In the second part of his discussion, Gonzalez outlined the other pillar of big spenders, the business dynasties that have grown on native soil. These family lines seem to bear a few common strengths: 1) they emerged from foreign roots and are mostly of Spanish and Chinese provenance 2) they are particularly enterprising and entrepreneurial, and 3) they have been quick to understand and adapt to Filipino culture fast enough to settle here for several generations.
Of course, there is nothing pedestrian about the way these families parlay their wealth.
A matriarch of one of our biggest clans happened to be so annoyed by random noises echoing into their house from the street—so what did she do? She had her husband buy all the surrounding streets, of course.
Another family member was worth billions but ironically died of malnutrition. Cause of death? Sheer frugality. Much to her family’s dismay, she was also known to sew live plants onto her party dresses instead of splurging on a proper tailored gown, which would cost the same as a car, or even a small house!
Speaking of gowns, the most expensive Filipino couturier of his time, Ramon Valera, would be paid by our high-society ladies in blank checks back in the ‘50s and the ‘60s. Don Amado ‘Amading’ Araneta followed suit, signing a PhP1,500 check to have the most exquisite gown made for his daughter’s debut. Back then PhP1,500 was already an outlandish price for a dress.
However, Araneta’s daughter saw this elaborate confection and asked Valera to chop off the sleeves, raise the hem up to her mid-thigh, and sew on various plastic beads and tiny mirror accents because she wanted to look moderna. And so the poor couturier agonized as to how he would explain to the great Don Amading that this tiny slip of a dress – half a yard of fabric -- cost him PhP1,500.
The same daughter, Toto relates, also had her own exclusive credit line, to be paid by Papa, at Tiffany and Co.
Other wealthy families that graced the most affluent streets of Old Manila included the Sorianos, Manahans, Tuasons, Tecsons, Zobels, Roxases, and Ayalas. Some of the more financially adventurous foreign immigrants also married well-bred native Filipinos who had an extraordinarily keen business acumen—which allowed them to establish their names among the ‘It’ crowd of their generation. They were the epitome of elegant Filipino society and luxury spending, and their excesses go as far back as the late 1800s.
Even in the 1900s, these clans’ extravagant lifestyles were made known to locals through the property they owned: well-manicured gardens, picture-perfect haciendas, and sprawling mansions built in the traditional pre-Colonial style that was the rage back then.
Alas, one of these beautiful designer mansions in Jaro, Iloilo in 1937, which even guested Baron Maurice de Rothschild, was eventually taken over and used as a torture chamber during the Japanese occupation; to this day the house survives, but the family who had it built never set foot in it again.
Many of these homes were furnished with opulent paintings by the likes of Hidalgo and Amorsolo, or beautiful home décor like hardwood aparadors, round tables made of narra, custom-built boxwood cabinets made by Philippine furniture pioneer Ah Tay, and the like. All these luxurious home accoutrements were carefully selected for their top quality, all the way down to the smallest thimbles—which were made of silver.
As Gonzalez noted, some of these items may now be considered by some collectors as third-class antiques, but we must remember that they used to be a sign of fine and high-class living when they were originally purchased.
Fast-forward to now, and some of the masterpieces owned by these families include the likes of Manansala, Malang, Ossorio, and Kiukok – which cost anywhere from the high six figures to the high millions. These tall tales—or are they?—stand as proof of how the Philippine cognoscenti have enriched our artistic heritage, thanks to their crazy rich lifestyles and their like-minded, well-appointed progeny who have continued the old traditions well into modern times.
Now how about a movie?