Looking Back

In memoriam: Sonny Tinio (1943-2019)

When I was exploring the walls of Intramuros end to end in the 1980s, there were two names that kept popping up: Martin Imperial Tinio Jr. (June 25, 1943-July 9, 2019) and Ramon Zaragoza (Aug. 12, 1945-July 4, 2019), who were such familiar faces in the Intramuros Administration that I thought they came with the 19th-century furniture in the Casa Manila Museum. Both passed away this month; both physically lived in the present but their temperament, mind and spirit were from a vanished age that lives on only in history and their memory.

Zaragoza published a compact illustrated primer on Intramuros for the Oxford in Asia Series, as well as a number of picture books that served as a handy reference. Tinio, on the other hand, coauthored, with Fernando Nakpil Zialcita, the landmark “Philippine Ancestral Houses” (1980), one of the Gilda Cordero Fernando (GCF) books that gave rise to the term coffee-table book. Like all GCF books, it could be browsed simply for its pictures, illustrations and engaging sidebars with obscure information. But if one had more time, and managed to prop up the heavy book for bedside reading, it provided well-researched, scholarly content in deceptively readable form, minus the footnotes, op cits, loc cits and ibids that made many college students like me dread Kate Turabian’s writing manual.


Martin I. Tinio Jr. is described in the book as: “a gentleman farmer of Nueva Ecija, Albay, and Palawan. He began collecting ivory santos at the age of 11 and had at one time a collection of over 200 pieces, 24 of them life-size. He has since gone on to collecting furniture, colonial silver and gold. [He bragged that his eye for collecting started very early, as in when he learned to crawl up his lola’s dressing table.]

“Tinio Jr. was educated in Europe and America. His interests include classical architecture, landscapes, European houses, history, food, cooking and 19th-century gossip. A grandson of General Manuel Tinio, the youngest general in the Philippine Revolution [contrary to popular belief, Gregorio del Pilar, ‘the boy general,’ was not the youngest], Tinio Jr. has completed a genealogy of his family from 1750, cataloguing some 30,000 entries.


“Tinio Jr. has visited practically all the churches and interesting old homes in Luzon. As a young boy motoring with his father to the farm, he would make a point of waking up when they passed Baliwag to look at its beautiful homes.”

He may have written a fraction of the book on which his formidable reputation rests, but the publishers acknowledged that “his important contribution to ‘Philippine Ancestral Houses’ is knowing where the existing old houses are located all over the Philippines.” And during the research, he kept everyone going because he did not confine himself to heritage structures, but knew all the good places to eat, from posh restaurants to roadside carinderias, from hacenderos’ manors to farmside cookouts in a kasama’s lean-to.

Now that Sonny Tinio is gone, the country’s leading auction house has lost its resident expert on colonial furniture, and the gossipy lore that make tired, old objects important, desirable and expensive. Tinio validated 19th-century gossip through years of research in the National Archives, poring over last wills and testaments that often yielded more than mere assets and liabilities. One of the things he taught me through his book was how to mine a seemingly boring inventory of furniture and building materials, such as that detailed in the last will and testament of Isabel Piñero from 1699, to reconstruct an image of a 17th-century Intramuros house.

When we last talked, I asked about cabeza de jabali, a boar’s head dish often mentioned in 19th-century accounts, and he detailed how it was cooked. I didn’t need the recipe; I wanted to see and taste it. He described it as a European-style aspic and promised he would cook some when he found the proper boar’s head and when he got better. That promise of cabeza de jabali is lost.

The world has become a lesser place because we have lost our appreciation for “useless information” and fountains of it, like Sonny Tinio who is as rare and valuable as the antiques he wrote auction catalog entries for. Surely there are a few more like him: walking encyclopedias, raconteurs, bon vivants who have to be found and enjoyed while they live, before we lose them again to death and diabetes.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: “Philippine Ancestral Houses”, Casa Manila Museum, Martin Imperial Tinio Jr.
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