No one writes the Colonel

ZOETROPE - Juaniyo Arcellana () - October 13, 2008 - 12:00am

Hardly anyone writes to the colonel these days, not since the death of national artist Nick Joaquin four years ago, who was Colonel Antonio Cabangon Chua’s linchpin in the Graphic group of publications and author of Cabangon Chua’s biography, The Saga of Success. Now that biography has a sequel, The Continuing Saga of Success (Brown Madonna Press), which Joaquin originally started work on, but written in its final form by the tandem of Jose F. Lacaba and Eric Caruncho. Though we weren’t privy to the goings on of the first book, we daresay that the Continuing Saga doesn’t miss a beat; Lacaba is a known protégé of the late great writer, and himself worked for a time at the Cabangon publications, while Caruncho gives the project a decidedly pop-rock appeal.

In the new work, set for launch on the Colonel’s birthday end August coinciding with the opening night of the Manila Grand Opera Hotel, a boutique reincarnation of the Grand Opera House in Sta. Cruz which is another Cabangon brainchild, mention is made how Joaquin in the previous work described the move of his subject from barangay Namayan to Wack Wack — both coincidentally in Mandaluyong — as if it were “from the gutter to the stars.”

With due respect to the National Artist, however romantic the phrase sounds it wouldn’t sit too well with those who have stayed on and resided in that riverside “gutter” all these years, including the neighboring barangay Vergara which the sportswriter Recah Trinidad (another Joaquin protégé, by the way) has immortalized in his columns. But for the sake of biography and metaphor if not for drama, and to the Colonel’s credit for not having really left the now renamed “Tiger City,” we’ll accept it as is, and consider that, once a Namayanon, always a Namayanon.

That out of the way, The Continuing Saga is quite a read, and lives up to its illustrious predecessor. There are some statements from the Colonel that are like refrains, especially pertaining to his business sense. “There are 24 hours in a day whether one is rich or poor, so it is up to the person what to do with it.” This accents Cabangon’s reportedly getting used to around four hours of sleep a day, dating back to the time he was a working student.

“The best fertilizer of a business is the footprints of the owner.” This underscores his hands-on style, always on the go doing the rounds of his varied businesses.

Then again even busybodies do not lack for a sense of humor, as the colonel tells his interviewer, “You should ask me what businesses I’m not in.”

As Cabangon Chua himself says, he’s in a little of everything, “from erection to resurrection.”

His group of companies owns the Winston Lodge in Pasay among other motels and hotels, as well as the Eternal Gardens Memorial Park in Baesa, Quezon City.

The book is both episodic and anecdotal, proceeding in most parts chronologically, then interviewing, aside from the subject himself, the Colonel’s friends, children, co-workers. There’s a reproduction of a painting of Cabangon Chua as done by Dalena, depicting him as a four-armed wonder like a Hindu deity.

There was a time early this millennium when the Colonel served as Philippine ambassador to Laos, and the idyll is well documented, from his breakfasting on the fruits from the garden of the colonial-style mansion, to his brandy and cognac-powered meetings with Laotian officials.

He had in fact earlier been given a choice whether to be posted in Vientiane or Vienna, and he opted for the closer location so that he could take a short plane ride to check on his businesses if the need arose.

The interviews with his children are also quite revealing of the man, and pictured one who was seldom home except Sundays, was a good provider and somewhat of a disciplinarian. Well, his kids say that dad kept reminding them that they never had it so easy, even as they served apprenticeships in the patriarch’s pawnshops and motels, the latter sometimes the source of funny incidents.

The interview with the Colonel’s right hand man and special assistant also says a lot about him, that even if it’s clear who’s the boss, there is never room for condescension. The quote preserved in Tagalog retains the pungency of the language in all its street-smart wisdom.

Also quite interesting is the chapter on the revival of Graphic magazine after the long dormancy during the martial law years, as well the evolution of Mirror magazine from a weekly to a glossy women’s monthly, and how the Colonel received advice from Makati Rep. Teddy Boy Locsin in setting up a newspaper, that the best way to go was with a business daily, and so Business Mirror was born, taking up from where the defunct Locsin-run Today left off.

Indicative of the man’s character is his friendship with Joaquin, after whose name the Graphic literary awards continue to this day. When another faction succeeded for a while in easing out the literary section, it was Joaquin who convinced Cabangon Chua to bring it back, and although the book doesn’t chronicle the sordid details, we have it on good authority that the tug-of-war was like a battle between good and evil.

The Colonel’s closeness with the late Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin is also no coincidence, as both men have practically (if not) the same birthdate, and the cardinal helped strike a counterbalance to Cabangon’s worldly persuasions. “When it comes to the church, I can’t say no,” he says, and here we are reminded of his closeness to his late mother Dominga, doubtless a woman of piety.

Every Saturday after the company meetings, it is said that the Colonel never fails to visit his mom’s grave in the Mandaluyong cemetery. He expresses shock that there are some people who disrespect their parents.

These days the Colonel has reportedly slowed down, mellowed a bit, but his energy is still such that the regular lazybones would find hard to keep up with him. He’s turning 74 after all, and at the Grand Opera Hotel opening it wouldn’t be a surprise if the ghost of the American soldier who had kicked the young bootblack would come and ask for forgiveness. From Namayan to Sta. Cruz it will be like another procession for the mass of St. Sylvester, to the stars and back.

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