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Jessie Lichauco at 106: A woman who has lived through history

A documentary directed by her granddaughter tells the remarkable story of Jessie Lichauco’s journey — from the US to the Philippines

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Jessie Lichauco on her 100th birthday
Gulf News

Jessie Lichauco is an ordinary woman with an extraordinary life.

Or, depending on how you look at it, she’s an extraordinary woman who turned a simple life into something meaningful.

How else could an 18-year old travel all the way from America to the Philippines, alone, in the in 1930s, and make it her home for the rest of her life — even through war and personal stress.

Pearls of wisdom

And yes, today, aged 106, she continues to sit by the window at her house in Manila and share pearls of wisdom for others to gain and learn from.

Curiosity, Adventure and Love is a documentary that captures the essence of this remarkable woman — and beautifully so. It’s a window into her mind, revealing insights into the history of the Philippines’ history and, more importantly, on the human condition.

Young Jessie on a ship in the 1930s on her way to Manila via Europe from the USA.

Lichauco’s granddaughter Sunshine Lichauco de Leon is the brain behind Curiosity, Adventure and Love.

An accomplished journalist, De Leon experienced Lichauco’s advice first hand — “Nana-isms,” she fondly calls them — and decided to share them with the world at large.

De Leon rummaged through old photographs and, collaborating with her grandmother, began turning her story into a documentary.

“The idea of telling her story has been in my mind since 1998,” De Leon tells Weekend Review.

Unique perspective

“My grandmother was at the epicentre of events that shaped 20th-century Philippines, and she possesses a unique perspective on how her adoptive country and the world has evolved. I believe it’s important to share stories and insights of the generation that lived in the pre-war world and survived the Second World War.”

De Leon says she made the film because “I wanted to inspire people to learn more about Philippine history ... and the details with which she remembers history brings it to life.”

Lichauco was born on the Isle of Pines, now known as Isla de la Juventud, a small island off the coast of Cuba.

After losing her parents at a young age, she studied in a convent school in Florida and later worked in Washington DC, where she met Marcial P. Lichauco who would soon become her husband.

Marcial P. Lichauco was the first Filipino to graduate from Harvard University.

He was secretary of the Osrox Mission and lobbied then for Philippine independence from the United States.

When he returned home, he had hopes of marrying Jessie but decided first to invite her “to come to see the country where she would live”.

That’s how, back in 1933, the young woman made a nearly month-long voyage, all by herself, to a land about which she knew nothing about.

Jessie and Marcial P. Lichauco dance the night away during a party in Manila.

The couple, however, were married for the next 39 years.

Respect: 'I want vs I don't want'

“We had great respect for each other,” Lichauco says.

“You must remember that there is a difference between love and compatibility — and if you have to choose, choose compatibility. The words ‘I want and I don’t want’ are not really permissible for a happy marriage and a happy life.

"Sometimes, you have to settle for contentment, instead of happiness There are moments of happiness in every life, but it is mostly contentment,” she says.

The documentary details the Second World War and how Manila was destroyed and then survived the Japanese occupation for three harsh years.

During the battle for Manila, a month-long brutal and bloody effort where US troops fought to liberate the city from the Japanese, thousands fled to escape destruction and massacres.

“The only way out was via Herran,” Lichauco recalls.

“The bridge had been blown up, however, so there was nowhere to go from there. Injured and sick people were crawling, carrying each other, walking, being pushed,” she says.

Chaos, desperation

“There was chaos and desperation. At that time, my husband and I were living in an old house on Herran. With the help of a few volunteer nurses, we set up a makeshift clinic. People came to us with practically nothing and a desperation in their eyes that I can never forget.”

The fact that Lichauco always saw the “human” first is apparent from another instance she shares of that war period.

“One very stormy night we made some ginger tea,” she says. “A Japanese sentry was at our gate. I sent a cup to him too. The man took the tea and without any hesitation or suspicion drank it with gratitude. I could have poisoned him but I didn’t have the heart to do that. I did this because I just thought maybe somewhere along the road, a Japanese would return the kindness to one of our people.”

Such random acts of kindness won her life-long friendships. She was known to host and feed complete strangers, even inviting them to stay in her house and, later became associated with an orphanage and another establishment for abused children.

“I made a deal with God long time ago,” Lichauco says. “If there was anything I ever needed to do, just send it to me.”

Curiosity, adventure, and love were the elements that drove Lichauco — hence the documentary’s title. The hour-long film revolves around the history of the Philippines, Lichauco’s life, and her invaluable insights on compassion, love, tolerance and forgiveness.

“Choosing which stories and points of history to include was very difficult as we easily had enough material to make a longer film,” De Leon says. “We have many more stories of her experiences of the Second World War, and then there were stories we had to leave out because we had no visual footage to illustrate them. The fact that we filmed Nana between the ages of 98 and 102 also made things complicated.”

But De Leon always believed the strength of this film would be in successfully weaving together the threads of Lichauco’s life.

“We were very careful to make sure that each part of the film kept the balance between them so that the film would be as seamless as possible”, De Leon says.

Sense of belonging

Today, Lichauco continues to live in her 200-year-old Spanish colonial house along the banks of the river Pasig in the Santa Ana neighbourhood of Manila.

A huge, equally ancient banyan tree in the courtyard of the house only adds to the home’s imposing presence.

‘Home is when you find a moment that you don’t want to leave’ goes one of the Nana-isms.

At 106, Lichauco has seen the world but perceives the Philippines as the place where she belongs.

“I consider myself a part of the people of the Philippines,” Lichauco says. “I never considered myself an expat or a foreigner. I have a foreign face but a Filipino heart.”

De Leon agrees.

“The wisdom she has accumulated over a century of life has tremendous relevance in today’s fast-changing world, where people are more connected and more isolated from each other — perhaps now more than ever,” De Leon says.

“It is my hope that her story will remind people of what we have in common, and inspire them to be more compassionate to each other”, feels De Leon.

Curiosity, Adventure and Love has received well-deserved accolades at several international film festivals and De Leon, along with co-director Suzanne Richiardone, plan to make it available online, for television and on DVD worldwide. They also aim to have it subtitled in various languages.

But the central theme of the movie resonates with all.

“Just be patient and true to yourself, and you will see that things have a way of falling into place,” Lichauco says. “Open your eyes and open your heart and everything else will follow.”

Manasi Mathkar is a writer based in Manila.

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