P.L. Lim and Charlie Palanca: The Debonair Men Who Built The Pen

Dancing with the First Ladies and swinging with the Manila Golf Mafia – all in a day’s work for the men that built the Manila Peninsula.

by Regina Abuyuan

 

IIf there’s a decade to which Metro Manila owes much of its modern landscape, it’s the 70s.

The period that saw Imelda Marcos realizing many of her grand plans to create “The City of Man”—an ambitious vision that saw the construction of architectural landmarks to celebrate the arts, culture, and medical sciences. On an area of reclaimed land near Manila Bay rose the Folk Arts Theatre that would host the 1974 Miss Universe pageant. Around it emerged the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Coconut Palace, the controversial Manila Film Center, and the Philippine International Convention Center. Toward the north, specialized medical institutions sprung: the Heart, Kidney, and Lung Centers, and a hospital called “Children’s City.”

Halfway into the decade, the country’s GNP was growing “at an average of seven percent a year after the five years of declaration of martial law,” according to Philippines: A Country Study, by Ronald E. Dolan. The Philippine government was on a roll, spending up to 40 percent of the GNP to feed the boom, backed up by large loans from the World Bank. Never mind that the rest of the world was on an economic slowdown; the Philippines appeared gleamingly unstoppable. It was no surprise then that in 1976, the International Monetary Fund picked Manila as the venue for the annual meeting of its Board of Governors. The city was in a tizzy over the opportunities this would bring. And while Imelda was concerning herself with her City of Man, the president, Ferdinand Marcos, was encouraging businessmen to build hotels to accommodate the thousands of IMF delegates.

At that time, the Philippine Plaza already existed, a Leandro Locsin gem by the bay; the ever-reliable Manila Hotel; and the fairly new InterContinental Manila located in the emerging business district of Makati. But these were simply not enough. In all, eleven hotels were to be refurbished or built from scratch, three of them in Makati. Today, with Mandarin Oriental and the Intercon having closed businesses in the last two years, only the third of that holy trinity survives: the Peninsula Manila, the grande dame who managed to age gracefully, masterfully maintaining its sheen of newness while keeping its classic charm; surviving economic downturns, natural calamities, and one famously misguided coup attempt in 2007.

 

 

To an informed few, The Pen—as the British called it—was also referred to as “P.L. Lim and Charlie Palanca’s hotel.” Both industry titans and constant travelers, Lim and Palanca helped build the Peninsula, their smarts and style influencing its making and, later on, its management. “One thing about these two men,” says Lim’s daughter Evelyn Lim-Forbes, “they knew how to work like dogs, but they also knew how to play. They were really, totally cutting edge.”

 

 

Lim and Palanca belonged to a generation of men who had seen the country in both devastation and times of prosperity. Hence, their agenda went beyond just filling up their individual coffers. They were nation-builders, at a time when the Philippines was being shaped into a destination in full swing with the rest of the world. P.L. Lim—the first two letters stand for Patricio Luis—was a self-made businessman and industrialist who rode the wave of the need for textiles during the pre- and post-war periods. Carlos “Charlie” Palanca, Jr., scion of a wealthy family, owned La Tondeña Distillery and Lepanto Consolidated Mining.

Ask anyone who knew Lim and Palanca, and the words “dapper,” “debonair,” and “natty” always come up. They arrived always impeccable in suits made by the finest tailors in Bond Street in London. Neckties from Lanvin and Pierre Cardin. “They wore Brioni before everybody else,”

 

(L-R) P.L. Lim, Ana Sycip, Charlie Palanca, Mercedes Palanca, and Millie del Rosario

 

Even before hearing about the IMF convention, Lim was already thinking about bringing Peninsula into the country. Having seen the Philippines rebuild itself from the waste laid by World War II, and quickly adapting to reforms set by the different governments that ruled it after, he felt the country was ready to show it was in step with the standards of the world capitals.

He was also no doubt a fan of the hotel. When in Hong Kong, it was home away from home. Monogrammed paper and soap were de rigueur every time he checked in, according to Lim-Forbes. To say that The Pen chooses its locations and treats its clients well is an understatement. At the time Lim went into talks with Horace Kadoorie—CEO of Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd, which managed the hotel—The Peninsula was already close to 50 years old, with only 10 of its hotels throughout the world. How Lim convinced his friend, the scion of a wealthy Iraqi-Jewish family from Baghdad, that Manila would be the perfect location for the next Peninsula, Kadoorie’s son Michael explained last April in a speech during the inauguration of the P.L. Lim boardroom in Manila:

“You are the only Peninsula in Hong Kong and we need a Peninsula in Manila,” he said, recalling what Lim told his father. In the early 70s, the elder Kadoorie’s plans of expansion were being held back by the experience of the other Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotel properties, having been “sold or confiscated in (the) mainland. Also, there was a problem of not having enough funds, not having the resources and people and the general feeling of ‘we better get Hong Kong right before we start going elsewhere.’”

But Lim was persuasive. “Don’t worry, when you come to the Philippines, I’ll take care of that—your board, your partners, the land—you name it!”  The “seduction” worked.

“P.L. was a great partner and he would fulfill his side of the bargain,” the Kadhoori son continued. “Money was produced. Assets which nobody knew anything about i.e. land [was produced, care of the Ayalas]. Everything . . . a jigsaw puzzle which didn’t need a 50-year old to [solve]. A two-year old could’ve done it because P.L. put all the pieces in place. And here we were, with the land, the building, and a hotel.”

Indeed, Lim stayed true to his word, and by his side was Palanca, his best friend and ally who would serve as chairman of the board of Manila Peninsula Hotel, Inc.

 

Lim with the Marcoses at the September 1976 wedding reception of Ningning O. Cojuangco and Luigi A. Yulo, the first ever to be held at the newly opened Peninsula

 

Manila Golf Mafia

 

Lim and Palanca were the closest of friends. “Like brothers,” says Mila Magsaysay-Valenzuela, former social directress and PR manager of The Peninsula Manila. “Inseparable,” says golf buddy Rodolfo Cuenca of the duo.

Lim and Palanca met in the Wack Wack Golf Club in the late 1960s, before moving to the Manila Golf Club, where they were part of a seemingly impenetrable group of equally highly influential businessmen called the Manila Golf Mafia. “Charlie and PL were already in [the] high society of Manila. I was a young contractor; my life was entirely different from theirs. It was Palanca who invited me, and it was only then that the name ‘Mafia’ came,” recalls Cuenca, who joined the group in 1973 and is a decade older than his two golf-mates, who were both born in 1915.

Golf was an essential part of the Lim-Palanca lifestyle and the men they moved amongst. “My father used to tell me that he would certainly not do business with anyone who could not play a decent round of golf,” says Lim-Forbes. “The character of the person comes out after 18 holes. The sport is an analysis of characteristics. You’re relaxed. You can’t play golf if you’re tense. You’re exposed to this person for three hours; you get to know character, morals, things that a negotiation table wouldn’t let you know. These are men who didn’t need contracts. These men relied on palabra de honor; for these men a handshake was enough.”

 

“My father used to tell me that he would certainly not do business with anyone who could not play a decent round of golf,” says Lim-Forbes.

 

Cuenca hesitates at the suggestion that the Mafia was a “power group” that could very well make and break the country’s economy. “The mafia was more of a golfing group,” he says, half-laughing, half-scoffing. “There was camaraderie, we enjoyed having drinks together, playing poker, occasional dinners. A ‘mafia’ is supposed to be primarily a secretive group, but we called it that just for fun. Mafiosos are supposed to be a group of friends who don’t talk to others, nobody talks against anybody [who is] non-political.”

Still, it’s hard not to get shaken when one considers the “membership.” Consider the names: Jobo Fernandez, former Central Bank governor; Aurelio Montinola, Jr. of Far Eastern University; Arthur Young of Yutivo (“married to the niece of Madame Chang Kai Shek”); Walter Euyang, head of Wrangler; Ernesto Rufino of Rufino Theaters; Joe Montano of JoeMon Carpets; Ramon Recto (Palanca’s assistant who later became president of Lepanto); Anton Cacho; Louie Jalbuena; and of course, Lim, who owned Universal Textile Mills, Capital Garments, Philippine Carpet, Peggy Mills, Filsyn (with Palanca); and Palanca. Cuenca and Recto are the only two surviving members from the original group.

 

At the presidential yacht Ang Pangulo, Lim and Palanca (fifth and sixth from left) with then First Lady Imelda Marcos, who is said to have enjoyed dancing with the very tall Lim because she “didn’t have to look down”

 

“Yes, there were heads of industries, [members who were] prominent in areas of business, but there was no one in politics,” Cuenca reiterates. “We never brought in anybody who was a known politician. In fact there were politicians who wanted to join us, but we didn’t invite them.”

Even President Marcos was known to have called on the Manila Golf Mafia’s advice, or moral support, during important occasions. They were with him during his state visit to Russia in ’76, and again on his visit to Japan in ’77. In 1970, when Saudi Arabia was emerging as “King of the World,” Marcos invited Palanca, Lim, and Fernandez to play poker with the foreign minister from the oil-rich country.

The Manila Golf Mafia met two to three times a week—“Wednesday and Saturday were mafia days,” recalls Cuenca—but Lim and Palanca were together almost every day.

No one would have guessed how different the two men’s backgrounds were.

 

Worlds Apart

 

Carlos Palanca, Jr.’s father already had several business ventures in the country before the turn of the last century. By 1899, Don Chan Quiensen—as he was known in China, or Don Chuey Leong, as he was known in the Philippines—was already in sugar, rice, textile, labor and construction, and liquor. He went from being a naturalized Spanish subject to wholeheartedly embracing his Filipino citizenship when the new Philippine Constitution was adopted in 1935. He was a known philanthropist, and when he passed away in 1950, his children established the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature to commemorate his love for learning and patronage of educational institutions.

Palanca Sr. passed on his business acumen and socio-civic mindedness to all his heirs, but it was Palanca Jr. who would attract much of the spotlight. He learned the business ropes directly from his father by doing office work for La Tondeña while he was still in high school.

 

On Lim: Later, he was a janitor and security guard for a general goods store, where a board held up only by a couple of chairs was his sleeping arrangement.

 

While the Palanca family was already firmly entrenched in Manila society, a three-year-old Patricio Luis Lim was on his way with his family to Masbate from Amoy, China. There was impending unrest spurred by the Sun Yat Sen’s Revolutionary Army and the Kuomintang, forcing the Lims to escape their country. In Masbate, his father raised cattle to be shipped back to China, a relatively stable business considering the Chinese’s then-newfound appreciation for beef as an alternative source of protein. Patricio’s mother was a second wife, and since they were on Philippine soil, where his father had taken on two more wives, both Filipinas, the younger Lim’s place on the family totem pole suffered. At nine years old, he, his mother, and grandfather ventured to Manila where he started going to school alongside much younger kids. His mother worked as a laundrywoman while he shined shoes and prepared barbecue and bananaque that he sold in churches. Later, he was a janitor and security guard for a general goods store, where a board held up only by a couple of chairs was his sleeping arrangement.

Lim reached sixth grade when he was 16, decided he had more fun working, and stopped going to school. It was around this time that his father died and he had to take over providing for his Chinese siblings. By then, he had also married his first wife, and more than ever put his back into work. One of his many jobs was selling bootleg whiskey for Destileria Limtuaco. Through smarts and hard work, to make the story short, he became an accomplished businessman, eventually putting up—with the old Chinese family, the Angs—the Universal Textile Mills, which in 1953 was the biggest and only textile mill in the country. He bagged the contract to make uniforms for the military, and at one point employed 2,000 people.

It was around this time when Lim’s world would get introduced to the society stratosphere that Palanca moved in. Being a garments entrepreneur, Lim did business with Manila’s couturiers, and through people like designer Pitoy Moreno, he met and made fast friends with the era’s privileged mavens, among them Chona Kasten, Mary Prieto, Conching Sunico, and Chito Madrigal. Louie Ysmael, Kasten’s son and undisputed king of Manila nightlife, says: “I remember him as being a really soft-spoken gentleman, quite a guy with the ladies, a good dancer, pretty much the life of the party—him together with Charlie. They [the mafia] were a pretty respected group that you didn’t mess around with, because of their connections and seemingly clannish ways.”

 

Palanca smoked filterless cigarettes and, despite owning La Tondeña, was not a drinker. Nor was his buddy. “My father’s thing was one glass of scotch lasting three hours—easily,” recalls Lim-Forbes. “He just kept adding ice so his glass always looked full. And the waiters all knew.”

 

Before he himself became a force in the Manila social scene, the young Ysmael admired the pair from afar. “You could see they had this class. The gentlemen of the old school, which these days, you don’t spot too many of them. This lifestyle, you don’t teach it, you’re born with it,” he adds.

The lifestyle, of course, included not just the socials but travel—Hong Kong, Taipei, Bangkok, Japan, the US, Europe. Lim, for one, would take two months off with his late second wife, Peggy (Lim-Forbes’s mother), to do “an around the world thing.” (He married again in the 70s, this time to Madeleine, “the love of his life,” according to Lim-Forbes.)

The lifestyle also included the packaging. Ask anyone who knew Lim and Palanca, and the words “dapper,” “debonair,” and “natty” always come up. They arrived always impeccable in suits made by the finest tailors in Bond Street in London. Neckties from Lanvin and Pierre Cardin. “They wore Brioni before everybody else,” says Lim-Forbes. Silk, lightweight wools apt for the tropical climate, the purest cottons. Two-toned saddle shoes of the supplest leather, as comfort was just as important as style.

 

Meet you at The Pen

 

When they entered a room, they commanded a presence and certitude that could only be cultivated and earned through decades of prodigious work, and the wisdom and quiet self-assurance gained through dealing with folk big and small. Lim, in his light-colored suits, his hair always perfectly combed (he would not be found without a comb, recalls Cuenca, even on the golf course); Lim, in his lanky grace, towering at six feet. In height, they appeared like an odd couple. But no other pair could have better embodied what The Peninsula Manila stood for: effortless elegance and a subdued kind of power.

 

No other pair could have better embodied what The Peninsula Manila stood for: effortless elegance and a subdued kind of power.

 

In mid-January of 1976, the Pen held its topping out ceremony and was initially slated to open in August of the same year. To meet the construction deadline, 1,300 workers worked on 14-hour shifts, seven days a week. The cost of building this opus was P220 million, with the Kadoories (through Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels) owning one third of the 40 percent foreign equity, and Lim and Palanca leading the 60 percent of local investment. It was to be the first hotel in the Philippines to use a computerized reservation system. It also boasted of three restaurant outlets—La Bodega, Old Manila, and Quimbaya, a supper club, which featured a big band and required a strict dress code. Its silverware was to be supplied by Beard of Switzerland; its rooms designed by The Walter Ballard Corp. of New York; its magnificent gardens, spanning 30 percent of the property, or 5,200 square meters, were designed by Idlefonso “I.P.” Santos, who also did landscape design for the CCP, Nayong Pilipino, and the sculpture gardens of UCLA.

 

The Pen’s landscape design was done by the famed I.P. Santos who wanted a “lush tropical effect with a profusion of color” and a “cascading manmade waterfall in the midst of a tropical garden”

 

Leading the different departments of the 850 new hires for the establishment were members of Manila society’s who’s who: Mila Magsaysay-Valenzuela, daughter of former president Ramon Magsaysay, Jr., was social directress; Bettina Olmedo, wife of renowned artist Onib Olmedo, was PR manager; Montserrat Uy was front office manager, poached from the nearby InterContinental and whose future staff consisted of fresh college graduates from families of Manila’s upper crust (“Their yayas brought them lunch every day,” Ms. Uy recalls); and Rosary Ysmael-Palanca (who was married to Charlie Palanca’s nephew, but whose family were friends of Lim), who first served as telephone operator. Later, when Bettina Olmedo had left and Mila Valenzuela (or “Mrs. V”) was appointed PR manager, Ysmael became her PR officer.

To this day, the most outstanding feature of The Pen is its lobby. “Enter from a grand porte cochere,” gushed an article in Daily Express, published September 27, 1976, “you find yourself engulfed by the magnificence of the lobby . . . This is the place where Manila’s Establishment will congregate. Here, amidst ultra chic surroundings, the country’s decision-makers will discuss important business matters. Here, the genteel matrons of Manila will daintily sip their coffee as they compare notes on haute couture with a string ensemble providing mood music. Here, the young adult group will discuss latest happenings over Peninsula cheesecake and tea.”

 

The Standard

 

“The Pen ambiance is very hard to recreate,” says Lim-Forbes. “It’s private but open. All aboard, here we are, negotiating in a nice place. Nothing hidden, nothing sneaky. That’s what [my father and Uncle Charlie] wanted to bring.” Because of its expanse, it was a scene of many a celebration and scandal alike; of the latter, Pen employee-witnesses are ferociously tight-lipped. “One of the things that I think Uncle P.L. really wanted was the lobby,” says Ysmael-Palanca. “So when the hotel opened, everybody said it was like the Grand Central Station. We had the upside down cake (the monstrous chandelier); we would call it the Tomb of the Pharaohs because it was all brown, and the lobby was just a place to sit down and wait.”

 

It was the pancit luglug that Lim obsessed over, according to Ysmael-Palanca. “If you wanted to piss him off, complain about the pansit luglug.”

 

Less than a year after it began operations, there was clamor to start serving food. While The Pen is also credited with the invention of fancier dishes such as its smoked tangigue and dill sauce, an appetizer that won a competition in Basel, it was the pancit luglug that Lim obsessed over, according to Ysmael-Palanca. “If you wanted to piss him off, complain about the pansit luglug.” The hotel boss would then order five versions made for a taste test. Not that the dish had any special ingredients that might have been missed—but any variation in the taste or quality were “maybe representative of how the service deteriorated, or maybe the chef was new,” offers Valenzuela. It also reflected Lim’s hands-on style in all his businesses. He noticed everything—from the plants that were over or under-watered, to the condition of the upholstery and carpets—and he called the supervisor’s attention right away. According to Valenzuela, there was a curious way Lim monitored his to-dos for the day. “He had pieces of paper in his pocket. He’d take out one and say, ‘O, tapos na ito’ (and then throw it away). They were about anything, I guess, that he had to do. ‘O, Mila ha, this one, you make sure the pansit luglug tastes good ha . . . taste it sometimes.’ It was very personal, and you might call it primitive, but effective. Everything he did, it was in his pocket. At the end of the day, his pockets were already empty.”

CPJ—as The Pen staff referred to Palanca—was more laidback in running the hotel, but like Lim was nonetheless very visible during parties and after-office hours.

“They were at 100 percent of the parties,” recalls Valenzuela of her bosses. “They’d always be together. At five, six in the evening. They’d discuss the day’s events. Business talk continued. You’d think that was cocktail hour? It was actually relaxed reporting,” relates Lim-Forbes. They were, of course, also fixtures in the fanciest Manila night clubs in the 70s, and did the casino scene once in a while, and even when they came home in the wee hours, come morning, the wives were there with their husbands’ combs and handheld mirrors, ready to see them off for another day at the field or the office. They loved to flirt, these two men, and loved to dance. Lim always prided himself on being a dancer—and having the opportunity to have “danced with every Philippine First Lady since Mrs. Garcia in Malacañang.”

“Dancing, for him, was all about holding women and making them feel like a hundred bucks,” says Lim-Forbes of her father. Mrs. Marcos, who in her heels already stood five foot ten or higher, “loved to dance with him, because he was not eye level, nor did she have to look down—he was tall!”

Palanca enjoyed dancing, too, but more often than not, preferred to hold court and chat with people who came by his table. He smoked filterless cigarettes and, despite pre-conceived notions—him owning La Tondeña and all—was not a drinker. Nor was his buddy. “My father’s thing was one glass of scotch lasting three hours—easily,” recalls Lim-Forbes. “He just kept adding ice so his glass always looked full. And the waiters all knew.”

 

Perfect gentlemen

“They were both happy people, perfect gentlemen,” says Cuenca. “Charlie Palanca, especially, even with Chinese forebears, would not speak Chinese before people who didn’t know how to speak the language. That’s a character trait these young Filipino-Chinese don’t have—but that was not Palanca. He was always aware of his bearing. He was never an unruly guy; same with P.L. Lim.”

In sorrow, they always had each other’s backs. Palanca never left Lim’s side when the latter’s second wife (Lim-Forbes’s mother) died in a plane crash in the early 70s. “He was with my dad throughout the ordeal, stayed close, made sure he had someone to play golf with.” The two never fought, not even once. When they were cross with anyone, they would code switch to Chinese—at which point anyone within earshot would be wise to make himself scarce.

 

THE PEN PALS: With their difference in height, they might have looked like an odd couple, but their subdued elegance and taste for the good life make Lim and Palanca the perfect poster boys of The Pen

 

A decade after The Peninsula Manila was launched, Palanca, Jr. started growing too ill to attend socials. Lim, aware that he was about to lose his best friend, threw himself into work. With The Pen stronger and already established as one of the Philippines’ premier hotels, he focused on Filsyn, the threads and yarn manufacturing business he put up with Palanca. “My father did not waste time in sorrow,” Lim-Forbes says. “It did not do him any good.”

Palanca passed away on January 29, 1988. Lim would follow almost 30 years later, in March 2015. He lived almost a hundred years and bore witness to many more legendary stories with The Pen as backdrop: Stevie Wonder jamming in the lobby in the wee hours of the morning sometime in 1989; the recent serenading of Game of Thrones actress Nathalie Emmanuel by the lobby orchestra; and of course the siege pulled by Senator Antonio Trillanes in 2007.

 

“Their vision was really peace, education,” Lim’s daughter says of her father and Palanca. “They understood that if you wanted a good populace, you needed education. And peace to make businesses continue. Business is never good when there’s a coup. They just wanted to create more jobs and opportunities . . . The Pen started out as a nation-building exercise. They knew what they were building. It was not just a hotel.”

 

Next time you visit The Pen, look up and around. At the business people and society folk, the politicians cutting deals and talking of children and, perhaps, how to steer the country toward better times and better conditions. Amidst the mannerly din and the clatter of silverware, you might be able to hear the dreams of two happy men, best friends for life and in rest, reveling in one of their visions come true.

“They always understood where they came from eh,” Lim-Forbes continues. “They had no illusions. They understood they were Chinese but they were very, very proud to be Filipinos. They gave back everything to this country what this country gave them. They understood this country gave them the opportunity to build, to create jobs, to do what they did. They wanted to leave that behind. That’s why they spent so much money for that building, they fought for that lobby to look like that.”  They were decent men, and decent businessmen, at a time when “decent” was a word of more value than today. They didn’t need to take sides in the political arena, never needed to court the favor of this politician or lick the ass of an incumbent president. They didn’t have to because, as Lim-Forbes would say, “They had the Peninsula, honey.”