PERSONAL ESSAY: Of fried chicken, an old factory, and a new skyline

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 27 August) — Fried chicken lunch, sometime in 1992. “We’ve been having fried chicken for lunch from Beach Club over the last many years,” jokes Paul Dominguez, who is seated with us in a wood-panelled conference room. PGD, as he was referred to—he still is—was Presidential Assistant for Mindanao under the Ramos Administration.

And we, his senior staff, were meeting him there, inside a plywood plant owned by the Alcantara family, probably en route to the old Davao airport for yet another official trip on a single-engine plane. PGD had been Alsons President for six years prior to his government appointment.

It was there where I met Inday, his good-natured and longtime secretary, who dutifully brought him a cold glass of orange juice whenever he came into his office. That last one itself was an unassuming affair, with an entire wall plastered with a worn terrain map of Davao del Norte, an executive desk adorned by nothing more than an intercom and a black holder of pens, envelope knives, Post-its, and staplers.

As his aide, I would frequent this room with him. But even before that, I already had a glimpse of the entire factory, as earlier on in his watch as Presidential Assistant, he had taken me to Lanang and walked with me across the sprawling plant towards the log pond. To my surprise and amusement, we boarded a small tug boat that would take us across the waters towards Paradise Beach Resort where he’d committed to oblige a speaking invitation.

A decade after those heady years and two Philippine presidents later, the plant’s facilities would continue to lure us, as I’m sure many other such intimate gatherings. I remember during a break in a meeting in 2002, a newly-published book was up for discussion: Gavin Menzie’s highly controversial “1421: The Year China Discovered America.” The people in the room were swapping opinions about various aspects of the book, as I was making a mental note of getting myself my own copy.

After more years went by, I would return to the plant. But this time, it would be for a mundane reason: To purchase pieces of marine plywood for a construction project.

The Alsons plywood plant means differently to different people. My vignettes barely compare with those of a legion of others; its workers, at one time reaching 6,000, who kept the factory alive until it lasted, their families who valiantly stood by them, an entire generation that has borne witness to the sustaining power of icons.

Today, four years after such a plan was announced, the 25-ha. plant site is poised to re-emerge as a high-end township.

Fernando Zobel de Ayala, chair of the Ayala Corporation, speaks before a crowd of well-wishers yesterday in what used to be the Lanang plant to explain the partnership with the Alcantaras. Not since building Abreeza Mall in 2011 have the Ayalas decided to up the ante, from P14 billion in investments since then to P20 billion by 2026.

Six thousand positions in construction alone, the same number of jobs the plant once had, are expected to be created. The number may reach 13,000 as the township becomes operational.

It’s a long way from routine fried chicken lunches—indeed, from the 1950s pioneering days of Conrado, the Alcantaras’ late patriarch. And that’s a lot of change—and high hopes—happening hereabouts.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Nikki Rivera Gomez is author of two books on Mindanao, “Coffee and dreams on a late afternoon,” and “Mindanao on my mind and other musings” published by the UP Press. He served as special aide to Mr. Paul Dominguez during the Ramos administration).