(The piece below was written for the official coffee table book in commemoration of the Centennial Founding Anniversary of my high school alma mater – Iloilo Central Commercial High School (ICCHS), now renamed Hua Siong College of Iloilo.)
The French have a term for having the right word to express something. They call it “mot juste” – “exact word” – the embodiment of the proverbial tip of one’s tongue. And that, I suppose, is precisely what defining Hua Siong is anything but. There are no exact words to define an institution that has stood ground for a venerable century, the spectator of a brutal war, a cruel fire, the iconic rise and fall of democracy, the advent of a new millennium. There are no exact words to describe her generations of alumni, the motley lot who have flown out of her nest and affirmed themselves as citizens of the world. Most importantly, there are no exact words to gauge her tradition of excellence, stalwartly championed and peerlessly untarnished even after a hundred years of existence.
To speak of Hua Siong merely as a place where I received my kindergarten, elementary and high school education would be a glaring understatement. In fact, the correspondence borders on being pied-a-terre, a second home. My grandfather, the late Gregorio Yu Sr., was Chairman of the Board of Trustees sometime in the 1980s, the bony but big-hearted old man who juggled official duties in between introducing his toddler grandson to colleagues in school. That scene, I believe, fondly remains etched in perpetual wisdom: Toothless gums and a generous smile, crisps of red and gold crepe paper, a battalion of studentry cheering their hearts out as an entourage of distinguished guests entered the pearly red gates. So goes the funny anecdote that I was mistaken for one of the guests, and was even dubbed the progenitor of the mythical Shaolin with my nearly-shaven head!
Hua Siong was certainly privy to my formative years in life, bearing witness as I reached milestone after milestone. As a wide-eyed preschooler, I cavorted with a lovely peacock dancer from China and portrayed someone else’s little son in a play. These eventually paved the way for more ample opportunities and achievements. My thirteen-year stay in ICCHS allowed me to expand horizons and harness hidden talents – joining interschool competitions, assuming the editorship of The Chain, being part of the historic Constitutional Commission, giving politics a shot during my stint as City Mayor of Rotary Club’s Boys and Girls Week.
I sometimes look back and wonder how these years had truly been an incomparable experience. More than simply being overwhelmed with a soaring, sweeping sense of nostalgia, our Hua Siong education stretched far beyond the confines of the measly four walls of the classroom. We recall her rallying motto of “Diligence, Sincerity, Loyalty, Courage” – the unseen conscience that pervaded everyone’s hearts and minds, the much-respected reminder to give it your all, do what is right, stick to your side, and face the music without fear. As if somehow breathing life to the slogan itself, activities inside Hua Siong translated to service personified: We took required scouting subjects in the elementary grades, went through the “hok bu” system from first to third year high school, and had regular CAT instruction in fourth year high school, the emphasis on discipline and industry rubbing off quite handsomely.
The enormity of this outstanding legacy goes on further to include the awareness of a dual heritage, as only the second oldest Chinese school in the Philippines can. We left Hua Siong enlightened persons with a heightened social consciousness, courtesy of an intensive Chinese, English, and Filipino curriculum that highlighted Buwan Ng Wika as much as the Mid-Autumn Festival. What took place was even more significant: the seamless integration of Chinese and Filipino values that guided us to our rightful place under the sun. We learned the invaluable ropes and the myriad highs and lows that came with being at the crossroads of two equally rich cultures, exposing and enabling us to appreciate a culture that is uniquely Chinese-Filipino.
Our celebration of Hua Siong’s centennial means saluting the sterling individuals who have selflessly played a crucial role in the school’s robust existence – from a fledgling barely holding her own in 1912 to a defiant bastion of anti-Japanese resistance, razed to the ground in the 1966 fire and reborn from the ashes, cruising onwards to meet the challenges of the 21st century. In particular, we honor our teachers, the unsung heroes of the classroom, relentless warriors in the crusade against ignorance and indifference. I remember most vividly the late Mr. Ty Eng Liong, hailed as one of the best Chinese teachers of all time. Out of the corner of my mind’s eye there he stood, the gentle giant greeting students at the gate during dismissal time, his stature a fitting semblance to his reputation as a noteworthy pillar of Hua Siong.
With the auspices of time, these pillars have only grown stronger, taller, and sturdier, and the school transformed into a gleaming oasis of pedagogy with a spanking new building, a swanky elevator, and a sea of unfamiliar faces. But looking beyond this pristine exterior, I shall always choose to see the Hua Siong I knew and loved, the enduring vestiges of yesteryears quietly tugging at the senses and the catacombs of memory lane: Peeking hues of rusting red-and-white paint, strict bespectacled teachers roaming the corridors, black-and-white computer screens that evolved in sync with my journey from youngster to teenager.
In the same way, I would quite like to believe that for every Hua Siong student nurtured under the vigilant eyes of his Alma Mater, this journey shall always be fashioned out of the same substance every well-lived life is made of – a saga of unforgettable moments, of unending departures and returns, of the vibrant intertwining of memories and experiences that have molded me into what I am today: a product of her long, epic past; a testament to her glorious present; and hopefully, a part of her expectant future.
Who knows? “Mot juste” might just get to mean a hundred years of excellence, no less.