By Joel Pablo Salud |Special to the BusinessMirror
It was half past the summer of 2009 when, as the new boy in the Philippines Graphic newsroom, I was introduced to the company’s chairman emeritus, Ambassador Antonio L. Cabangon Chua. I was then just recently hired as the magazine’s new managing editor.
At the doorway to his office, I saw the ambassador standing all dapper and sporty in his dark blue jacket, sports shirt and beige pants, even as he sported a smile that made me feel doubly welcome.
I immediately sensed a humility to him that defied explanation. I had worked in numerous companies prior to working with the Aliw Media Group. I was no stranger to corporate top brass. The same level of modesty I sensed in my new boss came few and far between.
Very few had had the chance to meet the man, whom many fondly call Amba, up close. As we shook hands and settled in his office, I noticed a huge framed photograph of a lovely woman in Filipiniana attire hanging by his wall. I recall wondering who the woman was, until later in the day when I was told she was the ambassador’s mother, Dominga Lim Cabangon.
Past the routine civility of introducing myself as his new hired hand, Amba immediately set the pace of the conversation. No small talk, no further courtesies; just a gesture of trust I rarely see in other bosses I’ve worked with in the past.
“I want you to interview General Ermita for the magazine today,” the ambassador said, obviously eyeing me with a bit of curiosity. After about half a minute of silence, he waved at his secretary, who apparently knew what the gesture meant.
Turning to me, he then said, “My driver and my car are waiting for you downstairs. Hijo, I have worked with a lot of journalists and editors in my lifetime. All I ask is that you be fair.”
With no further instructions, he stood up and kindly saw me out the door. As I strolled past the secretary’s desk, he again called and asked me to draw near.
Thereafter, he leaned over and said, “I want you to think of the magazine as your own, and think of me as your own father. From this day on, I will treat you as one of my children. We’re your family, always remember that. If you need anything, anything at all, don’t have second thoughts of asking me.” He then patted me on the shoulders.
That alone said a lot about the sort of individual I was to respect as my boss. Little did I know then that there was more to this man than meets the eye.
Weeks into the job saw me scrounging for information about the ambassador—who he is, how he runs things. I have yet to hear anything adverse when, quite by accident, I stumbled on two books, one written by National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, Antonio L. Cabangon Chua: A Saga of Success, and its sequel penned by award-winning writer Jose F. Lacaba and Eric S. Caruncho.
While I was not the sort who read biographies, Joaquin and Lacaba were good enough reasons to flip the pages.
Tony Cabangon’s life as a child cared for by single parent—his mother Dominga—along the poorer side of Barrio Namayan in Mandaluyong was anything but a breeze.
During and immediately after World War II, the young Tony ran errands as a servant, rented out komiks, sold newspapers and magazines, and buffed the shoes of American GIs just to make ends meet. Later on, with a little help from a vocational course, the future ambassador to Laos worked as an automotive and diesel mechanic and a passenger jeepney driver.
His mother Dominga borrowed money from rich relatives in exchange for life’s modest needs.
Often ill-treated to the point of being humiliated, both mother and son soldiered on, Tony more than ever, who did everything humanly possible to ease the poverty of his mother.
It was a hard climb for both mother and son, but none too steep for Tony to reach. To ease the grip of poverty, the young Tony engaged in everything, from vending fish whenever he can to finally opening a humble sari-sari store in that pitiful riverside barrio they called home.
One defining moment in young Tony’s life came by way of an American GI. In the book The Continuing Saga of Success, written by award-winning poet Jose “Pete” Lacaba and Eric S. Caruncho, Tony himself reminisced about the incident.
Tony related that while he was shining the shoes of a GI, his eyes caught the pear the man was eating. Tony hardly had a bite to eat for hours. As if to taunt him, the GI asked if Tony wanted the pear.
“And this son-of-a-bitch American knew my mouth was watering for that pear he was eating. ‘You want this pear, boy?’ he grinned at me. I could only gape at him. The pear was only half-eaten and suddenly he hurled it away. ‘Go get it, boy!’ I didn’t move […] I refused to stir.”
It was then that the GI kicked the young boy “like a dog.” The sudden violence forced the young Tony to scamper under a six-by-six truck for safety, where he wept because of the pain.
“But at the time,” Tony said, “I felt something of my mother’s pride. I hadn’t run to pick up that thrown-away pear the GI wanted me to eat. I was very thin then, probably malnourished, certainly quite hungry. But I had not run after food like a dog. I had shown the American how even in misery, one can keep one’s pride.”
It served the young boy a lot of good to see to it that his mother was cared for by him all throughout her life, earning for himself some home-spun wisdom along the way. Coupled with being streetwise, the young Tony began his dream of a life even while in high school and college.
With more than ample resources from the sari-sari store, the young Tony ventured into being a driver of a passenger jeepney in his middle teens. It was, as he said, his first car. His job as driver and shopkeeper kept him busy all throughout the day, plying the Pandacan, Santa Ana and Paco routes. The hours he spent as college student of the University of the East he dedicated to studying until he made it into the Dean’s list.
No summer went by without seeing Tony on campus, between the pages of textbooks and inside classrooms. He was, at an early age, a man in a hurry. In three years, and at the age of 22, he was able to finish what was supposedly a four-year commerce course.
However, his attempt at being a certified public accountant proved disastrous for a time in Tony’s estimation. He had failed the first test. While on the verge of taking the second, his first business as a jeepney operator was already taking off.
But he had better things in mind than the meager return on investments he received from driving and operating a fleet of public-utility jeeps. Able to convince college friends to invest their money on a new venture—a pawnshop—Tony took on the reins of what would be a defining moment in his career as a businessman.
It cost him more than a hand and a limb: all of the P30,000 savings he garnered from operating a fleet of passenger jeepneys.
And so rose the Filipinas Pawnshop at the corner of Herran (currently Pedro Gil Street) and General Luna in Paco, Manila. It still stands today as an admirable tribute to the ingenious young man who knew how to turn his misfortunes into fortunes.
At the age of 26, Antonio L. Cabangon Chua was the youngest member of the Chamber of Pawnbrokers of the Philippines. He would decades later stand as the country’s diplomat to Laos and chairman emeritus of one of the country’s largest and most extensive business and media enterprises—the Antonio L. Cabangon Chua Group of Companies and the Aliw Media Group.
In honor of his mother’s memory, the ambassador shares his blessings through the Dominga L. Cabangon Memorial Foundation. With its goal of supporting needy children through education, the foundation has lent its hand in support of hundreds of scholars belonging to deserving children of his employees, also to priests seeking further education.
With this comes his homage to his good friend and first editor in chief of the Philippines Graphic, National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin: the Quijano de Manila Foundation. The foundation’s aim is to offer financial assistance to the effort of developing young writers and children of journalists. The Philippines Graphic Nick Joaquin Literary Awards, now on its 25th year, seeks to enhance writers’ skills by empowering them with tools needed for the task.
“Whether you’re rich or poor, everyone has 24 hours in a day. It’s what you do with your 24 hours that counts. In life, you never give up.”
*Joel Pablo Salud is currently the editor in chief of the Philippines Graphic.