By Jullie Y. Daza
People from all walks of life—shod in all kinds of footwear—know him as the richest man in the Philippines. Henry Sy. The name was not preceded by an honorific such as “Don,” nor was the two-letter surname followed by a series of highly educated initials. Friends and fellow-workers called him Tatang, a sign of respect as well as affection.
Me, I was a kid when I first knew him, and he was none other than Mr. Sy. He was the Mr. Sy from whom my mother bought me my shoes—“school shoes” to go with my uniforms in grade school, high school, college, and grad school—and those of my younger siblings. You could say Mr. Sy and his little store in Carriedo were part of our education. If Mr. Sy was 94 years old, how old does that make me, when I could not remember him as young once upon a time, since he was never old-looking, like the last time I ran into him at a restaurant famous for its Singapore-style Hainanese chicken?
Mr. Sy was one of those rare men who always looked the same. In his Carriedo store by the name of Shoe Mart (two words, if memory serves), he was always in white, those times I was with my mother and her sisters looking for shoes for school (mine) and for special occasions (theirs).
Mr. Sy was one of those rare men who always looked the same. In his Carriedo store by the name of Shoe Mart (two words, if memory serves), he was always in white, those times I was with my mother and her sisters looking for shoes for school (mine) and for special occasions (theirs). He was always in white, as I recall, a white polo shirt with short sleeves, and something told me he was the owner as well as the cashier because a handful of salesgirls were taking their cues from him as they attended to the customers. For me, those shoe-shopping trips were a bonus: Mr. Sy’s store was a few shoe steps from Mama’s favorite bake shop, Vienna, and my aunties’ go-to store for Chinese-style ham.
That was long before the word mall entered our everyday vocabulary, before those SMs transformed Manila’s skyline, setting the template for all other malls to follow, some of them mere shopping halls if you ask me. Before Mr. Sy’s vision of the mall, there were only department stores and shopping centers. But the mall in Mr. Sy’s mind was all, the be-all and end-all of an urban destination that would create traffic jams as well as endlessly limitless choices for the consumer’s convenience and comfort. Mr. Sy, the architect of a space and structure in the Filipino lifestyle who never graduated from high school. Mr. Sy, the psychologist-sociologist who read the minds, the needs and desires of present and future customers without a hifalutin’ degree from Wharton or Oxford (not even UP or UST!). Mr. Sy, the marketing expert who was his own feng shui master, telling me in no uncertain terms, “When you build something big, it will create its own feng shui,” reminding me of that famous line in Kevin Costner’s movie where a disembodied voice is heard telling him, “If you build it they will come.” (I don’t think Mr. Sy saw the movie, and even if he did, would he have grasped the full significance of its meaning if the then US President George Bush found it peculiarly discombobulating?)
Mr. Sy was a visionary, that’s what we should call him, except that being so simple, so frugal, and humble, he was suspected of being merely lucky, a child of good fortune. He was, too, a man blessed by God and the lesser gods—he was rich enough to build dozens of big buildings and donate equipment and facilities to educational institutions and hospitals; his children have been brought up under Christian values and Confucian mores; his capacity for philanthropy, though mostly anonymous, was legendary among an army of grateful beneficiaries; and he was husband to a wife who shares his belief that giving multiplies the joy of living. Mrs. Felicidad Sy, like Mr. Sy, is a simple housewife (for want of a less generic term) who wears no jewelry and, like any other housewife, enjoys window shopping. Their eldest daughter, Tessie Coson, is like her parents. Simple to the point of no makeup and no jewelry, not a drop, except for the watch on her wrist. Her clothes are simple, not plain, though very smart and chic. Sometimes I think her brothers are more fashion-conscious in the sense that, unlike their father, they are almost always seen in their business or formal suits.
Henry Sy the multibillionaire did not collect ultra-luxury goods for the sake of displaying and playing with the trimmings and trappings of wealth. Did he own a jet or a yacht? If he did, wouldn’t it be a self-inflicted punishment, to own an expensive toy and hide it for shame? Why he cannot afford the time to enjoy his own heavenly spa in Tagaytay Highlands! What did he have to show for his affluence when he wouldn’t acknowledge the influence he has exerted on the economy, except maybe to level up the good vibes emanating from a harmonious, prosperous feng shui factor wherever there’s an SM?
There are, I’ve been told, 71 SM malls all over the country plus more than a handful in China. Outside of the SMs around where I live, my favorite out-of-town SMs are in Baguio and Batangas City. To quote a prominent citizen of Batangas, Tony Pastor, who is four years younger than Mr. Sy, “SM is manna from heaven for us here in our city. Economically, culturally, spiritually. A multitude of jobs and opportunities, profitable businesses, a boom in real estate. The mall itself is a place to relax and worship. Yes, we pay our taxes religiously!”
What drove Henry Sy forward? Once upon a time at one of his malls, when I caught him doing the rounds “like a physician,” as he put it, he led me to the shoes section and took hold of a shoe on display. Placing the shoe, one with a low heel, on the palm of his hand, he said, “Look here. By feeling the shoe and weighing it this way in my hand, I can tell if it will be comfortable to wear.” How do you do that, I insisted. Trying to hide a smile, he murmured, “I just know.”