Passing of a generation
Last June 2, I received word about my Uncle Kayao passing away at age 98. I use “uncle” loosely here, as many cultures do — extended to refer to people who might not even be related biologically or by marriage, but with whom we have close ties.
Word of this uncle’s death affected me deeply, not so much with grief as with a sadness that came with the realization that I was seeing the passing of a generation. More specifically, he was the last of a small circle of very close friends that included my parents and that revolved around four women.
Simon Ong Kayao was, simply, Uncle Kayao to us. His wife was Auntie Paking, Francisca, one of three Limchayseng sisters who bonded closely with my mother, so much so that many people presumed my mother was one of the siblings. Besides Francisca Ong (1921-2013), there were Aunty Lucy (Leoncia Huang, 1928-2013), whose husband Danny died many years ago, and Aunty Juannie (Juanita Limchayseng, 1925-2018) who never married but raised first a niece, then a grandnephew, as her own children.
My mother, their “adopted” sister, Apolonia Nieves Lim (born 1920), passed away last year, three months after my father, Julio (born 1924).
I apologize for all those numbers, but I wanted to show their generational links, all born in the 1920s, distinct in many ways.
In particular, my mother’s “barkada” were all first-generation ethnic Chinese in the Philippines; their fathers had been the ones who migrated here at the beginning of the 20th century. Unlike many Chinese families, though, their parents sent them to Catholic schools, where they quickly developed what we call today a Tsinoy identity — Filipino first, yet continuing to speak in Chinese with an appreciation of Chinese culture, from lauriats to trips to China.
They carried the cachet of the American occupation, speaking English and admiring American culture, but also carried the imprint of the Spanish period, especially in terms of Catholicism, some of them devoutly so.
Yet, it was not a closed Catholicism, as American liberalism encouraged an openness to other cultures long before inclusivity and diversity became catchwords. Among the Limchayseng sisters was Sister Felisa, who would join some of our reunions and had no problems interacting with her sister-in-law, better known among Chinese-Filipino Protestants as Bishop Sonia.
We did not have the “Great Wall” that plagued many ethnic Chinese families, the term referring to the ban on relationships and marriages with non-Chinese. So we were a clan of many colors, our reunions ringing out with languages and accents from all over.
Their generation was shaped by prosperity and affluence, as well as great suffering and deprivation, the most difficult being World War II. Curiously, they almost never talked about that period. Only once did I get an inkling of my mother’s life with the Limchaysengs during that period, and it came from someone outside of the clan, about how my mother lived on Pina Avenue, Sta. Mesa, right across a Japanese military camp and not too far from Brixton Hill, where Uncle Simon and others of the clan lived. I learned that, as with many ethnic Chinese in the Philippines, they had supported, at great risk, the resistance against the Japanese.
Maybe it was as well they could transcend the darker periods of their lives and instead cultivate something very Filipino, a bonhomie, a life of cheer and goodwill. Aunty Juannie hosted many get-togethers—officially potluck, but our contributions were really just side dishes that could never rival Aunty Juannie’s main dishes.
Their generation had “urbanidad,” a graciousness that was usually spontaneous, and came at the most unexpected times. Some years back in my parents’ home, I answered a phone call and could barely hear the caller. Then I realized, startled, that it was Aunty Lucy who, because of a serious illness, had not called for years. With great effort, she explained she had heard my mother had a stroke and wanted to know how she was, ending: “Please let her know I called.”
Uncle Kayao loved the good life: golf, aged whiskey (Cheers, Uncle!), home-cooked food—meaning food he himself cooked. No phone calls from him; instead, he would dispatch Chinese hongba, the ancestor of the Filipino humba, to delight my father, who was always longing for authentic Chinese food.
Thinking about the generations before us helps us understand ourselves. We mourn their departure but celebrate the good times we had together, resolving to pass on their sense of the good life, one that is relished (masarap na buhay), and one that is moral (mabuting buhay).
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