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Bacolod City, Philippines Monday, November 18, 2019
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with Matè Espina

The Gokongweis

Rock & Refuge

It is a sad week for the Gokongweis.

Before they can even grieve formally after last week’s death of their father, business tycoon, John Gokongwei Jr., they once again mourn the passing of their mom, Elizabeth, who passed away a day after burying her husband.

Elizabeth was 85 and very little is known of her except for her role as one of the trustees in the family’s foundation that focuses on science and education.

A newspaper quoted the book “The Dragon Network: Inside Stories of the Most Successful Chinese Family Businesses” that Elizabeth is the parent who passed on humility and moral values to her children.

Though she was never in the forefront of the family business, she was described as someone who can get things done because everyone wanted to “make her happy and not disappoint her.”

As in most Chinese families in the olden days, the wives were contented to let their husbands hog the limelight, even if they hold equally important roles in managing the businesses.

This though does not hold true nowadays where we see more and more female children holding the helms of huge family corporations as in the case of the Gokongweis, the Tans and the Sys.

I did not have the privilege of knowing either of the Gokongweis but after hearing of Elizabeth’s passing last Saturday night, I just imagined it as a love story akin to the novels of Nicholas Sparks like “The Notebook” that makes me weep every time I watch it.

Words of condolences from the Palace to both Houses of Congress were extended to the family upon their father’s passing but this time, though Malacanang has released a statement, the family has opted for a private wake for their mom.

The patriarch was known as the country’s third wealthiest person with a published net worth of $5.3 billion according to Forbes and who was known for his generosity and business acumen.

Born in China but raised in Cebu, John Jr. was thrust into the business world at an early age of 15 when his father passed away. He became unstoppable and built JG Summit Holdings Incorporated which has stakes in different industries, including consumer foods, agro-industrial and commodity food products, telecommunications, petrochemical, air transportation, and financial services.

This include Robinsons Land Corporation, which operates a chain of shopping malls and residential projects and Cebu Pacific which was launched in 1988 as a budget airline to make travel more accessible to Filipinos.

Honestly though, I am not a fan of the airline because of their oftentimes crappy customer service but many of my friends like it.

He was best remembered by Sen. Ping Lacson during the hostage negotiation for the kidnapping of Robina Gokongwei and her cousin in 1981.

Lacson was then with the Police Constabulary unit who was in charge of the case. This was the time when Chinese scions were targets by kidnap-for-ransom gangs.

As the story goes, which has been repeated often, the kidnappers asked for P10 million to wit, the patriarch answered he does not have much time to count that much money and the kidnappers can have his daughter.This was the time when P100 was our biggest denomination and just imagine how bulky P10 million would be.

Robina herself mentioned that incident in her eulogy which has been shared many times on social media saying she felt bad at that time when the kidnappers told her, your old man is not paying up because he has five other children anyway.

The first time I read that story I laughed so hard, but admired the man for his grit because under pressure, he was able to bluff his way to give more time for the police to locate his daughter.

The kidnapping ended with Robina and her cousin getting rescued before pay-offs could be handed over and as a thank you, the patriarch gifted the police with 10 new patrol cars.

John Jr. has so many stories attached to his name especially when he divested a huge part of his wealth for the family’s foundation believing that it is only through education that people can rise up from poverty and become competitive. It is more profound to hear that coming from someone who’s schooling was interrupted because he had to take the reins early on in life to provide for the family.

Among the kind words spoken during his wake, my favorite was the one given by Senator Ralph Recto who described John Jr. as a “summa cum laude of the university of hard knocks,” who “spoke softly but wrote large checks.”

"For leaving the world better than you found it, daghang salamat, Mr. John," Recto added.

That to me is the best compliment one can have, in life or in death.*

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