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Sonny Imperial Tinio: Champion of heritage

Jojo G. Silvestre



This being Heritage Month, a number of articles in various publications have been written about the champions of the preservation and popularization of Philippine heritage. One such gentleman whose name has recently been occupying the headlines is Martin “Sonny” Imperial Tinio Jr. who, for decades, has been considered an expert in matters of yesteryears’ treasures that are today’s favorite collectibles.

Unfortunately, even as he continues to make a big dent in the Philippine heritage scene, our millennials do not know enough of him. Just recently, he was honored in a big society event, its reportage splashed all over Facebook, but one young cultural enthusiast asked me rather naively, “But who is Sonny Tinio?

I have had a rare chance to interview him a few years ago in his treasure-filled San Juan home. He was not only welcoming as he served me cookies and coffee. He also showed me around his townhouse, every nook an antiquarian’s delight.

While space limitations would not allow me to share everything I learned and heard from Sonny, here are a few things about him that, I believe, would make people understand why he is such a very much respected, admired and feted guy.

The first time he ever wrote an article about Philippine antiquities was “when I was invited to contribute to the Filipino Heritage book series.”

On his mother’s side of the family, Sonny’s great grandfather Cirilo Jaucian was the richest man in Bicol. He was known as the Abaca King.

Jaucian’s younger brother, Balbino, was the richest man in Daraga. On his father’s side, Sonny descends from Juan Tinio who was the gobernadorcillo of Gapan, and was the first and only middleman of the tobacco monopoly. According to Sonny, his father, Martin, founded the PCI Bank.

Shared Sonny, “My interests are in antiques, genealogy, architecture, agriculture, jewelry, silver. You know, when I was young, I wanted to be like Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. They were my idols when I was 10 years old.”

Like many young men from good families, Sonny went to Europe after his high school in La Salle. “I went to Zurich in Switzerland, that’s why I speak German,” related Sonny. “My parents were insisting that I take up engineering, but it was not really my cup of tea.” He eventually enrolled in New York University where he pursued a degree in commerce.

He was only 16 when he had his American sojourn. “I was in the States for two and a half years,” he recounted. “I enjoyed New York. My emergency money in the bank was $20,000 in 1961. My friends included the Coffee Queen of Brazil and the Sheik of Kuwait, who were my classmates, and the son of the Minister of Egypt.”

He did not pursue architecture, his first love, an interest that started when an uncle gave him a Book of Knowledge which he read from “cover to cover. I was only eight years old.”

Already talented in his youth, Sonny read in nine languages — French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Bicol and Tagalog. Wanting to read the poems of Omar Khayyam, he learned Arabic under an imam. This was during the martial law years.

The first time he ever wrote an article about Philippine antiquities was “when I was invited to contribute to the Filipino Heritage book series. I had five articles. At that time, Dr. Robert Fox was excavating at the Tabon caves in Palawan. It was also around that time when we were operating a lumber concession in Palawan.

“Bob Fox needed someone to write about gold, which was timely because I was then into gold. He asked me if I could do the article, and I told him that I never took journalism so I was not sure if my writing would suffice. And he said, ‘Never mind, just write it.’”

He wrote the article in two days, but was bashful came submission time. Dr. Fox then called him, explaining that the book was already in the press, so his article was all they were waiting for. He had no choice but to submit it.

They liked his article and the next thing he knew, he was offering to write again, this time about silver and ecclesiastical furniture.

While writing may not have been easy at first for Sonny, he had ample knowledge of what he was writing about. After all, he had been collecting ivory since he was 11 years old. “My first ivory was given to me by my grandma. She would tell me that I was born in the wrong generation — that if I had been born earlier, I would have seen a lot more.”

Sonny may have been born in the wrong era, but the fact has not made him ignore the wonders of his past and the joys they could give us. Instead, he endeavored to learn more about Philippine history and its material culture and ended up contributing significantly to the body of works on our antiquities.