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 ?
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.
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 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)
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 !