The call came unexpected. Just seconds after arriving at the newsroom, I stumbled out and rushed to the fourth floor.
The Ambassador sat serenely on his dark leather swivel chair, looking out his venetian blinds-shaded window. I sat in front of the old table and waited for further instructions after he asked me to close the door.
I noticed immediately that his goblet of wine, resting just inches near the edge, had remained untouched. His table, as was expected, was thick with several piles of documents to be signed.
He stood up, grabbed himself another goblet and filled it halfway. He rested his right hand on my right shoulder and served me the goblet with his left.
“How long have you stayed in the company, hijo?” the Ambassador asked without looking my way. “Five years, po, thereabouts,” I replied.
“Five years,” he mumbled. “And not once did you ask me for help,” his voice firm, somewhat daunting.
The look on my face probably told him I wasn’t sure what he meant. “You never come to me during your birthdays, too,” he quickly added with his signature smile. I, on the other hand, was at a loss for words. It was celebrating my birthday that very day.
I quietly shrugged my shoulders, bowed my head and smiled. “I’m… I’m not used to asking people for help, Sir. I’m used to fending for myself, po,” I replied, almost ashamed of having to tell him that I was a college dropout and started out as a messenger and a stevedore.
It was the first time I saw his face beam with a memory. I felt him open his drawer to fetch something underneath. “Hijo, I run my business not as a conglomerate, but as a family. How are your parents?”
“I lost my father years ago to a stroke, po,” I said. “My mom’s okay. She’s in her middle seventies but doing well.”
The ambassador again stood up and made his way to a chair in front of me. He thereafter took my hand and handed over a wad of cash in an envelope. “Treat me as your father, hijo. If you need anything, anything at all, I want you to come to me and me alone. Don’t feel embarrassed. I don’t want you going to anyone else for assistance. Remember what I said to you today, treat me as your father. Happy birthday.”
I left the Ambassador’s presence not knowing what to feel. I felt happy and somewhat ill at ease, uncomfortable at the idea of having to take money from someone else’s hands. The thought of it being a birthday gift left me, finally, calm and relaxed and happy in the main.
I ran down to the boardroom to attend the management committee meeting, for which I was ten minutes late. Five minutes into the meeting and I saw the Ambassador waving for me at the door of the boardroom.
“Hijo, I was told just now that you like going out with your writer-friends for a drink. Here, I want you to treat them out or your family on your birthday.” There he handed over another envelope. I was too shocked to say anything but thank you.
Over the next several years I did as I was told: To treat him as my father. On a few occasions when I felt desperate for financial help, like when my mother suffered a broken spine, or when my daughter Likha required immediate medical attention, he was there to lend a helping hand.
During times when I needed a good dose of wisdom, I visited him at his office on the fourth floor to have a chat with the Ambassador. When he needed to unburden a ton of troubles, he would call for me and we would talk for hours behind closed doors, wine in hand.
Ambassador Antonio L. Cabangon Chua was never anything to me but an honest man, a man in a hurry to take every opportunity to succeed despite his already riveting success in business.
He was always generous to the point of sharing what he knows without the embellishments, without the pretensions. He was, in many ways, an open book, regardless of flaws and all.
All throughout my relationship with Amba, as I fondly called him, which, as of this writing, spans 11 years—the longest I’ve stayed in any company—I’ve learned how he began as a shoeshine boy during the war, how he cared for his mother singlehandedly, and worked his way up the ladder by being the hard-at-work businessman.
It’s a story I can very well relate to. I lost my father during martial law. He was a self-imposed political exile to the United States for 25 years, leaving me with my mother at the time. Hence, when my first book of political essays was published, I dedicated it to the Ambassador.
I’ve learned, too, of the Ambassador’s deep friendships with other writers and artists, no less National Artists Nick Joaquin, Amado V. Hernandez and Napoleon Abueva, prize-winning journalists Inday Espina-Varona, Butch del Castillo, and esteemed authors Adrian Cristobal, Jose “Pete” Lacaba, Marra Lanot and Greg Brillantes, to name a few.
The assistance he extended to a huge number of writers was the stuff of legend, including myself and my team of editors, writers and staff in the Philippines Graphic and other publications under his wing.
So, when the Ambassador passed away on the early morning of March 11, 2016, it was as if I had lost a father. During the wake, I vowed that his name will forever be associated with the history of Philippine literature, culture and the arts as one of the foremost patrons of literature. And I knew exactly how to do it.
A few months after he was laid to rest, I was in a lecture in Quezon Province with an assistant professor who was up for a promotion as head of the University of Santo Tomas’ Department of Literature and the Humanities. A good friend and fellow author for many years, Prof. Joselito Delos Reyes and I spoke at length about how we can secure the name of Amb. Antonio L. Cabangon Chua as a patron of the literary arts.
The next two years saw us putting together a grants project for UST’s Humanities which would carry the Ambassador’s name. The objective is to fund UST’s research on all its artists deserving of national and international recognition.
The 10-year grant, aptly named the UST-Amb. Antonio L. Cabangon Chua Research Award for the Humanities, was later approved and signed by the Ambassador’s son and new chairman of the ALC Group of Companies D. Edgard A. Cabangon.
From UST’s side, the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Feb. 26 was spearheaded by Father Rector, Rev. Fr. Herminio V. Dagohoy, OP, and the Director of the Office for Grants, Endowments and Partnerships in Higher Education, Rev. Fr. Jesus M. Miranda, Jr., OP. representing the UST REFI. Prof. Giovanna V. Fontanilla of UST’s Office of Public Affairs, members of UST’s literary community, head of the Dept. of Literature and the Humanities Asst. Prof. Joselito Delos Reyes, BusinessMirror and Philippines Graphic publisher T. Anthony Cabangon, ALC Industrial and Commercial Development Corp. president D. Edward A. Cabangon, and Ms. Sharon Tan also graced the occasion.
This, in my mind, is to be the beginning of a pursuit to continue the work that the Ambassador had started several decades ago. My gratitude goes to the Cabangon family who was instrumental in a promise fulfilled, and the officials and friends at UST, my alma matter, whose work to further enhance the teaching of the humanities is well worth the effort.
Our awareness of the need for the teaching of the humanities is probably the most potent tool in our country’s quest for a better society. Amb. Antonio L. Cabangon Chua did not only leave us a legacy of success, but a heritage of generosity unmatched in the field of literature and the arts.
At one point, I had wondered why the Ambassador had gone out of his way to support literature in our country and asked him about it. He said, quite under his breath, that he was a fan of poetry and had penned some poems in his youth.
Thrilled at the thought that my boss was a poet, I asked him where the poems were kept so the Philippines Graphic editors could review them and perhaps publish them.
His voice was unwavering and firm: “Don’t press your luck, kid.” G