When the past beckons

Kenneth J. Guest (third from right) with new found friends from the Dee family – Emy (second from left) and Jonathan (fourth from left); and Yu family – Doreen (third from left) and Miriam (second from right). The meeting was arranged by Kaisa officers Chak (far left), Tessy (middle) and Meah (far right).

American anthropologist Kenneth J. Guest was in the Philippines with a purpose: to research the years 1935-1945, when his grandparents were in Manila as missionaries.
His recent work includes studying the present situation of immigrants from Fuzhou, Fujian province who have settled in New York City’s Chinatown.
But for the last two years, he has looked across the globe and into the past that many want to forget. He wants to trace the lives of his grandparents, American missionaries in the Philippines, caught in war-torn Manila, and interned for 37 months with their teenage daughter at the University of Sto. Tomas as prisoners during the Japanese Occupation during World War II.
Reverend Walter Brooks Foley was the pastor of Union Church of Manila, located in Ermita back then, from 1935 until 1945. In 1944, Gen. Douglas MacArthur returned to wrest the Philippines back from the Japanese. Tragically, Foley was killed by a Japanese bomb four days after the prisoners in UST were released. He did not live to enjoy the freedom that came with liberation. His wife, Mary Rosengrant Foley, was badly injured by the same bomb and lost her left arm. She and daughter, Frances Helen, survived the ordeal and eventually returned to the United States. As part of his visit to Manila this trip, his fifth since his research began, Guest visited Manila’s North Cemetery, where Foley was laid to rest.
I was one of the Tsinoys who met with him over lunch in Malate, Manila last September. We were kin to people who had befriended Foley and helped him during the war. He was friends with leaders in Chinese society back then: Albino Sycip, Dee C. Chuan and Yu Khe Thai.
He had gone to Teresita Ang See for historical material on the Chinese society. In turn, she assembled a small group to share what turned out to be interesting accounts and moving vignettes of the days before and during the war, including extensive efforts to send help to China, which was embroiled in internal conflict and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).
Yes, Foley went beyond his calling as a pastor tending sheep in church. He was an activist pastor who reached beyond the boundaries of the church and became deeply engaged with Manila’s Chinese and Filipino communities. Guest shared archival material: women still in traditional cheong sam, Chinese men in Western dress, old news accounts of social and political undertakings. Yes, the names of Sycip, Dee and Yu were there in the old reports, along with Filipino leaders such as Jose Abad Santos, Teodoro M. Kalaw and Carlos P. Romulo.
It was touching to see his commitment and passion in seeking out his family’s past. In doing so, he has encountered the lives of our Tsinoy ancestors as well.
Living the nightmare
As he spoke, memories of stories told to me by my parents – both teens during the war – and late grandparents returned. The years 1935-1945 were formative ones for my parents, as they must have been for his mother, now 94, the same age as my father. They had lived through one of the darkest periods in human history and survived.
For my parents, those years of war were years of living in fear and deprivation. Doing without many things that we today, in peaceful and prosperous times, take for granted. Teen years are years of self discovery, when youth on the brink of adulthood worried about homework, friends, and dates.
But not for those whose lives were interrupted by war. Their realities were suddenly all about survival, keeping body and soul together, running for their lives because enemy soldiers were coming to their neighborhoods to blast the area.
For the Foleys, it meant prison simply for being who they were, and horrible living conditions. Perhaps compared to the Foleys, my parents were fortunate. My father’s family fled to Antipolo, Rizal, where he received pechay seedlings from a government agency, and planted them in a small yard beside the house where he, his mother and siblings had taken refuge.
“When the pechay was big enough, your ahma harvested them with a kitchen knife. I lived on pechay and rice those months, and grew several inches taller,” said Papa, recalling hunger and a growth spurt that happened at the worst possible time.
My mother’s family left Manila with their goods in a kariton. Her mother and a new infant were also in the kariton. They went to San Pablo, Laguna where her family of seven squeezed into a room in a house. Other rooms went to other families that, like them, fled Manila on news of the Japanese advance.
As things settled in Manila, many returned, as did my parents’ families. But life had changed totally for them. The rug had been yanked from under their comfortable lives. Innocence was lost. After the war, even as peace, reconstruction and some prosperity returned, life was never the same. Those terrible years had shaped them for life. Hard lessons no youngster should ever have to learn. But there was no choice.
Living the legacy
My parents are financially well off today. They live well, can afford to give my siblings and I comfortable lives and as good an education as anyone can get. Several grandchildren work in the family enterprises. But their greatest legacies are lessons learned from those years: the work ethic, thrift, humility, appreciation for what one has, because who knows what tomorrow will bring. After meeting Guest, I told my children about him that night over dinner, and of our family genealogy.
In the back of my mind, I wondered how many parents take the time to pass on to the next generation what they know of the past. Inheritance is more than material goods. It is knowledge and memories, wisdom accumulated over the years, lessons learned. Traditions, both family and cultural.
I remember passing on to my neighborhood Viber group a message from Teresita Ang See.
She was describing an aspect of the Chinese community in Manila during Spanish colonial times that perhaps few today know:
“The Chinese, if they had any imperialist ambitions or desire to conquer the Philippines, could have done so because they vastly outnumbered the Spaniards.
“But they were in the Philippines to earn a living, in much the same way our OFW (overseas Filipino workers) went abroad to find greener pastures.
“When the Spaniards lifted the travel ban and allowed the Chinese to travel anywhere and establish a trading network, they were giving away land for free to the Chinese but the Chinese didn’t accept because they were then sojourners, they only want to make money and return home to China. They didn’t want to put roots into their new homes.
“Only after the Pacific War and the 1949 Bamboo Curtain were they convinced there is no going back home and they were here to stay. The new generations born after the war are now the Tsinoys, deeply rooted in Philippine soil.”
Several Tsinoy neighbors responded by thanking Ang See for sharing this. Another said this is a piece of community history that must be shared with the younger generation.
Yes, I agree with that totally. By knowing our own history, we have a better understanding of who we are, how things came to be. The timeline that is life goes on and on even with the passing of generations. Understanding the past gives us a better handle on the present, and perhaps a stronger foundation for planning the future.
Ken Guest went out of his way to find those 10 years of his grandparents’ lives, spent in the Philippines in a mission for the human soul, with tragic loss of life.
This year he is on sabbatical. He will spend it on this task. Truly a labor of love, for there is no one to hand all of that over to him in a nice package.
On the other hand, here we are living in a land that has accepted our ancestors, given us good living and promising futures. Each of us has a past that marked our antecedents, for better or worse. These shaped our families, personalities, values and outlooks.
For those of us who know the family’s past, should we not share this legacy of memories and knowledge with the generations who come after us?
For those who do not know, perhaps it is time to gather the memories of our elders who are still alive, before they too become part of our past.