For Nelly Lichauco-Fun, tracing her family’s origins meant revisiting a storied past. But what exactly did she find?
The search for personal identity starts with lineage. You find the earliest ancestor and trace the generations that succeeded them. Easy enough. For Cornelia “Nelly” Lichauco-Fun, however, the required sleuthing, as she likes to call her research, did not only involve her clan but a time and place far removed from our opaque modern lives. The whole point of her effort was a book, a literary heirloom for all Lichaucos. That book is Beneath the Banyan Tree. Upon reaching the venue where she was holding court—a reading—I seated myself and began taking notes on Nelly’s private saga. The gathered audience, social sciences professors and students, journalists and historians, were listening to her share stories about how she crafted her family’s memoirs.
According to Nelly, the National Archives and Diocesan Archives of Manila proved an excellent source for important documents, which were “miraculously spared from damage during World War II.”
It all began with Ly Chau-Co’s arrival in bustling Spanish Manila. Ly was originally from a small town in China and reached the Philippines between 1835 and 1836.
“‘Ly’ was his surname, and the other [Chinese] characters on his name mean wood and grass,” Nelly says.
On June 7, 1836, Ly-Chau-Co converted to Christianity and was baptized as Tomas Santa Maria. A rattan worker by trade, the 23-year-old Ly Chau-Co married the seventeen- year-old seamstress Cornelia Lau- Chang-Co, a Manila-born Chinese mestiza, in mid-1836.
But Nelly wanted to go back further. Rather than proceed with her earliest ancestor in the Philippines, she traced the Ly bloodline to China. The whys and hows motivating her quest led to Las Islas Filipinas in the time of conceited Manchus, governor generals, and Chinese rogues eager for opportunities.
When Miguel Lopez de Legaspi conquered Manila and christened it “The Distinguished, Most-Known and Ever-Loyal City” in 1571, and the wayward subjects of the Celestial Empire were not allowed to live in Intramuros. Thus, the Spaniards created hubs known as “parians,” a Mexican word for “market,” where the Sangleys could ply their goods. Parians served as the Chinese settlers’ homes where they lived and traded, creating a Chinese enclave across the Pasig river, the center of commercial trade. These were the origins of Binondo and Ongpin. Separating the Chinese from Intramuros also implies, according to Nelly, the “funny love-and-hate relationship” between the Spaniards and the Chinese.
“The Spaniards both needed the Chinese for the lucrative value of trade,” Nelly says, “and at the same time, they feared them.” When expelled out of Manila, the Chinese always revolted. The revolts frightened the Spaniards, and in turn, the foreign conquerors massacred the hapless settlers every time.
The mestizos gained more power later on, acquiring education and uniting with the Filipinos to liberate the country. During that period, the mestizos also adopted Christian names, just like Nelly’s Lolo Tomas.
Lolo Tomas kept Ly-Chau-Co, his Chinese surname. He changed it to Lichauco to make it sound more Filipino. Lola Cornelia followed his footsteps, and changed her surname from Lau-Chang-Co to Lauchenco.
According to Nelly, she was able to piece together the lives of her ancestors through the Kaisa Para Sa Kaunlaran Foundation in Intramuros.
Nelly shows her familial affection in the second and third part of Beneath the Banyan Tree. Adding more ingredients to her spellbinding prose, she recalls her great-grandmother. Lola Cornelia, she says, was a “born entrepreneur” who engaged in several jobs and businesses.
“She raised five kids when she was widowed, and necessity must have spurred her on,” Nelly says.
Lola Cornelia’s son, Faustino Lichauco, married the half-Spanish Luisa Fernandez. Faustino ran a lucrative cattle business as their bread and butter. Unfortunately, a cattle epidemic ruined the business and competition from a veterinarian-rancher was a losing proposition.
But Faustino also played an vital role in the country’s struggle for independence. “My particular feeling of connectivity with the revolution had to do with the fact that my grandfather was part of Aguinaldo’s Revolutionary Committee [in 1898],” Nelly says.
Acquiring important documents from the Hong Kong Immigration Department, she learned how important the British colony was to Filipino exiles, who used it as a staging ground for revolutionary activities.
Luisa and Faustino’s marriage produced Marcial, Nelly’s father, who was named to mark the Americans’ declared martial law in 1902.
“I think most of us do not really know our parents as an adult,” Nelly says upon beginning the story of her father. “We think of them while we growing up just as parents who discipline and love us.”
But Nelly’s filial wanderlust introduced her to the father she never knew—a Filipino who fought for his principles, as revealed in Marcial’s autobiography supplemented by newspaper clippings. Marcial became a lawyer and continued to advocate Philippine independence. While working in the Osmeña-Roxas (OsRox) Philippine Independence Mission, Marcial met Jessie Coe, a Cuban-born American student in Washington.
The two lovebirds tied the knot when Jessie visited the Philippines in 1933.
Marcial’s stints include serving as the secretary of the OsRox mission in 1931 and as an ambassador to United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden during the Macapagal administration in 1963 to 1966.
In 1971, Jessie stayed in America after Marcial’s death. She opened her home to itinerant Filipino students. She eventually returned to her adopted country and stayed. She spent 75 years loving the Philippines like her own motherland.
Nelly encourages everyone to write their own family histories. “History is not just politics or economics. It is about people and their lives,” Nelly says, just like how she wonderfully crafted Beneath the Banyan Tree, her personal account of the Lichauco clan.
She even likened writing the family history to golden threads to past lives intertwined with momentous events. It’s like a tapestry, she says. “The tapestry is a work in progress. It is not finished yet, and all of you are its threads—the tapestry of this life.”
Print ed: 07/13