A golden alliance

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The friendship of Doris Magsaysay-Ho and Loida Nicolas-Lewis.

Words Oliver Oliveros | Photography  Paco Guerrero

It only took a phone call from Asia Society Philippines Chair Doris Magsaysay-Ho for Loida Nicolas-Lewis, a New York-based Filipino-American business leader, to accept the former’s offer to join her and Fernando Zobel de Ayala as co-chairs in an ambitious logistical undertaking: a gold exhibition to be mounted in the Asia Society Museum along Park Avenue.

That conversation between the two women happened a year ago. Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms has since opened to glowing reviews. The New York Times hailed it as a “gorgeous and historically intriguing exhibition” while the Wall Street Journal said there was enough on view to “enthrall the eye and engage the mind.” “Of the show’s many bright stars,” Lee Lawrence continues, “some have the gravitational pull of suns.”

The exhibition, which runs through to January 2016, brings to the fore rare ancient golden objects from Butuan and Surigao in the Philippines on loan from Ayala Museum and Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). It is the first of its kind in the United States, and the first in around 20 years for Asia Society in New York to put a spotlight on the Philippines, which is said to have the second largest gold deposits in the world.

Although only a fraction of the pre-colonial Philippine gold collections of the Ayala Museum and BSP is featured in the exhibition, about 120 works of gold from exquisite regalia and everyday jewelry to ritualistic objects of Hindu-Buddhist influence and otherworldly funerary masks from the 10th and 13th century are enough to astound anyone that sets eyes on them.


Sidebar Curators’ remarks

The exhibition Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms presents spectacular gold objects primarily discovered over the past 40 years on the Philippine island groups of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. The majority of the gold treasures recovered from different sites throughout the Philippines were saved from the melting pot by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and the late collectors Leandro and Cecilia Locsin, whose collection now forms the Ayala Museum’s gold collection.

The exhibition, co-organized by the Ayala Museum and the Asia Society Museum in New York, is the first time that the gold objects from both these collections will be displayed together and for the first time in the United States. With additional loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, the Lilly Library in Indiana, and a few objects from the personal collection of Locsin family, Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms sheds light on the sophisticated cultures that flourished in the Philippines before colonization by Western powers.

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Image courtesy of the Ayala Museum.

A belt from the Surigao Treasure, Surigao del Sur province. Ca. 10th – 13th century.

The exhibition focuses on the ancient Philippine polity known as Butuan in northeastern Mindanao during the 10th-to-13th century, and other political entities in the neighboring islands of Samar, Cebu, Leyte, Palawan, Mindoro, Marinduque, and Luzon. The exhibition title uses the word “kingdoms” in its descriptive sense; not as an anthropological term referring to specific social structures such as “tribes,” “chiefdoms,” “kingdoms” and “states.”

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Images courtesy of the Ayala Museum.

On the left: Kinnari from the Surigao Treasure, Surigao del Sur province. Ca. 10th – 13th century.

The political structures of these ancient Philippine polities are not entirely clear. Early Chinese and Spanish sources describe their leaders as “kings” who traded with other “kingdoms” hence the exhibition title evokes these interregional engagements. Written accounts of the pre-colonial period are scarce, and one must search for clues from archaeology, history, and art history to situate the Philippine case within the larger context of early Southeast Asia.

The amazing gold works in the exhibition attest to robust cultural connections and maritime trade in Southeast Asia during what was an early Asian economic boom. The diverse and sophisticated gold treasures are evidence of a lost history of prosperity and achievement of early communities in the Philippines that flourished between the 10th and 13th centuries, long before Spanish contact and colonization.

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Images courtesy of the Ayala Museum.

The ancient gold ornaments, implements, containers, and ritual sculptures are invaluable for the information and evidence they provide on early Philippine polities and their role in Asian trade networks some 500 years before Spanish colonization of the islands. Philippine culture tends to be perceived by others, and by ourselves, in terms of our Spanish and American colonial histories.

This exhibition is important because it provides stunning evidence that the Philippines had a sophisticated culture before Western contact. The superior quality of the gold ornaments also dispels the Western stereotype of pre-colonial Filipinos as ignorant and primitive savages before the civilizing influences from Spain and America. Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms opens a door to a half-forgotten period when the inhabitants of the modern nation of the Philippines shared religious, cultural, and political connections with our Southeast Asian neighbors, long before Spanish and American presence shifted our cultural and political allegiances to the Western world.

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Images courtesy of the Ayala Museum.

We hope that further research on these remarkable gold treasures by local and international scholars will continue to expand our understanding of the Philippine pre-colonial past—and deepen our sense of who we were as a people before Islam and Christianity arrived at our shores, and the multi-layered, collective past that makes us who we are today. — Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art Asia Society and Florina H. Capistrano-Baker, former director of Ayala Museum and Curator of Gold Of Ancestors.

Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms, which also features a series of cultural programs that highlight the diversity of Philippine culture through its cinema, music, performing arts, literature, and fashion, among others, runs until January 3, 2016. Asia Society is located at 725 Park Ave., New York, NY.


This groundbreaking undertaking is also supplemented with objects from the Musee du quai Branly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Lilly Library of Indiana University, which holds the right of possession of an unusual 16th-century manuscript called the Boxer Codex, where the manner of wearing gold ornaments during the pre-colonial Philippines was illustrated by an unknown Chinese artist. 

“When I called Loida about this gold exhibition and asked her to co-chair along with Fernando and myself, she jumped right into it. And boy, when she jumps into something, she’s just like a frog that jumps into water: totally 100%, even more. Within a week, she had already invited the Filipino community to dinner in her house [on Fifth Avenue]. Everyone in the Asia Society was totally impressed,” Ms. Ho revealed in a sit-down interview with Ms. Lewis for High Life.

Who wouldn’t leap at the opportunity to rekindle nationalistic pride among Filipino-Americans? Filipino-Americans in New York are the second largest Asian-American demographic in a culturally and ethnically diverse community whose countless stories of struggles and triumphs Ms. Lewis and Ms. Ho can relate to.

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“I admire Doris because she has a very successful business here in the Philippines. I have to raise my hat to her.”
Loida Nicolas-Lewis

Ms. Lewis—a lawyer-turned-business tycoon upon the untimely death of her husband, Reginald, in the mid-1990s—believes that the Philippine Gold exhibition is of utmost importance. “Now that there are four million Filipinos in the United States, and we have risen up in this world as a country, it’s so important that New York society—since all roads lead to New York—and the American people know that we have this marvelous gold exhibition made centuries before the Spaniards came,” she said. “Our ancestors wore gold around their necks, in their ears, on their hands and feet, and across their bodies. It’s good for our image, and for ourselves. It announces to the world that the Philippines has this spectacular collection of artifacts.”

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“The great privilege of being human is to find another who shares your mission. I think Loida and I became friends because we discovered each other’s interest to help
this country.” — Doris Magsaysay-Ho

Ms. Ho, who chairs the APEC Business Advisory Council aside from Asia Society Philippines, made sure the event coincided with Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting, which happens in Manila this November. The exhibition, she explained, sheds light on the country’s earlier cultural and commercial relations with its neighbors. “Asia Society’s mission, in general, is to promote understanding of Asian culture. Since the Philippines is hosting the big APEC meeting, the Asia Society office here felt that it was also important to show the multidimensional aspects of our country. Yes, we have great potential for business and investment, but we also have wonderful people, as well as culture and heritage that go way back,” she said.

Additionally, the exhibition corroborates the theory that early Filipinos shared similar iconography with both distant and neighboring cultures. It is likely that they made direct contact with trading partners in India, China, and Indonesia, especially with Indonesia’s powerful trading empire of Srivijaya, an important hub of Buddhism.

“We feel that this exhibition deepens the world’s understanding of Filipinos and gives others even more reasons to come to the Philippines, which is, today, the fastest-growing economy in the region,” Ms. Ho said. “This gold exhibition helps reconnect Filipino-Americans to their home. There are many second and third-generation Filipino-Americans who may not know anything about the Philippines anymore. If this exhibition can help give them a concept of themselves or a sense of uplifted pride, then I think we will have accomplished something.”

Ms. Lewis agreed. “For us Filipino-Americans and all the overseas Filipinos: You can take us out of the Philippines but you cannot take the Philippines out of us.”

Women of Substance

Breaking new ground is something Ms. Lewis, an alumna of the University of the Philippines College of Law, is  accustomed to. She found her niche as an immigration lawyer, a best-selling author, and a respected business leader when she arrived in the United States in 1968—fresh from passing the bar exam in the Philippines.

In 1974, upon learning that the United States Supreme Court had just allowed non-American citizens to take the bar exam, Ms. Lewis became the first Asian-American to pass the American bar exam without having been educated in the States. In New York, she first worked for the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council as a part-time secretary, where her former boss Ray Glover set her up on a blind date with lawyer-businessman Reginald Lewis, whose apparent destiny was to marry the Filipina and to become the first African-American CEO of a multibillion-dollar Fortune 500 corporation. Mr. Lewis acquired food and grocery conglomerate Beatrice International in a US$985-million leveraged buyout, which created the largest African American-owned company in the United States in 1987—a feat that hasn’t been duplicated since.

When her husband died from cancer in 1993, Ms. Lewis took over as chair and CEO of Beatrice International from 1994 to 2000, which was then worth US$2 billion. The best-selling author of self-help books How To Get a Green Card and How the Filipino Veteran of World War II Can Become a US Citizen, Ms. Lewis has two daughters: Leslie, an actor and filmmaker, and Christina, a freelance writer and former columnist of the Wall Street Journal; and three grandchildren: Christian, Savilla, and Calvin.

Ms. Ho, on the other hand, is the daughter of shipping magnate Robert Ho and highly esteemed visual artist Anita Magsaysay-Ho. A staunch advocate of women leadership, Ms. Ho is the CEO of Magsaysay Maritime Corporation, the largest manning company in the Philippines. Under her leadership, she has been able to uplift the quality of Filipino seafarers’ training and well-being in order to compete in the global marketplace. Aside from the Philippines, the company is present in Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Croatia, among others.

Her keen business acumen, coupled with her passion for people, led her company to acquire the National Maritime Corporation in the mid-1980s and to launch the Magsaysay Institute of Shipping, which offers free skills training to deserving seafarers, in the 1990s. Ms. Ho, a single parent of three children, was feted by the Asia CEO Awards 2012 as the Global Filipino Executive of the Year.

Ms. Lewis is not just a friend of Ms. Ho, but a fan. “I admire Doris because she has a very successful business here in the Philippines. I have to raise my hat to her.”

Of abattoirs and friendship

Although both share the same values and purpose, Ms. Ho initially knew Ms. Lewis by name and reputation only. “I’ve always had such amazing respect for Loida. When I first met her, I had only heard about her. She’s a woman of amazing conviction, amazing integrity. She’s somebody who has made a great success of her life in the United States. But for me, more than anything, what’s great about her is that she’s used her success to do something for the Philippines,” Ms. Ho said.

Interestingly enough, they finally met for the first time when they both urged the Senate of the Philippines to pass a bill to bring class-A meat abattoirs to the country in the early 2000s.

Ms. Lewis recalled that upon selling her business, Beatrice, she was looking to invest in projects that would uplift her home province of Bicol. She thought of establishing blast-freezing facilities, which require first-class abattoirs. “That’s how Doris and I came together,” she said.

Ms. Ho laughed and turned to Ms. Lewis. “We both went to the Senate and people were looking at us—Loida? Doris? Talking about abattoirs?—do you remember those days?,” the shipping heiress said. Where Ms. Lewis was interested in locally producing grade-A cut meats, Ms. Ho, as the chair of the National Corn Competitiveness Board, was interested in helping farm clusters develop. “So you have corn-growing areas where the farmers could also raise poultry or hogs. Instead of shipping out the hog, the farmers would ship out pork chops. The farmers would actually cut down logistics costs and have better income.”

“The great privilege of being human is to find another who shares your mission,” Ms. Ho continued, “I think Loida and I became friends because we discovered each other’s interest to help this country.”

The conversation, which took place in the Ayala Museum in Makati City, had taken an unexpected turn, revealing the far-ranging interests of both women. From gold to abattoirs and livestock, talk shifted to peace and fish.

“I’ll never forget that while we were talking about trying to help the farmers, I got a call from Loida, who is such a workaholic,” recounted Ms. Ho. “I got a call from her secretary who said that she was going to patch me on to Ms. Lewis, who was in the middle of a town plaza in Bicol. I heard her come in and say that she wanted to talk to me about the ‘peace process’ and how important it is. I was thinking: ‘Wow, Loida wants to talk to me about the peace process. God, she’s really into everything.’ The line was so noisy and I couldn’t really hear what she was saying. When we finally saw each other, she asked me how the fish were. I said, ‘the fish?’ I only found out months after that phone call that Loida was talking about ‘fish processing.’”

Realizing, perhaps, that the fish anecdote didn’t jibe with the gold exhibition, Ms. Ho commented: “I don’t know if you can use that story but we got a kick out of it. It was so cute.” — with additional reporting by Sam L. Marcelo


Sidebar Offbeat New York

(While you’re in New York for Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdom, you might as well check out spots off the beaten path.)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re more than likely familiar with the Big Apple’s big-hitters. Central Park, the Empire State Building, Fifth Avenue, Lady Liberty—we could go on. But what about the lesser-sung wonders of this fierce, fast-paced and fabulous metropolis?

Even in the city that never sleeps, you’ll need somewhere to rest that weary head. While Midtown and Columbus Circle trot out an abundance of ubiquitous grand dames, towering over yawning avenues and non-stop bustle, we prefer these sleek, discreet downtown hideaways in areas less-frequented by the map-toting hordes.

Federal block-turned-artists’ lofts-turned-charming 14-room retreat, The Broome (thebroomenyc.com) will transport you to Paris via SoHo with its verdure-strung, sky-lit atrium and cafe, snug, sound-proofed, balconied suites, name-dropping pieces by Thomas O’Brien and Jonathan Adler, and pastries from a local bakery delivered to your door every morning.

More akin to an impeccably styled home than a hotel, The Greenwich (thegreenwichhotel.com) is Robert De Niro’s sepia-tinted ode to his childhood stomping ground.

Warm oak floors, Tibetan rugs, Moroccan-tiled or Carrara marble baths, a peaceful Tuscan-style courtyard, sublime Shibui spa and pool, and convivial Italian restaurant Locanda Verde make this a celeb honeypot to boot.

To avoid the horror of rush hour, linger between those soft Egyptian sheets a little longer than usual, before bagging a cab over to tree-lined nabe Nolita (or if you opted for The Broome, it’s a mere five minute meander).

For a bite of what this city does best, Black Seed (blackseedbagels.com) on Elizabeth Street is your first important pitstop. Their hand-rolled, poached and wood-fired bagels come replete with fresh fillings, house spreads (think smoked mackerel and almond butter) and a peppy side of Stumptown joe.

Although the chewiness of these divine little o’s, as well as the flashy, new-fangled fitout, have been a point of heated debate since opening, the nigh-on constant queues quickly put any doubts to rest.

Another block north and it’s time to get that credit card muscle flexing. Start by custom-mixing your new signature scent at homegrown cutie Le Labo (lelabofragrances.com), then zip a few doors down to check the feel of the lush LA-crafted bags at French-inflected Clare V (clarev.com).

Over in neighboring SoHo, swing by MoMA Design Store (momastore.org) for ingenious lifestyle faddle, local ethical womenswear boutique Maiyet (maiyet.com), and minimalist icon Donald Judd’s fascinating chef d’oeuvre 101 Spring Street (juddfoundation.org).

A trip to New York would not be complete without a nip of culture. While we love the big daddies like The Met, Guggenheim and newly revamped Whitney, nothing beats a gentle afternoon amble through the hushed gardens, galleries and chapel of The Cloisters (metmuseum.org) at Fort Tryon Park, in northernmost Manhattan.

A schlep, yes, (in fact, allow yourself at least half a day) but this special branch of The Met, dedicated to the art and architecture of medieval Europe, is one of the city’s most closely guarded secrets. As if the tapestries and stained-glass windows weren’t captivating enough, there’s also a breath-taking view of the Hudson River.

Sea legs not up to much? Forget the sickly swarms aboard the Staten Island Ferry. Sidle up instead to Grand Banks (grandbanks.org) for sundowners and freshly shucked Long Island oysters. LUXE City Guides/Reuters