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Crazy Rich Filipinos

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‘People are casually coughing up money,’ says a social historian.


“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” If you agree with this quote of disputed origin, then the intimate event held this September in Leon Gallery in Makati was a gathering of minds capacious enough to accommodate two hours of idle talk about the Philippines’ wealthiest.

Resembling an afternoon gossip session, “Crazy Rich Flips” was inspired by the book-turned-film Crazy Rich Asians. The thrust of the talk was to affirm that—long before Astrid Leung became the epitome of regal beauty, wealth, strength, and power, or Nick Young was the handsome bachelor with brains, brawn, and big bucks—there were real-life Filipino Astrids and Nicks who owned the same immense wealth, if not more, who threw lavish parties here and there, and whose whims, though out of this world, could be bought—because money can buy anything. The tone of the room was self-congratulatory: “The Philippines has always been rich, too!” Never mind the 22 million Filipinos living below poverty line according to the latest World Bank report.

Holding court was social historian Augusto “Toto” Gonzalez III, a member of a wealthy haciendero clan in Pampanga who also runs the blog “Remembrance of Things Awry.” A personal project that began in 2006 as a way of chronicling his family history (“however trivial and nonsensical”), the blog has mushroomed into a breezy, gossipy repository of the “well-documented and quite inarguable” pedigree of rich Filipinos, stretching back to the 1800s. Over several posts, Mr. Gonzalez shared his taxonomy of prominent last names, dividing the rich and powerful into “Families of Political Tradition” (e.g. the Cojuangcos, the Ejercitos, the Crisologos, the Levistes); “Families of Entrepreneurial Tradition” (e.g. the Aboitizes, the Aranetas, the Elizaldes, the Lopezes); and “Families of Intellectual Tradition” (e.g. the Paternos, the Teodoros, the Yuchengcos).

“Of course, we don’t discount the fact that—yes—there’s staggering difficulty around. But on the other side, there’s never been more money in Manila than today. I don’t know where it’s coming from,” he said, laughing. “People are casually coughing up money.” Case in point: Mr. Gonzalez’s talk preceded Leon Gallery’s September sale, where paintings by heavyweight artists were auctioned off for tons of cash. On the block were works such as Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco’s The Nose Flute (hammered at Php63 million); Fernando Zobel’s Saeta 52 or Pared Madrileña (hammered at Php35 million); Alfonso Ossorio’s Ascension (hammered at Php23.4 million); and Jose Joya’s Carnival (hammered at Php25.7 million).

Surrounded by the million-peso opulence of the local art market, Mr. Gonzalez regaled his audience with tales of the rich, both vieux and nouveau. “Everybody was new-rich at some point in their lives. But what’s to be celebrated is they broke ranks,” he said, adding that Php10 million is nothing to spend on a birthday party.

“Crazy Rich Flips” unfolded in reverse chronology and opened with the notorious Janet Lim-Napoles, the “pork barrel queen” accused of cooking up a scam that gypped the Philippine people of an estimated Php10 billion. Nevertheless, Ms. Napoles “was a great hostess,” said Mr. Gonzalez, one who gave her guests splendid giveaways from Hermès  and Chanel. She gifted people with bling and raffled off cars. “They were all top-rated things,” said Mr. Gonzalez.

From the accused scammer and money launderer, the talk moved on to ousted President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, who postured as a poor man although he was anything but. “He has great taste in everything. He’s classy,” said Mr. Gonzalez of the former president who was widely known to be fond of Chateau Petrus, a wine that costs US$1,500 a bottle. The Center for Public Integrity—a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization—reported in 2000 that Mr. Estrada, during his presidency—had his mother’s Greenhills home refurbished. It was, according to the piece written by Sheila Coronel, “a major renovation that converted the family matriarch’s large, comfortable quarters into something close to palatial: high ceilings, a state-of-the-art kitchen, and a cavernous living room with a grand piano and exorbitantly-priced beige curtains.”

Still, Mr. Estrada’s indiscretions pale in comparison to the decadence of another president’s regime. According to Mr. Gonzalez, it was during the Marcos years, from 1965–1986, that extreme spending “hit the top.” Of the many stories to choose from, Mr. Gonzalez related the time Mrs. Marcos tried her darndest to top the pomp and circumstance of a royal wedding when her daughter Irene married Gregorio Benitez Araneta, a scion of the Araneta clan (counted among the “Families of Entrepreneurial Tradition” in the social historian’s taxonomy). The ceremony was held in 1983 in Ilocos Norte. While Irene wanted a small gathering, her mother, insisted on ostentation. “It was a major production and many people were drafted to carry it out,” said Mr. Gonzalez, adding that local teachers were drafted to make paper flowers in order to turn Sarrat, Ilocos Norte, into colonial town in bloom. A blog entry titled “Sarrat, Ilocos Norte, 1983” contains more details for the curious, including fresh flowers flown in from Hawaii, and diamonds and jewels aplenty. The Los Angeles Times estimated that Mrs. Marcos spent US$1.3 million on her daughter’s wedding. People magazine placed it at a more impressive US$10.3 million. Either number is a paltry sum, one supposes, compared to the Marcos family’s ill-gotten wealth, which the Philippine Commission on Good Government estimates to be in the billions of dollars.

Mrs. Marcos made headlines this November when she was found guilty of seven counts graft and was sentenced to six to 11 years in prison for each count. The court convicted Mrs. Marcos for putting roughly US$200 million into Swiss foundations when she was the governor of Metro Manila in the 1970s. She used aliases to hide the stolen funds, which she used to purchase an absurd number of shoes, ternos, and accessories.

With time running out, Mr. Gonzalez hastily ended his talk with a roll call of the rich clans of the Philippines: the Legarda-Prieto-Valdeses, the Paternos, the Elizaldes, the Roxases, the Ongpins, the Madrigals, and the Zobel de Ayalas.

Those who missed Mr. Gonzalez’s “Crazy Rich Flips” talk at Leon Gallery can always visit “A Remembrance of Things Awry,” which is a juicy online read. An entry titled “The Best Blog Posts” is a good starting point. Here, one learns Php26 million does not even a bathroom make and US$2.5 million is peanuts. Meanwhile, in an early post filed under “Mistaken Impressions,” Mr. Gonzalez writes that he, Toto Gonzalez, isn’t interested in Manila society at all since he isn’t sure it even exists. “For how can one truly be ‘society’ if one has less than US$10 billion these highly inflationary days??? To me, the only ‘society’ that matters is the fantastically rich international one that shuttles between New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong, and now, Moscow, Beijing, Shanghai, New Delhi, and Singapore.” It looks like he’s changed his mind. – NPDG