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The Queens’ Gambit: The empresses of the great Estates

By LISA GUERRERO NAKPIL, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 26, 2022 5:00 am

Everyone loves an origin story. And whether you’re Spider-Man, Anna Delvey (the fake German heiress who conned Manhattan’s elite) or a plate of Oysters Rockefeller, you must have the right one.

It’s that heady mixture that needs a weighty surname, fabled wealth (or political position) and then a reputation for taste—or, at least, the wherewithal to acquire it.

From its dining tables to its Tuscan-plastered walls, Manila continues to be dazzled by famous families: Until her untimely passing, for example, the best desserts came from Josine Elizalde’s “Wonder Woman Cakes” (so named because she was a dead ringer for both Lynda Carter and Sigourney Weaver).

Doña Nene Quimson beside her Westendorp portrait

Then there are the Yulo fettuccine, Enchang’s asparagus sandwiches, and the tantalizing siopitos produced by a certain household in Forbes Park only for its fellow elite.

Do you belong or are you not on the Christmas list for the city’s best fruitcake from a very distinguished lady? (Let’s not even go into the correct clan’s ensaimadas, it would entail naming all the Stepford wives!)

Doña Nene Tuason Quimson in Valentino by Betsy Westendorp

Once in a great while, treasures from a grand dame—or, as Augusto “Toto” M.R. Gonzalez III puts it, “a lady of the first water” such as Doña Nene Tuason Quimson—appear on the auction scene. Gonzalez says he had to ask permission from her daughter to share the delicious vignette of Doña Nene being stopped at JFK Airport customs because of a box overflowing with diamond jewelry.

The lavish interior of the Quimson home with the Luna on the wall

“What do you expect?” she snapped. “I’m a rich woman.”

Quimson, who was a Tuason twice over, could never have too much of a good thing. When your social circle includes one of the wealthiest men in the world, aka Bill Gates, you’ll need to dress the part. Doña Nene was said to be one of his favorite bridge partners when both happened to be in New York City.

“Odalisca (Odalisque)” a harem girl, by Juan Luna from the Quimson collection

The Tuason legend is that, as a reward for services rendered to the Spanish crown during the British invasion of 1762, the grateful governor-general allowed their ancestor—a diligent trader with the name Son Tua—to lay claim on all the land that his horse could cover in a single day. Gonzalez wickedly adds that the other part of the legend is that “the shrewd Son Tua stationed many horses in various locations in the lands he wanted. And as he switched steeds over and over, he galloped through vast lands in what are now Quezon City and Marikina. He, thus, covered thousands of hectares on that single day. He would later Hispanize his name to Antonio Maria Tuason. The Spanish king himself would eventually raise the Tuasons as the only Filipino family at the time to 'hidalguia,' or nobility; they would be the only ones of Chinese origin, in fact, to receive that honor.”

Doña Nene’s home in Ascot, just one of her many international residences

Suitably, Doña Nene had houses and apartments in London and Ascot, as well as in Boca Raton and New York. These genteel addresses were decorated with the best Filipino art, from the old masters Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Fernando Amorsolo, as well as the new: Lee Aguinaldo, BenCab, and Romulo Galicano.

Luna’s “Odalisca”—a harem girl from the Sultan’s palace—is from the fertile ground of his Roman period, by the way, with the same origin story as “Death of Cleopatra” and “Spoliarium.” (Incidentally, the “Cleopatra” can now be viewed at the Prado museum in Madrid, where it has returned to its rightful place on public exhibit after several decades of exile in the cavernous museum basement.)

A wall of Betsy Westendorp bouquets from the Quimson collection

In addition, the Tuason “caryatid,” one of the lost goddesses of Escolta, is also one of the exquisite women featured, while Doña Nene’s wall-sized Betsy Westendorp is as epic as they come.

The Tuason-Quimson array is now part of the León Gallery preview week, as a run-up for its Asian Cultural Council 2022 Auction, on Saturday, March 5, at 2 p.m.

Fashion world queen Criselda Lontok

The fashion world’s own queen, Criselda Lontok, is also represented. A painting that belonged to her father and that discreetly decorated her private Makati residence is none other than a Hernando R. Ocampo, painted in the same year that this pioneering figure organized the first Neo-Realist art exhibition at the Manila Hotel.

“JC” by Hernando R. Ocampo, from the Lontok collection

The Lontoks, of course, are from the bedrock that built the old town of Lipa, a city so rich from coffee profits in the 1880s that the people would light their way with peso bills as lanterns and stud the heels of their velvet slippers with diamonds. Criselda would credit her father, Gaudencio Lontok, for her instinct for style. He was a natty dresser and would never allow another car to overtake him on the roads of Batangas, so confident was he in his pride of place.

Doña Aurora “Nena” Tambunting immortalized by Amorsolo

Not to be outdone are the empresses of the Tambunting family: Doña Aurora “Nena” Tambunting likewise reigned over a business empire. Her husband, Don Antonio, had inherited the Casa Agencia de Tambunting, founded in1906, from his father, Don Ildefonso, and made it a roaring concern.

Doña Nena was well known for her various charitable causes, including the building of churches. At one time, she donated in one fell swoop 16 hectares of land in Muntinlupa, for which she received the personal thanks of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Her portrait by Amorsolo is part of the highlights of the auction.

Of course, as my favorite foodie (who snootily demands anonymity and cannot be named) swears, the best revenge is reinvention. And like that once and future millionaire’s dish, Oysters Rockefeller, your origin story can be remade into the even more luxurious Oysters Vanderbilt by superstar chef Daniel Boulud for the newest high-rise in Manhattan. Now there’s a new Gilded Age for you in the making.