All my lady friends who graduated from the chichi Assumption Convent concur that Mother Esperanza Cu-Unjieng was an unforgettable character.
To begin with, Mother Esperanza Cu-Unjieng was an heiress. The Cu-Unjieng [ pronounced Kooh-Oonying ] are a rich Manila family of Chinese descent.
The old — and far more elegant — Neo-Gothic style campus of the Assumption Convent was formerly located on Calle Herran in Ermita, Manila [ now the Robinson's Complex ].
At that time, she was addressed as “Madame Espy.”
She was not an attractive woman, not even an attractive Oriental woman. But her brother, Dr. Benito “Benny” Cu-Unjieng, who was the school physician, was, inexplicably enough [ considering he was a brother of "Madame Espy" ], a rather attractive man. Many of the students had a crush on him.
Her demeanor was not that of a pious nun, but that of a snooty socialite, which she really was.
Her favorites were the Iloilo and Bacolod “peaches-and-cream” heiresses.
The young Esperanza Cu-Unjieng’s first social coup, in prewar [ 1925 to be exact ], was “matching” the Manila aristocrat Salvador Zaragoza Araneta, the handsomest young man of that time, with the Iloilo heiress Victoria Ledesma Lopez, the most eligible young lady of that time. Sor Esperanza credited herself for the much-heralded “alta sociedad” match, and never failed to remind Salvador’s and Victoria’s eldest daughter, and youngest daughter as well, who studied at the Assumption Convent — Carmen Lopez Araneta [ Mrs. Jose M. Segovia ] and Regina Lopez Araneta [ Mrs. Enrique J. Teodoro ] — that she was responsible for bringing their father and mother together in the first place!!!
According to ”VLA,” the biography of Victoria Lopez de Araneta, written by granddaughter Bettina Araneta Teodoro: ”And then there was the party given by Esperanza Cu-Unjieng, before she became a nun [ and, many years later, Mother Esperanza of the Assumption Convent ]. The party began at 11 o’ clock on the morning, in an industrial area bordering the Pasig River. There the guests boarded two motor launches — one for the young and one for the old — and enjoyed the sail along the river to the Cu-Unjieng residence in Mandaluyong.”
“Victoria and Salvador were partnered together at this party, a social custom to ensure that everyone had a companion. It was a decision the hostess — according to Victoria and Salvador’s daughter, Regina — always claimed was ultimately responsible for the Aranetas’ union. Regina also believes this was the only time her parents had been on anything resembling a date.” [ Actually, Salvador Zaragoza Araneta and Victoria Ledesma Lopez were initially brought together by Salvador's friend and Victoria's relative Ernesto Ledesma, but Esperanza Cu-Unjieng certainly played a succeeding, pivotal role. --- Carmen Lopez Araneta-Segovia ]
In those prewar and postwar days, the students of the Assumption Convent were still obliged to make an elegant curtsy — a full one — whenever they met any of the nuns.
The Assumption Convent was an expensive and exclusive girls’ school — perhaps the Philippine equivalent of Farmington and Miss Porter’s in the United States — and in the 1950s, all of the students, with no exception, came from affluent Filipino families. All of the students spoke Spanish fluently, as it was invariably spoken in their homes. And for more elegance, French language classes were offered, French I and II.
The Assumption Convent hierarchy then was headed by “Notre Mere” [ "Our Mother" ], the Mother Provincial, a position always held by a French nun. Then came the Mother Superior, “Madame Veronique,” who was also French. After her came “Madame Angela,” Sor Angela Ansaldo, the pretty daughter of a prominent Manila family. Then, preceding everybody else, was “Madame Espy,” Mother Esperanza Cu-Unjieng, heiress to a large Chinese fortune.
There was also the overweight ”Madame Blanca,” Mother Blanca Perez-Rubio, the beautiful daughter of a rich and prominent Spanish mestizo Manila family. Her singular claim to fame was that she attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales [ HRH Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David of Windsor; the future King Edward VIII; the future Duke of Windsor ] when he visited Manila in May 1922 [ before the 15th ] and played at the Manila Polo Club, where he had an accident which left him with a long deep cut above one of his eyes. She was his single biggest crush in Manila. However, unlike the Duchess of Windsor [ Bessie Wallis Montague Warfield-Spencer-Simpson-Windsor ], Blanca Perez-Rubio was really beautiful and did not look like a man. Many alumnae remember the rotund Mother Blanca waddling through the corridors fanning herself constantly with a “paipai.” The Vicente Madrigal granddaughters remembered her always with a “paipai” and muttering under her breath: “P*neta! Que calor, que calor! Que calor, que calor! P*neta!” One of the subjects she taught was History.
The ladies remembered the otherwise aristocratic ”Madame Espy” on the telephone lapsing into fluent Chinese as she ordered the day’s “merienda” of “siopao” and “siomai” for the students from the popular “Ma Mon Luk” restaurant. If one did not see her in her nun’s habit, one would think that she was a Chinese woman in her cheongsam with the tight shoes.
There is a famous story of how Mother Esperanza summoned an incorrigibly tardy student and her parents. The young lady, her mother, and her father arrived at Mother Esperanza’s office. The parents politely explained that their daughter was occasionally tardy because the car — apparently their only one — first had to bring her older siblings to their schools.
Mother Esperanza was unconvinced, and thoroughly unimpressed, by their explanation.
Mother Esperanza declared: “What’s the problem? Buy another car!”
Spoken like a rich woman!!!
Mother Esperanza was an excellent administrator. She may have had her superiors, but she was everyone’s boss. She supervised everything and anything within the confines of the Assumption Convent. An intern, now in her early 70s, merrily recalled that she had been secretly exchanging letters with her boyfriend who was at the PMA the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio. “Madame Espy” found out and sarcastically asked her: “And what can that young man feed you??? Grass???!!!”
In the summer of 1953, “Madame Espy” took some girls on a tour, actually a shopping tour, of Hong Kong. They all stayed at the Peninsula hotel and ate at the posh restaurants. They also went to the exclusive shops, and to the expensive jewelers. Because she was an heiress and was so used to the good life, ”Madame Espy” really knew her shopping: she pointed to all the best things and wisely advised the girls on their purchases.
A “Holy Year” was always an excuse to go on a “pilgrimage” to Europe. As always, “Madame Espy” led the Assumption Convent group. Because the order was based in France, she brought them to the Mother House in Auteuil just outside Paris. There they honored the memory of the foundress of the Sisters of the Assumption, Mere Marie-Eugenie de Jesus [ Eugenie Milleret de Bron o 1817 - + 1898 ]. And of course, the Louvre. Then she brought the girls to the Place Vendome, where the best jewelers were. She waved her hand at the jewelry shops and discreetly advised the girls: “Your husbands should be able to provide you with those nice things…”
The ladies also remembered excursions to “Ja-Le” Beach [ "Jalandoni - Ledesma" Beach ]. There, “Madame Espy” felt free to dance “the Boogie” with a priest friend to the tunes of Elvis Presley…!!!
Actually, “Madame Espy” knew how to have fun…the “right” kind!!!
In the late 1960s, “Flower Power” and everything hip came into the scene. Modernity was the zeitgeist and it inevitably permeated the conservative and refined culture of the Assumption Convent.
In the era of “dehins” [ "hindi" / no ], “erpat” [ "pater" / father ], “ermat” [ "mater" / mother ], and other new and “groovy” Filipino slang terms, Mother Esperanza Cu-Unjieng was nicknamed “Sor Espot” by the students.
It was the time of “Oye chica, don’t cover naman your paper so hard…”
Naughtiness was the norm. The affluent Bacolod “internas” liked to smoke cigarettes and play mahjong and pretty much do what was not allowed them, despite the eagle eyes of Mother Esperanza and Mother Luisa Locsin, who checked everything going in and out of the quarters during the weekends. The Bacolod “internas” had their maids smuggle cigarettes and mahjong sets during the weekdays; they smoked in the garden and played mahjong on cotton-filled cushions to muffle the sounds of the blocks, going so far as to have a quick way of hiding the mahjong set upon a secret signal should Mother Esperanza or Mother Luisa enter their room unexpectedly.
Mini skirts became all the rage.
“Sor Espot” Mother Esperanza Cu-Unjieng did not approve of the increasingly shorter skirt lengths being cut by the students into the expensive tartans — brought all the way from France — of the Assumption Convent uniform… She had a test for the mini skirt: she made the student kneel, and if the skirt did not reach the floor, then she herself would proceed to lower the hem with her scissors. “Tastas.” The chastised student would then have to walk around the campus the rest of the day to the laughter, and to the jeers, of the other students who knew full well that she had been accosted by the formidable “Sor Espot.”
One time, she accosted a particularly tall and long-legged student — the daughter of an international jeweler and now the very elegant wife of a Mindanao congressman — whose skirt was in the dernier cri mini skirt fashion…
“Miss *beep,* your skirt is too high!!!” Mother Esperanza snorted.
To which the student wittily replied: “No, Mother! My knees are too low!”
There was the Valentine’s Day before Martial Law, 14 February 1972, when a rich, ardent suitor showered his girlfriend _____ _____ with thousands of freshly-cut red roses from a helicopter circling above the campus. A critical Mother Esperanza witnessed the extravagant display and declared that the overly romantic gesture was “a waste of money!” She had the male staff gather up the roses, and had them placed in vases in the chapel, where they filled the whole altar up and down, left and right, and elsewhere. Mother Esperanza was pleased with herself for having made good and holy use of the rich suitor’s prodigal gesture.
Mother Esperanza was generally credited with the entire reconstruction of the Assumption Convent’s Calle Herran campus after the devastation of World War II.
The transfer of the Assumption Convent from its Calle Herran campus was initiated by Mother Angela Ansaldo, and it provoked protests from many of the distinguished and socially-prominent alumnae. The opponents of the move cited the fact that Saint Scholastica’s College, Saint Paul’s College, and even De La Salle College [ turned University ], had sensibly remained in their old locations in that general area of Manila.
However, the present campus of the Assumption Convent in Makati’s upscale San Lorenzo village is directly credited to the efforts of Mother Esperanza Cu-Unjieng.
Mother Blanca Perez-Rubio was old and senile when she passed away in the 1980s. She liked to relate that she had danced with the Prince of Wales [ the future King Edward VIII who abdicated to marry the divorcee Wallis Warfield Simpson ] when he visited Manila in May 1922 to every class that she taught at the Assumption Convent. Blanca Rosa Perez-Rubio had a twin sister, Rosa Blanca Perez-Rubio, who was killed with the rest of the family in the garden of their Vito Cruz manse by the Japanese soldiers in late February 1945. The only survivors of the family were Mother Blanca Perez-Rubio [ who was with the Assumption nuns ], 2 of her sisters, and her nephew Miguel Alvarez Perez-Rubio [ who was in Baguio courting his future wife, Maria Luisa Ysmael ], who became the Chief of Protocol at the Malacanang palace during the presidency of Corazon C. Aquino and currently holds the same position during the presidency of Benigno “Noynoy” C. Aquino Jr..