To a lot of social observers, the parties of the mid-1940s all the way to the 1960s and a tiny fraction of the 1970s were no more than frivolous affairs that both the hosts and the guests intended to make up for the time lost during the war.
One city mayor of Manila condemned them as venues for an insensitive display of wealth as the society women wore expensive, fabulous gowns and accessorized them with magnificent jewelry. He then proceeded to ban these balls organized by two competing social clubs that took root from the members’ successes in commercial enterprise and ethnic sense of pride.
They were the Kahirup and Mancomunidad, composed of Visayans and Pampangueños, respectively. It was an era when those who had ’em flaunted ’em.
As goings-on in the social scene were faithfully recorded, the women who read the society pages derived vicarious pleasure from finding out the interesting details that made these functions memorable — which most eligible bachelor escorted the prettiest señorita, who danced the Rigodon de Honor, what courses were served during dinner, how the hall was spruced up by which decorator, who spoke which witty remarks, and who, of course, wore the best gown. It happened now and then that the exaggeratedly ornamented gowns were not necessarily the ones that elicited the most resounding applause for the wearers. Now and then, someone like Chona Recto Ysmael would wear something simple and the crowd would be impressed by such show of elegance.
The lady to look for
Conchita Sunico, Carnival Queen of 1935, a top social figure, belonged neither to the Pampanga nor the Ilonggo cliques that organized these balls. To be sure, she was invited to their grand affairs, her presence being a must in any Manila event of note. Besides, she herself organized parties that everyone who mattered attended. More importantly, one had to matter to her, because if Conchita Sunico did not like your company, no matter if you were the richest man or the most bejeweled woman in town, she did not invite you to her balls held at the Manila Hotel or in her own home on the tony side of the Malate-Ermita area.
Considered by the top social tier as Manila’s hostess with the mostest, Conchita Sunico (or Tita Conching to the younger generations) didn’t need any affiliation, like a shared interest in the produce of a land, to host a ball. There certainly were enough causes that required her leadership and organizational skills as the foremost fund-raiser. And as soon as she was asked to put together a charity event, including fashion shows, she wasted no time in getting the ball rolling all the way to D-day, as it were. Besides, there were always milestones she or a family member or a friend celebrated, and she could then host a party for at least 50 all the way to the hundreds. But of all these reasons, it was the coming and going of an American or foreign dignitary that revved her up to organize a bienvenida or a despedida get-together.
“No cozy little dinners for me. I’d rather give costume parties for 50 or more. You spend as much energy planning a small dinner or a big one,” Conchita said.
Her bosom friend, Mary Prieto, actress and columnist, once told this writer, “Conching had a great time with the US Navy. Whenever a new admiral came to town, he had already heard of her. He’d look her up and she would give a party, and they would become friends.”
Conchita Sunico was the person to look for when one arrived on Philippine shores. Equipped with a letter of introduction, or the permission to drop the name of someone she had previously honored or entertained, one was as good as having arrived. “Arrived in Philippine society,” that is. This included those who were just passing through, as their vessels lay anchored on Philippines shores.
Tita Conching’s interest in foreign dignitaries is beyond our understanding. But it’s probably fair to assume that having grown up during the American period, she had her share of American friends with whom she could see eye to eye, given that she was ahead of her time.
She was modern and these American friends of hers appreciated, understood and respected her for who she was. In short, she was good company and they responded to her warmth and vitality, as much as she did to theirs.
In between the welcome and goodbye parties would have been a series of balls, dinners, barn dances, Arabian nights and theme parties of all sorts that made one’s tenure as good as in any prestigious post. For not only were they a break from the dreariness of duty, they also were opportunities for adding to one’s social cachet by showing off hidden or half-forgotten talents like singing, dancing, acting, playing a musical instrument and, yes, bartending. Even palm and card reading was an asset.
Parties with a purpose
What many failed to see was the informal yet significant role that Conchita Sunico’s parties performed. Obviously, these were occasions when the top men of industry, the leading socialites and the foreign dignitaries got together under one roof. Or sky, if you will.
Acquaintances were made, and friendships were deepened. Consequently, it made things easy when it came time to negotiate agreements, transact deals and establish partnerships.
Tita Conching, without our labeling her, was the darling of the foreign set and was, at the same time, the diplomat without a post. She was, like it or not, one of the country’s ambassadors at large, in an unofficial capacity and yet the best in the practice of the profession.
This may sound presumptuous and yet, there is, to say the least, a grain of truth to an assertion that she more than gave parties. She actually got the best and the brightest, the powerful and the influential together in informal circumstances, grand as they may be, and in so doing, allowed them to dispense with the formalities and niceties when, in another circumstance, they had to sit on the table where the big decisions were made. Conchita Sunico was one woman who, intentionally or not, played her part in unifying the world in a way that was both fun and fabulous. And with everyone enjoying and not being consciously stiff about throwing in their bit for international peace. Wasn’t she great she hosted these parties?
As her friend Mary Prieto quipped, “A Sunico party was a command performance. Nobody turned down an invitation from Conchita Sunico. It was always fun going to Conching’s parties. That, I remember. She gave all kinds of parties. Not just theme parties. You know, when about five of us were gathered in her house, that was already a party. She could organize a party in a second. She would know whom to invite and whom not to. She could gather people, make calls and before you knew it, she had a house full of people. The right mix of people, that is.”
But to have been labeled as the hostess with the mostest, one did not go about campaigning for such a title. While Conchita Sunico knew how to handle the press, because she needed them for her many charitable undertakings, she certainly was not one to deliberately create an image or establish a reputation for herself, the way some socialites today cultivate friendships with the press with the hope their photos, only the flattering ones, and names, correctly spelled and never written off as “a friend of the hostess,” appear in the lifestyle pages, for every birthday bash, wedding reception, art exhibit opening, gala night and theme party that they attend.
Still, high society, many would say, would not be what it is without the society pages, or the reportage on the lifestyle of the rich and privileged. While Manila’s 400 came into being at a time when money was not the gauge for inclusion in the list but lineage, publicity even then was essential to the formation of a high society. After all, what was the point of being part of something that others who did not belong did not get to know about? More, what was the point of aspiring to belong and to be invited if your relatives, friends, classmates didn’t know you had arrived?
A league of her own
Virginia Benitez Licuanan of Style Magazine wrote, “Somebody once remarked that when Conching gives a party, it is a veritable production with an eye always towards the original and the dramatic if not in the party motif, in decoration and food. Food and party décor always seem to go hand in hand since the food is part of the arrangement. Preparations for Conching’s parties are not so complicated as the unusual results might lead her guests to believe. Usually, she tells her favorite decorator an idea for the central theme and leaves all to him to carry out checking only on the general effect. Food is likewise no problem for the Sunico household with its efficient and experienced cooks. Guests, Conching considers the most important element of a party, and Conching’s guest lists usually tend to the cosmopolitan and diplomatic crowd who have a penchant for gay and uninhibited party doings, and more likely than not, stay up to almost dawn.”
Of Conchita Sunico’s parties, Carolina Guerrero, who briefly served as society editor of the Manila Times because her husband’s family was close to the Roceses, only had good and kind words to say: “They used to compare her with Elsa Maxwell. Conching’s parties were very well-organized. Hindi gaya ng iba, there were loose ends (Unlike other parties that had loose ends). They always went smoothly. She always had very nice people in her parties.”
Conching Sunico was a different hostess, a league of her own, an oft-repeated phrase that, well, described her to a T.
Take, as an example of her legendary hospitality, the dinner party that was dubbed as the Asian Dinner, as reported by Rosario Querol:
“Her parties, often unusual and sometimes spectacular, are not easily forgotten. Take the despedida party she organized for Rear Admiral and Mrs. Hugh Goodwin about two years ago. Admiral Goodwin did a tour of duty here as commander of United States naval forces in the Philippines.
“The society columnists called it an ‘Asian dinner,’ but it had much more than that. Six Asian countries were represented in the motif – China, Burma, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan. Six prominent figures gave Miss Sunico an assist.
“Peggy Lim, attractive in cheongsam, presided over the Chinese table set with exquisite china. A figure of the obese Chinese god of prosperity smiled over a setting of red tablecloth and provided the centerpiece.
“Nelly Lovina, in two shades of aqua brocade longyi and authentic Burmese coiffure, took charge of the Burmese table which was covered with metallic cloth. The centerpiece was a big brass bowl with exotic orchids.
“Peping Corominas played a turbaned maharajah at the Indian table, which was covered with red and gold sari and dramatized by bursts of calachuchi in three brass vases.
“Leonor Carmelo, in authentic Indonesian dress, was hostess at the Indonesian table, which were covered with batik cloth and enlivened by typical Indonesian figures.
“Chito Madrigal, in the gleaming dress of a Thai dancer, was in charge of the Thai table covered with saffron cloth. The centerpiece was a golden statue of a Thai dancer standing between two pyramids of red and orange daisies. The statuette was eye-catching, but Mrs. Vasquez, under a towering headdress encrusted with gems, was definitely in command.
“Conching Sunico herself presided at the Japanese table – a low, red-lacquered dining set with fine lacquerware laid over big black fans which served as placemats. In a gorgeous Japanese kimono, Miss Sunico blended with the surrounding area – a garden lit with Japanese lanterns hanging from the trees.
“Food served at each of the tables reflected the best in the culinary art of the countries represented, and the multi-nation menu soon generated lively curiosity. Guests at the Indian table, for instance, found means to sample the dishes laid out on the Japanese table.
“Never,” quipped one guest, “was India so near Japan.”
“After a big dinner, Admiral and Mrs. Goodwin and the other guests sat back on their chairs to enjoy a ‘floor show’ which was planned as a high point of the party. Party-goers still remember it as a model audience participation show.
“The skit showed four American sailors on a spree in Asia. Finding themselves in China, Burma, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan (the various tables were part of the ‘stage setting’), they lost no time, amid explosions of wit and banter, striking friendships with everybody. To please the ‘sailors,’ Miss Sunico did a Japanese dance. Her counterparts at the other tables also performed dances of the countries they represented.”
End of an era
Notwithstanding the occasional visit of the likes of the couturier Pedro Rodriguez of Spain or the frequent presence of passing-through fleet commanders, Conchita Sunico’s guests knew one another, no matter if they were by the hundreds. It was a small society but it was also getting bigger and bigger. In time, there was no stopping the onslaught of newcomers who hoped to get one foot in after the other, and stay for good. Some crashed, of course. But by then, Conchita had stopped giving her celebrated fetes and, in her usual audacious self, announced that the era of fantabulous parties was coming to an end.
In another feature story, Charing Querol wrote:
“’The era of fantabulous parties is over,’ says Conchita Sunico, who should know whereof she speaks. For the past three decades or so, she has made news for the colorful and imaginative dinner-balls she threw singly, or jointly with other hosts as of a few years back, for prominent figures in local cosmopolitan circles and for distinguished visitors from the United States, Europe and nearby Asian countries.
“Personally (and no one can quarrel with her on this), she thinks that the mood of the times dictates less indulgence in excesses. Also, the exigencies of her job as a top executive of the brokerage firm, Enrique Santamaria and Co., and as representative of the Delgado interests of the Adkins Travel Agency have made her channel her energies more toward business and industry.
“’The last time I gave a big party was five years ago – the costume fete which, Luis Araneta and I co-hosted, the Shanghai Night for Chito Madrigal at the Architectural Centre. Guests came as famous characters in Shanghai and the place was transformed into a replica of Shanghai’s Majestic Night Club,’ says Conching.
“Conching still loves to play hostess at home, but invariably, at small, intimate dinners which are still standouts for her fastidious attention to details. She has to day translated her talent at ‘producing’ fiestas with the ambience of a De Mille or a De Sica costume film production, to a more substantial cause than just getting people together. This is for the promotion of Philippine trade abroad through annual cultural shows labeled ‘Karilagan,’ which combines Philippine fashions, music and dances.”
Less than a decade after Conching made the pronouncement, martial law was declared, and Imelda Marcos took over the social scene. A few years later, the then First Lady would get Sunico out of retirement and appoint her as executive director of the Metropolitan Theater. Here, she would once again be in her element, this time producing world-class performances not unlike the fashion shows she produced and orchestrated to promote Philippine fabrics, design and, of course, designers who would all became her protégés.