By Perry Gil S. Mallari – Manila Times
Steven T. Cua
The Mabuhay Rotonda (originally The Welcome Rotonda) is a towering monument at the boundary of Quezon City and Manila. Architect Luciano V. Aquino built the structure in 1948 during the term of Mayor Ponciano Bernardo to greet visitors of the newly established capital of the Philippines. From that time on, the monument has become a silent witness to the influx of change on the borders of the country’s two foremost cities.
The old monolithic structure hardly attracts the attention of pedestrians and commuters anymore, except when demonstrators in protest of the government assemble in the area or when some lunatic climbs on top of it. But this year, in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the monument, Steven T. Cua, a descendant of one of the first settlers in the area decided to chronicle and showcase to the public the history of Welcome Rotonda (Rotonda is a Spanish term for “roundabout”) as seen through the eyes of his family.
“My late father, Benito Cua Sun Sing, established a refreshment store here, a stone’s throw away from the rotonda in 1948,” he narrates, referring to the present location of the Welcome Supermart that his family owns up to this day. Cua, who grew up in the 60s and now runs the business, has put up an impromptu historical exhibit at the entrance of his store, displaying memorabilia from the business’ beginnings 60 years ago including original sepia photographs and receipts. He believes that it is his small way of educating the public on the rich history of the place. He clarifies though that he is not a historian by training, “I am a management graduate from Ateneo and I believe my interest in history stems from my love of philosophy,” he points out, adding, “I have an eye for details and I remember things without even trying, like the memories of my first day in school.”
Quezon City was declared as the nation’s new capital on July 17, 1948 (it remained so until 1976) and the older Cua started establishing his business with nine other partners in February of the same year. “I presumed my father has seen the construction of the rotonda and believed the place is good for business,” Cua relates. “My father, who was an overseas Chinese was originally into farming,” he adds, continuing, “With a farmer’s instinct latent in him, he chose this spot where our business now stands because of its high elevation, making it safe from floods during the rainy season.”
Cua adds that Quezon City has a hilly terrain that explains why most of the streets near the rotonda, which is toted as the city’s highest point, were named after mountains. Among the streets he mentioned are Apo, Mayon, Kanlaon, Banawe, Agno and Pulog. “My father said there were just about 10 houses in this area during that time and you can see the mountain range of Marikina from this point,” he relates.
Based on the narratives of his late father, Cua reveals that the site around the rotonda has become the informal terminal of the newly invented jeepneys during that time plying the routes from Quezon City to Manila and back. “The passengers from Manila were usually thirsty and hungry when they get off at the rotonda and our store, then named Rotonda Grocery and Cold Store, is where they get their malamig [cold drinks],” he narrates, with a whim of nostalgia in his voice.
Cua also adds that it is interesting to note that the original owner of the lot where their store was built was a prominent person, “The land once belonged to Jose Valero, a former president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce,” he reveals. The newly opened residential city had also become the new dwellings of prominent and opulent families, “The Tuazons and the Zamoras were the original residents of Quezon City,” says Cua. He also emphasizes the isolated and bucolic nature of the place during that time, “It is an interesting fact that the Quezon Institute [where the victims of tuberculosis were being cared for] was built in Quezon City.”
Cua’s father, then known as Mang Susing or Kabise, had become a popular friendly figure in the area and even acquired the unofficial title “the little mayor of the rotonda.” Explaining the etymology of the term “kabise,” Cua explains, “It was derived from the Spanish word ‘cabisera,’ which means ‘the head of the table.’ The word “kabise” essentially means “boss” or “head honcho.” He says that even now, he still bumps into some men who grew up in the 1960s in the area who have fond recollections of his father, “Si Kabise binibigyan ako ng champoy noong bata pa ako [Kabise used to give me champoy when I was still a kid],” one guy told him once.
The rotonda and their family business have been part and parcel of Cua’s childhood memories and he talks details from that blissful past like a child would of his favorite toy. He remembers well his joyrides in their sturdy Chevrolet delivery truck with their driver Manong Mariano along the length of E. Rodriguez Avenue (originally España Extension), “Minsan hinahabol pa kami ng pulis [Sometimes a police car would chase us],” he says with a chuckle.
Cua describes objects in their original store with vivid imagery, “We have an old-style steel cooler then, the type where cold water churns continuously inside, cooling the soft drinks bottles. Kids love to dip their fingers in the ripple, you know,” he narrates, laughing. The jovial businessman turned historian even named some of the popular refreshments that are now long-gone, “We have this fruity drink called Canada Dry available in strawberry, grape and orange flavors and of course there’s Chocovim [a milk-chocolate drink].” Cua proudly states that he literally grew up inside their store, “Ang sabi ng iba Chinese are very entrepreneurial pero in my case nasa sistema ko eh [Some people say the Chinese are very entrepreneurial but in my case it runs in my system],” he says explaining his upbringing as a businessman.
Welcome Rotonda was renamed The Mabuhay Rotonda on May 17, 1995, during the term of Mayor Ishmael Mathay, a development that Cua did not resent. “Mabuhay [Long Live]” as the new name of the monument is definitely more Filipino,” he comments. Recalling the old look of the rotonda, Cua narrates, “It has a pond and a fountain around it surrounded by four lions.” The monument was built of solid blocks of marble piled upon one another though it barely resembles that material today because the structure was coated with white paint that has caught dirt and grime. “They should have just polished the marble,” Cua opines. When asked what his motivations are for this endeavor, he explains that knowledge of history brings appreciation and pride. “Each one has a story to tell like your lolo [grandfather] or your tatay [father],” he says, adding, “If the person goes—the story goes. When they pass away without somebody chronicling their accounts, then those who are left behind can only speculate what really happened.”
Broadening the scope of his discourse, Cua stresses the importance of leaving behind institutions that will be a source of pride for the people. “There’s a wanton destruction of historical sites in the Philippines today and it’s a sad fact that personalities reign rather than institutions even in our government,” he laments. He intones that the humble historical exhibit he put up at the entrance of his store could be a springboard for a grander initiative. When requested to comment on the possibility of him writing a book on the subject, Cua ponders for a moment, before answering. “Why not?” He says smiling, throwing a pensive glance at his beloved rotonda.