Along Gen. Luna, a.k.a. “the Highway” which was Iloilo City’s main drag before the Diversion Road, right across from the UP Visayas and in the immediate vicinity of the sprawling concrete and glass holdings of the venerable taipan Alfonso Tan, the young Turk tycoon Injap, and the soon to rise Rockwell-Iloilo Towers, is tiny Melly’s Variety Store. A few folding tables in the rear of its 287 sqm lot raises it a grade above the typical neighborhood sari-sari store. Customers are not seated outside the usual storefront grills, but are literally inside the Sio-Tio family home, as the laundry drying nearby attests. For over half a century, generations of APO, Silak, Hamili and Validus fraternity brods have gathered here to eat, drink and make merry. The late UPV terror, Prof. Teddy Ledesma occasionally held classes at his special table, loudly lecturing al fresco on philosophy and political science, over rounds of San Miguel Pale Pilsen. Prof. Ledesma was always pleasantly surprised at how little his bill actually came to every payday. He turned uncharacteristically sentimental over how the eponymous shopkeeper Melly (officially Emilia Blancia Sio Tio) never took advantage of his lack of vigilance over his listahan (store credit), since he was usually in such high spirits. He could trust her, and that was a thing of rarity and wonder in this wicked world.
“I have always treated them like family,” explains Tya (aunty) Melly, as all her regular customers call her. She will turn 88 on Christmas Day. How appropriate for her to have been born in the season of giving. Tya Melly’s acknowledged compassion and loving kindness place her at a 180 degrees, polar opposites from the racist stereotype of the hard-nosed and stone-hearted Chinese merchant or boss, commonly derided as “hindi tunay na tao,” by so many Filipinos. Tya Melly’s genuine humanity ensured that UPV students from other provinces whose allowances had run out, would not go hungry. She could even be drawn in to be an audience for their extracurricular performances, and to cheer them on during sports fests.
Back in the 20th century, before ATM payroll bank accounts were the norm, Tya Melly served as the UPV personal banker, saving harried faculty and administrative staff from having to commute to, and queue at the downtown Iloilo banks, by encashing their salary checks for them. For nearly fifty years, or before everyone had a mobile phone, Melly’s telephone landline was often the only means of communication in the community, between UPV student boarders and their parents in the provinces, or OFWs and their families.
During the UP Centennial in 2008, the UPV High School Class of 1983 recognized Tya Melly’s service to the UPV community with a special award “for being a source of solace, or camaraderie; for providing shelter to the temporarily homeless; for being a source of temporary funds to those in need, and for efficiently managing the original convenience store of thousands of UPV students over the years.” How Melly’s Variety Store came to be such an integral part of UPV’s organizational structure, as some half-joked, going beyond providing exam booklets and photocopying services, even the use of her personal sewing kit for high school students with torn uniforms, began in 1965.
Emilia Sio and her husband Roberto Chua Tio were both migrants to Iloilo City. Melly and her sister Consuelo spent their girlhood in Antique, till she moved to Iloilo after World War II. Her paternal grandfather Sio Kong Lo owned La Estrella de Iloilo, or LEDI’s Supermarket where Melly worked. She was so proficient with an abacus that she preferred it over any modern calculator. Meanwhile Robert (Anglicized from the original Tio Eng Ho) had migrated to Iloilo, from Fujian province, at age seven in 1934, or the year before Melly was born. Robert spoke and wrote fluent Chinese. He also read music and played various instruments, including the traditional Chinese stringed erhu. He taught music and art at several Chinese schools, including Sun Yat Sen where Melly’s grandfather Sio Kong Lo was a trustee. An innocent friendship grew between Melly of LEDI’s Supermarket and Robert the teacher (he was also called Tio Sian meaning Teacher Tio), who also worked part-time in another nearby grocery store. A resident Chinese matchmaker in Iloilo, Lao Tio urged this budding romance to fruition. On special occasions, Tio Sian Robert considerately wrote to her in English, since Melly couldn’t read Chinese. His fine cursive has been preserved in the many affectionately but formally composed greeting cards which his daughters keep, along with other mementos such as his harmonica, SLR cameras, the erhu and the amateur magician’s paraphernalia with which he entertained them in their happy childhood.
After their honeymoon in Cebu, tragedy struck when the newlyweds’ apartment in the Que So Co Building on Valeria Street, Iloilo City burned down. Fortunately, they were able to save their aparador and some wedding gifts. From the ashes, Robert and Melly decisively moved forward. They began life anew, no longer as employees, but as entrepreneurs, with Melly’s Variety Store on Gen. Luna Highway. Their modest capital of P3,000 was enough to fill a passenger jeepney with their initial stocks. Later as his children grew, Tio Sian Robert learned how to laminate wood so he could mount all their diplomas and school certificates on wooden plaques. Wood lamination then became an added service offered by Melly’s Variety Store.
Just as the store is named after his beloved wife, all their five children’s names start with “Mel” to honor her: Melissa, Melinda, Melita are all married and live with their respective families. The two youngest, who are single, still live at the store. Melvina looks after the now retired Tya Melly, while the youngest and only son Melbert, whose name combines both of his parents’, now manages Melly’s Variety Store.
Although strict, Tio Sian Robert found other ways to show his family he loved them. On their birthdays, he fashioned curlicues and personalized greetings using his own homemade frosting of Purico, sugar and food coloring, on plain store-bought sponge cakes. For Valentine’s Day, he festooned their store with cupids and twin hearts which he cut out from red cartolina himself. He kept trying to improve their store, from acquiring a halo-halo ice grinder, then a waffle-maker. He even made proto-fast food ala Jollibee, using rubber stamps to label the paper wrappers “Melly’s Hamburger” or “Melbert’s Hotdog.” Still, he found time to tutor his children in their Chinese subjects, especially in calligraphy.
On weekends, while Tya Melly minded the store, Tio Sian Robert took the children to the movies, then afterwards, they had batchoy at San Antonio Restaurant. Whenever he attended the Tiu-Gan Family convention in different parts of the Philippines, he always brought back pasalubong: five toys or souvenirs of different colors for his each of his five children. Tio Sian Robert died in 2008 of a lingering ailment, at the age of 81, without ever being able to afford his dream of a pilgrimage to his birthplace in Shishi City, Fujian Province. But then his greater happiness had always been to place his family’s wants and needs before his own.
A year before he died, Tio Sian Robert and Tya Melly stopped being renters, and became landowners after finally completing their instalment purchase of the 287 sqm where Melly’s Variety Store had stood since 1965. And there it still stands, iconic and incongruous at the same time, a mere speck in a city where high rises now loom in a previously bucolic skyline. For now, Tya Melly and her brood have remained impervious to the dazzling offers and blandishments of big-time developers. More than being a valuable piece of real estate, the sari-sari store is their home and workplace, and a source of livelihood and fulfilment for their family. Melly’s Variety Store is not just a community fixture and an institution, but a symbol of how honest labor and simple contentment prevail against over-development and untrammelled materialism. Mabuhay si Tya Melly!
Menchu Aquino Sarmiento is an award-winning writer and a social concerns advocate. IRL (Iloilo Represents Life) are short verbal pagmumuni-muni, the essay equivalent of fast fiction–but in real life. She really wants more Filipinos to care, and to do something legal and non-violent about it, preferably together, so that we act more like a civilized country, a mature democracy.