Friday, June 23, 2006

Memoirs of an Expat

While surfing the internet, I chanced upon a book about two brothers of Swiss nationality who worked in the Western Visayas region from 1919 to 1935. Entitled “Meine Lieben: Swiss Letters from the Philippines,” the book was published jointly by the Ayala Foundation, Inc. and Filipinas Heritage Foundation. For a limited period, the Ayala Foundation permits internet browsers to download the book. The book is a collection of letters written by the two Swiss brothers about their thoughts and impressions about Ilonggo society in the 1920s-30s.

The older brother, Albert Irminger, worked as an employee of A.C. Lutz & Co. (later Lutz & Zuellig and then F.E. Zuellig, Inc.), a Swiss trading firm operating in Manila and Iloilo City at that time. Albert arrived in Manila from Zurich in 1919 and was assigned by his company to its Iloilo City branch a year later. His younger brother, Hans Irminger, arrived in 1920 and worked as a sugar plantation manager (encargado) for Walti & Hablutzel & Co., a Swiss company which owns several sugarcane plantations in Negros Occidental. Hans managed two plantations for his employers, Hacienda Canlaon and Hacienda Camansi located near Kabankalan.

In present-day terms, the two would be called expats – foreign professionals who work and manage businesses in the Philippines. The two brothers are unique because they worked in different environments: one worked in the city while the other on a farm. Thus, their letters give us a comprehensive picture of what life in pre-War Philippines was like both in the urban and rural areas of the country. Below is a letter written by Albert Irminger to his parents describing conditions in the offices of A.C Lutz & Co. in Iloilo City:

“In the office we worked very differently than at home: (1) more autonomously and (2) I don’t have to work on the typewriter – which pleases me very much. We have double the number of Filipinos than Whites for general office work, correspondence and bookkeeping. The Chief Bookkeeper, a Filipino, earns more than we ‘on our first contract,’ but he is subordinated to the Cashier, a 23-year old Swiss. Most Filipinos worked for a very low salary and can just the same maintain their families. Recently, one of them who earns not quite one-fifth of my salary, got married! One must of course take into account that we Europeans need much more money to be able to live comfortably in this climate.” - Albert Irminger, December 30, 1919

Albert’s starting salary or ‘first contract’ was 260 pesos plus 30 pesos cost-of-living allowance, quite a considerable sum during those days. His younger brother Hans sent this letter to their parents to describe his first year working as an encargado in Negros:

“You at home, and even in Manila and Iloilo, have no real idea of how life and work on a sugarcane hacienda are. Even Mr. Walti (the hacienda owner and employer) is not well-informed. His place of work is at the office. One or two visits a year (to the plantation) do not permit one to see and observe all. So it is understandable that much of what he told me or recommended, is false or even contrary to the facts. The patterns of behavior he recommended may be right for a boss, but not for me. I’m still far from being a boss – rather just a beginner. He told me for example that under no circumstances should a White man do physical work, or he will lose his authority over the Indigenous. Yes, this may have been so, once upon a time, under Spanish authority, but now the Americans are the supervisors of the country…This is now very different. If a task for whatever reason doesn’t progress as it should, one intervenes, helps here, helps there. Mr. Walti even said, I shouldn’t think that I have to drive the tractor. But if I understood the machine, I would do it even today….” - Hans Irminger, January 9, 1921

In his first letter to home, Hans could not quite reconcile with the idea that he is not supposed to do manual work and would have wanted very much to operate the farm tractor if he only knew how. Two years later, we read a much different Hans, bolder and more confident, a far cry from the tentative, newly-arrived encargado two years ago:

“I am really having a good time. I am always healthy and in good humor. My independent work pleases me very much, although I could have grey hair in spite of my 24 years due to much anger with the Filipinos. During the harvest I am responsible for about 150 workmen. As I am the only White on the hacienda, I am a kind of a small king in my kingdom. It is really a pity that nobody can take a picture of me – without my knowing. This might produce some quite interesting pictures, for example when I chase through the fields with my horse, the small felt hat somewhat oblique on my head, and wearing khaki shirt and khaki pants…Looking at such pictures you would probably believe that I am in the Wild West rather than in the Philippines…” - Hans Irminger, October 24, 1923

Europe in the 1920s and 1930s was marked by periodic political and economic instability. Faced with limited employment prospects at home, young European professionals like the Irminger brothers have to leave their homelands for greener pastures abroad. The opening of the port of Iloilo to international trade in 1855, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, advancements in steam navigation and increasing world demand for sugar facilitated the growth of the sugar export trade in Western Visayas. And foreign trading firms like Ker & Co., Loney & Co., etc. played a vital part in providing the local sugar industry with credit and technology. By the early 1900s, Iloilo City was a thriving port city and many foreign businessmen were attracted to its lucrative sugar trade.

When he first arrived in Iloilo City to work for A.C. Lutz & Co., Albert Irminger was pleasantly surprised to find a large expatriate community there. Iloilo even had a Swiss Club and Albert would spend most of his free time relaxing in the company of his countrymen. In contrast to the civilization of Iloilo, his younger brother Hans discovered a backward, frontier town in Negros. Hans had to live in a simple hut (bahay kubo) and had to go to Iloilo City regularly to buy personal supplies, farm machineries, etc. He even had to go to Iloilo City in order to watch a movie or see a dentist. Below is Albert Irminger’s letter to his parents in Switzerland dated December 28, 1919 describing the general conditions in the Philippines at that time:

“…The national costume of ladies consists of a long dress reaching down to the feet and a type of starched blouse which leaves necks and shoulders free. One encounters here few women in European dress, and if one does, then they are young girls. Older Filipino women often still smoke cigars – which seems strange to us – and cigarettes which they stick with the burning part into their mouths. Men are dressed European style, mostly very elegantly, but on the other hand they live in a ‘stable’ and eat nothing but rice. Therefore they have little resistance to illnesses and die away like flies. One wonders that not more illnesses break out due to the incredible dirt in which they live in the many suburbs. Their huts sometimes stand on stinking quagmire.

Filipinos are in general musically gifted. There are excellent music bands which would be even better if they could afford more expensive instruments. Speed control of too fast drivers is very efficient. All day long some official motorcyclists chase so-called speeders, overtake and bill them if they drive faster than permitted. The first time, one gets an expensive fine; if repeated a prison sentence! Such a useful institution would also suit Switzerland! The traffic system of trams, cars, and other vehicles work perfectly.

As you know, the Filipinos would like to be independent. But it would be stupid of the USA to fulfill this wish, because they are as yet absolutely incapable of governing themselves. They have some freedom in internal affairs. Many Filipinos are employed in the administration, and they have their own Parliament. But they still need the guiding hand of a civilized people. There still half-wild tribes living in the center (interior?). Young Filipinos delight in military training, but look quite ridiculous with their wooden guns. They don’t succeed in looking smart. Our schoolboys at home do this better and with more seriousness…”

His younger brother Hans sent their parents this letter dated June 29, 1924 from Hacienda Camansi in Negros Occidental:

“In Ma-ao we visited a fairly modern hacienda, whose proprietor was a Filipino. There are intelligent guys among them. There is an interesting difference between the haciendas Camansi, La Carlota, La Castellana, Canlaon and the one in Ma-ao. In the first four haciendas, most of the hacienderos are Whites, foreigners. While the majority of the Whites work well and economize in order to be able to take much money back home, i.e. they have beautiful fields and primitive houses, the hacienderos of Ma-ao, all Filipinos, on the contrary don’t work well, have bad sugarcane, many weeds in the fields, but lead a grandiose life. They build the nicest houses on their haciendas, buy cars, enjoy all kinds of comforts and – most importantly – they have debts up to their necks. But, after all, they are living in their own country…”

Albert Irminger returned to Switzerland in 1928 to continue his business career. His last visit to the Philippines was in 1953. He died on September 30, 1979. His younger brother, Hans Irminger, stayed on to managed several sugar plantations for the Philippine National Bank. Sensing the possibility of a Japanese invasion of the Philippines, he left the country in 1935. Hans worked as an employee of Suarer AG, a trucking company in Arbon, Switzerland until his retirement. He died on July 24, 1973. In 1997, his daughter, Lisa Ammann-Irminger, discovered their letters and photos of the Philippines and presented these to the Ayala Foundation for publication.


ellen said...

This is interesting.

aponipinoy said...

Hi, i like this blog. I'm interested in Cebu and Panay socio-economic history.
Although the opening of Cebu as an international trade was five years behind Iloilo (July 30, 1860), the same commercial houses have opened both in Cebu and Iloilo. The arrival of American and British firms contributed to the evolution of a more complex Cebuano urban economic structure. The American firm Russell and Sturgis and the English houses of Loney, Kerr and Co. and of Smith Bell and Company had changed the city's credit structure and left an impact on the economic life of Cebu. (An interesting trivia: A daughter of an agent of Smith Bell and Co. married Don Ramon Aboitiz, the founder of the Aboitiz and Company one of the biggest companies in the Phils. today headquartered in Cebu.)
Aside from providing credit, these nationals introduced life insurance, went into shipping and accepted funds at interest.
While the Swiss in Panay and Negros worked in offices and farms, as you've mentioned the Swiss in Cebu chose to open small businesses such as import-export and jeweler's shop. Swiss and German names like Koch, Brunner, Bloch, Grein and Yahrling stayed on and intermarried with locals. (For instance, Yarhling married into the Chinese mestizo Veloso family, the union of which produced some of Cebu's prominent families.)