Remembering the founder of Manila’s iconic Penguin café 2
Ami Miciano. Photo courtesy of Angel Velasco Shaw
Culture

Remembering Ami Miciano, heart and soul of Penguin, icon of bohemian-era Malate

She created a spiritual space for Manila’s artists to revel, to completely be themselves, to express their art
Jerome Gomez | Oct 24 2021

She had a generous heart—too generous, others will say. She possessed a bohemian spirit. She will also always be remembered for creating a spiritual space for Manila’s passionate artists—to congregate in, to be completely themselves, to express their art. Her name is Ami Miciano, and her passing has broken the hearts of those who’ve spent one too many nights with her in her iconic Malate bar, Penguin Café Gallery. 

To members of Manila kulturati, Miciano’s name will always be synonymous with Penguin. When friends talk of her, their next thought will almost always be of the bar and art space she opened in the post-Martial Law 80s together with Maryann Ubaldo, her friend and classmate in hotel and restaurant school in Austria. 

Penguin Cafe
Penguin Cafe was the nexus of Malate nightlife in the 80s and 90s. Photo by Eddie Boy Escudero

CCP extension 

Brimming with fresh ideas from their travels and studies abroad, the two set up shop in that “insignificant corner” of Malate’s Adriatico and San Andres Streets. They drew in a crowd of the city’s bohemians, and a mixed bag of creatives and media people. During the Cory years, it is said photojournalists would gather round one of its tables, drink the night away, and discuss how they will cover the next coup attempt—which was all the rage back then. 

“It was culturally and socially a practical extension of the Cultural Center in Manila and was home to many artists, writers, film directors, journalists, painters, photographers, poets, etc. from here and abroad,” Miciano herself wrote in a letter to the Inquirer in 2013, while she was asserting her ownership of the name Penguin Café Gallery. The place had such a seductive and significant reputation in the culture that it’s been written about in articles in many publications including Vanity Fair and The New York Times. 

“Penguin Café democratized European cuisine, fine wine and world music to the ‘starving artists,’” wrote the book designer Ige Ramos in an article for the magazine Metro Society. “In return, the artists gave Penguin cutting-edge exhibitions and performance art by the likes of Cesare and Jean Marie Syjuco, Peng Olaguera and the late Santi Bose.” What did the place look like? “Like a quaint Parisian or an Eastern European café—marble top tables, glass globe lamps and ox-blood red upholstery.”

 

Full of life 

Ramos met Miciano in 1982 when the latter, an artist herself, had a show at the CCP. “I was a 19-year old apprentice at the CCP Museum working with Glenna Aquino and Ray Albano,” recalls Ramos to ANCX. “Then we became classmates at the Artists Workshop.” Suffice it to say, the young man was drawn to Miciano. “Ami embodied something new and fresh. She was bursting with energy and ideas not just in art and music, but also in food…She was a fascinating individual and full of life.” 

Ramos recalls mounting many art shows in Penguin, and designing postcards and menus for his friend. “She's so open to so many things and shuns corporate stuff,” the graphic designer shares. “Her ideas are way ahead of their time, especially when she opened Third World Cafe in Malate [in the early 2000s], very few people understood what she meant. Even before COP21 and the Rio and Paris accord happened, Third World Cafe was already sending messages about climate change, poverty issues and globalization.” 

Miciano and Ubaldo would eventually part ways and the former would strike it on her own by moving Penguin to its second location—on Remedios Street, close to Remedios Circle and across designer Mike Dela Rosa’s atelier. To help her in running the bar, she invited the writer-artist Glenna Aquino and Aquino’s then partner Tito Yuchengco to form a corporation with her which they called AYUMI (Aquino Yuchengco Miciano). The group would run Penguin for a few years until the new owners eventually sold their shares to Miciano who ran the place solo in the years that followed. 

Aquino describes Miciano as easy to like and friendly to a fault, a giving person and a bohemian spirit. “We lost touch but rekindled our friendship just recently which makes me feel bittersweet about everything now,” Aquino says, touching on her friend’s death. 

Ami Miciano with Angel Velasco Shaw
Miciano with Shaw. Photo courtesy of Angel Velasco Shaw

Soul of the art scene 

The curator Angel Velasco Shaw met Miciano in 1988. As Penguin was the unofficial post-CCP event meeting place of artists, performers, and theater fans, she found herself there, with friend Jessica Hagedorn, the novelist, after watching Pepito Bosch perform and after listening to a talk by Santiago Bose at the Cultural Center. 

“We caravaned it to nearby Penguin where I met Ami, the mayor, ambassador and soul of the Manila art scene since the early 80s until she closed it in the mid-2000s,” Shaw tells ANCX over Facebook Messenger. “No matter who you were or where you came from, who you knew well, knew slightly or did not know at all, Ami would find a way to greet you—a gentle nod of her head, big smile, twinkle in her eyes, a warm hug or with a glass of your favorite drink. Her love for all forms of art, multiple ways of supporting them, and vision of what could be and what was to come is founded in her own life as an artist.” 

“We met while I was  a wild/crazy/noisy film programmer from the ECP/Manila Film Center [and] siyempre at the orig site of Penguin at the corners of ever-shady San Andres and soon-to-become-posh M. Adriatico Streets,” says Ed Cabagnot, sharing his first encounter with Miciano. 

“If memory serves me right, it was [the writer] Krip Yuson who dragged me there.” 

The allure of Penguin was clear to the film programmer early on: “a mixture of danger, untrammeled liberty, and the brightest literati/glitterati at their slummingest-best.” And Miciano was at the heart of it all, although she clearly had interests outside of keeping her nocturnal role. While her favorite topics were, according to her friend Celina Cristobal, food, drinks, music, and people, she also got herself deep into yoga. 

“When I started getting serious with my yoga by taking up the TM Siddhis (flying) course, she noticed that,” says Cabagnot. “You see, Ami had that gift of boring into your soul as you talked about anything. Around the late 80s, when things weren’t going so well with her private life, I recommended she do meditation. What’s amazing is, being the organized person that she was, she did. And she even went ahead and enrolled in the Flying Course even though it was being held in Thailand.” 

The last time the two were together physically was in a meditation/flying meeting January of last year, two months before Covid took over the world and separated longtime friends from each other.

Ami Miciano in an art opening
Miciano in an art opening. Photograph by Eddie Boy Escudero

Life after Penguin 

Apart from meditation and the pursuit of enlightenment, travel became a preoccupation for Miciano after her she gave up her life as Penguin’s queen mother in 2005. She liked arranging trips for friends, to places like Brazil, Cuba, Mexico. “She’ll look for good deals and share them with friends,” says Glenna. “She was also into  photography. She would joke about how she was the official photog sa mga class reunions niya.”

According to Miciano’s letter to the Inquirer, she had to “abruptly stop” Penguin’s operations in 2005 due to health issues.

For Angel Shaw, her friend’s Penguin Café was not only a watering hole for artists, tourists and the curious. “It was a magical place where people dreamed and made their dreams eventually come true. It was a place where life-long  friendships were made. Manila-, Baguio-, Bacolod-based artists from all fields, and artists from all over the world gathered—talked, drank, ate, gossiped, sang, danced, performed, fell in and out of love, and exhibited their art—at Penguin.” 

As Penguin was no ordinary gathering place, Miciano was also definitely no regular bar-owner. “Ami was a pioneer, artist, chef, Até, healer, sister, aunt, and grandaunt,” says Shaw. “A one-of-a-kind spirit with a heart of gold whose brilliance will never dim.”