Romances in History

A King Visited the Philippines and Fell in Love

We were under Spain for almost four centuries and during all that time, the closest the poor indios had to seeing El Rey de Espana was through his pictures.

In the 1970s, we saw the future King of Spain, Juan Carlos de Borbon, when he was still the Principe de Asturias.

Visiting kings are rare in Manila. We’ve seen two Popes but not monarchs on state visits. Some Filipinos in 1872 had their first look at a real live king when King Norodom I of Cambodia arrived in Manila with his retinue, on board a French vessel for a two-week visit.

King Norodom I of Cambodia (Source:

King Norodom I of Cambodia (Source:

The King was given all the usual courtesies – 21-gun salute, state dinner hosted by the Spanish governor-general and, of course, trips to the “tourist destinations” of the late nineteenth-century Philippines (Taal volcano and fiestas in Pampanga). Norodom I happens to be the grandfather of exiled Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who hogs headlines every now and then in this bid to regain his throne. Prince Norodom Sihanouk visited Manila in 1969 and mentioned that in the time of his grandfather, there was a Filipino colony in Cambodia close to the Royal Palace. He claimed some Filipinos even served in the palace as cannoneers when his grandfather Norodom I sat on the throne in 1860.

On returning to his palace in August 1872, Norodom I had been so pleased with his stay in Manila that he accorded an extraordinary promotion to all sub-lieutenants and lieutenants serving with his Tagalog guards. Norodom I also brought back with him from this voyage Filipino musicians, who formed the nucleus of the Cambodian Royal Brass and Reed Band. One jewel that the King was not able to bring home, however, was a pretty lass from Bulacan named Josefa Roxas y Manio.

Sources are sketchy and the main story comes from the pen of Felix M. Roxas, former mayor of Manila (1905-1917), who wrote a historical column in the Spanish newspaper, El Debate, from 1926-36. Roxas mentions that Norodom I fell in love with a pretty Bulakena from Calumpit, but that nothing came of this romantic affair.

Josefa Roxas y Manio, the woman who caught the king’s fancy, was gifted with a solid god jewel as big as a mangosteen, which her descendants used to refer to as the gintong granada (golden pomegranate). With this present, Norodom I proposed to her through an interpreter but, as we say today, basted siya! (He was turned down.)

The "concha" which King Norodom I gifted to Josefa Roxas (Source:

The "concha" which King Norodom I gifted to Josefa Roxas (Source:

First, there was the problem of religion. “Pepita” Roxas would not give up Catholicism to marry a man who had the right to have more than one wife. She thus politely refused the King’s proposition with the lame, but very Asian excuse that she couldn’t get married yet, as she had to take care of her aging parents. She died a spinster in 1883. The gintong granada was stolen years later and never recovered.

This would have been the end of the story, but when Prince Norodom Sihanouk was here in 1969, he paid a visit to the Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City, not to pay homage to the Nuestra Senora del Santo Rosario, but rather to see one of the church’s jewels, a medallion given by Norodom I to Senorita Ana Roxas y Manio, younger sister and constant chaperone of “Pepita” Roxas during the short and unsuccessful courtship.

Believed to be miraculous, this jewel was given to the Santo Rosario in October 1892 by Ana Roxas as a panata (pledge), because one of her brothers was cured of illness. Unlike the gintong granada, this jewel survived the thefts and a world war. A fence tried to sell it to the jewelry shop, Estrella del Norte, which promptly returned it to its owner after seeing the inscription on it, which said, A la Srta Da Ana Roxas y Manio. Recuerdo de SM Norodom I Rey de Cambodia.

I have not seen this jewel, so I do not know if the inscription is accurate. Another source claims it says, “SM El Rey de Cambodia a la Srta Ana Roxas.” I asked writer Chita Gatbonton, who was doing research in the UST Archives, if she knew about the jewels of the Santo Rosario and who was in charge of them. By a stroke of luck, she had a catalogue of the Santo Rosario’s jewels, which mentions that Ana Roxas had donated it to the Santo Rosario, but it has since been given or assigned to the Santo Niño.

Described as being (hold your breath) “a solid gold medallion in the shape of a shell encrusted with eight diamantitos, twenty-nine chispas, eight pearls, and twenty-four emeralds.” You now know why it is always kept in the vault.  

A Song for Quezon’s Girlfriend

I came across a photograph showing the late National Artist Amado V. Hernandez in a huddle with the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. I thought they would be discussing something of great historical value, but library research yielded nothing, except a small item that Hernandez had attended a conference in Paris where he met Sartre.

Following a lead which could very well become a subject for a column, I asked his widow, Atang de la Rama (herself a National Artist) for more information. She said, “I will tell you the same thing I told the military when my husband was in jail. I know nothing! As soon as Ka Amado goes out of our gate, wala akong pakialam (I didn’t care), and when he comes home, he is still my husband! That’s why we don’t quarrel.”

Atang de la Rama (Source:

Atang de la Rama (Source:

Spoken like Simone de Beauvoir, I told Ka Atang, and she laughed. She wondered aloud why I spent most of my youth researching about the past and people like her who are part of the past.

“You are like a garbage man, what will you do with my life story? Para kang nangangalkal ng basura (It’s like you’re digging at garbage)!”

I replied that rummaging through historical “garbage” is my life, but this wasn’t enough to wheedle an interview from her. So in the course of our regular telephone chats where she discussed art, nationalism and the Americanization of the Filipino, she would recollect information. One story can still make a fitting post-Valentine column to go with an article on singing telegrams.

“One day while I was rehearsing for a zarzuela (stage play), I was told to get ready and go with a man called ‘Kastila (Spaniard).’ He would be wearing a khaki ensemble, riding breeches and a riding whip. Someone else would take my place at that night’s zarzuela.

“’Kastila’ came on horseback, and since I was small, he placed me in one of the kaing (large basket) on one side of the horse to balance the load of fruits and vegetables on the other side. The trip was long and the man didn’t talk much. He knew I was a singer and he asked me to sing as we went along. I did as I was told, pero naiinis ako, kasi mainit (I was annoyed because it was hot)!

“Then we came to a river where a waiting casco took us to Baler, Quezon. This part of the trip was more agreeable, because there was shade and I enjoyed watching the flying fish. The men caught fish which they broiled along with some chickens on board the casco. Later they served one palanggana (basin) of rice and tomatoes to go with the freshly cooked fish. As I was very hungry, lamon ako nang lamon (I just kept eating). Water from the river was not good, matabang ang tubig (the water was tasteless), so I was given fresh buco (young coconut).

“After a day’s journey, we arrived at our destination – a big house in Baler. I was asked if I knew how to play the piano. I was not in the mood, so even if I could play the piano, I told my hosts I only knew how to sing. A guitarist was called in and he asked me what I wanted to sing. I said I will sing all the songs you can play. You see, this was not a problem, since I was very good with oido (improvisation) and I could easily pick up a tune. If I don’t know the lyrics, I’d invent them! <laughs> I didn’t write stories and zarzuela scripts for nothing, you know. You have a lot to learn from your Lola (Grandma) Atang.

“And you know what? My host turned out to be Aurora Aragon, the future wife of Manuel Quezon! I was brought all the way there as part of Quezon’s courtship! All that way to sing for his sweetheart! I slept in the Aragon house overnight and the next day, it was the same route back to the zarzuela company.

Manuel and Aurora Quezon on their wedding day (Source: "Kasalan" by Pitoy Moreno)

Manuel and Aurora Quezon on their wedding day (Source: "Kasalan" by Pitoy Moreno)

“Quezon never brought this up when we met later on. He had married Dona Aurora and was already President when I was invited to sing in Malacanang. You know, I was even present when Quezon signed the law making Tagalog the national language. I was not paid for singing for Dona aurora, but how was I to know who this ‘Kastila’ was? How was I to know he would become President?”

MacArthur and Dimples

Very few people remember a star of the Savoy Theater named Isabel Rosario Cooper. More popularly known as “Dimples,” this beautiful mestiza appeared in the movie, “Ang Tatlong Hambog” (The Three Braggarts), where she was at the receiving end (from Luis Tuason) of the first kissing scene in Philippine cinema. In a retrospective, the said scene would produce catcalls and yawns from an audience used to “bold” and “penetration” movies, so why a piece of entertainment trivia?

Dimples Cooper (Source:

Dimples Cooper (Source:

General Douglas MacArthur (Source:

General Douglas MacArthur (Source:

Well, Dimples lived a life which could still be worth a steamy movie because her paramour happened to be General Douglas MacArthur, the man whose famous line, “I shall return,” made him part of Philippine history and as much an icon for Filipinos as Uncle Sam.

William Manchester writes in American Caesar that shortly before MacArthur left the Philippines in 1930, he made arrangements for Dimples to follow him to the United States. When she didn’t, MacArthur cabled her do to so and signed the telegram “Daddy.” Upon arrival in the US, Dimples discovered that “Daddy” could not take her home because his mother was living there, so he housed her in a Washington hotel before finding her a suitable apartment.

MacArthur purchased everything for Dimples, including her wardrobe, which reveals his jealous and chauvinistic nature. He supplied her with tea gowns, kimonos and even black lace lingerie (kinky, huh?). Dimples was not supplied with many street clothes since she was not expected to go out and was to be on call every time MacArthur was in town.

After a while, Dimples grew tired of her love nest, since MacArthur was away most of the time and her only companion was a pet poodle and, of course, MacArthur’s postcards and letters. Before long, the difficulties of a long-distance relationship began to show. With the chauffeur-driven limousine supplied by MacArthur, his mistress cruised the city and ended up having affairs with prominent Washington men!

Once, Dimples asked her lover to find a job for her brother in Washington. An irate MacArthur responded by sending a help wanted page torn out of a newspaper.

In 1934, MacArthur ended the relationship with a note, plus train tickets to the West Coast and passage on an ocean liner back to Manila. In the same year, he sued Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen for $1.75 million over an item which appeared in their gossip column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” The suit would have pushed through, but the resourceful journalists found Dimples before MacArthur did and bought all of his love letters to his mistress; so at the pretrial hearing the defendants said they would take testimony from Dimples. Upon hearing this, MacArthur immediately dropped the suit, simply because he didn’t want his mother to find out about his affair with Dimples.

What became of Dimples is quite pathetic. With the $15,000 given by MacArthur through a Pearson agent, she moved to the Midwest where she bought a hairdressing shop. Later, she moved to Los Angeles, California, where she committed suicide with an overdose of barbiturates in 1960.

It will be interesting to read the Dimples-MacArthur correspondence. This would reveal an unknown side to General MacArthur. Hopefully those papers bought by the gossip columnists will make their way to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC for use in a future book.

Reprinted from Looking Back (Manila: Anvil Publishing, 1990)

Ambeth R. Ocampo

Ambeth R. Ocampo

Ambeth R. Ocampo teaches history in Ateneo de Manila University, writes a well-read op-ed column in the Philippines Daily Inquirer, and moderates a growing Facebook Fan Page.