That ‘Wash SyCip heart’
Imagine the crowd’s surprise when Washington SyCip, the legend that loomed large in business and political circles, arrived in a gay impersonators’ nightclub with former President Cory Aquino in tow.
Or his feng shui consultant’s amusement when he suggested she fill her fortune cookies with “sexy” advice to make them sell.
How about a close friend’s exasperation when SyCip (a diabetic who loved sweets) once had a near shouting match with her over dinner when he sensed she wanted to take him home early so he could avoid dessert?
SyCip, or “Wash” to closest friends, was en route to New York on Oct. 7 when he died before the flight could make a stopover in Vancouver. He was 96.
The country’s business sector immediately lamented his death, mourning the passing of a captain of industry and extolling his achievements as one of the founders of top auditing firm SyCip, Gorres and Velayo and Company (SGV & Co.).
What remains unheralded was SyCip’s human, funny side.
This reporter witnessed this when SyCip was asked to model a beautifully embroidered barong for the high-end clothing line Silk Cocoon, owned and run by his good friends Jeannie Goulbourn and Frances Lim.
“Uhm, am I supposed to change here in front of you, ladies?” he asked naughtily after the barong was handed to him.
SyCip enjoyed platonic friendships with many women noted in their fields.
After SyCip received invitations to watch the concerts of Taylor Swift and Madonna, he invited Silk Cocoon vice president Frances Lim on both occasions.
Lim’s sister, designer Goulbourn, would say as the couple headed out: “Frances feels safe when she’s with you.” To which SyCip would reply, “How sure are you that I am safe?”
Feng shui consultant Marites Allen once joined SyCip’s group on a trip to China. She borrowed a waitress’ uniform to wear during dinner, hoping to surprise him. “You look so familiar,” he deadpanned as she approached.
Too old, too cool
SyCip was delighted when philanthropist Doris Magsaysay-Ho asked whether she could drop “Uncle” as her father told her, and just call him “Wash” because, she explained, “I am too old and you are too cool.”
Menchu Katigbak had a verbal row with SyCip over ice cream in Paris. He sensed during dinner that Katigbak was telling his daughter she wanted to bring him home before dessert.
“You are telling Vicky that you’ll take me home? I want dessert,” the old man demanded.
“I didn’t want him to go into a diabetic coma. He was already 94 then. He thought I was just giving him a bad time, but isn’t (caring about one’s health) how you show your love for a person?” Katigbak explained.
Vicky later reached out to her. “I know my dad loves your company,” the daughter said. “Thank you for putting him in his place when it was necessary,” she told Katigbak.
SyCip’s friends are understandably distraught at the news of his passing last week.
Magsaysay-Ho, heiress to a giant shipping line, described SyCip as “the most unparalleled mediator, so trusted that when families or shareholders fought, he was the go-to man. When you couldn’t find a solution, he found a way to build trust and bridge interests.”
SyCip attended public elementary and high schools in Manila and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in commerce, from the University of Santo Tomas when he was 18.
The name “Washington” was chosen by his father, Albino, cofounder of Chinabank, who was in the US capital when he learned that his wife had given birth to a son.
SyCip later obtained a masters in commerce with honors at Columbia University in New York. There SyCip enlisted in the US Army in 1942, after learning that his father was taken by Japanese soldiers occupying Manila. A year after, he became a naturalized American citizen.
This, however, did not lessen SyCip’s love for the Philippines, his friends said.
Allen once shared with SyCip her plan to obtain British passports for her children once she had moved to England with her family.
“Who will look after your business and your people? And what is wrong with a Philippine passport?” he asked, wondering whether she could still reconsider her plan.
“I understand you, as a mother, have to do these things. Take them to England, give them the best education, but please make sure to bring them back to the Philippines. And whatever skills they learn, make sure they contribute to Filipinos,” SyCip said.
Magsaysay-Ho said she became close to SyCip after he asked her to lead the Asia Society in the Philippines.
“He was very involved. The mission is to educate Americans about Asia and Asia about Americans. (Former US ambassador to Manila) Nicholas Platt became president of Asia Society in New York. He and Wash felt the Philippines needed to be better known in Asia and the United States. He asked me to set up with Joan Hubbard.”
She remembered SyCip as “this amazing person who loved this country so much and was always thinking how the Philippines could reach its greatest potential. He invested personal hope, time and energy to inspire people to really be proud of the Philippines. He was totally tireless when it came to that subject.”
SyCip will be remembered as part of the triumvirate that established the formidable auditing firm named after him, and partners Alfredo Velayo and Ramon J. Gorres.
Katigbak noted SyCip’s unselfishness and his willingness to share what he knew, whether among peers, subordinates or friends.
“When he knows you like something, he will mentor you. He was such a generous soul with anyone. Ask the people in SGV and the Cabinet secretaries (who began their careers there). (Former finance minister) Bobby Ongpin, (former finance secretary) Cesar Purisima, lahat ’yan. He helped them make it,” said Magsaysay-Ho.
Lim and Goulbourn said it was SyCip’s love for the barong that brought them together.
SyCip congratulated Goulbourn after seeing the embroidered national shirts that then president Fidel Ramos gave Bill Clinton and other visiting world leaders who attended the 1996 Asia-Pacific Economic Conference.
SyCip became a client soon after and would give referrals to ambassadors and businessmen.
“Wash said Filipinos should wear the barong proudly, even when they are abroad for formal occasions. If the Chinese have their traditional shirts and the Indians have their kurta, why don’t we wear our barong abroad,” Lim said.
She recalled how SyCip once wore a barong to a formal event in Paris. His host, a banker, loved it so much that SyCip ordered another to be sent to France.
“Wash also gave us complete freedom to do anything with his barong. The more colorful and unusual, the more he liked it. He was like a kid receiving a surprise. His face would light up,” Lim recalled.
Agile and active
This youthful quality was another thing that his friends would miss.
On their China trip, Allen said SyCip felt slighted that everyone in their group was given a suite with a bathtub except for him. Apparently, the simple shower stall in his room was meant for “the elderly or the handicapped.” (A bathtub would have caused access issues or even injuries.)
“I am not handicapped! Look, I’m agile and active,” he blurted out.
Katigbak remembered a similar episode. Over the phone, the two of them made plans to watch a concert by the New York Philharmonic in Paris.
Katigbak asked SyCip who would act as his caregiver and became adamant when he said she would have to do.
“I’m still strong, I’m only 94,” he reasoned.
Katigbak planned to call his daughter Vicky to ask that his driver join them, but SyCip got upset at the suggestion.
“Ayaw n’yang hahawakan mo ang kamay n’ya. I’ll hold his elbow and he’ll say, ‘Why, I’m strong enough!’” Katigbak said.
Wanting SyCip’s astute advice, Allen once brought him samples of fortune cookies she planned to sell for Chinese New Year. SyCip cracked the cookies, unfolded the paper slips containing horoscopes and winced.
“This is not gonna work,” he said. “Forget about those dragon amulets and lucky coins. That’s too bland and boring. Put sexy messages so people will buy them,” he said cheekily.
Since age was a non-issue, Lim and Goulbourn once brought SyCip to Club Mwah, the popular gay impersonators’ stage show venue in Mandaluyong.
“He enjoyed the show so much, marveling at the gay talents! We went back several times with businessmen and ambassadors in tow. Once, he had a secret guest and it turned out to be former president Cory Aquino,” Lim exclaimed.
The SGV staff heard SyCip was a big fan and once hired Club Mwah performers to perform in his birthday party in the office.
But more than what Goulbourn tagged as “that naughty twinkle” in Sycip’s eyes, the captain of industry left his mark among colleagues, friends and admirers as a man with a deep love of country, the American passport notwithstanding.
“We owe him for the effort, for that kind of fervor [he put] in our hearts, to cut across differences and build a greater country together. I really mean it. I will miss him so much. He saw no barriers in helping others, in helping the country. As he got older, he cared more deeply about the people,” Magsaysay-Ho said.
“Wash wanted so much for every Filipino to have an equal chance, he was proud he went to public school. We should all keep that kind of spirit—let’s call it the SyCip heart,” she added.
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