It was my late brother, John, who first got taken in by a tale about our family having a slim connection with the Golden Gate Bridge. His piano-playing pal, Jose, had told him he’d seen a plaque somewhere by the bridge indicating that some of the concrete used to build that splendid span came from the Cebu Portland Cement Company. Since our father, Eduardo Taylor, had worked at that cement plant, starting as chemist and ending up as general manager, John felt justifiably proud that such a marker existed in such an illustrious spot. After all, he and I and our seven siblings grew up in the shadow of that cement factory in Tinaan, a town in the municipality of Naga in Cebu.
Since I was living in Berkeley at the time, John urged me to track the plaque down. So one day, armed with camera and notebook, I crossed the Bay Bridge to head for the Golden Gate. On the way I mused about the photos I'd take of the wonderful marker, which would be featured in Cebu's four newspapers. The story would make our family famous and would spread to Manila and the rest of the archipelago. It would eventually reach California, then all of the U.S. (probably even featured in the National Geographic!). It wouldn't be just 15 minutes of fame for our clan, but it would catch the eye of some documentary maker who’d buy the rights to my story and make it an epic!
I thought my father would’ve been so proud (I realized only later that he had never told us about the plaque since he'd paid a few visits to the U.S. after the War,
San Francisco being his favorite city.) And I thought of how my Yankee Lolo's heart (if it were still beating today) would swell with pride to learn that his eldest son had been a chemical engineer at the first-ever cement plant in America’s only colonial territory that would produce the concrete used to build one of the world’s famous bridges.
Sad to say, gullibility seems to run in our family. I’ve wondered if we inherited the trait from our paternal grandfather, Edward Dennison Taylor, who hailed from Tennessee, or from our maternal grandfather, Narciso Lopez Manzano, a native of Asturias in Spain. Or was it from our Chinese great-grandfather, or even from our native Filipino forebears? It's hard to say where exactly to lay the blame for our credulousness.
I never met my American Lolo who died before I was born, but I knew lots about him—thanks to my now-deceased Tita Lilian, who regaled us with stories about her handsome Yankee papa. Her account and the records, which my eldest sister living in Texas found at the genealogical archives in Salt Lake City, show that Memphis-born Edward Dennison Taylor enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1898 when the U.S. acquired the Philippine Islands as part of the booty from the Spanish-American War.
President William McKinley had fallen on his knees to pray for divine guidance in Christianizing the heathen natives, clueless that they'd long been proselytized by Spain. Journalist Mark Twain warned against enslaving those natives "sitting in darkness," while House Speaker Thomas Reed (confusing British Malaya with the Philippines) declared, "We have bought ten million Malays at two dollars a head, unpicked, and nobody knows what it will cost to pick them." Admiral George Dewey inveighed against rebellious natives, whom he accused of having "swollen heads," deserving "a licking” and British jingoist Rudyard Kipling expatiated on the White Man's Burden. The New York Times pontificated on the dangers of allowing the natives to govern themselves because of their "unsteady hands and childish minds." In February 6, 1899 the U.S. Senate voted, by 57 to 27, to occupy the archipelago. But Filipinos, outraged that the U.S. reneged on letting them run their own country, engaged in guerrilla warfare that lasted three years.
The Yankee pacifiers included teachers bent on turning Filipinos (whom they called “Googoos” and “Flips”) into little brown Americans. The Thomasites, a band of Christian mentors, arrived to instill the finer points of education. (One result of such sophisticated tutelage is Filipinos’ favorite Christmas carol today is "White Christmas,” considered apt for a tropical climate.)
But soldiers like my Lolo Edward had no role in that high drama; his conquest was mainly a comely Cebuana lass named Petra Alferez with whom he eventually had ten children, of whom my father Eduardo was the eldest. U.S. War Department records show that he was first assigned for a brief stint as an Army cook at the Presidio in San Francisco before being sent to the Philippines. (Being rather deficient in the culinary arts myself, I wonder if he was shipped out because his mates complained about his menus.) On arriving in Manila with Company E of the Army's 121st Regiment, Edward was assigned to Cebu. I don’t know if raw recruits were given a briefing about Philippine history before their deployment. My Lolo may not have known about Ferdinand Magellan losing his life in 1521 in a battle with a local chieftain named Lapulapu, an episode dear to our hearts because it shows how a small brown man made quick work of a big white fellow.
By the time Private Edward Taylor arrived in the Philippines, the natives had been so thoroughly indoctrinated by the Spaniards into fire-and-brimstone Catholicism that the urge to stab more white men dead (a la Lapulapu) was abating. Besides, Filipinos at the time were rather bewildered by the contrast between their new colonizers and the former ones. The fact that the Yanks were more interested in building roads and schools than in saving souls (while sometimes resorting to unique forms of torture like waterboarding and shooting, as opposed to Spanish garroting and hanging) was a real novelty. And having heard Spanish spoken for over 300 years, Filipinos were intrigued by the strange new language used by the new aliens who, it turned out, were mainly asking where to find girls.
Fortuitously Edward's platoon bivouacked in the Cebu town of Naga next door to the barrio of Tinaan, where large deposits of clay, gypsum and silica were discovered some years later, prompting U.S. Governor General Francis Burton Harrison to set up the first-ever cement plant in the islands. Assigned to that dreary outpost, the Yankee soldiers sought relief in the Catholic Church hall, which, as in most Philippine villages then, served as a community center. A mestizo priest named Anastasio del Corro, better known as Padre Tationg (a bust of him sits at Carcar’s town plaza), ran the parish. He played a mean game of chess, and on hearing of a chess aficionado among the platoon of long-nosed Yankee soldiers newly encamped in Naga, rapport was quickly established between Christ's apostle and Uncle Sam's disciple.
As is true of many of today’s extended Filipino families, Padre Tationg had numerous relatives scattered about. Being himself of mixed blood, he was probably the offspring of a Spanish friar. (Some scholars note that Spain’s practice of sending hot-blooded young clerics to remote villages in which nubile women abounded wasn't very conducive to the strict observance of celibacy. Indeed, Imelda Marcos is one such later product of that era, having had a Spanish friar among her varied ancestors – hence her constant references to the Almighty who, in His wisdom, provided her with all those shoes to compensate for her impoverished beginnings.)
Padre Tationg had a pretty teenaged niece called Petra who liked to loiter in the convento. So, in between chess games, Edward ran into her and found her alluring; she thought him pretty cute in turn. Wooing went on behind the padre's back, even though Petra spoke only Cebuano and Spanish, and Edward only knew English. This was apparently no handicap as they soon made plans to elope. They failed on their first attempt made on horseback under cover of darkness. They got as far as Minglanilla when Petra's father intercepted them and took her straight home. Edward was told to get lost, but he persisted and made a second attempt, with the help of friends. This was also at night, by means of a horse-drawn tartanilla hired from a friend. This time the couple reached downtown, to the city hall. But Petra's father got wind of the escapade after someone squealed (probably one of Petra's jealous friends, resentful that a handsome blade like Edward hadn't fallen for her instead).
As related with gusto by Tita Lilian, who knew her mother's story inside-out, an ugly tug-of-war ensued on the Cebu City hall steps between the lovelorn Edward and Petra's irate father. Edward lost. Back home in Naga, Petra was shorn of her tresses and locked in her room, guarded by two housemaids.
Perhaps Memphis-born men are made of steel because Edward didn't give up.
He managed to send a note to Petra and arranged for another tartanilla to be ready when she made her nightly trip to the outhouse. Edward knew the path behind the latrine, which was made of nipa fronds, like most Philippine outhouses. As her servant waited outside the latrine door, Petra quietly broke through the rickety back wall and made a dash for Edward's buggy parked in back. The lovers made a dash for Cebu's port, boarded a boat for Manila, and settled down to a happy marriage. My father Eduardo, being the firstborn among nine offspring, grew up speaking English, Spanish, Cebuano and Tagalog. He studied chemical engineering at the University of the Philippines, and on graduating, heard of an opening at the Cebu Portland Cement Company, located on the island of his mother's birth. He went for the job with his degree and 19-year-old bride, my mother Soledad Manzano, in tow. The factory was in the barrio next door to Naga, where Edward Taylor had encamped a quarter of a century earlier.
Edward, Petra and Padre Tationg were on my mind when I made the trek to the Golden Gate Bridge. There I spent over an hour inspecting every plaque in sight. I also went down to the old barracks at the base of the bridge to survey that dank structure, which had housed the soldiers who defended the bridge on occasions when threats from alien invaders were believed imminent.
Finding nothing, I proceeded to the souvenir shop to peruse the books, but none of them mentioned the source of the cement used in the construction. So I went to the administrative office and spoke with the very accommodating chief engineer who took me to the library where a large book gave a full account of the bridge’s construction. I learned of the redoubtable Joseph Strauss who designed the bridge and was the moving spirit behind its creation. I read about the problems the builders faced, the colossal labor involved and how long it took to build the span. I saw marvelous photographs of the process of construction and read about the different materials used.
Most crucially I found that cement had been supplied by two U.S. companies – the Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company and the Pacific Portland Cement Company. Pink high-silica cement (of which the Cebu plant produced a high grade) was used for the underwater portion of the bridge, but there was no mention of that having been imported from the Philippines. I read a report about granite having been imported from China to use for the bridge's main foundation (U.S. granite apparently not being as good), so I presumed that if that item had come from such a long way, cement would surely also have been from the Philippines.
Wandering around forlornly under the bridge, I came across a friendly member of the National Parks Service. After telling him I'd seen two plaques on the bridge, one listing the personages who attended the bridge’s opening in May 1937, and a small one acknowledging the source of the steel used in the construction, I told him of my quest. Could there possibly have been a marker about Cebu cement, which has since been removed? He said he doubted it since plaques are placed for posterity. So I asked if he thought importing cement from the U.S.' colony would have made sense then. He pondered my question earnestly, then said that since the U.S. was in the midst of the Depression at the time, considerations would have been made about whether carting cement by rail across the continent was more economical than shipping it from across the Pacific.
He hadn't given me much hope, but I was grateful he took the time to listen to my queries seriously and had not treated me as some loony tourist, especially since he related sometimes getting some strange queries – like a Japanese tourist who’d wanted to know where a compatriot of his was buried near the bridge, since he'd committed suicide off it. So I felt some relief that my quest didn't seem as bizarre, but I knew it was time to admit failure. On leaving, I mused about how stories snowball and rumors run riot and I consoled myself by thinking how dull life would be if one didn't sometimes go chasing rainbows.
I’d bought some postcards of the bridge, on one of which I wrote something to mail (in those days before e-mail) to my brother John in Cebu: "Tell your friend Jose to pull your other leg!"
Isabel Taylor Escoda is a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist and author of several books, including "Letters From Hong Kong" and "Hong Kong Postscript."