A small museum tucked away in Old Manila is more than meets the eye

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The First United Building Community Museum has a corner which replicates the office of Sy Lian Teng, who purchased the former Perez Samanillo Building after the war. Some memorabilia include a rotary phone, a stamp bearing the map to the area, and a working G.E. refrigerator from the 1950s, which is still used whenever there are events in the museum. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Every family has a rich backstory, the kind of lore that is passed on from one generation to another. It could be about one’s grandfather fighting in the Second World War or one’s grandmother and her friend who became a famous movie star. These are the sort of stories that are often told to and reveled in especially by the younger and more wide-eyed members of one’s kin. Because they show that there is more to one’s lineage than meets the eye. But for such a small part of the life of an ancestor, particularly someone who is not a known hero of history, to merit a hall in commemoration of its struggles and triumphs, is something else entirely.

On the mezzanine of the First United Building in Escolta, Manila, a small community museum pays tribute to the life and times of the man who proved instrumental in the shaping of commerce in the once bustling business district. There, more than just stories or memorabilia enshrining the glories of yesteryear, are narratives and links between the past, present, and future — all tied to the efforts of the building’s beloved patriarch, Sy Lian Teng.

Escolta Museum On display at the First United Building Community Museum are old photographs of the Escolta district. Photo by JL JAVIER

Escolta Museum As part of the museum's interactive area, a wall depicting the map of Manila is used to encourage visitors and members of the community to post photographs, postcards, and other visual memorabilia that tell the story of Escolta and its surrounding areas. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Part of the ongoing Escolta revitalization project, the First United Community Museum may seem small and negligible at first blush — there are no paintings, busts, or sculptures. However, it tells a grand history that spans the entire district, all stemming from Sy Lian Teng’s endeavors as a businessman.

Sy Lian Teng came to the country from China in 1918, while still in his late teens. He established a business called Cosmos Bazaar and brought his immediate family with him in 1939, including his brothers, father, and stepmother. In the thick of the Battle of Manila in 1945, he lost his wife and children. But he rose above this tragedy through hard work and faith, focusing on his will to turn his luck around.

Escolta Museum A box from the original Berg Department Store, run by a German-born businessman who settled in Manila after traveling from Europe to Asia. The department store had glass shelves and cases for toys, dresses, and other modern trinkets. On the right is a timeline of Sy Lian Teng's life and his family. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Escolta Museum Included in Sy Lian Teng's belongings was a mysterious photo of a woman who turned out to be Evelyn Berg Empie, the daughter of Ernest Berg who owned Berg Department Store in Perez Samanillo Building, now known as First United Building. She later wrote a memoir (left) of her time here in the Philippines. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Around these events were moments that helped shaped Escolta, which in turn form the heart of the interactive area, showing how the district once was and highlighting the role of Sy Lian Teng, and now the Sylianteng family who owns the building, in its evolution. The permanent collection of the museum includes objects and artifacts from former tenants of the building, including photos, memorabilia, and pieces of office equipment, such as a G.E. refrigerator from the 1950s, which remains functional and is still used for events and openings.

According to its curator, Marika Constantino, the museum aims to be an interactive display of collaboration encouraging other people to contribute to Escolta’s revitalization. There are quarterly exhibitions in the exchange space and wall, such as “Making the Invisible City Visible” by Carlos Celdran, which maps out Old Manila using a sprawling map where people can posts photos and postcards depicting various locales.

Escolta Museum Documents and office items of Sy Lian Teng (left) displayed at the First United Building Community Museum. The staircase inside the building (right) which houses several businesses and new creative hubs. Photos by JL JAVIER  

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The First United Building Community Museum is located on the mezzanine of First United Building, 413 Escolta St., Manila.