Written by Wilson Lee Flores, Philippine Star
What’s wrong with an ethnic Chinese boy spending his happy childhood in Manila’s biggest and poorest district – the ancient, vibrant, sprawling and proletarian Tondo?
A few days before the Chinese lunar new year, a researcher from the ABS-CBN TV show of Korina Sanchez called inquiring about the Chinese concept of suwerte, or luck. I said I believed real good luck comes from hard work. He asked whether I lived in Binondo. I said I had lived all my life in the middle-class suburbs of Quezon City, but grew up as a kid in the working-class Tondo district of Manila. He seemed disappointed. Perhaps there is still a perception that only Binondo residents can be real Chinese, not those who live in other places.
My paternal ancestors came from the rural barrio of Chio-Chun in Jinjiang county in south Fujian two centuries ago, but if there’s a Philippine hometown I can proudly claim as my own, that would be the Tondo of my childhood years. Paradise for a kid like me was that nearly one-hectare sawmill compound at the corner of Juan Luna and Pavia streets in Tondo, Manila, which is now a top garment-manufacturing compound. I didn’t know then that for my late dad, that place was like purgatory. We were well-off, but that place was small by the clan’s measure, since dad was ousted by his half-siblings and kin from control of other, much larger multi-hectare sawmills.
A person’s concept of heaven or hell is relative; a matter of perspective. One man’s purgatory and the public’s stereotype of urban hell was idyllic and unmitigated heaven for a child like me.
Unknown to most people, whose only idea of Tondo are its slums, the old Smokey Mountain dumpsite and tales of its gangsters, Tondo is more than all of that. It is the birthplace of the country’s greatest kings, poets, artists, and rebels. It is the cradle of Tagalog culture and of the Philippine resistance against colonial oppression. Of course, Tondo is the unforgettable Eden of my childhood memories.
Tondo’s fearless warriors, rebels
Who still remembers that Tondo was where Rajah Lakandula’s fearless nephew Rajah Soliman (also Sulayman) fiercely resisted the haughty Spanish colonizers in the Battle of Bangkusay Channel on June 3, 1571? The warriors, with their spears and arrows, fought hard but lost to the Spaniards with their muskets and cannons. Soliman, the last Rajah of Manila, was killed. Soliman used to control the peaceful traffic of Chinese trading crafts plying the Pasig River into the settlements of Laguna de Bay. It was only after Soliman’s death that the Spaniards made Manila their colonial capital.
In the 1930s, my late dad was only in his 20s when he purchased five hectares of land from a prominent, university-owning clan whose family member lost money to gambling. Our family’s original sawmill compound, founded by our great-great-grandfather Dy Han Kia, was on T. Alonzo St. in Manila’s Binondo/Sta. Cruz area since the Spanish era, not far from that area called Trozo, which is the Spanish word for “logs.” The new Tondo lot became our family’s new sawmill site for expansion in Gagalangin, Tondo, near Juan Luna St. and with Raxabago St. leading directly to the gates of the compound. At the back were the then still-cleaner waters of Estero de Vitas, which nowadays is sadly near the infamous Smokey Mountain. I’ve always been curious as to who that guy Raxabago was? Was he a heroic rajah, or the son or a kin of the rebellious Rajah Soliman? What is Raxabago’s relation to Manila’s ancient Rajah Matanda?
When the theater-loving Katipunan founder Andres Bonifacio was born in 1863 in a small wood and nipa hut, Tondo was still dotted with rice fields. He was born in Tondo’s swamp-like part called Tutuban, which meant in Tagalog “the place where they make tuba (an alcoholic drink made with coconuts).” There in Tutuban was the main terminal of the Luzon railway system. Later in 1875, Tondo was also the birthplace of the poor but brilliant Emilio Jacinto, who became known as the Brains of the Katipunan. Coincidentally, Tondo also gave birth to the Katipunan on July 7, 1892, when Bonifacio, with friends Ladislao Diwa and Teodoro Plata, founded this secret society on Calle Azcarraga (now Claro M. Recto Ave.).
Ironically, the Katipunan was forced to launch its violent revolution ahead of schedule due to a tragic incident that occurred in Tondo. On August 19, 1896, Visayan Katipunero Teodoro Patiño was urged by his sister to confess about this secret society in the Tondo convent. He confessed to Fr. Mariano Gil, the Agustinian cura of Tondo, who was alarmed and broke the secrecy of the Catholic confessional by tipping off the Spanish colonial regime. A massive crackdown led the still ill-prepared Katipunan to start the revolution prematurely.
Tondo’s romantic poets, artists
Why has Tondo become such a fertile breeding ground for great artists, scholars and writers? The early 20th-century King of Balagtasan, poet and anti-Japanese guerrilla Amado V. Hernandez was born here in 1903, and his wife was the equally famed zarzuela star and Queen of Tagalog Song Atang de la Rama. Continuing the revolutionary tradition of his birthplace, Hernandez became a radical leftist rebel jailed by the government in 1951. However, he had the honor of having been defended by prestigious lawyers Claro M. Recto, Jose P. Laurel and Claudio Teehankee.
Francisco Baltazar, known as Balagtas, was born in Bulacan in 1788. He was a kid when he studied and worked as a houseboy in the home of Tondo’s wealthy Trinidad family. His first love was a Tondo girl from Gagalangin named Lucena, and his second love was Bianang, also from the same place. Even in those times, Tondo was already a favorite rendezvous for seasoned Tagalog poets, like Jose de la Cruz, known as Huseng Batute.
The late eminent novelist Bienvenido Santos was Kapampangan by parentage but was born in Tondo in 1911. The late national artist Francisco Arcellana was born in the Sta. Cruz district but schooled in Tondo. Also born in Tondo was the late poet, dramatist, director, actor, essayist, critic, set/costume designer and educator Rolando Tinio. Founder of Teatro Pilipino, Tinio once said: “Presidents are elected by the people. Artists are anointed by God.” Tinio was also a revolutionary of sorts, for along with Bienvenido Lumbrera, he helped modernize the traditionally sentimental Filipino style of poetry.
Visual artists who were Tondo boys included the early 19th-century painter Damian Domingo (whose parents were Chinese immigrants converted to Catholicism) and the late national artist Cesar Legaspi.
The late musical genius Levi Celerio was born in Tondo in 1910. He created sublime music and lyrics for over 4,000 songs, including “Pasko na naman”, “Ang Pasko ay sumapit”, “Misa de gallo”, “Kahit konting pagtingin”, and others. He also composed the song “Pitong gatang”, referring to an urban-poor area of Tondo and the title of a popular Fernando Poe Jr. movie. This Tondo boy was once listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as “the only leaf player in the world.”
The late director Lino Brocka filmed his famous movie “Jaguar” in Tondo in 1979. When I once met top fashion czar Jose “Pitoy” Moreno and his sister the noted poet Virginia Moreno of the UP Film Center, I was fascinated to hear them speak fondly of their old home in Gagalangin, Tondo.
The late UP Dean Armando Malay once recounted tales of his birth and youth in Gagalangin, Tondo. Malay’s fellow Tondo boy Atty. Felino Ampil said: “There in Gagalangin… that quaint, sylvan and genteel village, secluded by the Pritil bridge from the sometimes turbulent part of the Tondo of Rajah Sulayman and Lakan Dula. In our time, Gagalangin was a veritable piece of paradise, where you would find lush sampaguita gardens, rows and rows of yellow bell and violeta and gumamela bushes along the roads, mabolo, duhat, macopa, camachile and sampaloc, kawayan, aratiles and guava trees galore. And the residents, mostly shopkeepers, included artists, musicians, painters, writers, bureau directors, school teachers, professionals – all of them burgis, none of them very rich, … very few of the very poor – truly a microcosm of the Ideal Society, which the older Oliver Wendell Holmes called in the Bostonian society of his time, ‘The Reasonably Comfortable in Life.’ That was the Gagalangin of our affections.”
Veteran journalist and former Press Secretary Rod Reyes grew up in Tondo at a time when Asiong Salonga and Totoy Golem were the neighborhood toughies. Though not a Tondo boy, Joseph Estrada became famous with the masses and won his first Famas Award for portraying Tondo’s Robin Hood-like gangster Asiong Salonga in the 1961 hit movie.
Tondo’s activist tycoons, rugged entrepreneurs
I once inquired from Mariwasa’s Regina Sy-Coseteng about her late father-in-law Eduardo Coseteng’s pre-war sawmill in Balut, Tondo. The elder Coseteng was president while my father was the youngest vice president of the Philippine Lumber Merchants Association before World War II. Coseteng once served as Mayor of Xiamen City during a short-lived Fujian revolutionary regime in China backed by activist overseas Chinese tycoons.
A neighbor of Eduardo Coseteng in Balut was another sawmill tycoon and my grandfather’s second cousin, Dee Hong Lue, the long-time president of the lumber association, father of Catholic activist Ambassador Howard Q. Dee and father-in-law of Unilab founder Jose Yao Campos. A legend among Tondo’s rugged entrepreneurs was my great-grandfather’s first cousin, the simple-living sawmill tycoon Dy Pac. His vast sawmill was along Juan Luna St. and the Japanese jailed him for his stubborn defiance of their imperialism in Asia.
Back to back at the Gagalangin, Tondo, sawmill that our dad managed for over three decades was the vast Philippine Lumber Manufacturing Corp. sawmill of my grandfather’s second cousin Dee C. Chuan, which fronted Honorio Lopez Blvd. (named in honor of Tondo’s revolutionary hero and famed calendar-maker). Dee was an activist taipan who led the legal battle against the Bookkeeping Act, defied powerful politicos in the pre-war Philippine Congress, and supported a short-lived Fujian province revolutionary regime, which defied Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. Dee was also a leader of Asia’s defiance of Japanese military hegemony.
In modern times, there are not a few Tondo boys who rose to prominence in Philippine big business. Former poor-boy Senator Manny Villar once became ASEAN’s “low-cost housing king.” Now, as leader of the revitalized Nacionalista Party, will Villar espouse bold socio-political reforms reflecting the revolutionary tradition of his Tondo roots? Bicol-born transport tycoon Robin Sy of Balut is now president of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc. Despite moving up the social ladder and into an elegant Forbes Park mansion overlooking the Manila Golf Club, is Sy still a rugged Tondo boy at heart?
Speaking of entrepreneurs from Tondo, can anyone out there help verify an old kuwentong kutsero? Is there any truth to the claim that a certain Agapito Flores, supposedly of Tondo, was the Filipino inventor of the fluorescent lamp?
I lived the first six years and seven months of my life as a Tondo boy, until my father’s critical illness and death changed our idyllic world, and we moved to a quiet, small place in Quezon City. I recall that a few blocks from our old place at the back of Pavia St. was a lively wet market. Our place on Juan Luna St. was also near an Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) cathedral. Was this where Felix Manalo founded his evangelization work in Tondo in 1915 just a year after he established it? Can the powerful INC help turn the tide of mass poverty in Tondo?
As a boy, I recall sightings of evening Catholic religious processions passing solemnly by. We had a great vantage point. The windows of our residence on the second floor had old-fashioned windows with white capiz shells that my younger sister and I often mischievously pierced.
I also recall Tondo as the home of Manila’s famed horse-driven calesas. In fact, it was heartening to read in the news that the Samahan ng mga Kutsero at May-ari ng Kalesa Inc. is based in, where else, but Tondo! In the 1980s, there used to be 2,000 calesas or horse-drawn rigs all over Metro Manila. Now, there are only 300 calesas. Of these, the City Hall of Manila reported only 143 calesas registered in 2004. Is there still time and political will for the government and the tourism sector to save this once-popular trade from dying out?
Tondo as paradise lost, cradle of hope?
Why was Tondo a hotbed for revolutionary ferment and messianic dreams since the colonial era? Why did Tondo become home for the teeming masses of poor workers and their postwar slums? Was it due to the great railway station at Tutuban in Tondo or the North Harbor, where many provincianos disembark and make their first home in this district?
The late writer Andres Cristobal Cruz authored “Ang Tundo man ay may Langit din”. Can Tondo still be heaven here on earth, in this archipelago with rich natural resources contrasting with its masses of poor people?
Can we draw inspiration from the unique high concentration and combustible mix of arts, dissent, literature, romanticism, rugged entrepreneurship and hard-edged passions in Tondo from places like Gagalangin, Bangkusay, Moriones, the famed Divisoria marketplace, Juan Luna, Tayuman, Pritil and Balut?
Can the conscience of our many shameless corrupt politicians be disturbed and our society’s moral outrage be fired up by the smoldering slums in North Harbor, Dagat-Dagatan, Baseco, and Smokey Mountain with their iniquitous cesspools of poverty, vice, violence, illness, garbage and despair?
Tondo used to mirror the Philippines at its best, noble and most idealistic. Can we still salvage it from its worst? Can we alter the reality and image of ancient Tondo – as we refuse to be victims of cruel fate and strive to alter the destiny of the Philippines – from a paradise lost into a promised land of eternal hope?
(The foregoing article first appeared in the Philippine Star, February 22, 2005 and posted in The many faces of Tondo.)