The Bank of the Philippine Islands has been in existence for 160 years, and is likely to continue its trajectory for two more centuries, at least. Its first branch in Cebu opened in 1924.
The building, along classic Greek lines, is still standing along Magallanes Street. Its stability attests to the honesty and ability of Agustin Jereza who erected it along with other similar buildings that remain. They survived the bombings during World War II.
My mother’s sister Maria Luisa Rodriguez was the secretary of the bank’s manager, Señor Sainz. She often recalled the day in 1942 when the face of Cebu was changed forever. A bombing raid left most of the city in ruins.
She and Sr. Sainz heard the explosions and together they took refuge in the bank’s vault. Indeed, a bomb was dropped in the bank’s back portion but little damage was done. The employees were unscathed, perhaps only uncomfortable with ear ache.
For my aunt, the trauma was the contrast the day offered. She had been chauffeur-driven to work and she had to find her way home on foot, wearing high heels at that. Everywhere around were inert corpses, the moaning wounded, those scurrying here and there like her, and buildings in flames.
BPI’s invulnerability became part of its legend. After the war, everyone wanted to have a safety deposit box there. Those were quieter times, and Magallanes Street the center of Cebu’s business life. Call it social, too, something like Manila’s Escolta of that same era.
If you lived uptown and took a jeepney from the Lahug, Mango or Capitol areas, you hopped in, told the driver “banco,” and he’d drop you at the marble steps of Banco de las Islas Filipinas. Which is what many of us called it then. There, you either made a deposit or a withdrawal.
If the latter, the next procedures would be to stroll down Magallanes Street and shop at the various Chinese bazaars all the way to the bifurcation on Borromeo Street. From 10 a.m.-12 noon, you met everyone you knew in and out of the textile stores, the perfume shops, the general merchandise shops or the grocery stores.
Many of these memories came to mind the afternoon BPI inaugurated its museum in Cebu on this site. Present were Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala and Aurelio Montinola, board chair and president, respectively, of BPI.
Assisting them in the unveiling of a commemorative plaque were Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia and Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama, whose office at City Hall is just across. In between is the iconic kiosk housing Magellan’s cross and in the same block is the Basilica del Santo Niño.
The blessing rites were officiated by Bishop Julito Cortes and Msgr. Carlito Puno, who is very active with the archdiocese’s museum in the Cebu Cathedral grounds, just a block away from BPI.
First person we saw on arrival was Jojo Bersales, who helped design the Cebu BPI museum. He said it is the only museum established within the premises of a commercial bank in full operation.
Jojo and Dada Trillo of BPI Manila led us into the familiar interiors. Here was Gil Verallo watching over his collection of gold coins with the profile of Isabel II as Reina de las Isles Filipinas. He lent them for exhibit for just two hours.
We greeted Jun and Odette Jereza, grandchildren of BPI’s Cebu constructor Agustin Jereza. With them was lawyer Alicia Bathan, whose law office is on the building’s second floor, the same locale as the office of the late Chief Justice Marcelo Fernan.
“Shall we go in?” they asked, leading us to a door where Jojo has set up a petit art gallery. Fourteen eminent Cebu artists were asked to display their works, led by Romulo Galicano and Kimsoy Yap. The rest are, in alphabetical order: Gabriel Abellana, Public “Boy” Briones, Wilfredo “Boboy” Cañete, Felix Catarata, Ramon de Dios, Carly Florido, Dennis “Sio” Montera, Karl Roque, Facundo Tallo, Javy Villacin and Pepe Valladolid.
Glimpsed about: Heritage architect Melva Java; Fr. Ernesto Javier, SJ and Fr. Jason Dy, SJ; Louella Alix; Arsenio Pacaña of the Cebu City Cultural and Historical Affairs Commission; and Deidre Fischer, superintendent of the Cebu International School.
More glimpses: Austria’s Honorary Consul General Arcadio Alegrado, Carmen Rodriguez de Martinez with daughter Josie M. Sala, Lorenza Ford, Chinggay Utzurrum, Bobit Avila, Amado Go, Julina Muertegui, Teresin Mendezona beside Mariquita Yeung and Meren Gepilano.
Among the items on display are an original bank journal of 1855, the document of acquisition of the land from the Augustinian Fathers in 1931, building plans, coins, bank notes and a horde of memorabilia, some from the Spanish era. More recent is the 1981 original Automated Teller Machine which BPI pioneered.
Someone reading this over my shoulder as I write urges me to tell an anecdote about the bank vault. Many years ago, I was inside arranging some documents in my safety deposit box. From the door to the vault, a cousin of mine bellowed for me to hurry as she was going in.
I shot back that there were two other cubicles and I was not secretive about what I was doing. She came in, gleefully saying she was soon leaving for abroad. She had arranged for a limousine to take her, leisurely, from Rome to Madrid passing through the Riviera.
Did she need her best jewels for this “paseo?” No, she shook her head. “I have come for my best dentures. This is where I keep them.” I can tell you more.
Another time, another relative found me at the vault. She wanted to show me what she kept in her box. I expected a fabulous collection of jewelry since she always wore very good pieces. I was surprised to see little things, trinkets even, albeit all of beautiful design and intrinsic simplicity.
“These are my treasures, things I received as a child and teenager from my parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and some one very special a long, long time ago,” she said. “I come here once in a while to remember a very happy childhood, and most of all my first love. When we broke up, I wanted to return what he had given me but he said to keep them as remembrances. And so I have.”