sent his children to study in Manila because he believed it would be best for their future. He became the last calesa maker of his generation.

“Di ko na sila tinuruan, kasi kung tuturuan ko pa sila dito, pare-parehas kaming mawawalan ng trabaho… Ngayon, wala nakaming pinoproblema (ng misis ko) kasi napagpatapos na namin ‘yung mga anak namin (architect and computer science graduates). Pero hangga’t kaya ko pang gumawa (ng kalesa), gagawa pa rin ako.” (I didn’t teach them because if I did, we would all lose our jobs… Right now, [my wife and I], we have nothing to worry about anymore because our kids have already finished their studies (architect and computer science graduates). But, as long as, I am able to [make a calesa], I will keep creating [them].)

Tang Ben hopes that the humble calesa will continue to fill the streets of the city for the future generations to come. “Ang gusto ko sana, hindi mamatay ang calesa [industry]. Gusto ko kahit konti nalang sila, hindi sila mawala. Kasi, ang calesa [ay] isa sa istorya ng San Fernando.” (What I want is for the calesa [industry] to survive. Even if there’s only a few, I don’t want them [calesa] to be gone. Calesa is part of the story of the City of San Fernando.)

Today, Tang Ben still continues to make and repair calesas and carruajes despite of his old age. And as part of the city’s heritage, he accommodates tourist guests to his workspace, which showcases his crafts and tells his story.

Tang Ben poses beside the calesa he’s repairing

The City of San Fernando holds an annual Calesa festival where calesas are dressed in colorful costumes to raise awareness of the calesa industry and showcase their history and contribution to the local culture and city’s heritage. Recently, Tang Ben was recognized as the Outstanding Fernandino in Traditional Crafts by the municipality for his service and passion in making calesas for 60 years.