ONE of the dearest recollections I have of my childhood is the strange congruence between Holy Communion and an early concept of what Chinese is. Early on, my mother steeped us her children in receiving the Holy Host for Sundays on end. We just loved that ritual, in our innocence less for the spiritual cleansing it was believed to bring about in the communicant than for the rare material opportunity of breaking ensaymada at breakfast after the mass(one was not supposed to eat anything prior to receiving the host). For folks used to subsisting on camote roots for the main course at lunch and dinner and boiled camote tops for soup, partaking of Tama’s ensaymada was certainly a feast. That was how poor folks were in my hometown of Calolbon (now San Andres), a community washed by the San Bernardino Strait, which separates Catanduanes from mainland Bicol.
Until my graduation from the Calolbon Central School, my concept of Chinese was no different from that thinking of a frog caught in a well which says the sky is as big as the mouth of the well. To me, Chinese was Tama who baked ensaymada for Catholic communicants.
Manila was a big revelation. Coming to the city for my high school studies at the Mapa High School, I thought I was that frog in the well in the Chinese tale, leaping out of its constriction to marvel at the unraveling of the enormous breadth and width of Philippine Chinese horizons. Anybody who lived in Manila in the 1950s was witness to the great phenomenon of Chinese running businesses big and small, from the humble retail outlets called sari-sari stores to giant supermarkets, including the lowly scrap trade called bote garapa in the local street lingo. It was beyond my young reckoning then to realize the Chinese’s more gigantic hold on aspects that bore heavily upon the economy like banking and industries.
My first employment was with a Chinese dentist in whose clinic I worked as a janitor for two hours in the morning to earn my daily allowance of 10 centavos while going to Mapa High School. My second employment was, again, with a Chinese as a stay-in janitor/messenger in the import/trading business, later combined with a small travel agency. And my first employment as a movie director was by, still again, a Chinese, Robbie Tan of Seiko Films. Finally, my second big employment as a movie director was, for the umpteenth time, still with a Chinese, Lily Monteverde of Regal Films.
I was so deeply identified with Chinese movie producers that when Vic del Rosario of Viva Films summoned me one time to meet on a movie project, his first concern was how to strike up a bargain for my fees: “That’s (my asking price) for Chinese. How about for us Filipinos?”
I kept mum at the question. I thought that was a non sequitur.
The seven suns of Mother China
In 1963, I was a civil engineering student at the Mapua Institute of Technology, supporting myself through college with employment at the travel agency cited above, as a manager/janitor. I say manager because I was, indeed, designated manager by the agency owner, another Mr. Tan, but I continued to be the stay-in messenger/janitor of that whole ground floor unit of a building in Binondo.
A venerable Chinese (a Towa or Siuwa, can’t recall now) of senior age, the partner of Mr. Tan in the import/trading business, would engage me in storytelling during lunchbreaks. Probably he had been observing how at night I would pound the typewriter to churn out short story manuscripts, which I never tired of writing despite the consistent rejections I got from Weekly Graphic literary editor Vicente Rivera, Jr. (In 1965, anyway, Vic stamped okay my first ever short story to be published, “Forests of the Heart,” adapted in 1975 into the screenplay titled, by the film director Celso Ad Castillo, “Tag-Ulan Sa Tag-Araw,” a smash hit that starred Vilma Santos and Christopher de Leon.)
During one such lunchbreak, the old man told me this tale of a handsome macho Chinese scrap dealer who was enamored of a lovely Spanish widow. The two lived as lovers and begot seven sons who the father named according to Chinese numerology, thus: It-sun, for the first son; Di-sun, for the second son; Sam-sun, for the third; Si-sun, for the fourth; Go-sun, for the fifth; Lac-sun, for the sixth; and Sit-sun, for the seventh. In Fookien Chinese, there is a word “tua,” meaning “big”. Used in this context of the seven sons, “tua” could refer to the big one, who else but the seventh who could be dubbed Tua-sun.
Over time, the “u” in the “sun” had been changed to “o,” making the names read thus: Itson, Dison, Samson, Sison, Goson, Lacson, and Sitson. And what are these names but of those among the elites of Philippine society.
I distinctly remember once the former First Gentleman Mike Arroyo, irked by allegations of corruption in President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s government, exclaimed to the press with clear braggadocio: “Why should we steal. We’re rich. We own (properties from) Marikina to Manila.”
True enough, the observant would notice that in Marikina there is the D. Tuazon Avenue; in Quezon City, the P. Tuazon Street; and in Manila, the G. Tuason Street. Not to be outdone, the six other suns in the tale have their names enshrined in streets here and there in the Philippine archipelago.
So early on, I conceived an epic adventure depicting how Chinese migrants of olden times joined Philippine natives in peopling the nation, resulting in the prevalence in Philippine society of elites of actual Chinese ethnicity.
(To be continued)