Penman No. 99: The Bromance of Fred and Wash

FredWashPenman for Monday, June 2, 2014

 

IT WAS with great sadness that I read last week about the passing, at age 92, of Alfredo M. Velayo—an outstanding accountant, teacher, citizen, and philanthropist. Fred Velayo was best known as the “V” in SGV or Sycip Gorres Velayo & Co., the pioneering accounting firm that he co-founded with Washington SyCip and Ramon Gorres after the Second World War.

I had the great privilege and opportunity of writing Wash SyCip’s biography some years ago, and among the delights of that assignment was meeting and interviewing Fred Velayo—who, like Wash, was already well advanced in years but still sprightly and brimming with boyish mischief. Tall, handsome, genial, and an irrepressible joker, Fred was the perfect foil for the more private and more formal Wash.

Fred and Wash had one of the most memorable friendships (today they call these unusually durable male bondings “bromances”) I’ve ever come across—certainly one of the longest ones, starting in the 1920s at the tender age of five, when both boys attended Padre Burgos Elementary School in Sampaloc, Manila. Their first meeting, on the first day of school, wasn’t too auspicious. The children started crying when their mothers and yayas had to leave—except Wash’s mother, who was a good friend of the principal’s, and was allowed to stay. So Wash sat there unperturbed, and Fred would remember with a chuckle that “Right that first day, of course, we all hated him. Naturally. He was looking at us, saying ‘Why the hell are you little kids crying?’”

With his brilliant mind and work ethic—qualities that Fred himself displayed—Wash would never again have to lean back on privilege to get ahead. But a little luck never hurt. Bright as they were, both boys got accelerated in grade school—not once, but twice. In Wash’s case, it didn’t occur just twice, but thrice. Fred always wondered how that happened when he was just as smart as Wash—and Wash didn’t tell him the real reason until they were in their mid-70s in 1996, when Wash let slip that there had been room in the upper class for just one more boy, and the teacher chose him—alphabetically.

Fred and Wash caught up with each other in V. Mapa High; they both lived in Sta. Mesa and walked to school together. The friendship—and the rivalry—continued over high school, then went on to college at the University of Sto. Tomas, from which both graduated summa cum laude. As I would note in my book, “To no one’s great surprise, Wash finished his four-year course in two-and-a-half years, graduating a full year ahead of Fred, and ending up being Fred’s teacher in one subject at the ripe old age of 17. Amazingly, Fred would close the gap a bit by also getting to teach in his junior year, also at 17.”

Wash went to Columbia in New York for his PhD and was caught by the War there, and joined the US Army as a codebreaker in India; Fred stayed behind and married the girl who would become his wife of over seven decades, Harriet. After the War, their paths crossed again—Wash came home, and Fred went to the States with Harriet and joined the Army.

But when Wash had to go back to the US to fulfill a residency requirement (he had to take US citizenship to be able to work as a codebreaker), he needed someone to mind the small accounting business he had started in Manila, and there was no other person who could fit that bill but his old pal Fred Velayo. He wrote Fred a letter that would become part of SGV lore. He told Fred, on December 16, 1946: “Dear Fred, Received your letter from Alaska the day after I mailed my last letter—but hasten to write you this note. You should try to return as soon as possible as the top opportunities here are excellent—the earlier you start the better. Master’s degree doesn’t mean much—ninety percent of the FEU accounting faculty do not have anything more than a bachelor’s degree—including some of the highest paid ones. But now is the time to get started as I believe that the more you put it off, the greater will be the competition when you get settled. There’s a lot of accounting work—and you can combine this with teaching and importing (with Miller-Gates)—the returns are much larger here than in the States and the competition for a capable person is much less. So cabron, get the hell on that boat and come out here. The various bills before Congress will undoubtedly increase the work of CPAs—but you have to get in on the ground floor… some come over fast. You can also try your hand at insurance—good and profitable line. Cost of living has been going down during the past month in spite of strikes in the States. Housing isn’t worse than in the States—so make up your mind—be your own boss—and come to virgin territory! See you soon. Wash.”

At first, Fred said no—he and Harriet had just begun to settle down in the US—but in January 1947, Fred changed his mind and took a plane home. The rest, as they say, is accounting history. Fred had a funny story about what supposedly happened next:

“One day, years later, Wash came back. He was still earning a little more than me. And so he came to my room. (WS) Fred, this has got to stop. (AMV) What are you talking about? (WS) The fact that I’m earning more from the firm than you. From now on everything will be equal. Our monthly drawings, even perks, club membership, everything, the same. It’s not fair to you that I’m getting a little more. (AMV) SOB, how come it took you so long? (WS) Never mind, from now on we’ll be equal partners. As he walked out of my room, he started laughing. (WS) Anyway, you’ll always be my junior partner. (AMV) After you said we’re equal from now on? (WS) I can’t help it. I’m 57 days older than you. He even counted!”

When we interviewed Fred for Wash’s book (Fred already had his own biography published before Wash), he told us a hoary joke, often recounted at SGV reunions, about dying ahead of Wash and getting to heaven sooner. I guess he knew something Wash didn’t. Bon voyage, Fred Velayo.

Penman No. 83: A Bag of Bread

IMG_20140110_155634Penman for Monday, January 27, 2014

ONE OF the most delightful gifts that Beng and I got a couple of weeks ago for my 60th birthday and our 40th wedding anniversary was a bag of oven-fresh bread, accompanied by a handwritten letter. I found the bread so literally warm, and the letter and its contents so unique, that I secured the permission of the sender to reproduce it for this column. It’s a testament to the persistence of good things and good intentions—and, of course, of good people in a world too often and too crassly ruled by the bottom line.

In part, the letter said: “I’m sending traditional pan de suelo breads which are pugon-baked on the suelo or floor of the 75-year-old wood-fired oven of Kamuning Bakery. The crust is crunchier and it should be reheated with a toaster and not with a microwave oven. Nick Joaquin, NVM Gonzalez, and others of past generations have written about this pan de suelo bread of the Philippines.

“I bought Kamuning Bakery just before Christmas, and have kept the old owners as minority shareholders so they can continue the traditions and tastes of this bakery. I also bought the land and old building. I invested here because I believe in the old owners, the pugon bakers who are artists and the staff with their unique commitment to their craft and vocation. I want to support this independent pugon bakery with their traditional no-preservative and no-additive Filipino breads, despite the huge challenges of this era of big multinationals, bakery chains and supermarkets and their mass-produced factory or industrial breads.”

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The sender of the bread and the letter was none other than my fellow STAR columnist Wilson Lee Flores, business chronicler extraordinaire and confidant of Filipino taipans. Wilson may move in those lofty circles, but his feet remain solidly on the ground—in this case, Kamuning and the oven floor on which pan de suelo is baked, unlike the more familiar pan de sal, which comes to life on metal trays. (Incidentally, many young Filipinos probably don’t know that kamuning—like the kamias that lends its name to the same street across EDSA—is a plant, Murraya paniculata, with tiny and fragrant white flowers.)

The Kamuning district is one of Quezon City’s oldest—in fact, the bakery was put up in its present location in 1939, when the city itself was established—and while modernization has inexorably overtaken many other parts of the city, Kamuning has managed to retain some of its 1940s charm and character, an effect assisted by the proliferation of antique and resale shops and even a vintage-car restoration outfit in the neighborhood.

You can’t get more original than Kamuning Bakery, which has stayed pretty much as it was when it opened. It’s been kept alive by the seventy-ish Ted Javier and his sister Beth Javier Africa, the son and daughter of the late Atty. Leticia “Letty” Bonifacio Javier, who co-founded the bakery with her husband Lt. Marcelo Javier.  Wilson tells the rest of the story: “It was President Quezon’s close ally Alejandro Roces, Sr. who suggested to the Bonifacio family of Los Baños Bakery that they open the new city’s first bakery. So they sent their newly-married daughter Atty. Leticia Bonifacio Javier and her husband Marcelo, who founded Kamuning Bakery.” Sadly, however, Marcelo, his father-in-law Major Miguel Bonifacio, and another of Ted’s uncles were killed by the Japanese during the Second World War.

So it fell to Letty to keep the bakery going with the help, in time, of her three young children, producing pan de suelo, described by Wilson as the “fist-sized version of pan de sal with a hard and crisp crust,” and of which Nick Joaquin wrote “colegialas got their gums toughened on their segundo almuerzo in the morning and, with hot chocolate, their meriendas in the afternoon.”

Indeed it was all the crunchy goodness that Wilson and Mang Nick promised, but don’t take it just from me. Just last month, a blogger named Tummy Traveler reported, after receiving her own gift bag of the bread, that “The pan de suelo was toasted just right. Just the right amount of crunch on the outside yet the bread still had that delicious moistness and softness on the inside. It had a faint hint of sweetness that went well with the salty corned beef together with my freshly brewed coffee and sausage.”

If all this sounds like a shameless plug, it is. Let’s help Wilson Lee Flores help keep a family and Pinoy tradition alive. I’m already planning a sortie there this weekend with Beng to stock up on the good stuff, and to visit an antique shop or two while we’re in the area. Kamuning Bakery can be found on 43 Judge Jimenez corner K-1st Street, one street inward on the left somewhere between EDSA and Tomas Morato, telephone 929-2216. They also have a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/kamuningbakery1939.

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WHILE I’M writing about bread and giving thanks to friends, let me thank another fantastic baker, Theresa Juguan, who with her family and husband Herwig hosted me and Beng in their home in Puerto Princesa over the post-Christmas break. A few months earlier, we had been first-time guests at their seaside villa just outside Puerto, and we struck up such a rapport that Theresa and Beng now call each other “sister.” I’ve also urged Theresa to write her cookbook-cum-autobiography, with her life-story being as remarkable as her cooking and baking.

What I most enjoyed about this second visit, though, was playing “Tito Butch” to Theresa’s granddaughters, particularly five-year-old Zanique and her elder sister Zitroenne and cousin Zantelle, who amazed me with their precociousness. Since the in-house wifi was down, my MacBook Air—hooked up to cellular Internet—became the center of the girls’ attention. “Tito Butch,” they cried, “we want to play! Can we use your computer?” “Sure,” I said, “where do you want to go?” And here’s what floored me: these girls knew what a URL was and could recite it by heart: “W-W-W-dot-Y-8-dot-com!”

So I keyed in the address and sure enough, a website for online games popped up. “Go to Games for Girls!” shrieked the kids, and so we did, and they quickly zoomed in on “Cooking Games,” which featured the step-by-step cooking and baking of everything from spicy corn and shrimp salad to tiramisu. “You cook this,” said Zanique, “and I’ll cook this!” And so they did, in all earnestness, arguing over the sequencing and the measuring of the ingredients. (Beng and I had watched Zanique stick by her grandma in the kitchen, helping with the making of fresh lumpia and admonishing a tita who was going about it the wrong way.)

Thus are great cooks and bakers and great traditions made.