Berg’s Department Store on the Escolta

 

Escolta in the Fifties. I keep remembering those times. Was it a magical era or was it because I was a kid and perhaps everything held a sense of wonder for me ?

courtesy of J. Tewell

courtesy of J. Tewell

I went to school from 7:30am to 12:30pm and being an only child of two working parents, I found that I would entertain myself by wandering down the Escolta, Dasmariñas, Sta. Cruz and surrounding areas, killing time until our store, the Gem Gift Shop, closed up for the evening. That was a lot of time for a kid to spend by himself but then again, there were a lot of things to see and a lot of adventures to be had. I recall wandering down by the Pasig River by the Muelle de la Industria and seeing some of the boats and sometimes a ship or two, cruising their way west towards the bay. Most of the time was spent in the many department or specialty stores that abounded in that area.

Escolta 1953-Insular Life bldg (courtesy J.Tewell)

Escolta 1953-Insular Life bldg in the background (courtesy J.Tewell)

One of my favorite stores was Berg’s. It featured everything a modern department store should have…including toys ! It was only recently that I made the acquaintance of the owner’s daughter, Evelyn Berg Empie. Evelyn is herself an author of her autobiography, “A Child in the Midst of Battle: One Family’s Struggle for Survival in War-Torn Manila”, 2001 (available on Amazon.com). In addition, I was also lucky to find the family of the later owner of Berg’s – the Sylianteng family. Both were so generous in providing me history and photographs which I’ve included here.

Ernest Berg

Ernest Berg was born in Germany in 1901 and was the eldest of six children living just outside Cologne. After surviving WWI, Ernest’s father, Mathias, was killed in an accident. As the eldest, Ernest assumed the responsibility for his family’s support. Germany was emerging from the chaos of war when Ernest, 21 and his brother, Alfred, 19, decided to leave home for America where they thought there was work to be found. The brothers hopped on their motorcycle with attached sidecar and crossed the continent towards the Middle East. They worked their way eastward, subsidized by writing articles of their travels for their hometown newspaper. Eventually, they found a freighter in India headed for the U.S. that made a stop in Manila.  “But when they steamed into Manila Bay, Ernest was so taken with the warm tropical setting and the beautiful sunsets – or perhaps only because he had run out of money – that he postponed his passage to America for two decades.” – Evelyn Berg Empie

Ernest Berg stood out among the local crowd. Although average height, he had blond hair and blue eyes and soon acquired a deep tropical tan. His confidence and bearing attracted a lovely Spanish / American mestiza by the name of Fe Mandelbaum. They married in 1928, he was 28 and she was 19.

Quite the entrepreneur, Berg started his first business, the Red Star Auto Stores which quickly grew to a chain of 32 branches that spread throughout the Philippines.

“My dad realized that if he needed a spark plug and couldn’t find one, he’d have to wait till the ship arrived with supplies.  His favorite saying was, “If Mohammed won’t go to the mountain, then the mountain must come to Mohammed.” – Evelyn Berg Empie

Berg would import his parts inventory from Western Auto Stores out of Milwaukee. Their batteries featured a red star as its logo, so he thought he would name his stores by that name which later proved to be a detriment. During the occupation, the Japanese assumed the Red Star was somehow affiliated with the Russians, a U.S. ally, and took him to Ft. Santiago three times for questioning and was severely beaten in the process. (Photo below show members of the infamous Kempeitai, Japan’s secret service)

Below, steps leading to one of the dungeons in Ft. Santiago where many unfortunate souls were interrogated, tortured, imprisoned or murdered.

But by the mid-1930s, the Escolta had grown from its humble beginnings to the premier shopping district in Manila. It was filled with offices of professionals: dentists, lawyers, optometrists and of course retail stores such as I. Beck’s, Heacock’s, Riu Hermanos, and Estrella del Norte. And within the newly built Crystal Arcade, the Manila Stock Exchange, more offices and retail shops. Business was booming and Ernest Berg wanted to ride along on that wave.  The Lyric Music House in the Perez-Samanillo building vacated, leaving that attractive corner location of Escolta and Calle David available. Quick to realize the retail potential, Ernest and Alfred opened a new department store called Berg’s. The Perez-Samanillo building is partially hidden on the right where the Lyric sign is displayed (see below).

The store was beautiful, full of glass cases and shelves.  On one of the shelves in the toy section, I saw a doll that was so beautiful I thought I needed to have it.  I asked my dad if I could take her home.  Daddy asked me if I had the money to pay for it.  I still remember how shocked I was.  “But daddy, you own the store so the doll belongs to you.  Can’t you give it to me?”  Then and there I was privy to a dissertation on profit and loss, and inventory control.  I told him I wanted to work at the store so I could get money to buy the doll.  That Christmas, which was 1939 when I was 7 years old, daddy put me in charge of the Christmas card section.  He pulled up a footstool to the cash register, showed me how to use it, I knew enough subtraction to make change, and I had my first job as a salesgirl.  I remember a young man coming up to me and saying he needed a Christmas card for his girlfriend.  The two of us started reading cards until he found the perfect one.” – Evelyn Berg Empie

Berg’s was a family-run business. Ernest’s brother had settled in Manila with his German wife when their sister Marianne arrived by ship from Europe.  “My father had told Marianne that if she learned English she could come over and manage the Ladies Ready Wear Dept. of Berg’s. Having ready-made dresses was quite an innovation in those days, where even in America, women for the most part, had their clothes made to order.” – Evelyn Berg Empie

The fears of Japanese aggression and impending war were realized when Japan attacked the Philippines on December 8th, 1941. Being a German citizen, Berg was allowed to continue his business while Evelyn’s maternal grandfather “Cheri” Mandelbaum, an American architect and draftsman who worked with Architect William Parsons, was interned with other Allied civilians at the Santo Tomas Internment Camp.

 

 

(Photo left is of Escolta during the Japanese occupation. c 1942)

“What my dad sold in his store is unclear to me.  I know one thing that was a big hit were the “bayongs”  he made out of left-over seat cover material he had in stock at the Red Star Auto Stores.” -Evelyn Berg Empie

The Battle of Manila wreaked destruction on what was once “The Pearl of the Orient”. The beautiful Escolta with its fine stores and buildings were almost totally destroyed, the Crystal Arcade laid to ruin. The photo above clearly shows the Perez-Samanillo building on the right now a burnt-out shell.

We were repatriated to the U.S. in July of 1945.  My American grandfather (Francis Cheri Mandelbaum) and his Spanish wife (Carmen Romero), my grandmother, came in May.  They were sent ahead of us because he had been a POW in Santo Tomas first and then Remedios Hospital, and as an American he got precedence.  Daddy stayed behind to build up his business.  The plan was that when it was operational and successful he would sell and come to the States to be with his family.  Destiny decreed otherwise.  My parent’s divorced.” – Evelyn Berg Empie

The years of reconstruction were hard on everyone, especially those trying to restart their businesses. After a few years, Ernest called it quits and found another entrepreneur to carry on the Berg’s tradition, Mr. Sy Lian Teng.

Sy Lian Teng

 Sy Lian Teng was born in 1906 in Amoy, China.  At the age of 13, Sy was summoned by his father to join him in Manila to help in his sari-sari store business. After a few years, both eager and ambitious, Sy went on to work for the owner of Cosmos Bazar, founded in 1926 by a Mr. Lim.  Sy’s sense of customer service impressed Mr. Lim so much that he offered Sy half ownership in the store and later, Sy bought out the business when the owner retired.  The young Mr. Sy’s career in retailing blossomed.

 

 

In 1930, at the age of 24, Sy married Lee Siok Keng and they had nine children.

 

Sy continued his import business during the Japanese occupation but eventually closed the store.  In 1945, Sy’s brother, Hua San was captured by the Japanese and never returned. Fearing additional reprisal from the Japanese, Sy was advised to leave Manila with his oldest son, Guillermo. Tragedy took its toll as the remaining members of Sy’s family, his wife and eight children, perished in a fire during the Battle of Manila. The unfortunate Mr. Sy not only lost his home, his store but also his entire family.

He left Manila for his childhood home in China to take a break and somehow re-energize himself. He was introduced to the Methodist religion and was quite devout and active in church affairs throughout his remaining years.

Sy returned to Manila and with the help of many friends, he began to rebuild his life and the Cosmos Bazar. He fell in love with his bookkeeper, who had been a dear friend to his wife and family. Sy and Emerenciana Antonio Soyangco married in 1949 and had four children.

In 1951, Sy bought the Berg Department Store from Ernest Berg. The Fifties and Sixties would see the Escolta district come back to life although not with its former sparkle and renown. Still, Sy enjoyed the glory days of Berg’s.

The Fifties were years of building. The Philippines were newly independent. The infrastructure from the Thirties was gone – many of the powerhouse politicians and businessmen had either been killed, passed on from old age or repatriated back to their former countries.

But Manila struggled to keep up with the modern times. The rising middle class was now able to afford imported goods. Anything U.S. made was valued although Filipino goods were starting to be produced that would eventually compete with stateside products.

 

Below – photos of Sy Lian Teng at Berg’s.

It was still a family-run business. Emerenciana, Roberto and his wife, Lorraine, worked at the store. In addition, Sy continued his business relationship with another import firm with the Pellicer family. Doña Rosario Balmori vda. de Pellicer is shown below (her husband was the late Don Juan Puig Pellicer, Sr. — the fellow in the framed photograph on the desk), with Sy and several of her sons. The Pellicer family firm Juan P. Pellicer & Co. was famous for the Verbena line of cosmetic products, Povil perfumes, Myrurgia perfumes, and Dana perfumes in the Philippines since before the war. In another unfortunate tragic story, Doña Rosario and 2 of her 4 sons perished during the war. A surviving son Don Luis Puig Pellicer y Balmori, Sr., a famous heavyweight boxer who fought under the name “Luis Logan,” was able to resurrect the family perfume and cosmetics business after the war under the name Lupel, Inc. (source: Paquito dela Cruz)

(L-R) unknown, Mr. Sy, unknown, Paquito Pellicer, Doña Rosario Pellicer, and Juan Pellicer.

In 1979, upon hearing that the First United Building (formerly Perez Samanillo Building) was up for sale, Sy decided to make a bid for it because he didn’t want new landlords raising his rent spuriously.  He bought half of the Ground Floor (where Berg’s was located), the 3rd, 4th and 5th floors from the family of Cory Cojuangco Aquino.

He was known for treating his employees fairly and like family although Sy later struggled with labor problems and in January 1982, Sy decided to close Berg’s.  He still maintained his office in the First United Building and rented out the Ground Floor space.

Sy’s wife, Emerenciana passed away in 2002.  Sy passed away in 2004 at the Chinese age of 100. They are both survived by their children Guillermo, Clarita, Gloria, Roberto and Caesar.

The Cosmos Bazar is still under operations, located at 571 Quintin Paredes. Lorraine and Roberto Sylianteng have been quite active in many projects to revitalize the Escolta district.

 

Lorraine Sylianteng provided me with this great story proving once again that somehow we are all connected via “six degrees of separation”.

“While at Berg’s, Sy had a picture of a mestiza lady in sepia print.  When Sy closed Berg’s, the picture followed him to his office at Room 326 of the First United Building.  Later on, they transferred office to Room 309 and the picture still followed them.  Lorraine asked Sy whose picture it was.  Sy told her that it probably was the daughter of one of his German/Jewish managers.  The picture had a missive: “Dearest Daddy with much love Evelyn April 1948.”

Roberto and Lorraine now continue to manage the First United Building.  They continue to attend meetings to revive Escolta.  At one such meeting, Roberto was asked about the history of Berg’s. Roberto Googled Ernest Berg and saw the name of Evelyn who wrote a book and said that her father was Ernest Berg.   At that point, Lorraine thought the name was familiar.  She ran to the picture of the lady and indeed it said Evelyn!  She searched for an email address and wrote to Evelyn that night. Evelyn replied.  Roberto, Lorraine and Evelyn connected and met each other in LA and have since kept up a friendship.” – Lorraine Sylianteng

My thanks again to Evelyn Berg Empie and Roberto and Lorraine Sylianteng for their invaluable help in sharing their history and photos !

As always, I welcome your comments and thoughts. If you have your own personal stories and photos, please do share them with me. I’m proud to say that this blog has managed to connect quite a few people with family, similar interests, and friends. So, you never know when that distant connection may come up !  Write me at: ManilaNostalgia@gmail.com

Cheers ! Lou Gopal

Cheers ! Lou Gopal

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Berg’s Department Store on the Escolta

  1. Lou,

    Excellent page!

    Fred

  2. ramon zaldarriaga says:

    Wow ! Another bombshell of memorabilia. I used to wonder thru the same area in the mid to late 50’s and yes it was a magical area and ERA ! On my last trip to Manila we took the Pasig river ferry and landed at the Escolta landing. What a disappointment.
    The place was run down, and nothing left of the old magical place that I remember.
    Again thanks for sharing.

  3. lito ligon says:

    Very informative again, Lou! Two Thumbs up!

  4. JBracken says:

    Hello Mr. Lou, thank you for your time sharing the most interesting and memorable story of every corner of Manila in our page. Mabuhay po kayo and God Bless <3

  5. Guido Advincula says:

    I remember Bergs in Escolta. Escolta St. then was quite a place to go shopping. My father’s law office was in one of the buildings in Escolta. My brother and I used to walk about before meeting my Father and Mother in his office and then proceeded to one of the restaurants nearby. I also remember the photographers talking pictures of the passersby and handing a slip of paper to collect their pictures – and I remember the sweepstakes vendors as well.

    As they say Lou, thanks for the memories.

    Guido

  6. Larry Ng says:

    Hey Lou
    I guess you’ve gone through many of the prominent Escolta businesses. Too bad we’ve don’t seem to have much info or pics on the smaller shops like MY San Cafe, LR Villar Records, Erlanger & Galinger, Squires Bingham or Cadwallader Brothers on Plaza Santa Cruz.

    Maybe it’s time to do the Manila Hotel – a very rich trove of pics and memories are available. I recall you said you would do it later when we did the Ermita series because it deserved a file of its own.

    First envisioned by city planner Daniel Burnham, the Manila Hotel originally was built to accommodate the pax from passenger liners which docked at Pier Seven, touted as “The Longest Pier in the World.” Bellboys trundled their luggage in the short walk from the pier to the plush hotel. And when those passengers boarded the ships for the return voyage, the Philippine Constabulary Band serenaded them with aloha music. (This was the same band that provided free concerts at the bandstand on the Luneta on Sundays.) Paper streamers provided the last contact from departing visitors with their tearful relatives and friends on shore. In those days, any visit to the Orient required a “must do” stopover at Manila, the Pearl of the Orient Seas.

    Among the personalities that stayed at the hotel was General Douglas MacArthur and his family. Invited by President Quezon in 1935 to be military advisor to the government, his salary package included free accommodation at the hotel. MacArthur at first wanted to reside at Malacanang Palace but when told this wasn’t legally possible, he was given a three bedroom penthouse atop the Manila Hotel. This included food of course. His favorite dish was called “El Mero Envolvio en Hojas de Platano,” which simply was steamed lapu-lapu wrapped in banana leaves with calamansi sauce.

    The general’s expenses at the hotel were so great that President Quezon was consulted. He decided that to justify the costs, the General would be given the honorary title of General Manager. MacArthur, however, ignored the figurehead status and took control of the hotel management.

    During the battle to retake Manila, the American troops attacking the Japanese entrenched in the Manila Hotel were surprised to see General MacArthur on the frontline of Ermita. In his memoir, the General said, ”I was anxious to rescue as much as I could of my home atop the Manila Hotel.” Another account relates that the General climbed up the stairs to the penthouse with “a .45 caliber pistol in hand.” A picture however shows him entering the penthouse unarmed.
    Sadly, the General found the penthouse wrecked and his prized possessions, two Japanese vases which had been given by the Japanese Emperor to his father, shattered to pieces. He later commented, “It was not a pleasant moment . . . I was tasting to the last acid dregs the bitterness of a devastated and beloved home.”

    Ironically, this was the same feeling of thousands of Manilans who had also lost their homes in the brutal devastation of Manila.

    • Ringo says:

      L.R Villar Records was not a small shop during its heydays in the 50’s thru mid-70’s. It was not only a record store but the main wholesale operation of its recording business. The second floor of that original store served as one of its offices for the wholesale operation and located at the back of the store was a door (hidden from the general public) leading to its large recording studio, certainly one of the biggest recording studio during the 60’s. The original space was probably decreased in size during the 80’s when it was winding down its operation due to family decision and obviously from competition.

  7. abby barata says:

    hi mr. gopal,

    since the social media boom unearthed tons of nostalgic photos of yesteryear’s, it’s refreshing to see them again and a whole new generation starting to really appreciate what it’s like living in those golden age, well at least through pictures and stories like yours.

    i thought i was the one writing the article up to the point wherein i wandered about escolta while waiting for my parents after school at de la salle taft. my parents worked at bpi in cervantes branch and my mom at pacific bank along rosario st. so i waited at berg’s most of the time since my mom’s sister nita abad (deceased) looked after me there.

    but when you started talking about the rich and deeper history of berg’s, that’s when i knew, the limit of my story ended at the second floor toy department which i was so lucky to be allowed to play around there – nita abad was an employee at berg’s for a long time in the second floor admin offices of berg’s!

    now talk about the six degrees of separation.

    while i was reading the articlefurther, you mentioned cosmos bazar (plus a picture)… that really gave me goosebumps since my mom’s other sister lily abad-isla is STILL working at cosmos bazar!

    i just wanted to share my little bit of escolta/binondo story since it’s so uncanny that our stories had parallels to it. thank you for posting. i wish there was a book that collected these stories along with pictures so the younger generation will not miss out on beautiful things like these.

    best regards,
    abby

    • lougopal says:

      Thank you for sharing your story as well. It intrigues me that perhaps we might have run into each other at Berg’s at their toy dept. at so some time. Down towards the Capitol Theater was a small magazine shop where I used to spend a lot of time reading their comic selection, which probably irritated the owner I’m sure. Classics Illustrated was one of my favorites. One afternoon, the time got away from me and my mom was frantic thinking I had gotten lost or worse, kidnapped. When she finally found me, she led me back to the store, dragging me back by my arm. I received a sound thrashing that afternoon. Haven’t read a Classics Illustrated since.

  8. Ohhbebe Bernard says:

    Thanks you very much Sir. Very informative.

  9. Alexa says:

    I love history but I have never been this interested until now. My grandmother told me that Escolta was really beautiful, that she loved visiting this place. I wish I could time travel and see Escolta in its beautiful, magnificent, and clean state 🙁

    I added your blog to my bookmarks. Cheers to you sir!

    • lougopal says:

      Interestingly, I was never much interested in history as a student. It was only when I started to piece the history together with places I’ve seen or heard about that got me going. I’m glad you like my website and thanks for writing.

  10. rod pujante says:

    I wandered the same streets in the mid 60’s to mid 70’s. My dad bought Esquire Barbershop on David St. at around the same time. There were film studio’s in the same building so our barbers ended up as extras on film. When DBP and PNB moved to Makati, the decline of Escolta started as the rest of the banks followed suit. My dad had to sell as his clientele, the bankers, relocated.

  11. ANNA MARIA ZIALCITA PEREYRA says:

    I wasn’t born yet when my mom worked for Mr. Sy at Berg’s Department Store. I remember her talking endlessly about her experiences working there and how gracious Mr. Sy and his family were to their employees. I was actually just checking whether there are other people who actually remembered Berg’s as much as she did, when I chanced upon your article. The pictures you included, have put a building and a face behind the stories i’ve heard as a child, thank you.

    Anna Pereyra

  12. Da Borj says:

    I remember Mr. Sy Lian Teng and his wife were among the generous members of Central United Methodist Church at TM Kalaw, Manila (the first Protestant church in the Philippines). From childhood, I can still remember Mr Sy participating actively as one of the “Three Kings” during Christmas Pageant (Dec. 24) at Central United Methodist Church together with my father, David C. Borje (columnist and political adviser) and Macario Ramos (first Grand Master of the Supreme Council of Order of DeMolay in the Philippines) . Whenever the hymn, We Three Kings is being played, the three will march along the aisles towards baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, near the altar. They will remain standing beside the manger until the end of the pageant. They continued portraying the character for many years until their death. My father died 2006 two years later after the death of Mr Sy. while Mr. Ramos died earlier in 1995. I know there are many stories to tell about Mr Sy Lian Teng from the members of his home church, Central United Methodist Church. He was one of the most unforgettable figures of the church, since its a historical church.

  13. Sal Estrada says:

    Lou, I loved the beautiful story of the Berg’s department store and the photos (talk about Classics Illustrated)! My dad used to work at the FGU building during the early ’50s and we would be picked up at DLS Taft after 3:15 dismissal and swing by to pick him up before going home. We sometimes would kill time and go with my mom to shop at the Escolta stores. On my unlucky days I would be a reluctant patient of Dr. Conception, a white-haired dentist, on the 3rd floor of one of the Escolta buildings next to Berg’s. Thanks again for the memories!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

BPWpi

Please type the text above: