Eminence Gris

He returned quietly but triumphantly to Manila in 1998 after almost twenty years of an immensely successful self-exile in the United States.  In that span of time, he had become inexplicably, enormously rich in the information technology and telecommunications sectors in the southern United States and in South America.  And it was this great wealth that immediately established him in Manila as a person of great political influence.

Manila buzzed excitedly about this new arrival.  Everyone was fascinated by how terribly rich he was.  He casually purchased a Php 250 million mansion, a onetime presidential property, in the city’s poshest enclave.  To furnish it, he and his wife were referred by none other than the President of the Republic to the favorite antique shop of Manila high society, which was owned by the President’s very good friend — an enormously successful and feisty lady entrepreneur who shared the President’s taste for frank bar room-brawl conversation and bawdy, earthy humor [ but she was not a mistress of his ].  There they chose “interesting furniture” and ran up a bill of Php 20 million in just four hours.  The bill was promptly settled in cold cash.  In $$$ USD dollars even.  The lady who owned the antique shop — a dear friend of mine — was absolutely ecstatic over the single fastest and biggest sale she had made in her entire 40 year career.  Even the former First Lady had never made that incredible a single purchase, nor were her bills settled that fast and in cash.  He and his wife also sauntered leisurely to a decorative arts center and purchased the biggest Baccarat crystal chandeliers available, to the tune of Php millions as well.

I wasn’t surprised at all.  I knew him from some twenty years back.  He was my brother’s good friend at that time.  He was a rapidly rising wheeler dealer in all sorts of lucrative contracts and transactions.  He dealt with government bureaucrats, army generals, even leftists… in short, with anybody who could make a big deal.  Even then — dark, rough, and gruff as he was — he was already the self-made tycoon material.  One already knew that the man would eventually amass a great fortune in the swashbuckling style of Nathan Mayer Rothschild, Aristotle Onassis, and Adnan Khashoggi.

He had already separated from his meek and submissive first wife by then.  He had fallen in love madly with the young and very pretty, 18 year old best friend of my 18 year old sister-in-law.  But the young and very pretty girl’s mother was a fierce Capampangan lady who would not allow Him twenty meters near her precious daughter.  The fierce Capampangan lady was an avid “mah-jong” player, so he, my brother, and his wife nicknamed her “Kang!”…

Almost everyday, he came to have lunch at our house to be with his young and very pretty girlfriend, who was whisked there by my brother and his wife, who was her best friend.  They were actually strategy sessions to find a way to escape the clutches of “Kang!” so that the couple could finally be together.

And escape from “Kang!” they did.  In almost fairy tale fashion.  One late evening, the young and very pretty girlfriend tied her blankets together and slid down from the second floor balcony of her house to her waiting Prince Charming, who was as dark as the darkness that concealed him.  “Kang!” was expectedly furious when she found out the morning after, but she could not do anything anymore…

Everything would have been fine had he not run against some powerful officials in the military.  All of a sudden, he had to leave the country at once.

In the rush to leave, he left my brother with a shoebox containing two million pesos [ this was 1979 ].  My brother eventually found a way to send it to him.

He found himself in the United States of America where he made the truly enormous fortune that he had always dreamed of.  And the rest, as they say, is history…

Even “Kang!”.

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Daddy Who???

I was in a _____ Clan Lunch yesterday [ one of several clans I belong to ] at Wack-Wack Village and the table talk turned to a recent wedding that some clan members had attended at — where else? — the chichi Santuario de San Antonio Church in posh Forbes Park, Makati City.

It would have been the usual Manila High Society Wedding were it not for the conjectures about the bridegroom’s father, supposedly a former President. The mother was a controversial society beauty who never hid her liaison with the general-turned-President.

According to the attendees, the bridegroom looked very much like the younger sister — a onetime Senator — of the supposed father.

It is currently the talk of the town, at least until a new inane thing comes along… 😛 😛 😛

Comedy Relief: Lobsters at Malacanang

Brother Andrew Benjamin Gonzalez F.S.C. of the De La Salle Brothers [ The Brothers of the Christian Schools ] became the Secretary of Education of the Joseph Estrada Administration in 1998.  He was recommended to the Estrada cabinet by Senator Edgardo Angara.  Brother Andrew consulted with Jaime Cardinal Sin who encouraged him to accept the appointment; he received the support of the influential Catholic Church.  His appointment was big news.  Very influential people visited him.  Even the most influential eminence gris of the Estrada administration, who wielded enormous power behind the presidency — whom we had known two decades earlier before anyone else did as an utterly brilliant, big leagues wheeler-dealer on the rise ala Aristotle Onassis and Adnan Khashoggi — came for Sunday lunch.

He was possessed of outstanding intellectual brilliance, an intense managerial drive, a profound social conscience, and several other sterling qualities but he was totally unsuited for the Machiavellian world of politics, even for the relatively small-time world, globally speaking, of Philippine politics.

Initially, and predictably enough, he was thrilled by it all.  He was pleasantly surprised that President Joseph Estrada, like himself, liked to eat well, very well indeed, and that his boss knew how to order a good spread.  Good food was Brother Andrew’s only passion.  He actually enjoyed going to Estrada cabinet meetings — certainly not for the political networkings of which he, the Secretary of Education with the biggest department budget, was usually the target — but because there was always a luxurious and extensive buffet.  Aside from the usual “lechon” [ roasted pig ], which he found prosaic, there was a variety of seafood, including [ well-prepared ] lobsters, which he enjoyed immensely.    The beautiful Gemma Cruz told me that she and Brother Andrew used to compare their choices in the buffet.

He was so naive — or perhaps just too principled — that he made some big political mistakes during his tenure.  He plainly did not understand why some people went to illegal lengths to make big profits.  Because he stood in the way of the accustomed profits of powerful political lords, ways were found to be rid of him effectively.

Years later,  it is especially gratifying — very gratifying indeed — to witness firsthand the vicissitudes of those politicians’ lives:  the disintegration of their families, the diminution of their influence, the dissipation of their power, and the dissolution of their empires, wrought by fate.  It is true that there is justice in this world — not the defective ones of legal systems — but the more exacting, more precise, and consequently far more painful exchanges demanded by forces beyond human control.

The thing was, Brother Andrew really did not concern himself with the differences between luxury vehicles and mass vehicles.  As a visionary executive, he characteristically had far more important things in his mind.  What mattered was that he would arrive at his destination… whole.  What also mattered was that the vehicle could support his weight [ some 300 lbs. at his heaviest ].  But that was it as far as vehicles were concerned.

People just assumed that he had ridden in Jaguars, Mercedes Benzes, Cadillacs, and BMWs all his life.  That wasn’t true.  I used to bring him back to the De La Salle University on Sunday nights after our family dinner in an Isuzu Fuego pick-up truck.  It was the same pick-up truck that I used to go weekly to Nueva Ecija to conclude the mess that Marcos’ agrarian reform made out of our tenants’ lives…

But all that is “water under the bridge” so to speak.

One quiet Sunday dinner after the end of the Estrada administration, I asked him:  “Brother, when did you sense that the administration was falling apart?”

I thought that he would go on a belabored thesis about the faults of the president, of his family, of his associates.  I presumed that he would embark on an encompassing dissertation about the cabinet, about the congress, about the senate.  I expected that he would launch an extended digression on the political ills of Manila, the Philippines, ASEAN, the world.  But he didn’t…

Pausing over the steak, he looked up and thought briefly, then replied with that innocent look on his face:  “You know, I started to think that things were going downhill when, at Malacanang, lobsters were no longer served!!!”

That was certainly an appropriate answer, considering the ignominy of it all.

Mother Esperanza Cu-Unjieng

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 “de 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!”

Bwahahah!!!   😛   😛   😛

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.

*unfinished*

************

Notes:

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..

Slurping Soup

Our family had the usual Sunday lunches in Lola Charing’s house, presided by the paterfamilias, Brother Andrew*.  We did not have lunches in the dining room [ entirely furnished by JAO ] which had a big round table, but in the library [ entirely furnished by Gonzalo Puyat ], where there was a long table with many chairs and we could all fit in one sitting.

Brother Andrew did not sit at the head of the table.  His elder brother, Tito Hector, a large, towering man, sat there, before passing away in April 1988.  Afterwards, my eldest brother Eugenio sat there; he always had full Saturday nights so he always arrived for Sunday lunch at 1:30 p.m..  Brother Andrew sat to his right, where the lady guest of honor was always seated at elegant dinner parties.  On Brother Andrew’s right sat my younger brother Adolfo, Brother Andrew’s godson and acknowledged favorite among the five nephews and four nieces [ We were nine grandchildren.  The Gonzalez – Reyes:  Eugenio, Augusto III { me }, Adolfo, and Rosario.  The Gonzalez – Gala:  Maria Paz, Felix + , Monina + , Claudette, and Peter Paul. ]  Brother Andrew mentored my younger brother in all ways, not least his table manners.  My younger brother, like all normal children, liked to slurp his soup and chomp his food, and Brother Andrew, ever the educator, would immediately express his disapproval by staring comically at him and imitating his gestures.  Adolfo would then shrink in embarrassment and smile his trademark sly smile.

Brother Andrew often related, and mimicked, these lines — about slurping soup — of a grand Manila heiress towards her “pendejo” wimp of a “politico” husband, which he had witnessed on at least three social occasions…

“Honey!!!  How many times do I have to remind you not to slurp your soup… especially in public???!!!”

“If not for MY MONEY, you would have never amounted to anything!!!”  she declared.

Well said.

*Brother Andrew was Macario Diosdado Arnedo Gonzalez [ o 29 February 1940 – + 29 January 2006 ] who became Brother Andrew Benjamin Gonzalez F.S.C., a member of the Brothers of the Christian Schools [ the De La Salle Brothers ], and was the visionary president of the De La Salle University for a total of some twenty years.