Sunday Lifestyle

Donated ‘Gone with the Wind’-era mansion symbolizes historic Philippine-China ties

WILL SOON FLOURISH - Wilson Lee Flores - The Philippine Star

If we sell the house, the money might be gone, but by donating it as a museum, it will always be there to honor the memory of our forebear,’ says Elizabeth Yu-Gokongwei.

Even as the Philippines’ bilateral ties with traditional friend China have yet to normalize over the South China Sea dispute, a simple, low-key event last Jan. 15 at the Luna function room of Ramada Hotel in Binondo, Manila helped promote people-to-people goodwill between our two societies, something that goes beyond the misunderstandings of politicians.

That morning, elders of the Yu Tiong Cuan branch of pre-war Manila’s prominent Yutivo hardware business clan had a mini reunion to welcome officials of Gulangyu island (also spelled “Kulangsu” based on the Hokkien or Minnan pronunciation), Fujian province, south China. Also present were officials of various ethnic Chinese business and civic organizations. I was invited by business leader John L. Gokongwei Jr.’s wife Elizabeth Yu Gokongwei to be a moderator and also interpreter for this event. 

The Yu Tiong Cuan family, led by cousins Elizabeth Yu Gokongwei, Chinese Commercial News publisher Solomon Yuyitung and others, accepted a special plaque and three certificates from the Gulangyu officials led by Liang Yixin. They were recognized for their donation of their grandfather’s heritage mansion (also called “Yang Family Villa” since “Yang” is the Mandarin pronunciation and “Yu” is the Hokkien pronunciation of their surname) on Gulangyu island to be used as a museum, “a philanthropic gift to uphold culture, history and as a symbol of the historic and eternal friendship between the Philippines and China.”

The clan member who delivered a speech on behalf of the Yu Tiong Cuan family was retired St. Stephen’s High School principal Dr. Tiu Uy Pue Suan. She narrated the history of their clan’s elders from the immigrant blacksmith Yu Ti Vo (who later used the name Jose Palanca Yutivo), who started the business in 1884 in Manila, to his two sons and his nephew Yu Tiong Cuan who jointly built up the Yutivo hardware firm after the founder retired in 1915 to return to his hometown in Fujian province.

Yutivo retired not to Gulangyu Island, but to the Yu clan’s rural ancestral village of Yu-chu, also in Fujian province. The patriarch Yutivo reportedly sired more kids there in his retirement.

World’s only non-gm plant manufacturing General Motors cars and trucks

During the 1940s, the Yutivo firm collaborated with America’s General Motors Corp., the world’s largest car assembler, and became its spare parts distributor. After World War II, Yutivo became a distributor of GM trucks and, years later, Yutivo was for a time the only non-GM plant in the world to manufacture GM cars and trucks.

A grandson of Yutivo was Yu Khe Thai, founding president in March 1954 of the Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FFCCCII), also the father-in-law of the brothers banker David SyCip and SGV founder Washington SyCip, whose father was pre-war Philippine Chinese Chamber of Commerce president Dr. Albino SyCip.

A Yutivo great-grandson, Arthur Young, wed Katherine Soong, a daughter of pre-war China’s Harvard-educated Prime Minister T.V. Soong (whose elder sisters were Soong Ching-Ling, the wife of revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat Sen and Wellesley-educated Madame Soong Mei-ling, the First Lady of President Chiang Kai-Shek).

Also descendants of Yutivo through their maternal lineages are America’s Stanford-educated, award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, and Cebu’s award-winning furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue.

The international tourist destination of Gulangyu Island across Xiamen City (formerly spelled “Amoy” by the British) in Fujian province is now nominated for the 2017 UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list. It uses the old name “Kulangsu” for its nomination. 

Apart from honoring the Yu Tiong Cuan descendants for their donation, the Gulangyu officials visited Manila to seek international support for its World Heritage site nomination and also acknowledged the important contributions of the Philippines over a century ago in the development of this beautiful island.  The Gulangyu officials are now soliciting memorabilia and other materials about life on that island in the past to help reflect its unique socio-cultural heritage.

Gulangyu is reminder that the Philippines was once rich before World War II

One and a half centuries ago after the controversial Opium War and unequal treaties imposed by Western colonial powers, Xiamen City in Fujian province opened as a trading port and Gulangyu Island across Xiamen operated in a way similar to the international settlement system of Shanghai City — thus Gulangyu Island and Shanghai City were the only two places in China under international administration. To avoid strife caused by civil wars, a lot of overseas Chinese tycoons in Southeast Asia built their mansions on Gulangyu instead of their rural hometowns.

The late 19th century to early 20th century of America’s economic boom saw the so-called “Gilded Age,” the “Roaring Twenties” and the 1930s era of the blockbuster Hollywood movie Gone with the Wind. Despite legal barriers on acquiring Philippine citizenship under US colonial rule, resilient members of the ethnic Chinese minority flourished as entrepreneurs and helped pioneer modernization of the 20th century Philippine economy. Ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs of the Philippines became among Asia’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan over a century ago.

Official statistics of Gulangyu show that, of the 300 heritage mansions and historical buildings on the island listed as cultural relics or heritage protection sites, over 50 percent originally belonged to overseas Chinese in the Philippines. We used to have one of Asia’s most prosperous economies during the pre-war era before World War II and before independence. It was the golden era of booming mining, logging and sugar industries with the Philippines’ unprecedented export access to the then industrializing American economy, with this country establishing Asia’s very first stock market, Asia’s first airline and many other firsts.       

Apart from the Yu Tiong Cuan heritage mansion, other branches of the Yutivo clan also had a couple of other mansions. In my late father’s clan of colonial-era sawmill entrepreneurs since the Spanish colonial era, my great-grandfather’s first cousins Calixto Dyyco and Dy Pac built two mansions in Gulangyu over a century ago; both of these were several years ago and have become an elegant boutique hotel.

My grandfather’s second cousin, China Bank founder and pre-war “Lumber King” Dee C. Chuan, built one of Gulangyu’s most beautiful mansions in 1926, overlooking the sea. Coincidentally, in the same year, the Philippines’ future industrial pioneer John Gokongwei Jr. was also born there on Gulangyu Island. 

At the luncheon, I overheard China’s Guangming Daily newspaper journalist Frank Fu interview Elizabeth Yu Gokongwei on why their family members decided to donate such prime real estate property for a museum. She replied: “If we sell the house, the money might be gone, but by donating it as a museum, it will always be there to honor the memory of our forebear.” 



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 Thanks for your feedback! Email [email protected] or follow WilsonLeeFlores on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and http://willsoonflourish.blogspot.com/.












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