By Zsarlene B. Chua

First World Manila
Ongoing until Nov. 14
Manila House

RODRIGO RAMON Kalaw Cuenca doesn’t have a fine arts degree. In fact, he was a stock analyst and a chartered financial analyst at the Bank of Singapore. Then his love for both art and finance led him to develop what he calls a multimedia venture where he seeks to educate people who know very little of business and finance through a series of Web comics and vlogs (video blogs).

“I would loosely call this a multimedia venture… because I’m online but also offline. It’s basically an entertainment and lifestyle venture that makes understanding business, economics and finance interesting to a wider audience,” Mr. Cuenca told BusinessWorld in an interview on Oct. 13 at Manila House in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig.

Simply called Art and Finance (, his Web site now contains several blog and vlog posts about the economy and personal finance as well as artworks and a Web comic about a stock analyst called Ilusion.

His best known vlog entry to date is his first – “Understanding the Japanese Economy,” a 21-minute video showing him walking around Tokyo interspersed with his explanation of the issues the country is currently facing, including its debt-to-GDP ratio and its bad demographics.

It has almost 19,000 views as of press time.

He also has a video where he explains stocks using Nintendo, and another explaining the business strategy of Disney.

“Financial literacy worldwide is quite low – even in developed countries and especially in the Philippines – because, for some reason, it’s not included in the curriculum,” he said of the rationale behind the site and its content.

“And I have several problems with that: for one, you don’t know how business and the economy works so you might have less options when you decide on your career, and I think even more importantly, on a macro level, people in the Philippines, the US, or Europe, when they vote, they vote for economic policies they’re not always well-informed about,” he added.

So he decided to try solving that problem with Art and Finance – making business, economics and finance concepts “entertaining and visually appealing” though a vlog and a Web comic.

“In the Internet, you can reach your audiences, the gatekeepers are not so strict anymore in terms of what kind of content you produce so I think it’s an opportunity for a new concept like mine,” he said.

He said he currently has a few hundred followers, most of them international, but he is gearing to grow this audience base in 2018 as well as creating videos more regularly – which he admitted he had a hard time doing because he was mostly a one-man show.

“First few years was about experimenting on what kind of content works. I have a better understanding now,” Mr. Cuenca said, adding that the idea was to make accessible these concepts that usually put most people to sleep.

He then noted how, on YouTube, it’s easier for videos to go viral if “you are creating content for a subculture that’s big on the Internet,” like unboxing toy videos for children and the nerd geek culture.

“A lot of education channels, and a lot of them are very good and very high quality, but the difference with mine is that it’s more personal, it’s a vlog,” he said.

“I want to have my own little niche because those ventures are kind of about breadth and not about depth and a lot of them aren’t professional analysts and researchers so some of the things they say aren’t always correct,” he explained, before clarifying that he’s not dismissive nor putting educational channels down though he prefers going for “depth than breadth” and explaining things from a research and stock analyst’s point of view.

Aside from his vlogs, Mr. Cuenca is also focusing on creating content for the local market with his newest project called First World Manila (FWM), a re-imagining of what the Philippine capital could have been if the right choices had been made in terms of creating policies after the Second World War.

“This is a localized version of Art and Finance. Another thing I’ve learned is if you want content to reach more people, it has to be relevant to them and I realized that having a comic about stock analysts and business people, it’s a little too niche. With First World Manila, I’ve had requests to see it from people I don’t know at all, which is a good thing,” he said.

“The idea was to tackle something everyone here suffers from: traffic, no urban planning, etc., but these social problems are very much economic problems as well,” he added.

FWM is a both an art exhibit featuring 13 paintings Mr. Cuenca created – some hand-drawn and other digitally made – showing what several districts of Manila: Intramuros, Escolta, and Binondo (and including nearby Pasay City, which is not a Manila district) would have looked like in a first-world setting.

“The bifurcation is after the Second World War because a lot of Manila now was the result of it being bombed to pieces,” he said.

The exhibit is currently running until Nov. 14 at Manila House.

The paintings are accompanied by the first four pages of a manga (a Japanese comic) of the same name telling the story of an estranged couple who suddenly found themselves in the so-called FWM.

The manga will be released weekly on both his Web site and its corresponding social media sites.

Mr. Cuenca has said that while he doesn’t have fine arts degree (though he took some art courses) and is partially self-taught, his work is influenced by Yoshitaka Amano, an artist known for his stylized depiction of Square Enix’s Final Fantasy game franchise, and Tatsuya Egawa who wrote the Golden Boy manga from 1992 to 1998.

“The first four pages in the exhibit doesn’t even go to the economics of it: the taxes, etc. It’s not the whole thing – it’s the launch of the project. It’s more about establishing the characters,” Mr. Cuenca said, adding that he learned from his first (and ongoing Web comic) that his audience prefers seeing more character and plot development.

“What I’ve learned from that is plot and character comes first before everything else. The strips that I have most views [of] are those that are very character-focused. I kind of geeked out and jumped on to the deeper stuff right away which I shouldn’t have done in hindsight, but I think I became a better writer in the process,” he said, explaining that while character and plot will take precedence, he will be slipping business and finance concepts into the manga.

In his depiction of First World Manila, Escolta and Intramuros retain remnants of the country’s colonial past – from its buildings and well-kept parks – and people plying EDSA do not have to contend with heavy traffic every day.

“I’ve been fortunate to have been educated abroad and much like other Filipinos who do go abroad, I’ve thought of why couldn’t the Philippines be like these developed countries,” he said. Mr. Cuenca graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in political economy.

Mr. Cuenca said he has been inspired by the cities of Singapore, Madrid, and Tokyo in creating his dream-Manila, which is depicted with modernity co-existing with tradition.

But instead of providing outright solutions to the problems the capital is facing, Mr. Cuenca took the route of “pointing people in the right direction,” by talking “to a lot of people and getting their inputs” on how the problems can be solved.

“[I’m] presenting issues, both short term and long term, and how different parties think it should be solved, and you decide,” he said.

“I want issues to be delineated clearly. The general idea is striking a balance so the actionable points are open-ended,” he explained, saying that is also the reason why he will be posting it on social media – so it can be open for discussion and get his audiences involved so they can make informed decisions.

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