Menchu Katigbak, Techie Ysmael and Manila’s art patrons at the Leon Gallery
If Menchu Katigbak learned her manners and the formal ways of the de Buena families in the home of Claro M. Recto, finishing school in Switzerland gave her much knowledge and practice in deportment and gracious living, as much as smoking cigarettes.
When she returned to the Philippines and her mother caught her smoking, the outspoken Charing broke into a barrage of expletives, the bottom line being that she was not sent to Switzerland only to become a b…ch. She used the Tagalog word, of course. "But I wasn't even inhaling the smoke," she protested. "I just wanted to look sophisticated like the others." She also learned "how to drink a little wine."
Before returning to the Philippines, Menchu stayed a few more months in Spain where she continued to learn her French. And soon she was flying back to the Philippines and reenrolled at the Assumption Convent where she loved shocking the nuns with her antics. She would not graduate, though, but instead she married Vic Yupangco, a scion of the business clan. Menchu shared with Thelma Sioson (TS), author of Menchu, that when her future mother-in-law and her mother talked about their children getting married, the latter said, "Charing, if our children marry, we would end up owning the stretch from T.M. Kalaw to Harrison Boulevard."
Menchu walks out in style
Menchu, the book, is an easy read, very much conversational in tone. It could pass for what we call today as "Maritess' (our slang for gossip), except that the juicy parts came from Menchu herself, the thoroughbred horse's mouth as it were. My stories about Menchu, to belabor the obvious, were all taken from the book.
Finally, for this social climbing persona, I got to meet Menchu at the Leon Gallery Magnificent September preview cocktails. She came in, took a look at her Lao Lianben contribution to the auction, said hi to me (if I remember the exact word), and left as fast and unobtrusively as she could, obviously avoiding the crowd that she knew would soon fill the gallery. She wrote me a note later and said, "My apologies for walking out of Leon Gallery. I hope you're not offended. I am really like this. Thank you for understanding." Of course, I understood.
Techie Ysmael, being the prim and proper lady that she is, and precise with her ways, arrived early. Very much like her mother Chona, I would say. We talked a lot about the good old days, hers mostly, including her and Menchu's juvenile escapades. She recalled it was Menchu who introduced her to Picnic canned shoestring potatoes, everyone's favorite snack then, and for these, they would ride their bikes to go to Acme supermarket across the Santuario de San Antonio. But one time, they walked and after getting their supply of Picnic for the day, they decided to hitch a ride with the ACME delivery van. Of course, the driver and the delivery boy said no, but between the two of them "begging" for the ride and convincing "Kuya driver," they ended up going home fast and with less hustle. But to their consternation, as soon as they reached the Katigbak residence, who would arrive driving into the porte cochere but Menchu's dad who was of course aghast at the sight of Menchu and Techie and another friend alighting from the tiny truck. "Ano na naman ang ginawa niyo?" Charing reprimanded the trio later. (As an aside, I heard once that the same Charing Katigbak didn't like it when she heard that her widowed friend Chona was marrying HK whose sincerity she doubted or something to that effect, as the expression goes.)
Always gracious Thelma
Thelma Sioson, former lifestyle editor of a newspaper that has been shrunk in pages and ads by the pandemic and political comeuppance, I noticed, seems more relaxed, obviously because she no longer deals with the pressure of meeting deadlines. She was on her way to the Gucci showroom inauguration and had just accompanied Menchu to the Leon Gallery. Without her photographer, she gamely and sweetly took our pictures with her cp camera. Thelma has adapted to a more private life easily and graciously, which speaks a lot of her humility and nonchalance about her perceived power in her heyday, an attitude that may not probably be easily said of past lifestyle and society editors who faded or fell from their glorious perch.
Not a swan but a falcon
Another prompt arrival was that of Bobby Cuenca who, just a few hours earlier, had agreed to meet me at his home this Sunday as I am hoping to write a tribute to honor his late wife, Chingbee Kalaw, a popular teenager in her time and much later, a stylish matron. Tita Chingbee was how I called her because I used to work as a researcher of her best friend, Tingting Cojuangco, and since the Cojuangco children called her Tita, I also called her by the same appellation. Bobby asked how I am related to another dear friend of theirs, Esther Lee Sallee, and I explained that Esther is my first cousin, because my father and her mother, Auntie Chayong, were siblings. Talk about that prewar generation.
Earlier, Bobby, in our messenger exchange, was telling me that, unlike the women whom I would describe as society swans, "Chingbee was not a swan, she was more like a peregrine falcon." I agreed and said that Tita Chingbee was a strong no-nonsense woman, having googled the bird and found out about its swift flight, aggression, and martial prowess. "Exactly," Bobby replied.
I couldn't help recalling the late Senator Eva Kalaw's speech in the Senate when she said that she was a peace-loving Kalaw, and not an "ave de rapina," an allusion to the El Renacimiento editorial "Aves de Rapina," which almost earned for Tita Chingbee's grandfather Teodoro M. Kalaw a jail sentence. Of Tita Chingbee's inimitable style, I remember best her table settings in her Mandaluyong home and in her mom's antebellum home in the University Belt. I remember too that it was her idea to float lighted candles in dainty glasses on the moat near the Rajah Sulayman Theater when Peping and Tingting Cojuangco celebrated their silver wedding anniversary in Intramuros in 1987. It was a dramatic sight that added panache to the memorable evening.
Undisputed biggest collector
Jaime Ponce de Leon, the man who gave us back Juan Luna's missing "Hymen, oh Hyménée!," introduced me to art patron Paulino Que, the undisputed biggest collector of Philippine art, who shared that he has lent some of his Amorsolos and Fabian dela Rosas to back up the exhibition of Randalf Dilla, a young artist from Batanes known for his hyper-realistic socially conscious paintings. With Paulino giving the young artist his imprimatur, art collectors should now start lapping up their Dillas. Paulino shies away from publicity so I am banking on Jaime to arrange a tete-a-tete. I am grateful enough that the gentleman smiled when I asked to visit him for an interview. He replied, "Please, not anymore." At least, I could tell I had a brief exchange with the Paulino Que.
Lovely Mav Rufino, fresh from her recent triumph, the successful and well-attended opening of her Scintilla-Dreamscapes exhibition at the Conrad Art Gallery, animatedly talked with other society women, among them the ageless Vicky Zubiri, editor Ana Sobrepena and Techie. A youthful grandmother, Mav takes pride in her grandchildren, two boys and a girl, who are all very articulate, charming, respectful, and caring.
Marivic remembers Criselda
Before I moved to my next event, I bumped into Frannie Jacinto and Marivic Vasquez, who were eager to take a look at the artwork on display. I asked Marivic about her friendship with Criselda, whose creations are being auctioned off for the benefit of Bantay Bata. Marivic said, "Criselda was such a kind and elegant lady always willing to help in any way. I loved her clothes. They were very chic and they fit all types of women." The last time they talked was a few weeks before Criselda passed on. "We were both greeting each other for our birthday," Marivic recalled. I told her that I wanted to write a tribute story honoring her mom, Ising, and she agreed. A faithful wife and a devoted mother, the youngest daughter of Don Vicente Madrigal once told me, "You could give Marivic a financial statement, and just by looking at it, she would know if a company is doing well or not." If there was one who impressed the late Ising Vasquez, it was her daughter. She and her husband Danny once invited me to breakfast at the Manila Golf Club and when I joined them in their car and dropped them off at the Urdaneta Apartments, they said that if I wanted to use the car the whole day, I could "just tell the driver where you want to go." That was quite an offer but I wasn't going anywhere that day so I just asked him to take me to Rustan's, a stone's throw away from the couple's home.
To go back to Menchu, if there was one thing that she enjoyed growing up, it was cooking. Thelma quotes her in Menchu: "It was cooking that I loved. At 12, I was baking brownies, food for the gods, and upside-down cake. I would watch the help cook, and ask what it was they were cooking, then I'd make my own version. When I was newly married, I taught cooking to kids in our house in Dasmarinas Village. I love to cook because I love to eat."
Menchu is a book that allows ordinary mortals a peep into the lives of the demigods of society. Thelma succeeds in giving us the vicarious experience of a top hostess who had entertained VIPS in London, Paris, and Manila. She brings us into the presence of the likes of Wash Sycip, Chito Madrigal Collantes, Bobby Romulo, Susie Madrigal-Bayot, Eugenio Lopez Sr. and his wife, Nitang Moreno Lopez. It has been such a charmed life that Menchu shares with us in her eponymous biography authored by TS.
Finally, while Menchu admits early on to not being a good mother, she shares in the final chapter her happy family stories – not perfect but she is grateful for the way her two sons Martin and Rick love, admire, and respect each other.
She recalls, "I've always told Martin and Rick, 'It's just the two of you. You have only each other. Live with and forgive each other's faults. Make things work for the two of you.' Rick Idolizes Martin and I cannot take the credit for that." It is an advice that the brothers have taken to heart, coming as it does from a mother who raised them all by herself.
TS says it best, "To a parent, that the children are of one heart, though not necessarily of one mind, must be enough reward."