Deaths in the empires
EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - November 14, 2019 - 12:00am

One died peacefully on Nov. 9 a number that symbolizes life after death marking a grand ending to a legendary life story; the other collapsed on the same day, doing one of the things closest to his heart basketball and was a warrior to the very end in this game called life.

Two deaths, two great men, two empires. What happens next?

The passing last Saturday of John Gokongwei Jr., founder of JG Summit Holdings Inc., and the death on Monday of Lucio “Bong” Tan Jr., the maverick tycoon who was a possible successor to his father Lucio Tan, have left the country’s business community shocked and saddened. And inevitably, curious too.

How will the two deaths affect the respective empires?

It was just an ordinary Saturday morning when it happened. News and video clips of Bong’s collapse while playing basketball spread fast. Initially, people close to him thought it wasn’t anything serious and that he was probably just tired, dehydrated or hungry because of intermittent fasting, a bout of diarrhoea and hypo-glycemia. 

Even the advisory sent by Philippine Airlines later that day said Bong was already in stable condition.

Less than 12 hours after came the news of Mr. John’s passing. 

On Monday morning, Death came to fetch Bong, too. He died of aneurysm. The night before, his close friends rushed to the ICU on the fifth floor of Cardinal Santos to bid him farewell. By then, word had spread that there was no brain activity and that “Bong could go anytime.”

Some visitors told me that Bong’s half siblings were also there and were in tears. Michael who was abroad on official business, cut his trip short and rushed home to see Bong on Sunday night, said one visitor who was also there when Michael arrived at the ICU.

Death really comes like a thief in the night and for sure, will leave a void in the two empires.

 Big John’s Empire

In the case of the Gokongwei empire, Mr. John had already passed on the reins to his brother James Go and his only son Lance long before he died. 

It was a smooth transition and the brilliant and amiable Lance successfully rose to the occasion with the help of his MIT-educated, business savvy Uncle James.

The next chapter in the empire would be how Mr. John’s legacy carries on to the next generations. 

Bong Tan

As for Lucio Tan’s empire, this one’s a curious case. The story of this sprawling multi-billion dollar empire after all isn’t exactly simple with so many twists and turns.

The taipan himself, still strong at 85, is enigmatic and at times controversial and with the death of Mr. John, is now the country’s lone surviving ethnic Chinese billionaire who migrated to the Philippines before World War Two.

Bong, 53, played many roles in Tan’s conglomerate. He was president of PAL Holdings, Tanduay, Eton, Foremost Farms and directors in many Tan-owned companies.

In one of my recent conversations with Bong, he said he would be taking on more roles in his dad’s empire.

“I might expand my responsibilities again! Oh boy...”

Before that talk, he was named head coach of the UE Red Warriors. I congratulated him.

“Nakakapagod. No time na. Tanduay,  Foremost, Eton, Macroasia.  Now UE pa!” he replied.

He said someone in his shoes needs to be able to manage the time well and stay fit and healthy.

And who would that be? I wonder now.

Only time will tell.

In my very first interview with him not too long ago at Century Hotel, I asked him about the pink elephant in the room — who could be the heir to his father’s throne?

“Whoever is qualified...,” he said nonchalantly.

In the same breath and turning to his usual light and funny demeanor, he said that might not be necessary anyway.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because my dad will live forever!” he said in jest. 

At Bong’s wake at the Heritage, there was a life-sized cut-out figure of Iron Man Bong’s favorite Marvel hero  in a dynamic action pose but instead of Tony Stark’s face, there was Bong’s photo, showing his trademark youthful smile.

I smiled when I saw it because it was a fitting homage to Bong and the life he lived.

In the Marvel universe, Iron Man  described as a smart, funny and rich man  dies after saving the world, marking the end of an era and leaving many hearts broken.

Like Iron Man, Bong fought to the very end and the full life he lived reminds us that we are all the protagonists of our time and that the future of others greatly depends on our actions. 

We can choose to be like Thanos who destroys the universe in a snap of a finger; or we can try to be like Iron Man who fights the evil forces and tries to make the world better. 

Bong, needless to say, chose to be the Iron Man in his real life Marvel universe. 

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

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