Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Negros Oriental Arts and Heritage (NOAH)

Divinagracia Yee could have just accepted the fate that befell her family after a series of business setbacks hit the Yee family during the mid-'80s.

Their establishments in Dumaguete City-a restaurant and a department store-were losing money heavily until they had to be closed down.

She and her husband Romulo consoled themselves that the inheritance from their parents would be enough for them to get by and send their children to school.

Several months later, Didi, as Yee is popularly known, was still reeling from their losses and at a loss on what to do. She and her husband were too afraid to go into another business. But fate had other plans.

One day, a man approached her looking for a job. "He was a displaced worker from a local stone craft factory which had also closed shop," recalls Didi adding that many businesses at that time were having a hard time and closures were common. The man had a family to support and was desperate to find a livelihood. "I wanted to help the fellow so I tried looking for what he could do," she relates. The guy gave her a stone tablet he had made with an inscription from the Bible made of India ink. The quote was from 2 Kings 3:17 which states: "For this is what the LORD says: You will see neither wind nor rain, yet this valley will be filled with water, and you, your cattle and your other animals will drink." "It was like God talking to me telling me that it was what I should do. God gifted me with an eye for nice things," says Didi.

The tablet became her inspiration to do more. She began crafting more of those stone tablets with inscriptions of Bible verses. Soon, friends started buying them using them as gifts or decors to their homes or offices.

After a few more experiments using stones of various colors in new designs, the stone craft factory went into full operation in 1989 with only two workers. Still inspired from the verses from the Bible, she named her factory NOAH. The four letters also stand for Negros Oriental Arts and Heritage.

That year was also the time when the Department of Trade and Industry and the Negros Oriental Centennial Commission were aggressively promoting handicrafts and other locally made products. Thus, Didi was able to get as much assistance from the two government agencies. From stone tablets, the factory began producing other stone craft items like jewelry boxes, costume jewelry, wall decoration, coasters, mirror frames and picture frames, paper weights, and beautiful chests and furniture in-laid with stone.

Along with new stone craft items, her designs also became more elaborate. Thus, one stone craft takes a longer time to finish. Various precious stones are also used in each stone craft depending on the design and color. Jade is used for color green, a red coral for red and a blue coral for blue. In one wall panel, stones of various colors are utilized. Paint enhances a stone craft's design and each is laminated to protect it.

A small jewelry box, for example, takes about two weeks to finish, a bigger one, from one to two months. A paperweight takes three days while one of the bigger wall panels, with "The Last Supper" took almost a year to complete.

In choosing the designs, Didi says that she always make sure that each has a touch of being Pinoy. Sometimes, designs come in a series, like the wall panels that carry themes like "Coco Gatherer," "Cane Gatherer," "Fishermen," and "Planting Rice." These are popular among foreigners. "This prompted me to hire more workers. I tapped the local folk from Bacong, a town in Negros Oriental, where the factory is located. I was happy because I was able to give them livelihood," she says.

Two years after it went into full operation, NOAH already has 140 skilled and semi-skilled workers in its factory in Bacong. It now has more than 200 workers. Didi says that after creating more stone products, she developed her distribution network. "I joined trade fairs both here in Negros Oriental and in Manila. People then recognized the quality of our stone crafts. Some distributors began to place a few orders, then they doubled it, tripled it ... So when the orders grew, I was again compelled to add new workers."

Later, department stores such as Rustan's and SM and local handicraft shops like Balikbayan Handicrafts and Tesoro's started to carry NOAH's products. The export market, she says, definitely would not be left behind. Presently, the stone crafts exported to Italy, Spain and Germany and the United States.

"The bulk of our produce now goes to the export market. I attribute it to the quality and the design of our products. Besides, we would not be able to penetrate the export market if not for those characteristics," she proudly beams.

Didi says they have continued to participate in trade fairs such as the National Trade Fair being held annually at the Megatrade Hall of SM Megamall. "Our efforts in trade fairs did not go for naught because every year we are able to get new and bigger clients. We are also able to showcase the best Filipino-made crafts to foreigners as well as to the locals," relates Didi.

During the last NTF, NOAH did not only get new clients, it also bagged the fair's top seller award for the third consecutive year. Didi is Noah's general manager while her husband Romulo is the production manager. Romulo is in charge of processing of the stone crafts-from color management, design to the overall finish. He also makes sure that each hinge or hook is in its proper place and functions according to its purpose.

At the start of each week, he prepares all the materials needed for production and even attends to the specific request of each worker. Their son Kerwin handles NOAH's Manila office while their daughter Marjorie is based in Dumaguete. They have two other sons, Michael and Ritoniel, who are in the US.

Didi says she and her husband could have just accepted their fate when their first businesses closed. But she believes that the man who came knocking at her door desperate for a job was God's instrument for them to go back to business.

Their faith proved its worth because as Didi puts it, they have been showered with so much blessings. But what's more important, she says, is they have been able to share these blessings to more and more people, especially the Bacong folk in Negros Oriental.


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