Oct 052013

FILIPINO BRUNEIAN HOSTSStanding from left: Bukidnon Congressman Jose F. Zubiri III, Mary Jane C. Ortega, La Union Congressman Victor F. Ortega, Haji Abdul Aziz Abdul Latif, Hajah Siti Noraziah (Andy Latif), Maria Tomasa “Mayie” Ochoa (spouse of Philippine Ambassador to Brunei Nestor Z. Ochoa, not in photo), Melanie del Mar and daughter, former Cebu Congresswoman Rachel Marguerite del Mar, and journalist Antonio Q. Alabastro. Photo by Raul P. Padernal

Longtime Filipino-Bruneians are looking forward to seeing President Benigno Aquino for the fifth  time when he comes to attend the East Asia Summit this week.

It will be his fourth visit to Brunei in three years as head of state.  “The president came for a state visit in June 2010; to attend a royal wedding in September 2012; to participate in an Asean summit meeting last April; and now another  summit meeting,” said Maria Tomasa “Mayie” Ochoa, spouse of Philippine Ambassador to Brunei, Nestor Z. Ochoa.

MUCH of the Istana Nurul Iman Palace was built by Filipinos.

But longtime Filipino residents here count five visits because they remember the first time he accompanied his mother, the late President Corazon Aquino, on her own state visit to this small but prosperous neighboring sultanate on Aug. 29-31, 1988.

Personal and business relations long preceded the strong state ties the Philippines and Brunei now enjoy.

One longtime Filipino resident is Andy Latif or 61-year-old Andrea Borja from Malabon, also known as Hajah Siti Noraziah. She came to Brunei 38 years ago and  married a Bruneian, Haji Abdul Aziz Abdul Latif—someone she met in Manila in 1973 during a conference organized by the Department of Tourism, where she was previously employed.

“During my first trip (in 1975), my expectation of Brunei was of a country so backward and remote. Brunei was hardly known to us then.  Immediate family members dissuaded me from leaving the country for fear I may not be able to adjust to the environment.” Andy recalled.

“After one year, I tied the marital knot. Now, we have three grownup children, and 12 grandchildren,” beamed Andy.

She recalled that Filipino engineers and construction workers began streaming into Brunei in the 1980s. It opened many opportunities for her own family as well.

BRUNEI-BASED businesswomen Lhai D. Santiago (left) and Anyati Orcullo Abdullah. Photo by Raul P. Padernal

“The ’80s was a banner year for Filipino overseas construction workers here when the Ayala Corp. was awarded  a consultancy in the building of the sultan’s Palace—Istana Nurul Iman. At that time, there was no Philippine Embassy in Brunei and some friends were teasing me… I was like an informal ambassador dealing with the needs of the Filipinos. I assisted in helping find a place for the first Philippine Embassy, and later, its staff, as well as in social and cultural matters.”

Some inbound Filipino workers were referred by the Brunei immigration authorities to “Andy” as she is well-known at the Brunei International Airport. “My humble and understanding husband and I sometimes fetched stranded Filipinos from the airport and brought them to their employers, even at night,” she recalled.

Andy produced the first Brunei guidebook for tourists for the State Secretariat Office (Brunei’s Economic Development Board) in 1978. At that time, there were only three hotels in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital.  There were only a few tourist attractions, she related.

Today, the ultimate tourist attraction in Brunei is the Istana Nurul Iman palace, the official residence of the Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah and the seat of the Brunei government, which was largely designed by Filipino architect Leandro Locsin, and built by Filipino workers.

Friendships and business

There are also heartwarming personal sidelights to the increasing interaction between Filipinos and Bruneians.

As a government contractor, Andy’s husband participated in the construction of the first government buildings on Jalan Ong Sum Ping, where the South East Asian Games Village is now located. In 1976, relates Andy, “I was in the Sheraton Utama Hotel when I heard this guy talking in Tagalog. He turned out to be an engineer working with Warner Barnes and was in Brunei on a business trip. I introduced him to my husband. And the Aziz Latif Company was born, which initially became a contractor for Brunei Shell, supplying vehicles.”

Andy and her husband have opened their beautiful and palatial home overlooking the South China Sea in Penanjong, a small town in the Tutong District, to many visiting Filipino delegations.  Among the Latif’s  guests through the years were Filipino pioneers like Rufa Dayon, the first Filipino nurse in Brunei; Thelma Salazar, the first Filipino librarian at the language and literature bureau; the Ayala boys and their spouses, Philippine ambassadors, and many Filipino families who are now equally established in the sultanate. Then Sen. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was a houseguest during a trade exhibition in Muara in November 1994.

Beauty and fashion

Andy continued: “I resigned from the Brunei government in 1984 and put up an all-Filipino company, Whealten House of Beauty and Fashion, a salon, boutique and gym rolled into one.  We engaged the services of Edwin Bantigue, who was the first Filipino designer in Brunei. Among her regular clients for three years was movie actress Vivian Velez, whose generous tips to the staff, she intimated,  were more than the cost of her daily beauty treatment.  Andy soon opened other branches of her beauty salon.

Then she put up Zura Travel Service, the first travel agency that engaged Filipino staff to serve the needs of Filipinos. Almost 80 percent of the Filipinos in Brunei were Zura’s customers, especially when Philippine Airlines still flew to Brunei.

In 1986, The Latifs put up Norain HA Trading Company, which afforded Filipinos a convenient way to send their money to the Philippines. With a recent tieup with the Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. (RCBC) in Manila,  Norain has introduced Telemoney plus insurance coverage for the remitter and the recipients. The company has also  diversified into Tagalog video rentals and the sale of Filipino products.

“Every Hari Raya celebration, about 200 Filipinos, from the ambassador down to ordinary workers, come to our house for a taste of Haji’s (her husband’s ) famous beef rendang,” Andy said proudly.

Early last month, the Latif’s famous beef rendang, bean curd and vegetables in coconut milk, chicken adobo and colorful Hari Raya cakes were on her table when she entertained some Philippine legislators who attended an Asean Interparliamentary Assembly in Brunei and their wives.

Welcoming hosts

Mary Jane  C. Ortega, former San Fernando, La Union, mayor who accompanied her husband, Rep. Victor Ortega, to the interparliamentary meet, said she  first met Andy Latif 18 years ago when she  was an official delegate of the Philippines to an Asean women’s confederation meeting held in Brunei in 1995.  Even then, Andy was a welcoming and comforting host to their group—even helping the ladies bargain and get discounts at the market, she related when they met again last September.

Mary Jane said Andy has introduced them to other Filipinos who have done well in Brunei.  The congressional spouses had a sumptuous meal at the Nur Wanita Thai restaurant, which is owned by Datin Juliana, a Filipina from Bacolod, Negros Occidental. She married Bruneian Dato Paduka Haji Jemat Haji Ampal, who did his part in cohosting the event for the legislators’ spouses—including riding his big and shiny Harley Davidson motorcycle at the head of the convoy that toured the congressional spouses down 100 kilometers of smooth near-traffickless road.

Datin Juliana runs the 12-year-old three-restaurant chain  Nur Wanita, which offers Northern Thai cuisine and was  short-listed in the 2010-2011 Miele Guide to Asia’s finest restaurants. Datin said she started in the business by catering for a Brunei contractor who needed to feed a big staff and workforce in the 1990’s while  building the Jerudong Park and the Empire Hotel and Country Club.  She now has three restaurant branches, the latest one opened in December 2012 in Kuala Belait, the oil town of Brunei.

The congressional ladies also met Anyati Orcullo Abdullah, another restauranteur, and Lhai Santiago, who supplies audio-visual 4D educational materials for children.

“These two days have been days of pride for our fellow Filipinas who have succeeded here in Brunei, said Mary Jane.

“I felt pride for the Filipinos who had found their corner of the sky in the country they adopted.  I felt pride in being Filipino  and I thought, “No matter where you put a Filipino, they truly remain Filipinos at heart,” said Mary Jane.

So Filipino-Bruneians are waiting with excitement for President Aquino’s arrival. The embassy has yet to announce whether he has time to meet with them this time.  During one visit, he stopped by the embassy and had hazelnut coffee with the staff, bringing along the Malacañang press corps. He has yet to meet the Filipinos in Brunei media, who also have a respected presence.

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