The Taipans of Cebu

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From a bucolic Visayan city burst forth a generation of energetic men whose ambitions sent steel ships and commerce to every Philippine port. They surmounted poverty and achieved great fortune, only to suffer ruin and endure the painstaking effort to rebuild. What follows are three stories of Cebu’s exceptional taipans and the dynasties they founded

Tiapans of Cebu

There are few places in the Philippines that have been as thoroughly transformed by immigrants as Cebu.

The city’s preeminence as the beating heart of the maritime industry comes from less than a handful of clans whose sea-bound enterprises span oceans and continents. Although some may lament that the great shipping lines are no longer what they used to be, the Cebu piers today are still bustling with activity, alive with the pulse of new blood.

This phenomenon of immigrants that has swept Cebu reminds us of the words of writer Algis Budrys as he contemplated people in history books.

What I do have is a fascination with how many pyrotechnically successful leaders in history have been strangers to the cultures they came to rule. How many passed through a major crisis that ought to have destroyed them, and how little their biographers have suc- ceeded in explaining their turns of mind. They were people who did not fit their world, and somehow emerged with the capability to change their world to fit them.

The originators of the Gos, the Chiongbians, and the Gothongs may not be the celestial figures of Budry’s imaginings but they, undoubtedly, fit the mold of pyrotechnically successful leaders.

For them, it all began in Xiamen.

The Fountainhead

A Go Dynasty myth tells how Go Bon Tiao earned the trust of a Vietnamese merchant, who saw him napping with a hand on his breast, a sign of honesty. This led to a profitable business partnership. The terribly romanticized anecdote rings of Horatio Alger schlock and hardly reveals the acumen and grit of the man who founded a business empire

Cebu is teeming with Gos. Most of them unrelated, but a significant and wealthy percentage trace their lineage back to a common ancestor. A native of Fujian (Fukien) province departed the port city of Xiamen for the Visayas some 130 years ago. Like others before him, Go Bon Tiao was driven by dire circumstance (one account mentions homicide) to reinvent himself in a foreign land.

Until his untimely death in 1921, Go Bon Tiao achieved this and more, having built a diversified busi- ness empire that dealt in rice, shipping, insurance, and agricultural products. His four children—th

ree sons and the daughter of his third wife—sired most of Cebu’s prominent business families, such as the Gokongweis, Gaisanos, and Gotianuys. That is the condensed version of a saga that stretches out over a century. According to The Path of Entrepreneurship by Marites A. Khanser and John Gokongwei Jr (a great grandson), the teenage Go Bon Tiao arrived in Cebu during the 1870s.

It would be helpful to point out that Go Bon Tiao set foot on a late 19th century Philippines that was in the grips of change. A marked increase in the economic life of Cebu meant jobs were plentiful, albeit labor-intensive and poorly paid. To contrast, less than 20 years prior there hardly was a Chinese community engaged in local commerce.

Thanks to sweeping economic reforms by the colonial government, successive waves of Chinese immigrants from Fujian flooded in. Though wealthy Chinese were nonexistent, the many jobs needed along Cebu’s docks were incentive enough to forge ahead. Immigrants who arrived earlier were willing to help newcomers and the absence of banks meant foreign creditors could lend money at will. This environment rife with opportunity allowed the young Go Bon Tiao to set himself up as an oil peddler.

An enduring myth that often flavors the efforts of journalists who tackle the Go Dynasty tells how Go Bon Tiao earned the trust of a Vietnamese rice merchant, who chanced upon him taking a nap with one hand on his breast—a sure sign of honesty and trustworthiness. This led to a profitable business partnership, the earnings of which Go used to fund his first venture into rice trading.

Of course, such a terribly romanticized anecdote rings of Horatio Alger schlock, which explains its wide circulation in various articles and profiles. Such an incident, if it did happen, hardly reveals the acumen and grit of the man who founded a business empire.

A precise outline of Go Bon Tiao’s life is difficult to assemble, since the only notable events that surface after cursory research are his undated baptism as Don Pedro Singson Gotiaoco (a rite of passage for immigrants willing to assimilate); the arrival of his brother Go Quiao Co followed by the formation of the Gotiaoco Hermanos trading company; and finally his passing in 1921.

Having achieved a measure of wealth, Don Pedro (previously Go Bon Tiao) would maintain his ties to the homeland, marrying Go Disy, who produced three sons: Go Chiong Wei (sometimes referred to as Go Bon Tut), Go Tia Nun, and Go Chiang An.

A daughter died early, so Don Pedro brought his other daughter from a third Filipino wife to China. The daughter, Modesta Singson, became the matriarch of the Sy-Gaisano family that carved a sizable niche in retail catering to modern Cebuano consumers. All told, he lived an eventful life and even his brother put down local roots, becoming the progenitor of the Gotianuns who own Filinvest today.

Although Don Pedro never severed ties to the mainland, his children embraced their predominantly Filipino upbringing to the point where they no longer bothered learning Mandarin. (The household spoke Hokkien.)

As is often the case, on the opposite side of success lay tragedy. Following a pattern that ruined numerous self-made men, Don Pedro’s eldest son, alternately Go Bon Tut or Go Chiong Wei, became a wastrel uninterested in the family business. It was Chiong Wei’s own son, John Gokongwei Sr, who redeemed the family name and blazed his own trail in Cebu.

The black mark left by Go Chiong Wei was further mitigated by his brother, the urbane Manuel Gotianuy. One of his lasting achievements is the Gotiaoco build- ing, a surprisingly artful five-story affair that did much to define the early 20th century Cebu skyline. Included among its prominent tenants was another Chinese-Cebuano clan’s main office. The headquarters of William Lines Inc. occupied a space in the building during the 1950s. It still stands today, a handsome ruin waiting to be declared a historical site.

Having sired a large brood of children from two wives, Manuel Gotianuy suffered imprisonment during World War II and died shortly after his release. Today a memorial relief of Manuel Gotianuy hangs outside the office of his son, Attorney Augusto Go, at the University of Cebu’s Banilad campus. (Attorney Go has commissioned an official history of the Go clan. The soon to be published volume was written by historian Resil Mojares of the University of San Carlos—alma matter for so many Go children—and is scheduled for release in June this year.)

It took the ruin visited on the Go family by World War II to destroy Gotiaoco Hermanos. At this point, the Go fortune was at its lowest ebb. Everything that Don Pedro built was gone. Amid these tragic circumstances a narrative more familiar to the broader public takes place.

Separated from his siblings and his father dead, John Gokongwei Jr, grandson of the prodigal Go Chiong Wei, fended for himself on the streets of Cebu. His family was impoverished by creditors after Gokongwei Sr’s untimely demise, so John had to slowly—very slowly— lay the foundations of his business empire, starting with a small retail operation he opened in 1945.

The third generation of Gos continue to play an active role in shaping Cebu’s future. Today, there is no single industry untouched by the entrepreneurial drive of Don Pedro and his brother Go Quiao Co’s descendants.

The Inheritor

A typical postwar entrepreneur with dreams of going into shipping, William scraped together capital (some say 3,500 pesos) to buy a Japanese wreck. In two short months, the investment proved a dud. William junked his first ship in favor of US Navy F-boats

Delving into the origins of Don Victorino T. Chiongbian is an arduous task that will probably stump the most dedicated of historians. No doubt his own trajectory from migrant to merchant traces a familiar arc, but there’s little evidence to flesh out the details. Besides, it was his son William, born in Misamis Occidental, who really made the Chiongbian name one of the most well known in Cebu.Taipans of Cebu

Having learned the business from his father, Wil- liam spent the rest of his life immersed in ships—even if he started at the worst possible time. Like every other entrepreneur of the postwar years with dreams to enter shipping, William scraped together enough capital (some accounts say 3,500 pesos) to buy a Japanese wreck. In two short months, the investment proved a dud and William junked his first ship in favor of more seaworthy vessels—two decommissioned US Navy F-boats.

William Lines would continue to grow at a brisk pace well into the following decade, an expansion that included the acquisition of a rival line. Then there was William Chiongbian’s entry into politics. Congressman Chiongbian served a long time in office. This involvement extends to the present day as the Chiongbians of Sarangani province shot to nationwide recognition when their incumbency was challenged (and broken) by Manny Pacquiao in the 2010 Congressional race.

Politics aside, William Chiongbian managed to balance his twin careers until he stepped down as president of William Lines in 1970. To ensure a smooth succession, his sons slowly took over the reins starting with the eldest, Victor, who currently presides over a major Toyota dealership.

As one of the major shipping companies in Cebu, William Lines played a crucial part in a historic merger with the Aboitizes and Gothongs to form the entity that would become WG&A. Unfortunately, the dissolution of WG&A after a buyout by the Aboitizes in 2002 would spell the end for William Lines, which was once the country’s highest earning shipping firm in the early 1990s.

The buyout could not have been more ominous. That same year William Chiongbian succumbed to a heart attack at Eddie’s Log Cabin, a popular watering hole for Cebu’s shipping magnates. He was having breakfast with University of Cebu founder and president Augusto Go at the time. Except among nostalgic former passengers and employees, little remains of William Lines today. The Chiongbian clan has invested their entrepreneurial savvy elsewhere.

The Mariner

In lockstep with the Chiongbians, the Gothongs expanded at a brisk pace for an uninterrupted 20 years until Don Carlos passed away. What made the firm unique from other shipping lines was a powerful fraternal bond. Don Carlos always worked with his brothers Sulpicio and Lorenzo.

Go Bon Tho was fortunate when he arrived in 1910 Leyte. The Americans had been in power for a decade and the last vestiges of native insurrection had been stamped out. Thanks to almost nonexistent tariffs, the local economy was in an upswing.

Back in China, the Qing Dynasty and all its back- wardness was on the verge of being torn down by Sun Yat Sen’s revolution. Thus, even if Go Bon Tho’s circumstances were humble, times were promising. His relatives hosted him and he immediately found work through family connections. By the time Go Bon Tho went through his own baptismal rights to assimilate into the local community, the name Gothong had already established itself in Leyte.

Despite being decades away from the vast fortune that would propel Gothong across global shipping lanes, Don Carlos Gothong spent the better part of his adult life as a humble merchant. Cebu would only figure in the story of the Gothongs after World War II when Don Carlos decided to start from scratch and enter shipping.

The move to Cebu in the postwar era was a serendipitous one. The port city offered ample opportunity to grow Don Carlos’ trading business. It was a practical decision at a time when interisland shipping lanes more than compensated for poor inland infrastructure.

It wasn’t until 1937 when Carlos Gothong purchased his first ship, the M/V Rama, to haul agricultural produce like copra. Another vessel, the Lux, marked the expansion of the fleet. Further growth came in the 1950s when Carlos A. Gothong & Co. entered its golden age.

By the 1960s Don Carlos’ sons were actively involved in the business and 10,000-ton Gothong ships were docking at European ports. Eldest son Alfredo Gothong was part of the executive jet-set, making frequent trips to Europe and Japan.

The continued growth of the company would transform Don Carlos into the country’s leading shipping magnate, whose success would define Cebu as the country’s maritime capital. In lockstep with the Chiongbians’ William Lines, Gothong & Company expanded at a brisk pace for an uninterrupted 20 years until Don Carlos passed away.

What made the firm unique from other shipping lines was a powerful fraternal bond. Don Carlos always worked with his brothers Sulpicio and Lorenzo. Don Carlos’ own sons were being groomed to take over the business. For Alfredo, his turn came abruptly. Alfredo Gothong was on one of his monthly business trips to Japan when he received the telegram imploring his return.

The ascendancy of Alfredo Gothong would mark a break with the past. On a personal level, he’d set down roots elsewhere. Since most of his professional life was spent traveling, Alfredo’s horizons were broad and a rare visit to Canada convinced him that it was the perfect place to raise a family. Once again, the Gothongs had found somewhere to reinvent themselves. Under his leadership, not only would Gothong & Co. endure in the face of adversity—a transition that would culminate in the Aboitiz Shipping Corp. merger in 1995— but the firm would also change the face of Philippine shipping.

The mid-1970s was a turbulent period for Gothong & Co. Not only was the family enterprise falling apart, but Alfredo was wrapped in an ambitious plan to introduce a new type of vessel to local waters. As a transplanted Cebuano in Canada, Alfredo marveled at the efficiency of the roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) vessels that ferried residents across the icy rivers.

Their design was based on the large landing craft used by the US military in World War II. The modern ro-ro became a mainstay in ports around the world since they could move vehicles without the hassle of hoisting them into a ship’s hold. As a man with shipping running through his veins, Alfredo spotted the potential for ro-ro vessels in the country—undoubted industry game-changers in an archipelago like the Philippines.

The unprecedented success of Gothong & Co. would be a last hurrah of sorts before the breaking up of the empire. In the late 1970s, all the major shareholders in the family withdrew their assets. The fraternal bond of Gothong & Co. was no more. Sulpicio left and established Sulpicio Shipping Lines.

Sulpicio Shipping Lines was a troubled entity from the start. It is a mattThe Gotaico Buildinger of public record that Sulpicio Lines is responsible for more than 5,000 deaths in several catastrophic maritime disasters in the last 24 years, beginning with the sinking of the M/V Dona Paz. The total number of dead from Sulpicio Lines accidents individually dwarfs the Titanic’s sinking, Pearl Harbor, and the September 11 terrorist attacks

The fallout from the capsized M/V Princess of the Stars in 2008 compelled Sulpicio Lines to rename itself Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation.

Beyond the misfortunes of Sulpicio Lines, Gothong Lines would face its greatest existential threat during its storied merger with Aboitiz Shipping and William Lines in 1995. It was a rare alliance of Cebu’s three biggest shipping companies, executed on a scale that makes it excellent material for researchers and MBA students alike because, as mergers go, WG&A did not last as a corporate entity.

Both the Chiongbians and the Gothongs were bought out by the Aboitizes in 2002. Rather than mark the ending of the Gothong clan’s maritime enterprise, however, the merger’s conclusion would create two separate companies that carry the Gothong name today: Carlos A. Gothong Lines or CAGLI and Gothong Southern, which is run by Alfredo’s grandson Bob Gothong.

The current state of the Philippine maritime industry owes much of its present structure to the innovations of the Gothong family. Even though the shipping line established by Don Carlos fractured and successively broke apart shortly after his death, the Gothong name serves as a constant reminder of the clan’s historic role in maritime commerce.

The men who launched Cebu’s shipping industry to support a network of different enterprises had their share of failings and misfortunes. The reversals they suffered accompany the towering success that changed Cebu from a sleepy island port to a bustling maritime center.

If lessons can be gleaned from the stories of the Gos, the Chiongbians, and the Gothongs, at least one emerges amid the complexity of family ties and commerce, that of perseverance. Despite everything, the taipans of Cebu persevered.

Print ed: 05/11

 

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