The Philippines' 1st tycoon and his 3rd generation scion
EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - November 7, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA,Philippines — It all started in 1920s, so  goes the story.

The man who would become the country’s first pre-war tycoon would put up a business in the Philippines,  a company that still exists even to this day.

The man arrived in the Philippines at the age of 18.

The man from Fujian

He came all the way from that fabled land of Fujian to follow his father, a butcher, who had earlier migrated to Manila to escape civil unrest. 

The butcher’s son put up many businesses that would later make him a prominent industrialist, perhaps the country’s first pre-war tycoon.

Very few remember him now. His name is Ching Banlee, the man behind Cheng Ban Yek & Co. which he put up in 1920.

“He is the country’s first tycoon,” his granddaughter Rachel Renucci-Tan tells me over dinner. Rachel and her husband Patrick Renucci are the trail blazing French/Ita-lian-Filipina couple behind the fast growing Renucci rice brand in the Philippines.

How serendipitous, I say.

I have been trying to research stories about the country’s first tycoons -- way before the time of Henry Sy, George Ty, John Gokongwei, Lucio Tan and all the tycoons we know now, I tell her.

I listened in awe as she shared with me tales about her grandfather. 

“He was a butcher’s son. He put up many businesses. He started as a rice producer in Nueva Ecija. At the time, it was the rice bowl of the country,” she says.

I researched some more, and with the help of Rachel, here’s what I gathered.

Building an empire

Ching Banlee’s story was quite a remarkable one and similar to the tales of our present-day tycoons because he also built his empire from scratch.

Hard work, grit and perseverance were common traits these tycoons – past or present – shared. 

In a book about Ching Banlee’s collection of paintings, his son Alfredo Ching narrated Ching Banlee’s journey from China to Manila and how he became a tycoon. 

Ching Banlee was born in 1888 in Jinjiang, Fujian in the village of Sanguangtian in the town of Qingyang.

“At 16, he graduated from the village school with exceptional marks and having earned the high regard of the principal, himself became a teacher in the school. At 18, he followed my grandfather in the Philippines to begin a new livelihood. There, in an arduous half-century of unspeakable hardships, he built his fortune with his bare hands. All the businesses he founded had to do with providing the daily necessities of clothing, food and shelter: for example, vegetable oil, soap, tobacco, textiles, steel, insurance and trade in commodities,” his son Alfredo said in an article dated Feb. 28, 2002 and which was published in a book about Ching Banlee’s collection of paintings. 

Baguio Oil: Order ni misis

Unfortunately, many of Ching Banlee’s businesses are no longer around but one company still stands and is a producer of a cooking oil which remains a market leader in the country.

This is Baguio Oil, that quintessential cooking oil popularilized by its tagline “Order ni Misis.” 

“He invented the cooking oil formula and sold it in plastic bags, using his bicycle around Binondo. In time and with a lot of grit, persistence, and sheer determination, he transformed Baguio Oil into the leading cooking oil in the Philippines,” Rachel says. 

Today, Cheng Ban Yek, which is still the company behind Baguio Oil is in the hands of the third generation -- Rachel’s relatives – and continues to produce Baguio Oil. 

Through the decades, Ching Banlee went back to China to establish businesses there. When World War II broke, he contributed materially to fight Japanese occupation in the Philippines. In 1965, he flew to Boston to see a friend, but unfortunately suffered a sudden heart attack and died at the young age of 66, the book also says.

Renucci rice

The lessons from Ching Banlee’s story certainly ring loud in the heart of Rachel, his granddaughter.

She, together with her husband Patrick put up Chen Yi Agventures to produce high quality rice from Leyte’s farms using state-of-the-art Japanese technology. 

The husband and wife team just started, but theirs is already quite a story that deserves another piece. 

But for starters, here’s what I learned about Renucci Rice. It is 100 percent all natural rice freshly harvested from Leyte. It uses no preservatives, additives or pesticides. The rice is pure and not mixed with imported rice. Consumers know where every grain comes from.

It’s an important business and endeavour, especially at this time when the country is facing a rice crisis, I tell Rachel. 

Rachel and Patrick hope to make Leyte a major rice producer someday. 

It sounds promising indeed and more importantly, Rachel says, with Renucci Rice, she is able to bring the legacy and the story of her grandfather – who was once a rice producer – full circle.

Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

PHILIPPINE 1ST TYCOON
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