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.

#MoroccoisAmazing: Goats on trees, how argan oil is made, the beautiful culture and camel ride to the Sahara

The Sahara Desert experience was one of my best unforgettable adventures. The sunrise was amazing! There is indeed no limit to God’s fantastic creation. Below is our desert camp accommodation.

“I believe that Marrakech ought to be earned as a destination. The journey is the preparation for the experience. Reaching it too fast derides it, makes it a little less easy to understand.” – Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams

I learned something new on this trip: When it is your birthday treat to yourself, it better be different. My 16 years on the road made that a tough challenge. What will I do? Where will I go? What kind of adventure can I still do without me buckling on my knees? In the end, I called the travel agent and booked Morocco. Deciding too long has cost me an additional US$400 more for my ticket, so I closed my eyes and confirmed. I told myself this better be worth it. It was, and more!

Check-outBohol, Philippines

The palm tree is an icon in Morocco! Do you know that there is an estimated 5 million palm trees in the country, many of them are 150 years old. Their role in everyday life cannot be understated – they provide shades and prevent soil erosion, among many other uses. This view was from the verandah of my room in Hotel Racine.

I did four stages for my 8-day trip: 1) Walking tour in Marrakech – ½ day, 2) Ourika Valley – 1 day, 3) Essaouira – 1 day and 4) Sahara Desert – 2 days/1 night.

I intentionally reserved 2 days for myself exploring the city and going to Jardin de Majorelle, where Yves Saint Laurent’s ashes were enshrined. The famous garden had been said to be his refuge after leaving the fashion world before his death. Wow, imagine walking in the same steps where the fashion icon had frequented.

European Holidays: Berlin, Germany

The villa inside Jardin de Majorelle designed by French architect Paul Sinor inside the garden created by French artist Jacques Majorelle. It is also where the ashes of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent was enshrined.

Surprisingly, hotels and riads (or townhouse with courtyard) are aplenty and amazingly designed. They are also affordable! My first 5 days were spent in Hotel Racine in Gueliz, the location is a 10-minute walk to the city center. It is clean, rooms are spacious and staff were very friendly.

My last 2 days I have to move to a riad right in the center because the hotel was fully booked. They were friendly enough to keep my luggage while I went to the Sahara. In every city I visit, I always book for a walking tour to get familiar with the landmarks. After that I prefer to be on my own. I prefer my holidays at my own pace, no rushing and early morning trips except for special ones I wanted to do.

Marrakech’s big square is a mish-mash of colors, bright and muted, but all a feast in the eyes. It was a pain not to buy anything. So tempting! But this time, I am determined to just enjoy the experience.

Tip #1: When you are taking a walking tour, make sure you agree with your guide where to go, what you want to see. If not, you can end up being taken around shops and being cajoled to buy things from carpets, argan and olive oils and all sorts of silver jewelries.

The Ourika Valley tour gave us a glimpsed of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains and the valley’s famous landmarks, the waterfalls and couscous lunch by the river. The view along the way are these open-air ceramics and trinkets shops.

Tip #2: Marrakech is easy to explore and generally safe. Just be careful with your things as you do in many other countries you visit. The Moroccans are very friendly and will always go out of their way to help you, even the taxi drivers and hotel staff.

Needing a mind-boost? On your way to Essaouira, the van will stop at these hilarious trees filled with argan-eating goats. I have never laughed to loud with my fellow tourists. These goats are in the serious business of balancing and eating on top of the tree, unmindful of the gawking tourists!

Tip #3: Do your research what you want to see before you leave home. I sat with 2 girls on holiday who have no idea where to go and what are Morocco’s important sites and landmarks. It is such a waste visiting the country and will never know what are the beautiful stories behind them.

The streets of Essaouira is a labyrinth of these amazing doorways, old colorful walls. This harbor city faces the Mediterranean Sea, a long coastline and beautiful port.

Tip #4: The best thing of traveling alone is you get to appreciate solitude more, and have more time to enjoy the sights. Even in a group try to find time for peace and quiet. That’s what holidays are supposed to be for.

Inside the luxe desert camp in the Sahara. The tour is an amazing experience!

Watch up next: The fun Marrakech maze!

A Christmas Love Story: Lino and Vernie finds marriage like a tandem bike ride

Knowing that the challenge will be an arduous one, Vernie and Lino prepared themselves to work as partners. The trip required 100kms per day for 23 days. At that time she was 58yo and Lino was 59yo. Just like life, through coordination, physical preparedness and training prior to the trip made the goal possible.

Guest Blogger: Vernie Chiu Basilio

Our married life got richly defined by our Tandem Bike Challenge for 23 days. It changed the way we viewed our marriage and our faith in God. From April 18 to May 10 , 2015, Lino and I embarked on achieving the goal.

Very much like the day we pledged for a life together 33 years ago, we decided on this long tandem bike ride with faith on God’s great providence and the goodness of the people who supported and cheered on us. It also put to test our support for each other.

We kept our preparations simple. The Couple Tandem Bike is for a cause and the finances used for the journey should be just enough for our day to day expenses. Even the tandem bicycle we used was not expensive. It is a surplus  singled speed tandem bike with old-fashioned brakes, the back-pedal system.

Physically, we were not in a superb condition. Each day we rode for about 100 kilometers, a feat that is impossible without God’s grace. As a woman, I was psychologically anxious most of the time because the road was new to us. But I overcame this by soaking at the scenery and the reaction of most people seeing us bike together. I found it funny most of the time.

Not a geek, I learned to use my pocket wifi and phone installed with Strava app to record our trip and our performance. You can never be too old to learn new things.

As we cycled from Aparri to Koronadal, almost the opposite ends of the country, we faced very difficult challenges but we found comfort and happiness in seeing how beautiful the Philippines is and how kind Filipinos are on our way. For the most part of the ride, the panoramas are breathtaking, the sceneries are idyllic and most the people on the way are welcoming.

Our Couple Tandem Bike 2015 was partly dedicated to the St. Anthony Parish & St. Lawrence Kalinga Orphanage both located in Koronadal City. It was reassuring to see all of the children playing in the streets all over the Philippines. As we passed through populated areas, among our fans and admirers were the children.

Vernie says she wants to inspire other women, as well as couples, that if she can do the adventure at her age, then also can! Biking promotes good health and positive outlook towards life.

They would immediately notice us and always cheered for us even if we were strangers. It served as a great inspiration that every time we passed children we could also share with them the joy that we felt. They would often call the attention of their friends and share the discovery of us riding a tandem bike.

Now we understand why Jesus declared that God’s Kingdom belongs only to those who are like little children. They alone have the capacity to see the important things in life. What is important is invisible to the eyes and only the heart could see.

On our stopovers after a day’s ride, we were always welcomed by people we didn’t even know. During the entire course of the 2,287 km journey from Aparri to Koronadal, we never felt that we were strangers in their hometowns. In some places we had friends waiting for us but more than 95% of the well-wishers were people we didn’t know.

Others expressed their support and concern through messages or calling us while some have shown their support by donating to the cause.

Albert Einstein said, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Single life may be similar to riding a bicycle but married life is like riding a tandem bicycle designed for two people so that they can take a ride together. To keep the balance, both need to keep moving.

There were also simple truths we learned along the way. If one of us falters, then the travel to our destination becomes harder. Any difficulty affects both of us as the other rider needs to pedal harder and stabilise the bicycle until the other one is able to recover. This teamwork of give and take is one of the secrets of a successful marriage life.

The ride also taught us to take everything one day at a time. We would plan only for the route of the next day and mostly on the potential challenges we might encounter. While most highways are easy, some can be tough.

Vernie and Lino: Perfect combination. This couple proved once more that marriage, just like life, is like a bicycle. You keep pedalling to go through the ups and downs and enjoy whatever comes.

From Sogod to San Ricardo in Southern Leyte, we were met with heavy rains, steep downhill terrain with landslides and some flooding. Our bike skidded so we decided to just walk and push our bike. The opposite happened in Atimonan, Quezon’s bitukang manok (chicken intestine). The terrain was uphill so we did single speed and walked up.

Uphills are the most difficult part because we need to pedal continuously to be able to climb up. In these occasions, the slope was too steep and the road too slippery. We often stop and start pushing the bikes until we could mount them again.

Life can be sprinkled with obstacles along the way. We can step down and push forward.

We learned that sometimes life isn’t lived in a straight line. We need to make decisions on which route to take and sometimes need to go through unnecessary paths because there is no other way to go.

I have to admit that going downhill is fun and easy. I wish we can live our lives this way. Unfortunately, it is when we push uphill that our muscles get stronger, just like life’s challenges. It makes us capable of climbing new heights.

We celebrated our return by sharing “Caldo (Soup) for a Cause”, the success of our efforts will be measured by the donations we received. The support for the completion of the construction of St Anthony Parish in Koronadal City is overwhelming. Donations for St. Lawrence Orphanage could continue as it seeks to serve more abandoned and needy children.

The trip also raised Koronadal City, the capital of South Cotabato province, in the hearts of those who do not know where it is in the Philippines. For those who want to donate, you can make your deposits for for the construction of St. Anthony Parish Church at PEC – Bank of Philippine Islands (BPI) Koronadal Account # 1833116599 and for St. Lawrence Kalinga Foundation, Inc. at Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. (RCBC) Marbel – account no. 1543579978.

Our goal next year? For more couples to join us! Please email me for queries at linobasilio@yahoo.com.

With Vernie and Lino are their daughters Love and Faith with son-in-law JP.

Vernie Chiu-Basilio, who turns 60 years old next year, is the President of Easy Pay Finance Corp, and member of the Board of Directors of Marbel Universal Trading, Inc. (MUTI). She is a civil engineer by profession, graduated Cum Laude and a second placer at the Civil Engineering Board Exams. Vernie is also a licensed nurse, a junior geodetic engineer, a licensed real estate broker and appraiser. An active advocate in the community, she is an officer of the Philippine Breast Care Foundation, South Cotabato Chapter, a supportive Rotary Ann of RC Koronadal Central and a graduate of HAGGAI International. An adventure-seeker, Vernie has tried skydiving in Hawaii, paragliding in Indonesia and General Santos City, bunjeejumping in Macau Tower, scuba diving in Palawan and locally, she actively participates in marathons and duathlons.

Halloween Special: I survived my scary bed-shaking nights in a Bacolod hotel

Atox’s first time trip to the lovely city of Bacolod has become a very memorable one.

Guest blogger: Arthur “Atox” Condes

This one will go to the pages of horror stories just in time for the All Saint’s Day.

Or maybe the script for a short horror flick.

September 29, 2017

It was my first time to be in Bacolod City in the Philippines. Known for its annually-held Masskara Festival, this beautiful city is located in the northwestern coast of Negros island.

Though I have spent many years in the neighbouring city of Iloilo, I have never taken any chance to visit the lovely, bustling Queen City of the South. I have heard stories about its glory and fame: with many sites and sights to behold, delicacies to enjoy and relish, experiences to enjoy. All too difficult to resist.

I woke up earlier than usual, around 3:00 am, although I was scheduled to leave at around 5:30 am for the airport. While waiting for the pick-up vehicle, I struggled hard to keep myself awake. It was a raining and for someone who slept late, the coolness of the dawn and the sound of the pouring rain was lulling me back to sleep, tempting me to stay in bed longer.

It was still raining when we left for the airport.  That morning, the traffic was already slow but the good thing was that we were moving. We made it to the airport. Everything went well.

Though I have started to give up on my daily caffeine intake, I had no choice that time but to take a few sips of that sweet-smelling potion, once again, just to stay awake.

The trip from Manila was smooth, all the way to Silay City, where the airport is. A rainy afternoon welcomed me to Bacolod City. Not bad for my first visit.

The vast fields of green are refreshing to the eyes, especially my tired, sleepy eyes. The activities that afternoon went like a breeze. And then it was time for us to be brought to our hotel.

I settled in my room immediately, tired as I was. The room was quite large, with high ceiling, wide hallways and some dimly-lit corners.

Apart from the famous Masskara Festival held annually on October, Bacolod City is also known for its delicious food and friendly people. (Note: photo is screen grabbed online)

The whole place was bustling with people and activities, as the whole City of Smiles was preparing for the famed Masskara Festival. The hotel was right in the downtown area and I know that it will see some action during the festivities. In one of its corners, on the second floor, a mannequin that was dressed up in a colorful carnival-inspired attire stares blankly at the hotel guests as they pass, with its fixed wide-mouth grin. It reminded me of the clown in the movie “IT”.

The hotel is not so new but still decent, and had some surprises for me that night.

I shared the room with the driver from the host office. He was out most of the time and it was I who had this ‘different experience’.

While doing some editing work on my mobile phone, I decided to sit on bed, with my back on the headboard. I was so absorbed with the thing I was doing and I never thought of anything extraordinary that will happen.

I could hear some noise next door. “Maybe the guests were just rearranging the furniture”, I thought. It sounded like they dragged some chairs on the floor. Unusual because it was quite late at night.

Having stayed in various hotels during my other travels both here and abroad, I am quite well-aware of the unusual ‘first-night-of-stay’ feeling that would keep most people awake or on the edge.

Not for me. I get at ease quite easily even in a new place. More than 30 minutes had passed and I still sat on the bed working.

Then I felt the bed shake! It lasted for a few seconds. I thought it was because I moved to reposition my back on the wall. It can’t be an earthquake.

This time, I tried to keep still to observe. The bed shook like someone was rocking it! Still, I didn’t mind it and kept working on my mobile phone. When I was done sending mails, I washed up and got myself ready to sleep.

Nothing unusual happened aside from that bed-shaking incident — and the occasional noise next door.

As I drifted off to sleep, I began to hear that dragging-on-the floor-noise again. It never stopped! It sounded like the whole crew of housekeepers were setting up a venue for a party and they couldn’t lift the chairs or tables so they just dragged them!

I tried to ignore the dragging sounds until eventually I was off to dreamland. Still, I could hear some noise next door. I heard the door open as my roommate came in.

I remembered waking up, it was well into the witching hours. Nothing strange but the sounds of furniture dragging was still there.

I was beginning to think that it was not normal. “How could these people be so sloppy in their jobs? What is taking them too long to finish their work, to the point of disturbing hotel guests?”

Many other questions are racing through my mind. “I must talk to the front desk staff. I need to know who could be staying next door.” It was part of my ‘to-do” list for the next day.

The next day came, like any other day. I got up before 6:00 AM. Got ready for breakfast. On my way out of the room, I met a hotel personnel in the hallway. He delivered something to the guests in another room. I asked him if room 323 was occupied. We were in 324.

Indi ko sure, sir ba. Pero mamangkot ta sa front desk. Ngaa tani, sir haw?” (I am not sure, sir. But we can ask the front desk. Why do you want to know, sir?)

I told him about the noise which lasted the whole night. The sound of the chairs or tables being dragged on the floor. He smiled. A dry, uncomfortable smile. He tried to laugh but it was a nervous one.

I was beginning to have that weird feeling. Goosebumps! It started to creep from my hands all the way up to the few remaining strands of hair on my head!

As I felt light –headed, he said: Ah. Nagpabatyag gali sa into, sir?” (Ah, so IT made you feel its presence, sir?”). I was with the driver and the other hotel guest and we were all dumbfounded, stumped. I was trying to rub the hair in my arms to keep them from standing.

The big reveal was quite potent, more than the morning mug of coffee that I always have.

The place has been known to have these unseen forces and staff either took it as funny or scary. Would you dare?

September 30, Saturday

The “experience” that previous night, which I now consider to be paranormal, did not end there. That morning, at the buffet table, I shared my tale with the other hotel staff.

“Well, we heard a lot of stories from the other hotel personnel”, one of them said. She went on, “Some staff dealt with guests who walked out of their room after having that nightmarish experience of hearing things falling with no one around, also the usual sound of furniture being moved and dragged on the floor.”

“You know, there were guests who opted to sleep at the lounge chairs at the front desk lobby just to be sure they are safe from the ‘annoying entity’ in their room,” one of the waitresses recounted.

A room boy shared that it gives him creeps when he passes through the cavernous hallway. “I don’t really believe the stories that much but when you are there walking alone, bringing food or anything to the guests during the unholy hours in the morning, you would really feel like somebody’s watching you or someone’s behind you! I try to run away, if possible.”

Another hotel staff revealed that other guests heard someone cleaning up the hallway, only to be shocked to know that there was no one there. The list can go on, I thought, if I ask all the others but what I heard was enough.

After their ‘expose’ or their version of ‘tales from the unknown”, I came to think about the past experiences I had with the unseen world, the different dimension, the spirit’s dwelling, whichever you may call it.

I believe that the spirit world exists. It is something we cannot shrug off, ignore or disregard. Our experiences, whether we believe they exist or not, will eventually lead to one conclusion: that these entities are real.

The book “The Filipino Spirit World” by Rodney L. Henry (1986, OMF Publishers), is an interesting read. I couldn’t agree more when he said, “A “conspiracy of silence” exists regarding certain religious practices of Filipinos.

The Church has ignored a spirit-world belief system held by most of its members. As a result, Filipinos take their unmet spiritual needs to the out-of-church spirit-world practitioners (faith healers, diviners, etc.)”.

Henry, in this book, “expounds the development of folk Christianity in the Philippines, the theological foundation of the spirit-world, including the angelic and the demonic, and the discernment of supernatural powers.”

It will not come as a surprise to know that the Filipino folklore is full of ‘characters’ from the other world: from tamawos or engkantos (fairy folks that can change features), dwendes (elves) and tiyanaks (vampires that imitate the form of a child), kapres (a tree giant often described as black, hairy and muscular), aswangs (monster with traits of a vampire or a ghoul) and others.

Some can be benign, others are vicious or mischievous. While others hide in the shadows, some spirits can make their presence felt in a lot of ways.

Our elders have their stories to tell as well. Maybe, back in those days, the ‘other-wordly’ beings were as real as the page you are reading, the phone you are holding and the chair you sit on.

Well, after having read that book, my understanding of the ‘spirit-world’ concept seem to have fallen into its place, established after the fact. I haven’t had the faintest idea about it at all, yet I already believed they were real.

Some spirits can move in the physical realm. They can move objects, cause them to fall or be destroyed or make them disappear. Such a case can be observed in homes where little things get ‘misplaced’ too often. They can choose to appear to some people or be captured in CCTV, standard or mobile phone cameras, in their various forms.

Still on Saturday, 30th of September

Scary stories aside, Bacolod is a must-visit and one of the good reasons is Mambucal Hot Springs.

After the breakfast exchange, we were off to some other places. An activity-filled Saturday, I felt that it was one of those Saturdays that took longer than usual. We hopped from one place to another, not too far from Bacolod City, high into the mountains and forests and checked some nice places, with endless photo sessions despite the rain.

Towards the evening, all you can think of would be the nice, comfortable hotel bed, after a warm, refreshing shower. It’s an irresistible thing, after a tiring day.

That morning at the hotel, when the room boy confirmed the presence of “something” in that place, I uttered a prayer, in Jesus’s name, that we will not be disturbed by the “entity”. It makes a difference when you declare openly that you believe in a God “who is above all and over all”, both the physical and the spirit world.

True enough, not much was heard about the noise from my next door ‘occupant’ or the hallway that night until the next morning. I still slept late, doing something online but it was a quiet night.

The next day, a Sunday, I was awakened by my roommate’s alarm clock. He set it up quite early and loudly and I think it roused everyone within 10 meters of our room. Nothing unusual, though. I prepared to take a bath and my roommate left to prepare the vehicle because he will bring us to the airport that morning.

Halfway through my shower, I heard the alarm sounding off again. “He must have left the phone and he didn’t turn off the alarm!”, I muttered to myself. I had to turn the shower off to hear the sound. It was ringing alright, it must be in his bag.

Then I finished my business and get dressed to have breakfast.

I met my roommate at the buffet hall and I asked if he left his phone in the room. He said no. “I got it here.” I was a bit shocked. So, what was that noise from a cellphone alarm that sounded like his?

I shook the thought off that someone was still playing tricks on us during that last few hours of stay. It was not that scary, no goose bumps this time, because I understand what is happening.

We left Bacolod early for our 10 AM flight back to Manila. We all bid farewell to the hotel staff but I extended my hello, on the other hand, to their ‘resident entity’ or a poltergeist (noisy ghost) who gave us a “different experience.”

-o0o-

Arthur Condes is currently an executive assistant at the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) in the Philippines based in Manila. Aside from writing feature stories, he loves to paint, take photos and reading.

Growing Up at No.195: Embracing my roots as a Rojak Malaysian

By Joanne Tay

There is a stereotype that the Chinese must have their soup daily, master the art of eating rice in a bowl with chopsticks and naturally, speak Mandarin. I was anything but those.

The girl from No. 195. Bubbly Joanne sure knows how to treasure her roots and the rich Malaysian culture along with it.

Give me Sambal Belacan anytime of the day and I’ll gladly have them with anything just like how the Westerners like their cheese. While I master the art of eating rice with chopsticks, I equally excel eating rice on a plate flooded with curry with my bare hands. This way of eating is usually more common amongst the Indians and Malays but as a child, it never crossed my mind as uncommon for a Chinese family. It was just a familiar way of life in my household. This goes to show that a child is not coloured by stereotypes.

Growing up, my father sent me to a public missionary school. Penang, where I grew up, was a former British colony and I was Mandarin illiterate. The vernacular Malaysian education system means Chinese was not taught as a subject in some public schools. I learned the Malay language (my national language) and English, while I spoke a dialect known as Hokkien at home like most Penangites.

The beauty of having Rojak roots

But, Hokkien with my late amah (grandmother) was a little different.

[Hokkien mixed with broken Malay] “Ini kasi lu sambal belacan gua yang buat. Lu bawak balik makan.”

[Hokkien] “Wa ka-ki cho eh sambal. Hoh lu gia tui ki chiak”

Meaning: “Here, this is my homemade sambal belacan for you to bring home and eat.”

Hokkien’s ability to switch, mix and match languages and made them her own never ceased to amaze me as a child. When speaking with the Indian uncle who rented a corner of our pre-war house to operate his little his tuck shop or the Malay couple who sold sheaved coconuts by the side of our house during the morning market, amah would pepper it with broken Malay slangs. Then almost at an instant, she would completely switched to a full-on Hokkien with the Chinese uncle who rented the front of our house for his tailoring business.

The streets of No. 195 saw Joanne’s growing up years – and that also include her dreams and challenges overcome. (Photo-grab from Google)

Claiming that she was a nyonya (Straits-born Chinese who are the descendants of Chinese immigrants in the olden Malay archipelago, now Malaysia and Singapore), she embraced the peranakan way of life – food preferences, language, attire of baju kebaya, sarung and kasut manik (beaded shoes) with her hair dolled up into a bun with decorated pins.

Little did I know then, those formative 18 years of my life growing up with amah would eventually shape a big part of my identity and heritage. Often robust with spices and intertwined with a myriad of cultures, my Taosist family who also adopted Indian gods worship during annual festivities like the Thaipusam, made us such a rojak (a local fruit and vegetable salad dish, which also means “eclectic mix” in colloquial Malay) bunch! I could never quite settle for an identity.

The crammed space at No.195 with cracked walls and crackling wooden flooring was constantly buzzing with people as relatives live together. Situated along one of Penang’s major roads in town, traffic was always a little too loud and the house even shook a little when heavy vehicles passed by. But the aroma of amah’s cooking filled the kitchen (and our stomachs) daily and I always look forward to what’s cooking!

What’s cooking? This delicious rojak is very much a part of the Malaysian culture where food always takes the centerstage. (Photo from The Star Online)

By the time I started school, I had multiracial classmates and was welcomed into their homes. Because of my love for spices and eating with hands, my Malay friends’ families were intrigued by my upbringing. And yet, I was puzzled why can’t they eat at my home?

School had me learn, unlearn and relearn a lot. Sometimes, when your home isn’t as what the school taught it to be, things can be a little confusing. I didn’t understand why race, language or the colour of our skins would be barriers in defining who we are. Because where I grew up, it was multiracial with my neighbours, food and language.

Joanne as a baby in her gangstah-look; one of the few rare photos with her dad while growing up.

Education propels me to search for an identity to call my own. And like all beginnings, I started to question my Malaysian identity and what it means.

“I can’t speak, read or write Chinese (but I’m supposed to be Chinese!). Neither am I Malay (but I eat with hands!). Neither am I Indian (but my family pays respects to the Indian gods!). So how should I call myself? Should I even categorise who I am?”

“Are we so different by our race?”

Malaysian at heart and a global citizen of this world

In the later years of my life, I had the privilege to see the world a little more and worked with international friends. These made me realised that humanity in itself is one global race. We are not so different after all despite where we come from, the language we speak or the stereotypes the society puts on us.

Remembering my late amah and her way of life taught me that despite what are seemingly stark differences, we can live in harmony if we choose to adapt and adopt the cultures that surround us and welcome them as our way of life.

We are who we choose to embrace. I am Malaysian without a doubt because it’s the only home I know. But I am also a global citizen who choose to think beyond the labels of races.

So what if there is a certain perception how a Chinese should eat their rice? Well, I  choose to eat it differently. So what if people say you’re not Chinese enough because you can’t speak Mandarin? I choose to embrace that part about me because as a Malaysian, I can effortlessly string three languages into a sentence!

I hope in your own journey in discovering an identity, you will choose to embrace the cultures that uniquely shape you. Those are the stories that define you. As for me, No.195 was a little chaotic but it was the spices of my roots. And it will always be my truly rojak Malaysian chapter.

What’s a rojak? No other dish embodies the essence of being Malaysian more.

Building her goals one brick at a time, Joanne’s journey is as fascinating as her cultural heritage.

Joanne Tay is proud to hail from the little island of glorious sun and food haven of Penang, Malaysia. She was a humanitarian worker and loves a good conversation, especially with children. Joanne is venturing into the new grounds in the field of science education for her next adventure. She believes FUN is the essence to creativity!

From the Middle East to New Zealand: Traveling mom explores new horizon

By Manel Balbin-Marzan

Manel’s adventurous spirit took her to different countries and new cultures. Not all are beds of roses but she rose up stronger and tougher.

Going out of my comfort zone, leaving behind familiar faces and places has been my life after graduating from college. My first adventure was to build my nursing career in a very conservative country in the Middle East– Saudi Arabia.

I packed away everything including my sheltered life to learn what it is out there in the big world. I conquered the new city with unusual bravery, adjusting with the culture and religion that is totally different from my own.

I dealt with homesickness every single day, my eyes welling in tears until I sleep. Without even a month of hospital experience from the Philippines, I faced the competitive world of nursing abroad. I did not know how to operate the modern hospital beds and machines; did not know how to handle non-English speaking patients and worst, how to handle people with seniority complex.

I was a newbie finding out that the world out there is not at all that lovely. Some people can be cruel. Living through the newness, I managed to get by. I learned the country’s language, worked hard to be a better staff nurse, discovered new friends and lived life as happily as possible.

However, I cannot put aside my sense of adventure. I dreamt of going out of that country, work and explore another. With that in mind, I left my job and moved to Qatar working with Hamad Medical Corporation. I met Borgy, the love of my life, married him twice in a civil and church wedding, got pregnant with my son Red.

She found Borgy in Qatar and they got married twice in civil and church weddings.

Marriage and motherhood is not a walk in the park especially when you need to balance it with work on shifts and studies. At 30, I realized that my life was different: it was faster, harder yet fuller. I was living my dreams of having a family and my dream career was on track.

With my spirit firm, I knew that there are still dreams to pursue, places to see and people to meet. I looked back at the dreams I have listed when I was 23 and realized that my dreams are still alive.

Just when I thought I have settled in Qatar for good, my family and I decided to jump into a void. I took the risk to leave it all. With tears, we left our careers, our comfortable life and our friends who are already family.

Just when she though she has settled well in Qatar, Manel packed up for another adventure.

Almost a year later, I found myself in New Zealand, braving another chapter of my life pursuing further studies at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology taking Post Graduate in Management (Health).

My dream, in parallel with my husband is to move into a country where our child can grow up with quality education and healthcare. We wanted a simple, laidback life unstained by politics and discrimination.

I do not know yet what is in store. I do not know yet the human strategies to succeed through this new phase. I only know one thing—that I was a girl with big dreams, now a woman with great faith. I will never stop dreaming and believing.

My tips moving to a new workplace and environment:

Read a lot about the place. I always read about my country of destination. Adjustment is easier if you know what to expect. Travel guide books are worth the investment and I make sure I read the essentials about mode of transportation, fares and passes, rules of the road, emergency contact numbers, accommodations, communication, customs and duties, health insurance and safety.  I download maps and train/bus routes and timetable.

Be friendly. Expand your network. I believe in the saying that network is your “net worth.” I talk to anyone who gets in my 30 degrees angle. On my way to NZ, I talked to my seatmate on the plane and found out that he is going to the exact same town where I am going. He became my instant travel buddy for the entire 17 hours journey. He looked out for me and my luggage. I eventually met his wife who turns out to be my classmate and up to this day, they are my friends. You will never know if the people you talk to will be the friends who will become family.

Borgy, Manel and Red. Now she has her boys as travel buddies for life.

Stay positive. Along the way, you’ll meet people who has more experiences to share than you. Listen to them and pick out what best applies to you. At the same time, you will meet people whose life stories are depressing or sad. It will put you down or discourage you to continue your journey. Listen to them but never allow them to dishearten you. Always stay positive.

Pray. Going out of your comfort zone and your own country is not easy. Going to NZ a month before Borgy and Red, I immediately felt the loneliness especially when I am alone. Homesickness is real. But there is courage in crying.  Eventually, I realized I need to experience these moments because my little family needs a mother who is courageous. I will never know my strength and my character have I not experienced these things. And these are the times that you can experience how God works in your life and how His love never runs out.

I knew that there will still be a few more tears along the way. But with everything that I have now and with everything I was put through and managed to survive, I know that it is only by God’s grace. I am excited as I anticipate answers to all my prayers. My dreams and my heart are steady.

Traveling is meeting people, learning new things and skills. Traveling alone, Manel found refuge in people and prayers.

Manel is a Registered Nurse from the Philippines. She is a wife and a mommy. She is currently an international student in New Zealand taking up Post Graduate in Management (Health). Traveling, reading and learning a new language are her interests.