Dionisia Sira-Chiu: A beautiful life rich with 90-year journey of faith and courage

Dionisia Sira-Chiu’s life story is the story of every woman. Rising, falling and rising again. She has the courage to challenge the status quo of her time and led the way how things can be done by women if they have persistence. Now she tells us her story heading Maya Angelou’s call, ““There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

“Even before you were born, the community is already waiting for you to do something” – Chiu Bun Gim

A woman inspiring fellow women

In her time, women’s struggle to be empowered took roots rising from motherhood to inspiring the family’s thriving business to flourish. Her candle shines forever for women to follow.

What makes a woman’s life different? In particular, what made this one story special?

I have interviewed and written about many women from all over the world and there are few who stood out among those I met. One is Dionisia Sira Chiu, the woman behind the well-respected Chiu families whose businesses are based in Koronadal City, the capital of South Cotabato Province, but spans the whole Mindanao island.

Dionisia’s journey is a wealth of wisdom about family, relationships, faith, courage, trust and yes, compassion towards others. What struck me most was her tenacity as she went through life’s bumps and hurdles. Did she cry and spent sleepless nights over them? I am sure she did and imagine what lessons I found. Did she, at a point, waver through the challenges? I am sure she did, just like you and me. This one many women would share in common.

Indeed, what makes a woman rise above the rest is that effort to do something for her own community; to spread kindness and to do things that matter to other human beings, especially those in need. Often, our life’s inspiration is driven by the passion of people around us. In her case, it was her late husband Chiu Bun Gim, a migrant from mainland China whose business foresight led him to venture in the Philippines. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Childhood at the time of war and peace

She was born from parents who valued education at a time when going to school was a tough challenge. “My father used his rusty bicycle to take us to school which was 7 kilometers away from our barrio (village) named Balabag to the town of Santa Barbara”, she recalls. She became among the first batch of students who graduated from grade VI together with those from grade VII.

Born on May 8, 1929, Dionisia Sira grew up in a deeply religious family who never missed praying the Angelus every 6pm every day followed by the Holy Rosary. “I was always sleepy during the prayers but I managed to complete them”, she says. Somehow, these seemingly tedious traditions helped build her patience and inner strength. She eventually became the prayer lead during important religious celebrations.

Santa Barbara, a town in Iloilo Province is located 16 kilometers from Iloilo City. Though few people may know at present time, it is part of the country’s important independence history. The Revolutionary Government was inaugurated in its town plaza in October 1898 led by Roque Lopez as president. The revolutionary forces successfully launched the campaign to liberate the province from the Spaniards. Then the Japanese came and occupied many municipalities in Iloilo province.

Driven and determined. She witnessed the violence of war but it did not diminish her desire to reach her goals.

Dionisia, fondly nicknamed Nising to family, friends and acquaintances, was old enough to witness the atrocities. She says, “Many people fled outside Balabag for fear of violence. We have heard of rumours of people being beheaded. It was terrifying that I saw myself how a beheaded guerrilla being kicked by a Japanese soldier.”

“There were times when we have to put off the fire in the kitchen hastily, carrying the uncooked rice in the pot straight from the wood stove and run for safety in our air-raid shelter”, she adds. Every grain of rice is considered sacred in the Philippines and should never be wasted even at war time.

From Visayas to Mindanao

After her first two years studying a degree in Pharmacy from Colegio de San Agustin in Iloilo City in 1951, Nising moved to complete the remaining two years of the degree in the University of San Carlos in Cebu City, graduating on 1953. By then, the family moved to Mindanao taking advantage of the government’s program, the National Land Settlement Association (NLSA). Majority of those who made the move came from the Visayas region.

Immediately after graduation, she took the boat from Cebu City to General Santos City in Mindanao. In that journey, Nising met a Chinese guy named Chiu Bun Gim, who was quiet but was fond of going around in the boat. He brought us and some boat officers together to play games. That fateful meeting, almost uneventful, actually became the start of their long journey together in 1957.

Persistence personified. Her parents instilled in them the value of education and this challenge was not easy in the 50s. But she prevailed pursuing what she wanted.

She spent her early days in Koronadal City taking care of her siblings who were still studying. “I was cooking and keeping the house for them”, she shares. She established her small pharmacy in nearby Kipalbig, Tampakan that she named Sira’s Medicinas Caceres in 1955 specializing in household remedies. With the health clinics and hospitals inaccessible in the 50s and transportation difficult, her pharmacy became the refuge of people in need of immediate treatment.

“I have sewn the wounds of a farmer with abaca fiber who got into an accident. I assisted several child births. One night, I was summoned to help a man who was knifed and was profusely bleeding. Faced with these challenges that could mean life-and-death, I have no choice but to use what I have learned and help save lives. Fortunately, most of these patients survived and I was happy I was able to do my share”, Nising added.

Finding love and the future

They next time she met when Chiu Bun Gim was when she remembered offering her services as an interpreter. She ended up working as secretary doing their admin work ensuring that their communications with clients were done promptly. On the side, she taught them proper verbal and written English.

Their relationship gradually blossomed and they faced together the changes in the business industry as they started a family that grew into six children now leaders in the real estate and trading industry with growing families. Valentin now owns Chiu Kim Enterprises. Joseph owns Viajero and other businesses. The four women Maria Victoria and Maria Veronica, Maria Rosario and Maria Henrietta are main incorporators of Marbel Universal Trading, Inc.

“What I really admired in him was his being soft-spoken and thrifty. Imagine that with his P120 monthly salary from La Perla Cigar & Cigarette Company owned by Lucio Tan, he sent P100 to support his family in Xiamen, mainland China and saved the remaining P20 which later were invested into his business ventures assisted by close friends”, she adds.

During Chiu Bun Gim’s death in 1996, whose tombstone was engraved with his favorite saying, “Be like a candle which burns itself to give light to others”, it devastated her but she said she was prepared. Way back in 1980, he was already having a prostate problem and high blood pressure. This led a surgery administered in Chinese General Hospital in Manila and was followed by a diagnosis of colon cancer in 1992.

He went home to Koronadal City after his surgery where he was cared for by his family. Unable to travel anymore, his family from Xiamen came to visit him and the two families met. This part of her life will need a longer sharing time.

Raising a family of business leaders, Dionisia and Chiu Bun Gim with children. From left: Henriette, Rose, Val, Joseph and twins Vicky and Vernie.

Together with Chiu Bun Gim, they worked hard building a business. Every cent and effort counted. This trait they were able to inculcate in their children’s lives.

A campaign to give back to the elderly

At 90, Nising found her calling to take care of people her age. “One instance that really struck me was when a frail, old woman, probably my age, was begging and went to our store. I asked her why she was alone and nobody accompanied her. She shared with me that her children have no time for her and she had to find food for her needs. It broke my heart. The elderly took care of their children while growing up and now that they are old, nobody can return that love to them”, she laments.

That encounter gave birth to her dream of establishing a home for the aged in Koronadal City. There were a lot of hurdles but with the support of her family and various support groups, the dream is gradually unfolding. The groundbreaking event of the one-hectare site donated by the family was a triumph of compassion over the odds. After a careful selection, the Board of Trustees of Anawim Koronadal Home for the Elderly was set-up composed of respected members of the community.

Dionisia Sira Chiu’s 90-year journey is not over yet. It is just taking a good turn to the more fulfilling phase of giving back.

I am grateful to be a woman. I must have done something great in another life.” – Maya Angelou

Age is just a number. At 90, Dionisia still travels the world, now exploring it with her grandchildren. A life well lived and full of adventure.

An early celebration of her birthday in Hong Kong witnessed by families from the Philippines and China. Everyday is a celebration.

Before his death, Chiu Bun Gim had reunified his family in Xiamen, China and Koronadal City, Philippines. The tradition of annual family reunion started alternating locations in both countries.

Dionisia’s life is inspired by many beautiful quotes and poems among them Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata. Note: Copy of the prose poem photo grabbed from www.sacredart-murals.co.uk.

Throw those fears and ‘what ifs’ out of the window: Maryann shows you can learn and drive in your 50s

When you have the persistence, you can do what you want. Maryann did it at 51. So can you!

Three years ago she decided it’s time to drive. Maryann Pudadera-Morales was already 51! Did she survive? You bet, she did! In the Philippines, it is almost a luxury to have a car, hence, not many women drive. Those who dare are a cut above the rest.

For one to do it past midlife even deserves an applause. With the kind of traffic we have in most cities around the country, it takes a lot of nerve and spunk. In her own words, here’s her story and the exciting adventure that went with it.

When did u decide to buy a car and drive?

When I moved as area services manager of South Cotabato 1 Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Socoteco 1), my office was in one of the malls in Koronadal City. It was almost a 2km daily commute from the house.  I usually go home at 7pm and my grueling challenge include walking to the highway to get a pedicab. It was uncomfortable passing through dim alleys. It often takes me two ‘rides’ as drivers would demand extra fare for direct trips.

This made me think of “what ifs”.  What if I drive my own car so I can move in and out anytime? I told myself I should start with a second hand car so I can have a trial period and will not lose my head if I end up damaging the car.

A week after, I found out my husband Boyet’s nephew was selling his blue Kia Sportage. I actually love the car! We agreed on a P65k (USD1,300) deal and it was delivered from Bukidnon to Koronadal on July 2015. None of us knew how to drive yet!

My sister Majal recommended Mikmik Marquez who taught at a driving school and in a month’s time I was driving. I maneuvered through the city’s traffic and the rotunda that most new drivers dread. I did not waste time. Few days after, I already drove long distance to nearby towns of Surallah and Tupi.

You think I am too confident? Of course not! While on the wheels, there were too many fears playing on my head: car stalls at the highway or intersection and cause massive traffic jam; attack of my astigmatism & farsightedness especially driving at night; and yes, an accident beyond my control.

What did I do? It is good I started with a good teacher who boosted my self-confidence and believed I can do it. He always had positive feedback when I commit mistakes. I believed on the principle that every driver has a right on the road. Nobody should be pushed or rushed even if other drivers are impatient for their turn. I always stayed calm.

I chose defensive driving most of the time. But before I leave the house, I make sure I check the car and necessary documents. I often forget my driver’s license when I change handbags and it is an inconvenience if you get flagged unexpectedly on the road for random traffic checks.

That kind if independence driving your own car gets to you. It is not about the car. It’s the experience.

What was the feeling when you first drove on your own?

It was on August, 2015. I was nervous and fidgety. I shouted on top of my voice inside the car asking myself “Why is it only now that you learned to drive!”. That day I experienced three engine shut down. I tried to perfect the shifting of gears and the engine stalled every time I was slow. I prayed while on the road. I avoided the highway and took the secondary roads which were less busy.

I scolded myself most of the time that I could have done it earlier but I waited until 50. Eventually, I had a sense of triumph because it gave me more chances to bond with my two fast-growing sons. It was also a huge accomplishment that at my age, I did it.

Until now, my biggest challenge is parking in a crowded area, such as malls teeming with cars and people. It was always tough for me to estimate the distance of the parking space and the cars beside me.

Then you got yourself a new car and drove from Luzon to Mindanao?

It took a while to decide. A mother like me would always look at the practical side of any decision. That was how I approached the idea of buying a new one. By then I was driving for close to two years.

I had countless discussions with my two sons Kyle and Ken on the type of car, how much and the payment terms as our budget will be affected. The most crucial question was, “Do we really need a new car?”

I asked around, checked with my co-workers and went car-shopping. While I was in Bacolod City on a work summit, I test drove a Honda car and I resolved that if ever I buy one, that would be it! I know that car prices are set to go up late that year so I have to decide fast. I did beat my own deadline.

But to save money, I have to buy the car in Manila, drive or get it shipped to Koronadal. That’s three major islands away. We decided it will be a fun challenge to drive it from Luzon to Mindanao. By then Kyle was already driving. I have a back-up.

Our two boys, Kyle and Ken, were my ultimate travel buddies. The car has become our bonding place.

How did we prepared for the one-week Luzon to Mindanao trip?

I started doing a good research. I browsed on the internet, read vlogs, blogs and reviews. I checked the route and roads for travel time. I also asked people who did it then marked the weather patterns. I chose the lodging houses plus the tourist spots along the way, noted the boat-transfer rates, took some notes and brainstormed with Kyle. It was an amazing way to teach my sons how to plan and execute it.

Then we decided on the schedule. I have to time it with my sons’ school holidays. Kyle chose the make of our new car, a metallic silver Honda, and after completing the transaction in Manila, on 14 October 2017, he drove it out of the Honda Cars shop in Shaw Boulevard together with our sales agent Cedric and picked me and Ken at the airport.

We ensured that all the documents are in place especially the car insurance. We want the trip to be hassle-free. We headed to Lucena City for the test-drive and formal turn-over. After a dinner, Cedric left us on our own. On the way we realized we forgot to take our ceremonial hand-over. Lucena was memorable because that was where it all began.

The route you took and what have you learned along the way?

 We travelled almost 1,500 kilometers in a span of two days with our online guide-WAZE.  We set off from SLEX to the Pan-Philippine (Maharlika Highway) with our goal to hit Legaspi City and see the majestic Mayon Volcano before dusk then head for Batangas-Quezon-Camarines Sur and finally, Albay.

I had my first, but short, driving stint (less than an hour) for an automatic vehicle when we traversed the CamSur to Albay road, as Kyle took his first nap from a 4-hour drive from Lucena. We were not able to marvel the real beauty of Mt. Mayon because the weather got bad. We left early at 4:00am and also never caught a glimpse of the beautiful Aurora Province.

Our second night was spent at Matnog, Sorsogon where Brave, the car’s got its name by now, got to her first boat ride in the Roll On/Roll Off (RORO) Fast Cat trip at 4:00am. We bid goodbye to Luzon on 15 October 2017.

Visayas Island came next via Allen, Samar through the San Bernardino Strait. With mixed emotions of fear and excitement, I took the wheels for my second driving leg and my first ever long drive from Samar to Tacloban.  It meant missing some fantastic scenic views especially the San Juanico Bridge which was truly a sight to behold!

Goofy time at Samar’s famous landmark – the amazing San Juanico Bridge. I was driving so I missed most of the view.

Kyle and Ken enjoyed the view of a lifetime on Samar’s famous landmark while I drove. We headed straight to Liloan Port in Southern Leyte for the second ferry boat ride to Surigao after being stranded for almost 2 hours in Palo, Leyte due to the heavy downpour which flooded the main road. We did not drive through the flood fearing the car might stall andl damage the engine.

The Fast-Cat (Catamaran) sailed us quickly back to our beloved home island of Mindanao. From the port to Davao City at midnight of April 15, with me driving, we reached Davao City at 8:00am for some quick stopover in a mall. After the rest, we were on the road again to General Santos City for Brave’s first Preventive Maintenance Check (PMS) at a Honda Cars shop.

On October 16 before dusk, our brand new car was parked in front of our house.

The time I spent with Kyle and Ken was every mom’s amazing adventure. I had their undivided attention and we even were able to talk about our issues, plans and aspirations in life.

After that wonderful trip, we did another one to Iloilo City recently on March 31, 2018 where we traveled through Cotabato City-Pagadian-Dipolog-Dumaguete-Bacolod route.

It always starts with a decision. The rest will follow.

Can you use your lessons in driving at work?

I have been the area manager for three years but had been working with Socoteco 1 for 29 years. Learning how to drive provided me opportunity to understand and relate with the problems and difficulties encountered by the frontline personnel who does a daily grind of job on the road on a 24/7 work shift. It was a tough job to do.

 

 As a woman driver, I always reminded myself to take mind over matter all the time.  Before learning to drive, I was delayed by the belief that I can never ever drive a car because I have difficulties with my eyesight. I also entertained fears that I may cause discomfort to other drivers. My mentor encouraged and boosted my morale.

Dare yourself: Dream. Save.  Conquer.

Any more lessons on driving and traveling?

Traveling in the Philippines means roughing it out! There were challenges on stop overs such as rest-areas with unpleasant odors, misrouted ways, undisciplined drivers and narrow roads. We sometimes had no choice but to hold our breaths and just laugh them off. That’s positivity in action.

Long-haul land travel, at times, can be uncomfortable, but the right attitude makes a big difference. We got left by the fast craft, and we had to settle for the slower boat. We never got annoyed, it was still a good experience! We enjoyed the sea breeze and island views on the upper deck as we wondered, “Are we there yet?”

The trip taught us to be patient. Patience is indeed a virtue with a lot of waiting in the ports, so much like life when you wait for the right things to happen at the right time. Rushing takes you off a fun experience!

The trip was not perfect as we wanted it to be. We had few hitches along the way we could have stayed longer to enjoy the sights. But then that’s a good excuse to do it all over again next time. I know we did the best.

The trip was an exciting adventure that Kyle and Ken will surely remember for the rest of their life. What truly makes us rich is not the things we own but the experience we dare to do – then live to share.

Meet Brave, my new best friend.