The perya: A pillar in town fiesta economics

Marga Deona
Casino, circus, and amusement park all in one: any town's night life for a week or two

MAIN ATTRACTION. At night, the perya's ferris wheel takes center stage. Neither for the priss nor faint of heart. All photos (except as indicated) by Marga Deona

MANILA, Philippines – The town’s festivities have begun once the vinyl banderitas are strung together and hoisted atop wooden poles.

They are left hanging like low-lying rainbows on both sides of the road, an invitation for the traveler to partake in the ongoing revelry.

Somewhere down the road are a few tarpaulin streamers – with a photo of the town’s patron saint to the left, town mayor’s to the right, and the obligatory well-wishes in between.

As one approaches the town center, the banderitas start to form a canopy above passersby and revelers alike. A drum and lyre band may be spotted marching on the streets parading the patron saint’s effigy, causing vehicular traffic to grind to a halt. 

To the stranger, this is an obstruction; to the familiar, this is homecoming.

Welcome to the town fiesta, an annual tribute to the conduit of the Catholic soul’s salvation. Festivities come in the form of suckling pigs amid lavish feasts of plenty, comely barangay beauty contestants at the plaza, and nights out at the much-anticipated perya – a casino, a circus, and an amusement park all in one.

The economics of fanfare

The perya is a constant fixture in town fiestas, a cause of excitement for children and adults alike. The excitement is as palpable as the anticipation of a foreign pop act coming to Manila.

Rural Philippines, in spite of the SM and Jollibee invasion, still has a soft spot for all things familiar yet fleeting, so long as they are loud and bright and gaudy. 

Most of the time, the perya is propped up in an open field close to the town center, or right by the square if the plaza is spacious enough. It’s a nocturnal business, a wilderness of painted plywood and steel at daytime.

But once the sun has set and the stars are out, the perya transforms into an oasis of flickering incandescent and neon.

WAGER WITH THE JOKER. Many flock around this perya gambling table to try their luck. Photo by Chinna Deona

If one were to map out a typical perya, most of its real estate is comprised of tents with wooden tables barricaded by dos por dos poles rendered cheat-proof for the average Juan de la Cruz, who is stocky at 5’5″.

Some tables are painted in a mosaic of colors; others take on an appropriation of a spread-out deck of cards. On these tables, the fate of one’s 5-peso coin depends on a table tennis ball thrown into a steel funnel.

The humble bet can double or triple, but if one dares to place a bet on the Joker, it can go up as much as 15 times. That, or it gets swept by the arbiter as part of war spoils for the lucky, rambunctious bastard pumping one fist in the air, his other hand wielding a bottle of Pale Pilsen.

There are arcade booths where one can pick up a pellet gun and shoot plastic action figures for 20 pesos a cartridge. One G.I. Joe down amounts to a piece of candy; 10 down merits a small pack of Ding-Dongs; 20 down bags a giant Chippy and a couple of fruity lollipops. It is not only the hand-eye coordination at play here; sometimes, the gentle evening breeze could be treacherous to the budding marksman.

Fist-sized vinyl balloons, blown up and tacked up against a corkboard, are ready for bursting to the tune of 4 pesos per dart. To burst one is dumb luck, to burst more is indicative of sharp reflexes.

And, of course, the carnival rides. Peryas are never without them. There are many variations of such, but the holy trinity of the ferris wheel, caterpillar, and horror train provides enough thrill – to the tune of 20 to 30 pesos per head – to set those who dare hop aboard into a cacophony of ear-piercing shrieks and nervous laughter.

Rickety and rusty, the rides are in a state of disrepair, but are generally functional – and quite profitable.

VIEW FROM THE TOP. Riding a ferris wheel gives the rider a good view of the countryside, because for most rural areas, it is the highest point in town

There is a perya monopoly in Floridablanca, Pampanga. Every barangay has its own distinct feast day, allowing one particular perya caravan to go around for months on end.

Apart from the usual food stalls, betting tables, game booths, and carnival rides, the Floridablanca perya boasts of a bazaar and a makeshift video game arcade.

Minsan, ‘pag sinuswerte, umaabot ng hundred thousand ang kita kada gabi,” (On a good night, we rake up to [P100,000] in profit.) discloses Mang Ompong, owner of the perya going around Floridablanca and its neighboring towns, Dinalupihan and Lubao.

Clad in a white crewneck shirt and a fatigue cap that has probably seen the Gulf War years, Mang Ompong walks quietly among the raucous adolescents scampering for a spot away from the moth-swarmed, incandescent bulb-lined entrance to the ferris wheel.

Far from the Western stereotype of the brash, portly circus ringmaster, he is a slightly built gentleman with a warm, welcoming smile.

Mang Ompong is in his late sixties, weathered by long years of toil under the sun as an ex-quarryman. He speaks without guile and is averse to having his photo taken, saying he’s not wearing his Sunday best.

Mang Ompong says his business relies mainly on friendships, with friends ranging from barangay chairpersons to reformed delinquents. The former would give him business during fiestas and holidays; the latter he would take under his wing to perform odd jobs, from ferris wheel operator to betting table arbiter. 

Mang Ompong’s perya has since expanded into bazaars, with a wide offering of goods for barangays a couple of jeepney rides from the town center.

The wares range from clothes to toys, from counterfeit DVDs to bolos fresh from the blacksmith. Fiestas, according to him, boost the local pandayan industry, as Pampagueños prefer to butcher their own swine and poultry for the handaan.

BOLOS FOR SALE. Fiestas also boost the local blacksmithing economy due in part to harvest but mostly because of the mass slaughter of swine and poultry for the feast

He regards his video game arcade as a worthy investment, having purchased overruns from Clark and Subic junk shops.

The games, at 5 pesos per turn, are of 16-bit video quality, with the game’s chiptunes blaring in dissonance against the novelty songs from the perya’s main speakers.

20 year-old games such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat are a hit among today’s kids. The nearest video arcade is located in SM San Fernando, two jeepneys and a bus ride away.

MAKESHIFT VIDEO GAME ARCADE. Never mind if the games are 20 years old, the kids love them just the same

Someday, he says, he will have a mobile internet cafe in his perya. “Para pwede mag-Facebook ‘yung mga tao habang nagpe-perya.” (So that people can access Facebook while in the perya.)  

Modern-day gypsies

Mang Ompong’s caravan is comprised of several families, his included.

His wife runs the perya’main food stall, selling hotdogs, barbecue, and softdrinks, with the help of the wives and daughters of his arbiters and operators.

Because of the perya business, they have turned the road into their home, where they live for approximately 10 months.

During lull days, which he proudly says does not happen too often, they stay in his home barangay of Del Carmen.

Most of the perya crew have been working with Mang Ompong for the past 22 years, dating back to the time when peryas were more spectacle-driven.

SPINNING WHEEL. The ferris wheel, or chubibo, with banderitas twined around its spokes

The peryas of yore were more of a circus than anything else.

There was a time when midgets had to make a spectacle of their diminutive stature by scaring horror train passengers, and people paid to get a woman in a mermaid costume dunked in a gigantic water-filled basin.

Wala, wala na ‘yang mga binabatong sirena at mga unanong nananakot, ‘di na uso sa atin yan,” (We don’t have the mermaids and midgets anymore, that’s no longer the thing for us.) Mang Ompong says.

Exploitative (and we should say politically incorrect) entertainment is not his cup of tea, and he admits that the trend has since died down, citing occupational hazards and in-caravan drama as consequence of such. 

Fleeting festivity, constant customs

The perya thrives – and profits – on festivities that are both fleeting and constant.

Fleeting, because its oasis of neon turns out to be a weeklong mirage of leisure.

It comes and goes like clockwork – the moment the banderitas are taken down and the poon is stripped off its gaudy adornments, the booths, tables, and rides are slammed tight shut.

And as daybreak creeps in, the caravan, teeming with life and gaiety the past few nights, takes off with the entire perya collapsed and loaded into its trucks.

They drive off to the next destination where another town or barangay looks forward to their weeklong circus, casino, and chubibo.

Constant, because the caravan might be gone for a while, but as long as Filipinos continue to celebrate fiestas, the perya will keep coming back – same time, next year, and for the following years to come. –

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Marga Deona

Marga leads digital and product management for Rappler’s multimedia expansion. Sometimes, she writes about the intersection of technology, culture, and business, as well as the occasional sports and music features.