By APA ONGPIN
In 1870, at 22, Roman (Ongpin) married Pascuala Domingo y La Encarnacion. They had 16(!) children. Of the 16, just nine lived to adulthood—four girls, and five were boys.
Per Roman’s youngest daughter, Celedonia, her father was extremely strict as parent, and refused to allow suitors to visit his daughter. As a result, none were ever married, except her, and only because she eloped at the age of 30, 14 years after Roman died.
In 1883, at 35, Roman diversified from the candle business into dry goods, or ‘hardware’, which, in the late 19thcentury, meant anything from soap, to clothes, to carriage supplies, construction materials, in fact, everything that wasn’t perishable. Funny thing about us intsiks, there always is: a hardware store.
The first department store
Roman established in 1883 what we would today call a department store, which he named ‘El 82’. The name commemorated 1882 when a cholera epidemic swept the Philippines, decimating its population. It was also the year his father, Simon, passed away, at the age of 63.
Roman chose “82” to symbolize the rebirth of the nation from the disaster. Cleverly, 82 was also the establishment’s telephone number.
El 82 delivered goods and supplies to customer by horse-drawn cart, cash on delivery. In effect, El 82 was the Alibaba, Amazon, Lazada or Shopee of the 19th century.
Roman became rich, a prominent citizen, a civic leader, and was appointed Teniente General de Mestizos. He led other associations in Binondo, charitable ones, including one for disabled war veterans and another for indigent children.
Pioneered fixed prices
Roman pioneered the use of fixed prices and European-style double entry accounting, the forerunner of today’s balance sheets (and) an improvement from end-of-day cash bookkeeping. Proper balance sheets and fixed prices helped to stabilize commerce and create a more rational market more familiar to European capital. This, in the rapidly expanding Southeast Asia of those times, was a competitive advantage.
Roman carried exclusively at El 82 art supplies—paint, canvas, brushes, easels and framing materials. He also carried cameras, film, paper and chemicals for photography, then a very new technology.
Roman’s wife, Pascuala, was the granddaughter of the first eminent Filipino painter, Damian Domingo.
Because El 82 was the only place in Manila which sold art supplies, many of the artists of the time (Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo and the gang) became his friends (and) Roman was drawn into the circle of the ilustrados (enlightened ones).
Ilustrados were young Filipinos who, financed by the country’s growing wealth as an agrarian power and trading center in Asia, had studied in Europe, and acquired the liberal and romantic ideals of the Victorian era. They would become the inspiration of the Filipino revolutionary movement.
At first, the goal was simply that Spaniards and indios be equal. The illustrados’ enemy was the colonial clergy, the friars of the religious orders, whose control of Filipino politics was almost total, and often abusive.
Rizal’s novels ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (1887) and ‘El Filibusterismo’ (1891) exposed the abuses of the clergy, leading to the founding, in 1892, of the Katipunan, a secret society that would become a revolutionary movement.
Ongpin the revolutionary
Roman Ongpin was friends with Dr. Jose Rizal and his family. I was told by my grandfather, Luis Ongpin y Roa, that when Rizal was executed, it was Roman Ongpin, among others, who claimed his body and his personal effects, and arranged for the burial at Paco cemetery, as the Rizal family were in hiding. The authorities were trying to arrest Dr. Jose Rizal’s brother, Paciano.
The exhibits in the Rizal Museum at Fort Santiago, including Rizal’s clothes, sculptures, artworks and notes, are some of these, donated by Roman’s son, Alfonso T. Ongpin, my great-grandfather.
Roman Ongpin was among Katipunan’s supporters and financiers. He was arrested twice, once during the Spanish period, when one of El ’82 delivery carts was found carrying rifles hidden in stacks of lumber, and bullets, concealed in cans of paint. He was arrested again, and jailed for seven months during the American occupation, when he was caught sending supplies to Aguinaldo accompanied by a note, which, (rather unwisely) he had signed in his own name.
Apparently, during his imprisonment by the Spaniards, he was treated relatively well—after all, he had been Teniente General de Mestizos. However, during this imprisonment by the Americans, he was treated quite badly. He emerged from that experience with an absolute loathing for Americans.
Roman admonished his children never to buy any American goods, and he refused to carry them in his store.
Roman remained an ardent patriot until the end of his life, in 1912, at the age of 67. He insisted that his children speak Tagalog (Spanish was their first language), always wore barong tagalog, and flew the Filipino flag from the windows of El 82 every June 12th, even when the Americans had declared this a subversive act.
The statue of Roman Ongpin, at the mouth of Ongpin street, has his back to the Binondo Cathedral, and he seems to be striding away from it, with some papers in his hand.
This is fitting, as in life, Roman Ongpin did turn his back on the Catholic Church to become a freemason, in protest against the Church’s abuse of the Filipino people. The street was named after him, after the First World War, and the statue was put up in 1974, through the efforts of the Ong family Association, who are all, in some way, related to us.
Somehow, while fathering 16 children, building a successful retail business, becoming a civic leader, pioneering double-entry accounting and fixed prices in the country, and supporting the revolution against Spain and the United States and getting imprisoned for it twice, Roman found the time to keep a long-standing mistress in Tondo, named Luisa.
Roman and Luisa had one child, Luisa Jr., born 1900. Luisa Ongpin Jr. married Pedrito Puato Reyes, one of the 17 children of Severino Reyes, the author who wrote for children under the pseudonym Lola Basyang, and also the protest theater masterpiece Walang Sugat.