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A 200-year family history celebrated in the 21st century

By Ambassador (ret.) Virgilio A. Reyes, Jr. 

Why is February a favored month for clan reunions in the Philippines? Astute social observers may take note that the holiday season being over and airfares more reasonable, the second month of the year—still cool and pleasant and less beset by traffic—is auspicious for mammoth family gatherings. 

A 200-year family history celebrated in the 21st century
REUNITED. About 300 members of the huge Tempongko clan, a Manila-based family with roots in the Fujian province of China, come together for their 2020 reunion at the La Salle Gymnasium in Greenhills, San Juan. (Below, from left) The 2020 Tempongko Reunion organizing committee led by Chairman Virgilio A. Reyes, Jr.; the Tempongko-Magpayo art deco house in Paco, Manila; the Tempongko-Alcantara family; Elisea and Resurreccion with their brother Clodualdo at the 1908 Carnival with its Queen, Pura Villanueva (later Kalaw).
One such family, the Tempongkos—a Manila-based family with roots in the Fujian province of China and Binondo—met for the third time (preceded by 2010 and 2015) in 10 years at the La Salle Gymnasium in Greenhills, San Juan. 

Two days after Valentine’s Day and within striking distance of Chinese New Year, February 16 turned out to be a day well chosen. It also managed to escape the draconian measures imposed once coronavirus became a worldwide pandemic. 

As confirmed from records traced through The Church of the Latter-Day Saints (popularly known as the Mormons), the Tempongkos draw their roots to one Co Pong Tien, who changed his name once Christianized to Matias and married Josefa Maxima, presumably a native of the Philippines, sometime in 1800. 

Their son Rosalio married another Filipina-Chinese mestiza while their grandson Ambrosio (married to a Fil-Hispanic mestiza called Inez Calixto) became an established member of the Filipino Chinese gremio or racial class. Ambrosio, however, always kept in touch with his Tondo relatives (meaning, his Filipino roots) and the archives today reveal that Tempongkos were neighbors of the family of Andres Bonifacio, possibly showing another side of their political inclinations. 

Binondo and San Nicolas were dynamic, effervescent Manila districts or arrabales which housed the entrepreneur class and were effectively the Makati and Bonifacio Global City of their day. A later offshoot would be Escolta in Sta. Cruz, which was where the Hispanic, Chinese, and native worlds met on the banks of the River Pasig. 

Rather than just being a “lucky Chinatown,” Binondo was unrepentantly hedonist, cosmopolitan, and multinational. Foreigners preferred to live there rather than in the administrative and bureaucratic center of Intramuros, which was staid, hierarchical, and religious in nature. 

It was not surprising that Binondo, with its splendid parish church on a grand plaza, Venetian-like esteros and fountains, pocket parks, picturesque bridges, hotels, and manufacturing centers, would be likened to Paris by some. It was by far the richest district in the whole of the Philippine Islands.

This is what the Tempongkos called home. Since their father was a shipping agent and broker, they moved around in the social circles of the Yangcos, the Chuidians, the Sunicos, the Cuyegkengs, and the Ongpins. Despite their Chinese surnames, these old-time Manila families spoke Spanish, Tagalog, and the native patois mix called lengua de tienda (e.g. Donde esta el palayok? En el sulok, nakasuksok). 

They were Spanish subjects who felt at home in the Europeanized world of 19th-century Philippines, as graphically described by Jose Rizal in his novels. They were also among those who supported the Philippine Revolution when it broke out in 1896, with notably Roman Ongpin leading the pack. 

Ambrosio Tempongko and Inez Calixto had seven children—Felipe, Clodualdo, Agapita, Cristina, Demetria, Elisea, and Resurreccion. Their progeny are now the 21st-century Tempongko descendants. 

Felipe married a French mestiza, Leocadia L’heritier. Clodualdo was one of the first graduates of the UP College of Agriculture in 1911 but died young and without issue. 

Their attractive sisters, some of whom would be in the court of the first Carnival Queen in 1908, would marry into the distinguished Magpayo, Ongpin, Quintos, Macapinlac, and Roco clans.

Family legend has it that since the women studied at the La Concordia College, the fashionable school founded by Margarita Roxas de Ayala, they would see Dr. Rizal visit his sisters there. Felipe himself, a graduate of San Juan de Letran, a high-ranking Mason who fought in the Revolution and worked as chief accountant of Estrella del Norte, studied fencing at the fencing school of Juan and Antonio Luna on Azcarraga Street and taught the skill to his sister Elisea and his daughter Esther, who were among the first women fencers of the Philippines. 

The Tempongkos now number in the thousands and are also dispersed in the worldwide diaspora as far as the United States, Canada, Russia, Europe, Asia, and Australia. As many as 300 members were able to make it to the 2020 reunion after months of preparation by an organizing committee based in Manila. This entailed painstaking work in the midst of busy schedules, pressing family needs, and Manila traffic. 

 

It was recalled that reunions in the postwar period entailed nothing more than phone calls and notices emanating from family matriarchs like Lola Pitang Magpayo and Tias Flora Ongpin-Heras and Sarah Tempongko-de la Paz.

The reunions then were held in family homes in Paco, Pasay or Quezon City, and the de la Paz Zambales summer manse. Food was usually potluck or sponsored by generous family hosts.

Today’s reunions are now organized on an industrial scale. Communication is done on social media, as in Facebook and Viber. It was decided that the Family Tree, which had been organized in 2015 by the Quintos family, would be updated by the indefatigable Patsy Quintos-Cuevas.

In order to acquaint the younger members of the family with family history, there would be one Family Wall each set up at the reunion with pictures and illustrative material showing the history of each branch. These featured such details as outstanding members such as the ballerina Stella Abrera of the American Ballet Theatre and Jia Tolentino, both members of the Tempongko-Magpayo family.

At the reunion itself, it was decided that the five branches present would be represented indifferent colors: blue, green, red, white, and gray.

The chairman of the reunion would give a summary of the Tempongko Family history, together with historic pictures and revealing anecdotes. One of its most senior members, Sister Elisea Tempongko-Macapinlac, ICM, would give an inspiring talk on the contribution of the Tempongko Family to family values, unity, and togetherness, with inputs from representatives of its six present-day branches.

The gathering took place between 2:00 to 8:00 p.m. at the La Salle Gym and was preceded by Holy Mass. The festivities were punctuated with games involving electronic quizzes projected on screens, raffles with prizes contributed by sponsors and family members, entertainment numbers by various branches, and the buzz of emcees from the millennial generation.

Members who had passed away since 2015 were lovingly remembered in a film clip recording their names. The oldest members present were honored by tributes rendered to them.

It was now recalled that the 200-year old clan has as many as 10 generations since two other generations have been added from Generation 1 of Ambrosio and Inez Tempongko.

As in any family gathering, cuisine took pride of place with the meal shared by the clan. As executed by a caterer from within the ranks of the family itself, some beloved favorites were featured to stimulate hungry palates and cater kid-fare for the children.

Naysayers would have said that clan gatherings such as these are obsolete in the 21st century.

The Tempongko 2020 Clan Reunion proved that such meetings are alive and well and relevant still in this day and age.

Topics: Tempongko Family , Co Pong Tien , family history , Lola Pitang Magpayo
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