Volume 23, Number 134, August/September 2020 Love in the Time of Pantuflas by Maricel Canizares
This is the story of courtship between my maternal grandparents, Kuan Long Wing and Otilia Bagsican Gurdiel. Their decision to marry came about because of the most lowly but important footwear - Pantuflas - Spanish for slippers.
My grandfather, Kuan Long Wing,
was born in a small village in
Canton, now Guangzhou, China on
December 6, 1898. Specifically, Ah
Wing, as he was fondly called,
hailed from a farming village in Kai
Ping. This village was located near
the Pearl River, an important port
during the Manchu Dynasty. This
was the dynastic era that saw the
decline of what was once a glorious
Imagine then how life was for most Chinese: people lived in grinding poverty. Because of corruption at all levels of government, hopelessness prevailed. For many, a better life beckoned from across the waters. In Grandpa’s village a tradition of emigration was the norm rather than the exception.
At the tender age of 13, Ah Wing, the son of a poor peasant, embarked on a risky adventure. He and his cousin stowed away in a ship they knew nothing about. Where was it going? Where would it dock? The boys had no idea. With just the shirts on their back but the invincibility of youth and a desire to follow their dreams, they landed in Manila, Philippines in 1911.
Manila was the capital of a young republic which a decade previous was the location of a bloody revolution. With it, they broke free of over 300 years of Spanish domination - only to be overtaken by another foreign power, the United States of America.
The Philippines might have seemed like heaven compared to China. The country was under populated, rich in natural resources, progressive and had a semblance of democratic rule. It was a fertile ground to start anew. With innate intelligence, industry and courage, Ah Wing faced his destiny with conviction and wit - traits which most of us, his descendants, inherited and which enabled us to forge our own lives as immigrants ourselves.
My grandmother, Otilia Gurdiel, was born on December 13, 1900 in Dapitan. Tilyang, as she was nicknamed, was mixed Chinese and Filipino. She was tall and fair skinned, with long dark hair, high cheek bones and an aquiline nose. She was physically beautiful and attractive to young men. Otilia had many suitors but one young man captivated her youthful heart: Nicholas Lasola. Lasola was a catch himself. He was tall, handsome, confident and had a promising future in the military. They fell in love and promised each other they would marry when Nicholas completed his training at the Philippine Military Academy.
In the meantime, Tilyang waited faithfully for his return. My greatgrandmother, Guiang, meanwhile married for the second time. She sent Tilyang off to be cared for by her sibling Nanay Sana who was married to Tatay Ponso. They lived in Matam, a far-flung barrio of Katipunan. Tilyang was 17 years old. There she waited for her beau’s return.
Matam was a small region inhabited mostly by farmers. Life revolved around their tiny plots of land and how to coax its soil to produce fruit. In the early 1960s, there was no theatre, shopping mall, wet market or a plaza. The sun rose early and set early as it was flanked by thick forests that covered most of the sunshine. All day long one could hear sounds of laughing monkeys or the burbling river nearby. It was a place that Time forgot.
Meanwhile grandfather Ah Wing, whom we called Lolo (grandfather in the Filipino language), learned to be clever and cunning in order to survive in his new home. He became an entrepreneur as did most Chinese immigrants who arrived in the Philippines. It was the only way for him to survive in his new country where he did not know the culture or speak the language. Lolo saw an opportunity in bartering. He would buy sundries from Dipolog, the capital of the province of Zamboanga del Norte, then transport these goods by banca to the hinterlands. On his journey home, he would load up with produce.
One of Lolo Ah Wing’s routes took him through Matam where Tilyang, whom later I would call Lola (Filipino word for grandmother), was living. Lolo Ah Wing paddled up the river, his banca filled with staples such as matches, kerosene, salt, sugar, canned milk, sewing thread and bolts of cloth. He also carried little luxuries such as candies, pomade and soap. As he traveled, Lolo Ah Wing would trade for abaca, rice, corn, bananas, chicken and pork.
On one of these trips up river, Lolo Ah Wing happened to see Lola Tilyang washing clothes beside the river bank. Grandma’s beauty caught Grandpa’s eyes. It must have been an intense fascination because Lolo Ah Wing lost no time in making inquiries that led him to the house of Nanay Sana and Tatay Alfonso Acevedo.
At the age of 19, Lolo Ah Wing fell in love the for the first time. But the girl he chanced upon was already spoken for. Had Ah Wing not been of sterner stuff, he would have given up. Had he been weak in character, he would not have left the familiar for the unknown. Had he been a settler, he would not have driven himself to succeed in a new land. Had he given up easily, his progeny would still have been peasants in Kai Ping. But my grandfather had an unwavering way and an indomitable spirit. He fought for what he believed was his destiny.
What would you do to woo a girl if you have no role model in the art of courtship? What if you left home at age 13 and had no parents to guide you through your growing years. What would you do if you lived in a country whose practices were alien to you? And now you see in front of you your future partner. What would you do?
Ah Wing had to be quick witted and shrewd because the stakes were high and stacked against him because he had no family background in a culture where old family names dictate one’s societal status. He was a foreigner, short in stature, brown skinned (as typical from those of Southern China), and with a funny way of talking Bisaya. He was the opposite of the dashing and debonair Nicholas Lasola who was seen as a perfect fit for the lovely Otilia.
No matter how long we have lived in a place not our own, there will be remnants hidden in the deep recesses of our memories, subtleties from our home country that will aid us in navigating the intricacies of social niceties. Such was the case with Lolo Ah Wing.
Engagement is a verbal contract that must be respected by both parities but Ah Wing saw Tilyang’s engagement to Nicholas Lasola as a minor inconvenience. This did not deter the foreigner from pursuing the barrio lass. Clever that he was, Lolo Ah Wing did not follow convention. Instead he wooed the guardian of Lola Tilyang. He showered Nanay Sana and Tatay Ponso with gifts as was the custom and practice in the land of his birth.
So, on each trek up the mountains, he paid his respects to the Acevedo household. Ah Wing presented them with practical items that were unattainable such as clothes, tinned biscuits from Cebu, Vaseline oil, Vick’s vapor rub perhaps or some soy sauce. This brilliant way of courting went on for over a year. Slowly but surely, the guardians found favour in Lolo Ah Wing and campaigned for Lola to consider Lolo Ah Wing’s intentions. Lola rejected Lolo’s ministrations for after all she wholeheartedly loved Nicholas and promised him her hand in marriage more than a year ago. Her loyalty belonged to Nicholas. He was her first true love. However, Nanay Sana and Tatay Ponso tandem were quite a tandem. They persuaded Lola that she would have a better future with this industrious and generous foreigner. For sure, the numerous material gifts which they have been showered on spoke volumes. The piece de resistance came in the form of a pair of beaded “pantuflas”.
“Pantufla” is a Spanish word for slipper. In the barrio, muddy ground was a given. Barefooted was more practical. In the 1900’s Philippines, wearing slippers, more so a beaded pair signified wealth and higher class standing. Village farmers and peasants who worked on the field all day long did not have the privilege of actually owning one. What use would it be at their station in life? Wearing slippers was for special occasions such as town fiestas, going to church, attending a party, Christmas and New Year celebrations or joining in the town hall dance. It was not for casual wear. You save your best pantuflas for grand events. Hence, for Lolo Ah Wing to give to Nany Sana and Lola Tilyang each a pair of the coveted beaded pantuflas was the ultimate gesture. Here he was indirectly saying that should Lola choose him over Nicholas, she will be wearing beaded pantuflas not just on special occasions but every single day of her married life. She will not want for anything because she will be provided for. Check and checkmate.
My grandparents were married in February 1919. They had eight children. My mother was the third child and the first daughter. At that point in their married life, Lolo was true to his promise. There was abundance and my mother had beaded pantuflas at an early age of three years old which she would show off to those who cared to give it attention. His daughter’s beaded pantuflas meant he had surpassed all the hardships he endured from a peasant village in China: running around unshod and endured as a stowaway in a boat to the Philippines with ill-fitting working shoes. He worked hard to establish himself. And now he was at a point in his life when his wife and daughter could wear pantuflas everyday and not just on special occasions. He took risks and triumphed.
And here I am today, a first generation immigrant to this vast land of raw beauty and its multi cultural societies I now call home: Canada. Fortuitously, I followed my Lolo’s footsteps and have been rewarded with unimaginable adventures. My life so far has added to the admirable tapestry my grandfather began weaving on the day he took command of his fate.