As Sy Lian Teng approached his twilight years, he began collecting old photos and archival materials. He expressed the wish to his family that his collection and his house be made into a museum.
But his family failed to follow his wish after his death in 2004. According to his daughter-in-law Lorraine Sylianteng, the residence’s location was a problem: it was located in one of the smaller side streets near De La Salle University in Taft Avenue and not easily accessible to the public.
For years, it seemed that Sy’s request for a museum would never be fulfilled. Until in 2015, Sy’s son Roberto decided to turn a small room on the mezzanine of the First United Building into the museum that his father had wanted. He asked the help of one of his tenants, Marika Constantino, a visual artist, to help organize the exhibit.
Their efforts resulted in the First United Building Community Museum which opened to the public in May 2015. The exhibit’s main focus is the life of Sy Lian Teng. It chronicles his ascent from a Chinese migrant worker to a prominent local businessman.
Aside from photos, the exhibit features some of the personal belongings that he used in running his business, such as rotary dial phones and a manual calculator.
Constantino even convinced Lorraine to give up her office desk for the exhibit: it was her father-in-law’s desk.
One of the more interesting items on exhibit is an old photo of a mestiza lady. Lorraine said the photo had always been in Sy’s office. When she asked him if he knew who she was, he said that it was probably the daughter of one of the German/Jewish managers. He showed her a dedication at the bottom of the photo that read: “Dearest Daddy with much love Evelyn, 1948.”
The identity of the lady in the photo remained a mystery even after Sy passed away. It was only much later, when Roberto was doing research on the Internet about Berg Department Store founder Ernest Berg, that he found a possible link. One of Berg’s children was named Evelyn.
Lorraine emailed her to ask if she was indeed that lady in the photo, and Evelyn responded that she was. Since then they have kept in touch.
The exhibit also offers a glimpse of what Escolta was like during its glory days, mainly through photos and framed newspaper and magazine articles.
A new feature that was recently added is The Wall. Here visitors post their visions and suggestions as to how they envision Escolta’s revival.
Lorraine said ever since they opened the museum, good things have been happening to the building. For her, it is a sign that her father-in-law is pleased that they have finally honored his wish for the museum and is satisfied with how it has turned out. — First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest 29, no. 7 (September 6-19, 2016): 15.