For the many who marvel at business magnate Antonio L. Cabangon Chua’s diverse business empire—one that runs the gamut of insurances, banking, hotels, memorial parks, car dealerships, restaurants, publishing and media—it will be both interesting and equally remarkable to know that his very humble beginnings also saw the man in multiple menial jobs.
He was a shoeshine boy, an ice-drop peddler, a newsboy, a pan de sal vendor and a sari-sari storekeeper in his youth before becoming chairman emeritus and founder of one of the country’s most solid homegrown financial companies.
But from then until now, focus, faith and sheer hard work have been Cabangon Chua’s tools to success—three very basic principles, which in the words of National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, have taken his life from the “gutter to the stars.”
‘Saga of Success’
Joaquin vividly describes how the young Cabangon-Chua worked his way to becoming one of the Philippines’ richest businessmen in the book A Saga of Success, a biography of Antonio L. Cabangon Chua.
Poetically, he writes, “From Barrio Namayan to Wack Wack is a short move within a single town [of Mandaluyong]—but, in metaphysical terms, the move is from the gutter to the stars.”
The poor barrio is where Cabangon Chua grew up with his beloved mother amid bittersweet memories.
“At a young age, I tried everything to help my mother earn money for us to survive,” the legendary man behind Fortune Life and City State Savings Bank recalled to The Sunday Times Magazine.
“At first, I joined other children in our place in going to Camp Murphy [now Camp Crame]to avail of untouched leftover food of the American soldiers who were staying in the camp.
“After that, I promised not to do it again and thought of becoming a shoeshine boy to the GIs. I earned at least 10 cents per pair of shoes that I could shine. I also sold ice drop, newspapers, driftwood and even kandule fish that I caught myself from the Pasig River.”
According to the book, a definitive turning point in his life took place when, while shining one GI’s pair of shoes, the American soldier suddenly kicked him like a dog. Apparently, he had refused to eat a half-eaten pear, which the GI threw on the ground for him, angering the cruel soldier.
Throughout the ordeal Cabangon Chua held on to the dignity his mother had instilled in him despite their poverty, and swore to himself that they will never go hungry again.
The son of a well-to-do Chinese businessman named Tomas Chua who married the beautiful Dominga Lim Cabangon, Antonio was born on August 30, 1934.
His earliest recollection of childhood was of a comfortable life with his mother in Malate, Manila, but with very little memory of his father who worked outside the city in Pampanga.
When Cabangon Chua was seven years old, he remembered that his father—who until then would visit them intermittently—stopped coming to the house all together.
Later, the mother and son tragically learned that Tomas had been executed by the Japanese because his father was suspected guerilla involvement during the second World War.
Left with little savings, that marked the beginning of Cabangon Chua’s trying childhood.
“The house we were renting in Malate got burned during the Liberation so we had to leave Manila and move to Mandaluyong where my mother grew up,” he related.
During transit, his mother’s jewelry and cash savings inexplicably went missing, save for some Japanese money, which was considered “useless” in Mandaluyong by then.
Never one to give up hope, Dominga learned that her Japanese bills or “Mickey Mouse Money” still had value in Angono, Rizal, and quickly made a trip there on foot and bought dried fish to sell in Mandaluyong.
“The Santiago family adopted us in Mandaluyong for a while until my mother was able to save a little money and afford to rent a small room and set up a little sari-sari store in Namayan,” Cabangon Chua continued.
While their life in Mandaluyong was a far cry from the comforts of their home in Malate, the mother and son survived in dignity. And for the young Antonio, his mother was no less than a superwoman.
“If there is one thing I want to be remembered for, it is for [having]the love of a child for his mother,” declared Cabangon Chua. He added that throughout his life, he has faithfully followed God’s commandment to “honor thy father and thy mother.”
“I’m not ashamed to be called a ‘mama’s boy’ because I was really a mama’s boy,” chuckled the 79-year-old self-made millionaire. “She devoted her life to me. She never thought of marrying again and she did everything for us [to go on living].”
Since his mother died in her 50s from breast cancer, Cabangon Chua religiously visits her grave at the Mandaluyong Public Cemetery every Saturday.
“I do so to this very day, and I’m turning 80 in August,” admits ALC who explains that he didn’t transfer his mother’s grave in any of his memorial parks because it is strategically located near his house and he wants to visit her every week whenever he’s in the country.
Moreover, despite his remarkable achievements throughout his life, he firmly believes—and will proudly tell anyone—that whatever success he has reaped is not his doing alone, but that of his mother’s guidance and inspiration.
Smart boy in a hurry
Cabangon-Chua considered himself a “big boy” at a young age. Even as he took on multiple jobs to help his mother with their daily necessities, he completed his primary education with flying colors.
When his mother told him of her plans to put up a sari-sari store, the young Antonio quickly helped her raise the needed capital by joining her to work as a laborer at the Chuan Huat Glass Factory.
Together, mother and son saved P240 from their wages, and thus was born their very own sari-sari store. Through this, Cabangon-Chua competed fifth and sixth grades at Sta. Ana Elementary School.
His routine consisted of rising at dawn to sell pan de sal at the store before leaving for school. When he got home, he would help his mother again be it with household chores or minding their small business.
Over the years, the sari-sari store flourished to become a large grocery, and Cabangon Chua remembered thanking God for helping them succeed even when their own relatives doubted their hard work would get them anywhere.
At that point, the young Antonio envisioned himself earning his first million by the age of 40.
“Yabang ko lang yun sa sarili ko (I was just bragging to myself then),” laughed Cabangon Chua after he told The Sunday Times Magazine about his dream of becoming a millionaire by 40.
But indeed, the enterprising “mama’s boy” earned his first million even before his self-imposed deadline.
“I even laminated that check,” he fondly revealed, adding that he also kept his shoeshine box from the war to constantly remind him of his lifetime vow of never going hungry.
From the earnings of their grocery store, Cabangon-Chua bought a jeep, which he drove to buy the goods they would sell, and to make the most of the vehicle he also used it as a passenger jeep when he had free time during college.
The enterprising Antonio secured a degree in Accounting at the University of the East, and after graduation, worked at T.S. Zulueta and Co., CPA. It was at this accounting firm where the intelligent young man learned many useful tips in business, especially on how to invest wisely.
He said to be an accountant was the only profession he had in mind for he believed it was the logical step in making it big as a businessman.
True enough, together with some friends, he was soon able to put up Filipinas Pawnshop in Paco, Manila, which to this day exists in the very same place. The only difference is he owns the entire block now.
From there, Cabangon Chua went on to put up one business after another, hardly ever stopping to catch his breath. He opened nightclubs, casinos, motels, movie houses and supermarkets until he founded proudly Filipino household name businesses Fortune Life Insurance Co., Eternal Plans Incorporated, Citystate Condominiums, Citystate Savings Bank, Ecoshield Development Corporation, Isuzu GenCars Incorporated, Aliw Broadcasting System, and Brown Madonna Printing Press Incorporated. His well-established publications to date include Philippine Graphic Weekly, Business Mirror, View, Cook and the tabloid Pilipino Mirror, Salamin ng Katotohanan.
On his ability to venture and succeed in multiple and diverse businesses, Cabangon Chua simply remarked, “Don’t wait for things to happen. Make them happen.”
For the enterprising man, there is no such thing as a wait-and-see approach in business. He believes that if a person truly sets his or her mind on a particular goal, he or she should be able to act on it immediately and succeed.
“You have to focus and follow up religiously,” he explained, as he showed The Sunday Times Magazine a book where he jots down the daily profits of one of his businesses.
“I am more of an organizer than a financier. So I went from a sari-sari store to a sari-saring negosyo (different businesses).”
For his wife Bienvenida Angeles, Cabangon Chua is not just a good provider to their children but a good father over all, as she shared in her husband’s biography.
Ever humble, he is grateful to God that all his children completed their education, and that they agreed to work for him in the family’s multiple businesses.
A patron of the Catholic Mass Media Awards, Cabangon Chua, in the recent years, has steeled his faith in whom he believes is the true source of all his achievements.
Blessed by God beyond his wildest dreams, his faith has moved him to share his success with as many people as he can, so much so that he currently employs over 5,000 people in his companies. Besides making sure every single one of them is treated fairly and compensated properly, Cabangon Chua also makes the effort to instill in them the most valuable principles he has kept through out his life. Focus, faith and hard work.
“Whether you’re rich or poor, everyone has 24 hours in a day. It’s what you do with your 24 hours that count,” ended the wise man.