Zamboanga Chong Hua High School at 90: The Legacy Lives On
by Ric Villanueva

It was the year 1919.

A world tired of war was catching its breath and enjoying newfound peace. The First World War had ended and the father of today’s United Nations, The League of Nations, had just been formed.

The Philippines was under the sovereign control of the United States of America. All talk was of the 4th Far Eastern Championship Games which Manila was hosting. And also of the Senate or legislature elections that year under the Jones Law provisions where 92% of all registered voters voted.

In Zamboanga City down south, it was a turnover year for mayors. Mayor Alfonso Ramos was giving way to Crispin Atilano during the year. Zamboanga was a much smaller city then, much of today’s east and west coasts inaccessible by roads and land transportation. But it was growing.

Evidence of this growth was seen in four schools of learning in the city by this time. The Pilar College along Cawa-Cawa Boulevard had been going since 1894. Ten years later, in 1904, the Zamboanga Normal School, now the Western Mindanao State University, opened its doors. A year later, in 1905, it was the turn of the Zamboanga School of Arts and Trades, now the Zamboanga City Polytechnic State College, to open. The Jesuit School, the Ateneo de Zamboanga, followed seven years later in 1912.

Zamboanga City’s Chinese community, meanwhile, was steadily growing as well in size and numbers. A new generation of Chinese-descended children was coming up and the community felt it was time for a school that would offer formal education for its children and one that would honor and keep alive the Chinese heritage they cherished.

In 1919, sixteen elders, all Chinese aliens then, made the move and enshrined themselves and the school they gave birth to in the annals and memories of Zamboanga City. The founders of Zamboanga’s first Chinese school were Mr. Yu Bon Chia, Mr. Gam San Din, Mr. Yu Si Chiong, Mr. Wee Chu Ha, Mr. Uy Han Chiong, Mr. Tee Kee Biao, Mr. Tan Si Pan, Mr. Uy Kong Yuk, Mr. Chiong Ting Hong, Mr. Cheong Bu Kai, Mr. Lim Theng Si, Mr. Chiong Siong Tong, Mr. Yu Piu He, Mr. Tan Sit Pek, Mr. Uy Pek O, and Mr. Ong Bee Kong. With authority from E. M. Moyer, the American superintendent of schools then, the school opened.

Old School Sketch

In its infancy and early years, it operated with the full support of Chinese National Party members. Its initial objective was simple — to ensure that all children of Chinese nationals learned Mandarin. Later, the school geared its instruction towards enlightening students on the principles espoused by Dr. Sun Yat Sen. His birthday was November 12, later adopted as the school’s foundation day.

This orientation would continue until the last third of the century. As the world moved towards a one-China policy, Zamboanga’s Chinese school was also converted into a non-partisan community school to win the full support of the city’s entire Chinese Community.

The Zamboanga Chinese Elementary School rose at Magay Street — its main objective: to provide formal education for children of Zamboanga’s Chinese community. Over a hundred students immediately responded and became the school’s pioneer population.

The enthusiasm and growth of the Zamboanga Chinese Elementary School was dynamic and five years later, the original Magay school could no longer handle the influx of students. In 1924, it moved to a bigger lot along the old Jovellar Street, now Gov. Lim Avenue. A new school, a new location, and a new name as well for it was renamed the Zamboanga Chong Hua High School. And it was by now a high school. But the old name died hard. And the school bore the name Zamboanga Chinese High School for a long time.

The vision of the founding fathers was well on its way.

But even the Jovellar move was not enough to ease the space dilemma as more and more students flocked to the school. In 1926, two years later, the school moved once more to what is now the site of the old City Theatre cinema house, setting up shop and classrooms in the 3-storey concrete building. A Chinese curriculum also made its debut in the high school at this time.

In 1929, it was moving time again. The school yanked up roots once more and this time, set them down firmly for good at the old Marahui Street (now Gen. Vicente Alvarez Street) where it remains to this day. This time, it had to build from scratch and its first building went up with the help of the Association of Rice Dealers and a unified effort from the Chinese community.

Not much detail is available from 1929 until 1941 but the school progressed and grew. When the conflict of World War II rolled over the shores of Zamboanga City, however, most of the school’s facilities and records were destroyed and the school closed until Zamboanga City was liberated from Japanese Occupation in March 1945.

In 1946, the Zamboanga Chinese High school was reborn. Community members and benefactors spurred by the leadership of one of the original founders, Ong Bee Kong, moved to rebuild and reorganize the school. Two years later, in 1948, with the Philippines now independent, the government formally recognized the school. With this came a major change. No longer would the school be exclusively for Chinese with its Chinese program of instruction. Its curriculum was modified to accommodate children of Filipino families who desired a Filipino-Chinese education.

One thing more, the school’s first basketball court went up also in 1948. A few years later, the Chinese school basketball teams were stellar names in the city, underscoring the institution’s commitment to sports for the development of the youth. The momentum for growth was unmistakable, driven and guided by the school’s Board of Trustees which had taken over the reins from the founding fathers, a Board that continues to function to this very day and which has been highly instrumental in charting the progress of the school through the decades.

In the 1950s, the school flourished. In fact, much of the photographic documentation of the school’s earliest years clusters around the decades of the 50s and 60s (what does that say about those years?).

Perhaps those were the years when the school’s stability, vibrancy, growth, and potential for positive change were soaring towards a crest. Or perhaps those were the years when the school flexed its muscles, so to speak, and found synergy with its students.

Or perhaps photography as the medium for documentation was taking off in Zamboanga and gave the premier studios good subjects in the school, its officers, and students. The names of City Studio, Victory Studio, Pichay’s Studio, and Aroma Studio are legendary today in that golden age of the photo studios. Today, many of the sepia-toned and fading pictures in the albums of school alumni bear their name imprints.

Or maybe because it was in these years when many school spectacles took place. The event-of-the-year in those times was the 10-10 or Double-Ten celebrations held, of course, every October 10, just 2 days before the city’s Fiesta Pilar. And what celebrations they were!

Exclusively identified with the school, they were a blaze of color and sound, much-anticipated, and well-attended. Each grade and year-level boisterously prepared and practiced for the centerpiece field demonstration competitions that formed the main attraction. As did the teams for basketball and other sports that fought for glory and triumph throughout that day. For every student and proud parent, October 10 was special, a day when the school burst out in celebration, ending each night with fireworks and a special program at the old San Teh auditorium of film shows and cultural presentations. No celebrations in the later years could hold a candle to the 10-10 extravaganzas that live on vividly in the memories of many.

And how many remember the name of the school organs then? Well, here they are: The Dragon for the high school and for the elementary, what else but The Dragonette! Much later, the school organ was named The Plum in line with the school logo that depicts the tiny popular flower of China that thrives in the harsh winter, becoming more beautiful in bloom as the weather gets colder, evocative of the school’s strength, virtue, fortitude, and resilience even in the hardest of times.

In 1965, the first 4-storey concrete building was constructed, replacing a venerable two-storey structure that was a reservoir of memories for students of earlier years. That old building housed some administration offices, the band room of the late band leader Mr. Cresencio Torres that resounded with the toots of clarinets, the blare of trumpets, and the boom of the drums. And it had a very tempting long corridor overlooking Sevilla Street that was a forbidden track for naughty students racing from one end to the other. Never mind that the floorboards were rickety and creaky, punctuated by ominous cracks and holes at intervals. Of course the racers risked slaps and swats on their behinds from exasperated teachers when caught but many felt the thrill was worth it.

As were the thrills of splashing around down at the basketball courts when heavy rains turned them into vast wading pools along with the ground floor classrooms since the surrounding streets were higher than the campus grounds then. The first classrooms to fill with water were those of the wooden 3-storey building housing the Grade 1 elementary pupils. That wooden 3-storey building stood for a long time. Its facade made up for flagpoles as two flags were hoisted to the top at morning ceremonies – the Philippine flag and the Chinese nationalist flag in those years before the school’s conversion into a non-partisan community school. With two flags also came two anthems sung as the flags rose. Many vied for the privilege of hoisting the flags but few were chosen.

This historic 3-storey building also came down in 1979 and in its place two years later stood a 4-storey concrete building.

But before this building could be built, something had to be born. In all the years up to 1977, something was missing from the school. It had no Alumni Association.

In 1978, the indomitable Mrs. Leticia Alvarez, she who had helped lead the school through decades of growth and progress as head teacher, principal, among others, moved to make all the men and women who had passed through the school’s portals into the world part of the school’s 60th anniversary celebration. The result: the birth of the Zamboanga Chong Hua High School Alumni Association (ZCHHSAA), Inc.

Fifteen alumni became the original incorporators of the Association formalized on April 25, 1979. They were Francis Lim, Pedro Chua, Vicente Chan, Ramon Kue, Lim Go, Anita L. Cheong, Ramon Sanchez, Julian Chiong, Ricardo Fernandez, Felipe Acosta, Evelia Chan, Gertrudes Lim, Eduardo Cheong, Alberto Yu, and Benito Ong.

That same year, 1979, the 60th year of the school, the ZCHHSAA proved itself when it led the effort to develop the school by augmenting its facilities. The 4-storey concrete building turned over in 1981 is a testament to its drive and commitment to the school.

Ten years later, on the school’s 70th anniversary, another milestone was marked with the inauguration of the 4-storey Kong Hua Building with a top floor gym which replaced the unforgettable San Teh Auditorium, the site of many commencement exercises through the years.

It is the year 2009.

This year, the Zamboanga Chong Hua School turns 90. One can hardly imagine the old pioneer school of 1919 upon seeing today’s imposing buildings and the overhead walkway that spans Gen. Vicente Alvarez Street linking the Kong Hua building to the main campus, not to mention the throng of late-model cars and vans swarming the nearby streets to fetch students going home.

With over a thousand students today, its name shines out as an educational institution with standards that are second to none. In more recent years, its students have manifested excellence in the field of mathematics, oratory, and journalism. They have basked in international recognition through exemplary performance in prestigious mathematics competitions in China, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan, to mention a few.

Gone are the days of the scanty equipment and publications available for the research and learning of students. Today’s library is filled with the latest books and multimedia materials. Modern computer facilities, audio-visual rooms, including standby power, are just some of the modern amenities that students enjoy.

Those who went before them can only imagine what they, too, could have achieved, given today’s resources. But they need not wonder. For, undeniably, they too made their mark, as did all the other generations of students before them.

The history and legacy of the Zamboanga Chong Hua High School is inevitably linked and intertwined with that of Zamboanga City herself. For Zamboanga’s Chinese community proved itself one of the pillars of growth and development for the city as early as the young 1900s when the city’s drive to the future was gaining steam. Pre-war Zamboanga was growing from the combined efforts of several sectors — the Americans and the Europeans who put up roots here and prospered with their livestock, logging, ranching, mining, and other businesses; the Chinese who parlayed trade, business, agricultural, and retail businesses into a thriving sector; and the native Zamboanguenos with a resource and supply base plus a dynamic service sector that met the needs of the growing industries. After the war, it was the same. Reconstruction saw the Chinese community taking an active and leading role in bringing the city back to its feet. Their presence at the city’s main street, Guardia Nacional, now Mayor Climaco Avenue, speaks of this.

The graduates of the Zamboanga Chong Hua High School contributed immensely to the growth of the city in very diverse yet tangible ways. Zamboanga City’s skyline today is proof of their legacy. In mainstream commerce and trade, in the food and entertainment sectors, in the market and merchandising sectors, in the housing and transportation sectors, in practically all avenues of city development and economic growth, the presence and contributions of the men and women prepared by the Zamboanga Chong Hua High School are undeniable. In short, Zamboanga City as it is today would not be so without them.

Zamboanga Chong Hua High School alumni today continue to do their alma mater proud. At home, abroad, wherever they are, in whatever careers they have chosen, they stand out and make a difference, their values and outlooks honed by years of discipline and formation serving as their beacons of success. They shine out in a vast landscape of achievement, not only locally, nationally, but globally as well — in business, in many highly specialized fields of science and research, in medicine, in governance, in philanthropy, in the arts, in design, in corporate management, you name it.

The new generation is just as promising. The Zamboanga Chong Hua High School’s students have brought pride to the school and the city time and time again, excelling in international competitions and showcasing the quality of the school’s education. It can be said that the coming years will see them reprising the roles and achievements of their fathers and grandfathers in helping the city they love and call home move up to greater heights in the future. They are indeed “building on tradition, pursuing new heights” and actively engaged in the “relentless pursuit of perfection” as the school’s rallying cries today proclaim.

But on this 90th anniversary of the Zamboanga Chong Hua High School, all pride and joy in the ascendancy of the school and its students must wing their way back to that day in 1919 when a group of men, with little more than a vision guiding them, decided to dream with their eyes open and bring it to life.

For in doing so, they shaped the future, not only for their children and their coming generations, but also for a city they truly were a part of. It is said that those who truly deserve honor are those who achieve and win against the greatest of odds. The 16 founding fathers of the Zamboanga Chong Hua High School 90 years ago did that and more, and for this, they are today honored.

May today’s generation of students and all who come after them always cherish this memory and remember the sacrifice, the fire, and the spirit that gave birth and strength to a humble wooden Magay school and its burning legacy of education and excellence that helped shape a city and lives on to this day.