A Sindhi in Manila – I

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Gopal and-Carlota’s wedding in 1943 in Philippines

I am part Filipino, part Spanish and part East Indian (Sindhi). My Spanish family can be traced about 8 generations back in the Philippines, originally settling in Iloilo from Spain. My grandfather on my mother’s side was born in Madrid and came to Manila in his very early twenties, probably at the turn of the 20th century. On the other end of the spectrum was my father, a Sindhi.

By Lou Gopal 

{Manila is comprised of one of the most diversified populations in the world. There are Filipinos, Spanish, Malayans, Chinese, Americans, Russians, Germans, Indians – you pick an ethnic group and there will be a representative living in this “Pearl of the Orient”. Everyone seems to be a mestizo of some kind, me included. I am part Filipino, part Spanish and part East Indian (Sindhi). My Spanish family (the Zaragozas) can be traced about 8 generations back in the Philippines, originally settling in Iloilo from Spain. My grandfather on my mother’s side was born in Madrid and came to Manila in his very early twenties, probably at the turn of the 20th century. On the other end of the spectrum was my father, a Sindhi. That may be one of the most unique combinations I’ve heard about. This article focuses on my father, whose life seems to compare with a Horatio Alger story, rising up from poor beginnings to become a successful entrepreneur.}

Fatehchand and his wife Parpatibai Khanchandani

Fatehchand Gopaldas Khanchandani, was born in Karachi in 1911 in the area of Sindh. He was Sindhi; his family traced their history back to Hyderabad, Sind. My grandfather, also named Fatehchand, was a clerk who worked for the British Northern Railway. My grandmother, Parpatibai, stayed at home to raise their six children.

My dad didn’t finish school. According to my uncle Prem, the next oldest and who I am named after, my father went through about 6th grade then left to earn a living as a young trader. Typical of that era, the majority of young Sindhi men in British-held India could either get a menial government job or strike out on their own as traders of some sort.

Fatehchand Gopaldas in 1933

Sindhis consider themselves to be of a social class or caste with a predilection for trading and business. Although college education is considered to be valuable in terms of a better and overall understanding of the world, the young Sindhi man is taken in as an intern and learns the business trade through his father or other male members of the family. Thus the pattern of growth and expansion of the Indian community in the Philippines was like an extended family.

And so it was that my father’s uncle knew of Sindhis in Manila that were looking for young men to help with their business.

Below, the young entrepreneurs enjoy a holiday up at Lake Taal – Bhagi Sehwani (far left), Motiram Jatdiani (2nd from right) and my dad Gopal (far right).

Gopal, as my father was known, came to Manila in 1931 – just 20 years old. He started working at the Persian Carpet House, one of several Indian-owned businesses on the Escolta.

Gopal in1935

A quick learner, Gopal soon picked up the finer points of retail business management at the Persian Carpet House, located at 49 Escolta. Apparently he was quite a popular salesman and manager because my mother’s cousin, Carmen DaCosta, told me that she and her family used to shop there exclusively, becoming Gopal’s “suki” (favorite customer) and would always ask for him when she was looking for some special cloth or material. Carmen later introduced Gopal to her cousin, Carlota, who eventually married him in 1943.

Wanting to start out his own, Gopal left Persian Carpet House and opened an import-export office in the beautiful, art-deco styled Crystal Arcade.

It was at this time, his interests turned to gold, gems, and other jewelry, traveling to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok and other exotic locales of the Orient, always making sure to send money back home to help his family.

In 1939, his father passed away and as the eldest son, Gopal assumed a major role in providing support to his mother and younger siblings.

Image of a telephone directory showing the name of Gopal and his company address Crystal-Arcade in 1943

Within three years, the Japanese entered Manila and effectively shut down all American and Allied owned businesses. Shipping trade in the Pacific Far East dropped to a standstill as Japan entered the war against the U.S., Britain and Australia.

Allied families in Manila were immediately interned at the University of Santo Tomas. Filipinos, Spanish and other ethnic groups were required to register with the Japanese administration. According to local Indian leaders, the Indian community was compelled by the Japanese to join the India Independence League under threat of having to close their businesses and treated as enemy subjects.

Early on during the occupation, my dad bought a restaurant/niteclub and called it “The Bluebird”. It was a fortuitous move. Having a license to operate a restaurant allowed Gopal to buy and store food. Food supplies soon disappeared as the Japanese military started confiscating available stores to feed their own army.

Running the restaurant allowed him, my mother and her family enough to eat until the end of the Japanese occupation. It wasn’t much but they still fared better than most.

By a stroke of luck, I received an email from one of my Manila Nostalgia readers, Cynthia Osejo. “I believe my grandfather – Fernando Antonio Maria do Rosario was interned there [at Santo Tomas Internment Camp] for a period. He and my family (my grandmother and his six daughters – including my mother) were eventually liberated to the United States in 1945.  My grandfather owned a restaurant “the Bluebird” in Manila and was interned after bragging to have “American coffee”.  This started me wondering who owned the Bluebird first – was it my dad or her grandfather?

Gopal, father of writer Lou Gopal

The Bluebird was where mom met dad. She and her cousin applied as waitresses. Inevitably, romance between my mom and dad blossomed and they married in March 1943 at San Vicente de Paul Church on Calle San Marcelino but not before mom convinced dad he had to convert to Catholicism. To appease mom and my very strict grandmother, Gopal was baptized a Catholic. He didn’t frequent the Hindu temple except to attend occasionally with his friends, so it wasn’t much of a loss of faith for him to become a Christian as he didn’t go to church much either. I think his religion was business and his passion was making money.

It was a small wedding. My parents arrived at the church in their gaily decorated “dokar”. It was a configuration of a calesa on top of an automobile axle and tires. Gopal looks terrified but doesn’t my mom look lovely?

Carlota, mother of writer

The reception was much larger; held at a panciteria, perhaps around Plaza Sta. Cruz. The reason I’m including it here is to note that this was March 1943 and apparently the state of things had not yet deteriorated as badly as they would a year later. Restaurants were still crowded and food was available, albeit at a hefty price.

Prices were relatively stable during the first year of the Japanese occupation, but as the military prospects of Japan declined and the Allied submarine blockades were established, inflation increased at an accelerating rate. The war affected the import of vital supplies and even basic food items. Locally grown rice, fruits and vegetables, and meat were often times confiscated to feed the Japanese army, leaving the general population to starve. Times were tough and got even harder towards 1944.

Not only had pre-war export markets disappeared, the Japanese replaced pre-war currencies with military script known as “Mickey Mouse” money. As inflation soared, mom and other family members described how they would need to take a “baul” (bag) stuffed with Mickey Mouse bills to the markets, only to come away with a meager selection of food.

General MacArthur finally made good on his promise to return to the Philippines and liberate its populace from the grip of Japanese occupation. My parents were at a brief but moving ceremony which opened at Malacañang Palace at 11:00am Tuesday morning February 27, 1945, where Gen. MacArthur and Sergio Osmeña spoke regarding reestablishing the Philippine seat of government. As the camera panned the crowd, it captured my parents for a brief few seconds.

Escolta’s crowded area Photo May 6, 1942

But the horror and tragedy was still to come as Manilenõs tried to avoid the destruction, mayhem and murder during the Battle of Manila. My parents and invalid grandmother were in the Malate area during the heavy firefights that ensued. Somehow they managed to head north to cross the Pasig and escaped to my grand-uncle’s home in the Sampaloc district. It took until March 3rd to clear Manila of Japanese troops. My mom was 8 months pregnant with me so you can imagine her fears as they ran through the streets trying to avoid both Japanese and American gunfire.

I was born barely a month later on April 2nd, 1945 at Bambang Maternity Hospital.

In 1947, the British finally released their hold on India. The result was a major division (called the Partition) between the Hindus and Muslims with the creation of West and East Pakistan and with independent India in the middle. My grandmother and her children had to leave their home in Karachi and move to Bombay. It was a journey fraught with danger and even murder. Both sides were involved in killing each other. Neither Gopal in Manila nor his family in India knew if either survived their ordeals. In 1947, dad flew to Bombay for a long awaited family reunion. He is shown here with his mother and sisters in 1947. My cousin Indra sits on our grandmother’s lap.

The partition also resulted in a situation where the Sindhi expats had nowhere to return; the new government was predominately Muslim and not particularly benevolent to Sindhis. Having lived in Manila all this time; Sindhis spoke fluent Tagalog, some of them married Filipinas and had mestizo children like me. They adopted Manila as their new home, many even applying for Philippine citizenship.

Carlota and Gopal in their store

The remaining era of the 1940s in Manila was a busy time of reconstruction. The city and its people faced the challenge to rebuild homes, offices and economies while still mourning the recent loss of their loved ones. Opportunities abounded. It seemed that new shops reopened almost immediately, catering to the local citizens hungry for basic staples as well as the hordes of American G.I.s wandering the city with money in their pockets. In the photo above, businessman Arjan Gurnamal holds me as we stand in front of their store in Plaza Sta. Cruz. Mr. Gurnamal said the store was quickly established right after the war, selling supplies and liquor. That G.I.s had a thirst!



The writer, who was settled in USA, wrote this blog in 2015. The blog is result of his sentimental longing for Manila, Philippines, where his Sindhi father had established his business much before partition, and where he himself was born in 1945 and spent youthful days there even after demise of his father. This is story of a Sindhi man’s journey from Sindh to Manila.   

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