By Dr. Jaime C. Laya
The trader was the newly jobless father of two, Sy Chi Siong, plodding along Calle Aceiteros in San Nicolás. The lady was Tarlac’s Josephine Murphy Cojuangco, sitting in her car around the corner.
Sy had been managing a grocery store but had just been shown the door, unjustly he thought. That was when a friend spotted him. Waiting at Tutuban, he explained, was a boxcar loaded with 500 sacks of mongo that his landlords, the Eduardo Cojuangcos, wanted to sell. Sy offered to try and the two approached Mrs. Cojuangco. The lady decided to trust the young man and the same afternoon everything was sold and the proceeds, a small fortune, turned over.
The accidental meeting led to the top ranks of Philippine business. The young man eventually became the country’s largest dairy products distributor, best known for Birch Tree Milk. Now 104, Sy continues to be grateful to Mrs. Cojuangco and three other persons who he considers as the Lord’s blessings, bestowed on him when he needed help the most.
Arriving from China in 1926 at age 13, penniless, with no formal education, and speaking only Fujian, Sy began as boy-of-all-trades in a store owned by an uncle and some partners. Through honesty and hard work, he was progressively given greater responsibilities and was made manager when his uncle left in 1938 on an extended trip.
Company practice was to buy on 30+ days’ credit, but a supplier was short and Sy agreed to pay COD. A co-owner objected, refused to accept any explanation and made it clear that he was no longer needed. With his uncle silent, the young man left.
Initially as an agent, the Cojuangco relationship thrived and Sy was able to save money enough to think of expanding operations. He found store space at the heart of Chinatown on Comercio and Sto. Cristo, but needed working capital. His uncle had remained distant, when by chance they met. On learning Sy’s plans, the uncle offered to invest. Sy accepted R40,000 for 40 percent of the company, which enabled him to begin operations.
The uncle’s son joined the firm. There was an attempted robbery and tragically, Sy’s cousin was stabbed and killed. The boy’s mother was hysterical, wanted out and demanded immediate payment. Company capital was tied up in receivables and inventory and there was little cash available. News spread that Sy was in trouble. Without his asking, a church friend, Chiong Pai Hun, lent him the needed funds, beginning another flourishing business relationship.
Not long afterward, Sy was held up while locking the store. He surrendered the money but the robber shot him anyway, leaving the man sprawled on the sidewalk, unconscious and bleeding. An acquaintance, Koh Kong Poh, happened by, rushed him to the hospital and saved his life.
It was the Lord’s guidance and the kindness and trust of a lady, an uncle, a fellow churchgoer, and a rescuer, Sy Chi Siong maintains, that enabled him to proceed on his life journey safely and fruitfully.
Notes: (a) Sy Chi Siong celebrated his 104th on Feb. 1; (b) Eduardo Cojuangco and Josephine Murphy Cojuangco of Paniqui, Tarlac had children including San Miguel Corporation’s Eduardo ‘Dandíng’ Cojuangco, Jr., former Congresswoman Mercedes Cojuangco-Teodoro, and Isabel Cojuangco-Suntay; and grandchildren including Congressman Charlie Cojuangco, former Defense Secretary and Presidential candidate Gilbert ‘Gibô’ Teodoro, Jr., and Dra. Isa Suntay who is active in Tarlac cultural affairs; and (c) Chiong Pai Hun was the father of Daniel Chiong of State Investment House and father-in-law of Cityland’s Andrew Liuson.
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