My Dad, a Daring Dreamer

Ambassador Alfonso T. Yuchengco 

Ambassador Alfonso T. Yuchengco 

Parts of this essay were delivered in a eulogy for Ambassador Alfonso T. Yuchengco on May 13, 2017 at the University of San Francisco and published in Philippine News. This is the extended version.

I thought my father would live forever. He was just one of those people who was larger than life. And even if we sensed the end was near for him, it was still a shock that it happened when it did.

My grandparents migrated to the Philippines from Fujian Province in China. They operated a rice mill in Pangasinan and eventually settled in Gandara Street, in Chinatown, Manila, and that was where my father was born. They had three daughters. My grandmother had miscarriages each time she was pregnant with a boy, so they adopted three sons before my father was born. In his early years, my father was always dressed up as a girl and addressed as a girl, for fear that the “evil spirits” may take him away if they knew he was a boy. Today, there is a Yuchengco Street in Chinatown.

He studied at De La Salle College on Taft Avenue and his grade school yearbook described him as the boy “who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.” In high school, he almost got expelled when he was caught playing poker with the “mestizos” in the bathroom stalls. He took up accounting in college and loved it so much that he taught the subject at Far Eastern University (FEU). Future sons-in-law were quizzed about their knowledge of debit and credit, and if they failed, they could not marry his daughters. I saw my sister, Bella, and her fiancé go through this ordeal, so when it was my turn I made sure my fiancé knew the answers beforehand.

Dinner with sister, Bella, and Dad before going to the opera in Salzburg in 2006. 

Dinner with sister, Bella, and Dad before going to the opera in Salzburg in 2006. 

He was quite strict when his daughters became teenagers. In my case, he only allowed me to go on a date with my boyfriend once a month. Since he was out most of the time, I would see my boyfriend almost every day, after school, without his knowledge; but I would still go through the formal “ask” once a month. When I got married, I confessed to my father that I had disobeyed him, and he gave me a slight and loving tap on the head.

My father was only 19 when he married my mom, who was 18. They had eight children, and I was the fourth girl in a row. After the war, my father expanded and diversified the business his father left behind for him, thus earning him the label, “the businessman whose products ranged from womb to tomb.” Let me illustrate this by sharing a story. I have been away from the Philippines for 35 years now, and had not kept abreast of the family’s growing business interests. When my mother died in 2004 at around midnight, the nurses suggested keeping my mom in the morgue first until the mortician could retrieve her body in the morning. My eldest sister told the nurses that the body was NOT going to the morgue, that the crematorium people would be coming any minute to pick up the body. Upon hearing this, I said, “But it’s close to midnight, how can you ask the crematorium to open at this time?” My sister looked at me and replied casually, “We own it!” Well, that’s a good enough reason for me to cremate my mom at midnight!

My father was a visionary in business. He would enter areas that were new, without any fear. For instance, he was the first to offer credit cards in the Philippines in partnership with Diner’s Club. Malayan Insurance, his flagship, was the first to open branches in other Asian countries as well as in Australia and Europe. Although some of those offices have since closed, Malayan still remains the biggest non-life insurance company in the Philippines. Failures only made my father bolder and more determined to succeed.

Dinner after the conferment of an honorary degree in 2005.  With Fr. Steve Privett, S.J., president of USF.

Dinner after the conferment of an honorary degree in 2005.  With Fr. Steve Privett, S.J., president of USF.

My father was the ultimate host. He spared no detail in entertaining corporate honchos, political figures, international bigwigs – from the invitation list to the seating plan, from the food to the flowers, from the entertainment to the gifts –- everything had to be perfect. I picked up this skill of his, and I like organizing get-togethers, dinners, parties, reunions, fundraisers, etc.

My father believed in SROI, or social return on investment. Each company that he owned was mandated to turn over between 1 to 5 percent of its profits to the AY Foundation. Employees and their children as well as children from the general public could qualify for scholarships. Health care, culture and the arts, and other educational endeavors were the priority areas. His generosity extended outside of the Philippines too: He endowed chairs and provided scholarships here at the University of San Francisco, the University of Hawaii, the Fletcher School in Boston, the University of Alabama, Alliant University in San Diego and Columbia University, his alma mater, all benefiting Filipinos and Filipino Americans.

He was generous to a fault sometimes, helping complete strangers and being compassionate about the situation of others. For instance, when he was Ambassador to the United Nations, he gave his salary to the contractual workers in the office so they could afford health insurance. Another time, the office staff used the money for a trip to Canada. What about the three students stranded at a European airport who had lost their money and needed to go home? My father overheard them crying, and he gave them enough money to pay their airfare, hotel and food. At his wake, several young people approached me and thanked me for my father’s generosity. Without his gift, they would not have finished their education, they said. There are countless of stories about his generosity and thoughtfulness, some of them we will never know. Of course, there were those who abused his generosity; but it didn’t stop him from helping others. I inherited his philanthropic side as well.

With Dad

With Dad

Despite being born of Chinese heritage, my father always thought of himself as a Filipino first. When we were growing up, we learned Tagalog first before Chinese. His patriotism was tested during martial law. Like some businessmen, a few of his companies were taken away from him by Marcos and his cronies; but unlike most Chinese businessmen who kept quiet during the martial law years, my father did something very brave. I was frequently scolded by him for rallying in the streets and speaking up against martial law when unbeknownst to me, he was one of the financiers of the underground movement. (Again, like father, like daughter.) My father told us years later, that he carried a cyanide pill in his pocket during that time and was ready to take it if he ever got arrested so he would not reveal the other people’s names. Senator Rene Saguisag sent me an email during the ninth day novena which read: “He took risks in business, but such were nothing compared to the odds of a quixotic businessman fighting the dictator, pre-Ninoy’s salvaging, putting himself where his mouth and mind were. I was saddened nothing in the reportage mentioned his bold patriotism, putting Motherland ahead of everything. He was one reason we had EDSA ’86 and we, human rights advocates, admired him from afar (along with Ramon Diaz), in the windmills of our minds, as it were.”

To encourage bright and honest politicians to run for office, he proposed that he was willing to set up a billion-peso fund that would be given to any president at the end of his term, provided that no graft and corruption occurred during his administration. Nobody took him up on the offer; I guess because they could make more than a billion pesos while in office with all the corruption. He kept reminding us that no matter how many millions you have, it means nothing if you do not leave a good name.

I visited him in 1988 when he was Ambassador to China. When I asked him how much salary he was receiving, I was in shock. “Dad,” I told him, “that’s not enough to pay for your Bally shoes!” Needless to say, he paid for all the shortfalls. There was no hot water in the chancery in Tokyo. They said there was no budget for it, and the previous ambassadors, did not have it fixed. My father paid to fix it. He also paid to bring in Filipino artists and musicians to perform almost every month. He was very proud to showcase the talents of our artists. When he was at the United Nations, he told me he was so bored because he was just listening to speeches every day. He missed going around the country and connecting with other Filipinos like he did when he was stationed in Japan.

When he was Ambassador to the United Nations, he gave his salary to the contractual workers in the office so they could afford health insurance.

My father was very proud of me, but he showed it in different, funny ways. When he traveled to the U.S. and would bump into Filipinos, he would be asked, “Are you related to Mona Lisa Yuchengco?” He of course, replied, “Yes, I am her father,” to which the next response would be, “I love Filipinas Magazine.” When he saw me, he told me, “So now I am being asked if I am related to you rather than the other way around!”

Many years later, in his 90s, he would show me (for the nth time) the photos of him with dignitaries, the awards and trophies he had received and other memorabilia. One frame had a letter from President Bill Clinton. I told him I had one too from President Clinton. He eyed me suspiciously and I said, “But yours is better and much longer!” He smiled.

For the last ten years, I watched my father wrestle with growing old. He became forgetful. His mobility was hampered due to arthritis and diabetes; yet he continued to eat ice cream until the day he died. His last trip was before he turned 90. He used to swim every day and stopped when he turned 90. But he continued to go to office every day; only now, he didn’t know what day it was and he would show up in the office on Sundays. He took up voice lessons in his late 80s because he was smitten with the teacher; and despite not being able to carry a tune, he built the Manila Opera School, and he sang everywhere -- at home, in the car, in the office, in the hospital, anywhere anybody would listen. His moods became erratic. During my visit last year, he didn’t recognize me anymore until he saw me more often. I have always grappled with this guilt of leaving my parents behind while I pursue my own dreams, and death is a reminder of those lost opportunities to spend time together.

My father’s favorite song was “The Impossible Dream.” He never dreamed he would be so lucky and successful in his business ventures. He never dreamed he would be able to help bring back democracy to the country he loved so much. He never dreamed he could help thousands of people improve their lives. He never dreamed he could make this world a better place. And yet, when he was a child, he said, “I didn’t dream as a child because I didn’t know what to dream for.”

Dad, you made dreams come true for countless people. You made it possible for them to have a better life. You can now take your eternal sleep. There are still struggles we need to fight, but your spirit and example will embolden us to make the dream possible.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad, wherever you are. I love you dearly and know I will surely miss you. I have so many parts of you in me so I will never forget you. You are my hero.