Sunday Lifestyle

Sal Panelo grows bonsai, sings, composes, dances and plays the piano

The Philippine Star
Sal Panelo grows bonsai, sings, composes, dances and plays the piano
Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo gets relief from stress by growing bonsai, a hobby that started 20 years ago. He has bantigue bonsai trees that are older than him.

 What makes you cry? When was the last time you cried?”

These are questions you are not sure will be answered by a tough guy — a feisty and flamboyant lawyer known for handling cases of even tougher personalities.

  But President Rodrigo Duterte’s dear friend and Chief Legal Counsel, Salvador Panelo, has a quick answer, with a quaver in his voice.

“When I was a bachelor, my sister Nena was afflicted with breast cancer that metastasized and reached her bones until it became a terminal case. So we asked her husband Manny, chief engineer of a foreign vessel in Brazil, to come home.

“Manny’s ship caught fire and he wanted to save the crew in the kitchen. Instead, he himself died from suffocation. I was crying at the burial of my sister’s husband while she herself lay on a stretcher, with their three daughters, ages 5, 7 and 9, beside her.

  “After that, my sister’s health deteriorated even more and she would, for maybe 10 times, be on the verge of death and rushed to the hospital. She was in great pain and it seemed she refused to die.

“Do not worry about your three daughters,” Panelo told Nena. “We, your 11 brothers and sisters, will take care of them.”

His sister gasped: “Paghihiwalayin nyo sila? (The three kids will be separated from each other?)”

Panelo replied: “I will take care of all three.” And having heard that promise, his sister finally passed away.

“So I was a bachelor with three kids. I adopted them, took care of them till they finished college. When I married, my wife (Dr. Araceli Panelo) and I deferred having children for five years so we could focus on the three kids first.”

Next question: What are the things that make you happy?

“My moments of happiness come when I play with my special child Carlo (he is now 27) and my grandchildren. I get anti-stress relief when I sing, play the piano, compose songs, dance and take care of my bonsai plants.

“Carlo is my favorite and he is the boss in the family. He used to be bullied as a kid but now that he has gotten bigger at 238 pounds, he is now a bully, I can never say no to him. He is my Bossing.

Katabi ko yan matulog ever since he was born. I would bring him myself to school at Cupertino, even bathe him myself.”

At his Quezon City townhouse, Panelo gave us answers that made us see beneath the fearless facade. The seemingly tough lawyer — he says he has won 98 percent of his cases (“The one I lost is that of Mayor Sanchez but then I was not the main lawyer”) — looks more like a kind person who knows how to selflessly love and care. He knows the meaning of compassion, especially for those aching for it.

“President Duterte and I have been friends for 30 years, and we share many things in common. We believe in socialist concepts and most of all, we hate oppression of any kind.”

He welcomed us to his townhouse in Quezon City — a halfway house he acquired to bring his children (three sons Salvador Jr., Angelo and Carlo, and one daughter Ramona Francesca) nearer their schools (Xavier, La Salle, St. Paul and later, Ateneo), as their main house was — and still is — in Marikina.

In the small living room, his piano is surrounded by a Kenneth Cobonpue lamp and two signature APEC chairs, a Daniel de la Cruz sculpture, trophies, framed photographs, plus a life-size Santa Claus and Christmas tree with the standee of President Duterte peering through in between. On the floor is a crocodile carpet — a gift from a friend — battling for space with carvings, a long wooden bench, a coffee table and a sofa. The room sparkles with Christmas lights.

His driveway is made narrow by about 20 bonsai in pots arrayed against the wall.

 PHILIPPINE STAR: Let’s talk about the things you do to de-stress. How did you start growing bonsai?

SALVADOR PANELO: Twenty years ago, I was buying plants in UP when I saw a sign that announced free bonsai lessons. I had long been interested in bonsai. There, I met bonsai legends such as Nonoy Vicente.

Bonsai seems to be attracting a lot of men like National Artist Bencab. There’s triathlete Noel de la Merced...

I know Midas Marquez and Mayor Benhur Abalos are also avid bonsai growers.

Why do you like growing bonsai?

Maganda eh. Artistically, it’s beautiful. It’s a living art, para ka ring nagpipinta. And it’s challenging. It requires discipline. Because it’s a small tree in a pot. You stunt a tree’s growth by putting it in a small container. You shape this into a tree by wiring the branches with copper. The tendency is for the plant to go after sunlight. It requires discipline. It will grow wild if you don’t take care of it. But when cared for properly, bonsais can last for centuries.

Did you ever try to get Duterte interested in bonsai too?

Bilib siya when I brought him to our Marikina house five years ago and he saw my over 300 bonsais. He wanted to learn too.

Have you ever joined bonsai contests or exhibits?

I don’t have the time. And besides, the plants are too heavy for me to be carrying them around.

Do you ever talk to your plants like some people do?

Yes, I do. I tell them: Aba, magpaganda kayo kasi guapo ako. (Laughs)

 Wilson says dapat ibonsai ang mga corrupt politicians.

 Naku , dapat siguro, itapon na lang sa dagat. Joke lang!

 Aside from bonsai, you also love to sing?

 Yes, my mother said when I was born, I wasn’t crying. I was singing. As a child, I used to go caroling with kids in our neighborhood, but it was I who did the singing mainly.

 I heard you also compose songs?

 Yes, I’ve composed about 20 songs, making the tunes and lyrics myself. I made a song for my granddaughter Ysabel. During my son Salvador Jr.’s wedding, I composed a song entitled You Are the Love of My Life. I also created a song in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

You play the piano so well. Did you take formal lessons?

 My sister Nena used to give me piano lessons, but then she was so strict, namamalo! Then later when I was in high school, I was fetching a girl friend and when I arrived, she was playing Fascination. I was so fascinated I asked her to teach me, and she taught me only the right hand. Then she excused herself as she had to take a shower. I tried to copy what she was doing with her left hand as well, until I got the whole piece almost. When my girl friend returned, she was amazed that I was playing Fascination already.

Do you read notes?

No, I don’t. Purely oido (by ear).

I first heard you sing at the Arthur Manuntag concert presented by Emilio Mina with support from the Philippine-Italian Association headed by Nedy Tantoco at Caruso. You were equally good. And with such good diction. Ateneo accent?

No, I studied in UP, the only school that matters. (Laughs) My diction must have been influenced by my idol Raul Manglapus when I joined his youth arm. I was left of center then only, I became leftist only in UP. There were times when radio listeners couldn’t distinguish between the voices of Manglapus and mine. Ambassador Leon Maria Guerrero was an influence too. Then I met TV announcer Jose Marie Velez who spoke well, too. I guess my diction evolved with these three influences.

 And aside from singing and piano playing, you also love dancing.

 I once attended an event where there was dancing. I must have danced so well, some Japanese guests mistook me for a D.I. (dance instructor), asked me to teach them and even paid me the usual rate for a  D.I. Later, they were embarrassed when they were told their “D.I.” was actually a prominent lawyer!

 As a lawyer handling controversial cases, did you ever fear for your life?

Never. Even right now, I am the only Cabinet member without any security men around me.

Takot ba sa iyo ang tao? Do you think you are feared?

 Mabait naman ako.


* * *

Follow the author on Instagram and [email protected]. Email her at [email protected]. LIFE & STYLE  Millet M. Mananquil



  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with