Robert Sylianteng and his wife, the former Lorraine Young, would seem to be the typical Chinese-Filipino couple engaged in business. Their roots are from Fujian and Canton, respectively, and their parents, through hard work and discipline, prospered in their commercial ventures.
Robert’s father, Sy Lian Teng, who arrived in the Philippines in 1918, bought Berg’s Department Store from the original American owner, Ernest Berg, in 1951.
Berg’s, a top retail establishment that catered to Manila’s smart set and the upper middle classes, was located on the ground floor of what was then originally known as the Pérez-Samanillo Building (Edificio Luis Pérez Samanillo), which was named after its former owner Luis Perez Samanillo.
Visiting Robert and Lorraine in their Escolta office, I was ushered first into a room that had a number of people staring down at their computers, obviously busy with the transactions of the day.
The business side of their life would be obvious to a first-timer, but once I was brought into an inner sanctum, just a few steps from the office, I realized this is a couple whose minds are not populated by numbers and profits alone.
I became aware of this wonderful, charming couple after they were mentioned to me by my dear friend, Isidra Reyes, known for her extensive knowledge of heritage sites and Filipiniana antiquities, which she generously but judiciously shares on social media. Isidra said I should attend this special event highlighting the restoration of the First United Building, which is how this famous Escolta edifice is known today.
Not being able to make it on the exact date, I visited Robert and Lorraine who did not only share their stories about their roots, the building that they now manage and the revival of Escolta. They also served me Chinese confectionaries, with which their round table was filled (I ate nonstop). I looked around and there were so many pictures that in themselves tell the story of the building and its various owners through the years.
Designed by Andres Lunda de San Pedro
This building, Robert and Lorraine told me, was designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro, the son of hero and painter Juan Luna and his wife, Maria dela Paz de Pardo de Tavera. The love affair of his parents, we all know, but his coming back to the Philippines and designing all those beautiful structures is what gives us visual and spiritual pleasure to this day. It turns out, after all, that theirs was an auspicious marriage that gave birth to beauty, if I may put it that way.
“In 1928, Manuel Perez married Agustina Samanillo,” related Lorraine. “They had two children, Luis and Rafael. They held the building for 40 years.
“Then, Cory Aquino’s father bought the building in 1968. But he held it for only 11 years. At that time, they had United Bank. But not long after, they decided to sell the bank, and his nephew, Eduardo or Danding, offered to buy the bank. So, Danding eventually owned half of the ground floor and the whole second floor. According to stories that we heard, Pedro told Danding, ‘If you want to buy the bank, you might as well buy the place that it occupies.’ And Danding agreed, with the understanding that the First United Corporation would convert the whole place into a condominium.”
Later, when Lorraine’s father-in-law heard that Pedro Cojuangco, the late president’s brother, was selling the rest of the building, including the third, fourth and fifth floor, along with the side of the ground floor where Berg’s was, which he already owned, he decided to buy the whole property that was available for sale.
“My father-in-law said that if we do not buy the rest of the building, the new owner would increase the rent until we end up closing the place. This was 1979.”
It was just in the nick of time that Sy LIan Teng acquired the property because it turned out that another Chinese businessman, Agustin Tanco, had wanted it, too. It seems that Tanco became interested after he bought from the Cu-Unjieng family the Yek Tong Lin Insurance Company, the first insurance company in the Philippines, having been established in 1906. It was based in Escolta, hence the attraction of this once uppity business section to the old man Tanco.
This building is now owned by the Sylianteng family, the Cocobank and a part, by the Tancos who bought their piece of the building from Cocobank.
Evolution of Escolta
Robert and his siblings had inherited the building from their father and mother, who was the second wife. The old Sy Lian Teng became a widower during the Liberation.
Lorraine shares, “He and his siblings inherited the building. But both of us worked for my father-in-law when he was still alive and was the owner of the building. But when he passed on, we continued to run it as agreed upon by Robert and his siblings. We just report to the rest of the family. They’re very progressive and do not meddle in the day-to-day running of the building. It is a family that has been founded on honesty, trust and respect. My father-in-law made sure of that.”
Robert shares in brief the evolution of Escolta which “for the longest time was relevant as a center of commerce. Over the years, from 1900s to today, it has evolved. During those days, business could get by 7 in the morning to 5 p.m. And then you would socialize with your business associates at night.
“But now, it goes on 24 hours, especially with the Business Processing Offices catering to an international clientele.”
Robert explains, “After the destruction of World War II during the Battle of Manila, people’s lives were reorganized. Subdivisions were built outside of Manila as it had yet to recover from its destruction. That caused the purchasing power to drift out of Manila. Others even left the Philippines. That’s why we have lots of kababayan in Hawaii, Los Angeles, among other places, because they all left.
“Change in ownership of property took place. Different kinds of economic reality took place as well. There was a change in the definition of what Manila is and who the Manileno is. As a result, some parts of Escolta changed, while others did not.”
What happened to Escolta was a fragmentation of sorts, in which some buildings have good businesses, while other buildings have declined. This has led to the weakening of this street as a commercial and recreation hub.
Lorraine points out that “the nail that killed Escolta was when PNB left us. That was when they transferred to Roxas Boulevard. That was in 1999. Before that, it was okay, because lots of people would still go to PNB, although the decline started sometime during the martial law years.”
Robert shares, “Marcos had great ideas for the Philippines, but that was when the Stock Exchange left, the bank headquarters moved to Makati, then the insurance companies left, too, one after the other. The Love Bus used to stop at Escolta. But that was when the Philippine National Bank was still here.”
As to the Sylianteng family, they were also in textile manufacturing until this industry suffered due to the presence of imports from countries like China. Berg’s closed down in 1982. “My father was still alive and was running the business. Because of the age of the firm, it was unionized. His stand was if he was making money, he would give it to the union. But the sales weren’t so good, so the only way was for it to close. Because if we continued operating, he would have ended borrowing money to be able to pay the union.”
The patriarch, Sy Lian Teng, passed on in 2004 at age 99. Although he never went to school, he taught himself Spanish and was fluent in Tagalog. He had five children, including Robert, by his Filipino wife, Emerenciana Antonio Suyangco of Navotas.
“My mother-in-law valued my father-in-law’s legacy. She told us not to sell their house on Vito Cruz and instead convert it into a museum.”
A community museum
Today, the First United Bank is a veritable museum. You enter, and you see photographs and artifacts. I was impressed that they had kept all these proofs of Escolta’s old glory.
“Ours is a community museum,” says Lorraine. “This is to distinguish it from the museum in the Calvo Building now owned by the Teoticos. It contains a lot of antiquities. While this one hopes to tell the story of Escolta as it evolved from its heyday to what we hope would be its resurgence.”
The couple has been helped by a number of well-meaning professionals. As early as 1986, after the EDSA Revolution, then Mayor Emiliano Lopez asked the building owners and administrators to organize into an NGO because “we had separate voices. He wanted a unified stand so the city hall would know how to assist us.” In 1993, the Escolta Commercial Corporation was finally organized and registered.
The city government in 2011 called for a meeting. BPO offices were going to be established and that required the building owners to “get our acts together. It would mean lighting up the place and making it livable and beautiful, a place where young people would want to hold office and report for work anytime of the day.”
Gemma Cruz, who was the tourism officer under the administration of Mayor Lim, explained to them the value of Escolta as a heritage site.
“She told us many facts that we never knew before. We were here for commerce all along, and never realized how rich the heritage of Escolta is,” says Robert. Of course, some of the best families still own, or at one time or another owned buildings here, including the Madrigals, Puyats and the De Leons of Pampanga.
The couple met Dom Galicia, an architect known for restoring heritage structures and preserving heritage sites.
He brought with him Architect Marica Constantino, who suggested a residency for artists. “We first didn’t know what she was talking about,” says Lorraine. “It turned out it would mean the young artists would come, create and get to know more about the community.”
Soon, other preservationists and artists like Daniel Cayona and Richard Tuason Bautista came, too, and then the young people.
Inspired by what she had seen abroad, and awed by the art works being produced by the young artists who were in residency, Lorraine suggested that “we hold an occasional market where people will buy all these beautiful things made by the people themselves.” It wasn’t long before tourists would come back to this once-upon-a-time the “place to be” in cosmopolitan Manila.
Escolta, thus, has been reborn, while the other building owners have been inspired to do their own restoration work, while participating in community activities.
Robert says they are not alone in this endeavor, which is to resurrect Escolta. “This is a group undertaking, and we are happy that the other building owners now appreciate the value of heritage preservation. The result is a more vibrant Escolta, one that people will want to visit again and again, to just relax, shop and, once again, transact business.”