Bill Gates to Bill Clinton, Trumps, tycoons to royalty

The Peninsula Manila at 40.


WORDS  WILSON LEE FLORES

In the nearly half century since The Peninsula Manila’s opening on September 14, 1976, “The Pen” or “The Manila Pen” (its colloquial nicknames) has graciously lorded over the heart of the nation’s financial hub at the corner of Ayala Avenue and Makati Avenue as the ultimate meeting place for the rich and famous.

This landmark, renowned as one of Asia’s finest luxury hotels, has hosted numerous international glitterati, from statesmen and tycoons to artists and celebrities — among them world’s richest man Bill Gates, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, royals Queen Sofia of Spain and Prince Andrew of Britain, NBA basketball legend Kobe Bryant, singer Katy Perry, Donald Trump’s sons Eric and Donald, Jr., Paris Hilton, and assorted Hollywood stars and Asian billionaires.

The Peninsula Manila has one of the region’s grandest hotel lobbies, its elegant ambiance enhanced by the music of a live orchestra. Its four-storey high ceiling is adorned with the 12-meter Sunburst installation by National Artist Napoleon Abueva. This lobby has not only seen many important business, political and private meetings, including some romance, it also made global news headlines in November 2007, when military and police teams blasted teargas and rammed an armored personnel carrier (APC) through its glass doors to capture a group of coup plotters — the Magdalo group led by now-Senator Antonio Trillanes IV.

Hotel executives said they couldn’t reveal all the global and local bigwigs who have stayed, dined or partied at The Manila Pen “as a matter of policy,” but the hotel allowed me to interview its two longest-serving employees: Director of Customer Service Monzie F. Uy, and Human Resources Manager Noel Silva.

STARS IN DIFFERENT ORBITS

Ms. Uy listed four of the most unforgettable celebrity guests she has seen or welcomed  over four decades: the Italian actress, photojournalist and sculptor Gina Lollobrigida; U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell; Prince Andrew; and Queen Sofia (“She approached us to say ‘thank you’, before she left”).

On Gina Lollobrigida, Ms. Uy said: “She was so sexy, I was then front office manager when she came here.” When I inquired about the open secret in elite circles that the Italian sex symbol had a romantic fling with then President Ferdinand E. Marcos—and even had out-of-town trysts in places like Boracay—Ms.Uy said she had never heard about it.

Mr. Silva had a very different list of memorable guests: Mexican actress and singer Thalia who became famous through telenovelas like Marimar, singer Stevie Wonder, former President Bill Clinton (“he was always smiling”), Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (someone who saw Trudeau at the hotel commented that he was “like a rock star” with “people following him, an unusual number of women”), and NBA superstar Kobe Bryant (“he stayed here at the hotel three times: when he was just starting, at the height of his successful career, and when he retired”).

Asking about the first Manila Pen wedding, the Yulo-Cojuangco nuptials during which then-President Ferdinand Marcos and his First Lady Imelda supposedly overshadowed the couple, inevitably led to a discussion of Imelda herself.

What were their earliest impressions of the country’s most world-famous, colorful, and also controversial First Lady? Silva responded: “The hotel used to have Mr. Quimbaya’s supper club, which is now the Salon de Ning. It had Mexican Aztec decors. Imelda would come late at night with her Blue Ladies, with her caftan and emeralds, sometimes with the pianist Van Cliburn. Para siyang diwata pag naglalakad (She was like a goddess when walking), you will be drawn to her.”

PERSONAL MEMORIES

Many of my own memories of the Pen involve my work as a writer. I once interviewed a scion of the family behind Swiss luxury watch family in this hotel and he told me he wanted to be reincarnated as an Asian in the future because we are “the biggest buyers of luxury watches in the world.”

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I interviewed a top boss of the Bally fashion brand in this hotel, and the British book author and geopolitics expert Martin Jacques. In November 2003, Bench boss Ben Chan arranged for me to have an exclusive interview with Taiwan’s F4 superstar Jerry Yan at the latter’s 11th floor Manila Pen hotel suite and my younger sister Marilou tagged along. The singer/actor flew in by helicopter for this interview right after his press conference at Le Pavilion in Manila.

My first (and most unforgettable) interview with the late “rags-to-riches” realty tycoon Tan Yu was at the Manila Pen lobby,  past midnight, in the presence of his kin and his godson Greggy Araneta (the husband of the Marcos family’s youngest daughter Irene).

Most unforgettable for me was when I was a college student: I won three Palanca literary awards in one evening at the Manila Peninsula. Apart from the literary greats in attendance either as winners, judges or guests, I also met for the first time Danton Remoto (now Ateneo de Manila University professor, TV5 host, and fellow Philippine Star columnist) and Charlson Ong (now a UP professor). The persons who presented me with my awards that night were Charlie Palanca (that would be his last Palanca ceremony, as he passed away not long after) and San Miguel Corp. CEO Andres Soriano III.

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Based on interviews with several habitues at the Lobby, old loyal customers, and after a bit of research, here are just some of the numerous VIPs who have made Manila Pen their temporary home:

The world’s wealthiest man Bill Gates was said to have taken a helicopter ride from Manila Pen to Malacañan Palace for a short meeting with then President Fidel V. Ramos in March 1998.

World-renowned writers Neil Gaiman and novelist Nicholas Sparks (whom I interviewed, thanks to National Bookstore’s Xandra Ramos-Padilla).

Queen Sofia of Spain in March 2003 was well-liked and humble. One time   she entered the Manila Pen lobby, to a  warm welcome of almost nonstop applause from all the hotel staff and the other customers.

Another world leader whose entrance into the grand lobby was met with warm applause by other hotel guests was then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Was it true that during Prince Andrew’s stay the Manila Pen kitchen staff had to iron the bacon because his personal butler reportedly said he only ate this food flat? When I asked hotel executives, they didn’t want to comment on this unique example of customer service, due to their strict policy of upholding their guests’ “utmost privacy.”

Boxing icon Manny Pacquiao and wife Jinkee on August 23, 2011 hosted a dinner for Paris Hilton (who endorsed a project of Century Properties founder Joey Antonio) at Manila Pen.  Ms. Hilton gushed: “The food is good. I love the food in the Philippines. It’s delicious.”

Bench’s fashion tycoon Ben Chan has brought numerous foreign celebrity endorsers to The Manila Pen including Korean actor Lee Min Ho, and Adam Levine, etc, while his competitor Penshoppe boss Bernie Liu brought in The Vampire Diaries actor Ian Somerhalder to stay at the hotel.

A businesswoman who had a six-week series of meetings at the lobby in 2012 told me she noticed that the stars of Hollywood’s Bourne Legacy, Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz, stayed at the hotel for almost two months. She also saw Rachel’s husband, the famous James Bond movie star Daniel Craig ,visit her. Smap.com has a 2012 report which in fact reported that Renner and his co-star Edward Norton enjoyed swimming in the hotel pool.

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FOUNDED BY FINE GENTLEMEN

The founders of The Peninsula Manila were legendary business and social leaders, old-school gentlemen and philanthropists: the late liquor industrialist and mining mogul Carlos “Charlie” Palanca, Jr. who was the hotel’s founding chairman from 1976 to 1988, his best friend the late garments industrialist Patricio Luis “PL” Lim who served as hotel chairman from 1988 to 2005 and then as honorary chairman from 2005 to 2015, and the Kadoorie family of Hong Kong’s iconic Peninsula Hotel.

Noel Silva said: “Palanca and Lim were very dashing gentlemen in very fashionable suits, gentlemen who were both very chivalrous.” Monzie Uy recalled: “Lim was here every day, from the moment we first opened the hotel. He had eyes everywhere, he could see everything, he was very observant.”

Philanthropist and industrialist Charlie Palanca was the son of the Philippines’ early 20th century “Alcohol King,” the self-made tycoon Don Carlos Palanca, Sr. He was originally a Chinese immigrant named Tan Guinlay, who adopted the Hispanicized full name of his baptismal godfather the 19th century Chinese community leader, philanthropist and tycoon Don Carlos Palanca Tan Quien Sien.  Not a few historians and writers make the mistake of thinking godfather and godson were the same person since the godson also became very wealthy, was also a philanthropist, and became a top Chinese community leader. He was the undisputed “Alcohol King” of the Philippines with his La Tondeña Distillery in Tondo, Manila.

In 1924, Palanca Sr. bought the Hispanic Zobel-Ayala-Roxas clan’s alcohol distillery, their popular liquor brand Ginebra San Miguel, and their corporate headquarters along Echague Street in Quiapo, Manila lock, stock and barrel. Echague had since been renamed Carlos Palanca, Sr. Street in memory of Charlie’s dad.

More important for the Palanca legacy is the country’s most prestigious and longest-running literary prize — the Don Carlos Palanca Sr. Memorial Awards for Literature which has been presented to the Philippines’ top writers every year since 1951. The awarding ceremony, has been held at The Peninsula Manila’s Rigodon Ballroom since 1986. The elder Palanca had many other Philippine socio-civic charities; he was also  an early 20th century prime mover behind the rise of the local Chinese community’s various Chinese-language schools where Confucian values have since been taught.

The late P.L. Lim was originally from Fujian province and his family migrated to Masbate province in the Philippines. He was a working student who eventually became a self-made entrepreneur. In 1966, Lim went into a business partnership, manufacturing Tai Ping carpets with the Kadoorie family, Iraqi Jews who first arrived in Hong Kong in 1880 and, a short time later, traveled to Shanghai. The Kadoorie brothers invested in and built prosperous businesses in both cities in a variety of industries including hotels, utilities, land and property. The Kadoories never forgot their ancestral roots and in 1933 donated funds to establish Israel’s Kadoorie Agricultural High School as an outstanding agricultural school and youth village. One of its notable graduates was the late Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli prime minister, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and military hero. They are also philanthropists in Hong Kong and China.

It was Lim’s friendship with the Kadoories which encouraged the latter to open the first ever Peninsula hotel outside Hong Kong in the Philippines, in time for the Marcos government’s 1976 hosting of the annual World Bank/International Monetary Fund summit.

Both Monzie Uy and Noel Silva said the late founders and present set of owners of Manila Pen treat employees like family and that is the main reason both of them have stayed on for four decades.

Ms. Uy said: “They really treat you like your own family members.” Mr. Silva elaborated: “This is a company managed with a big heart. They genuinely care for employees, and there is much opportunity for growth. Look at both of us, we rose from the ranks, and I’ve personally worked in all departments except in security and engineering.” More than the grand edifice and excellent facilities, the heart and soul of a great hotel like Manila Pen are its people and their service.