Art Arc: The Story of Ang Kiukok's Watercolors at the Pen, From Humble Beginnings to its Restoration After Lockdown - Arts & Culture

“I was in my twenties then, and he was older and already married. I told him, ‘Oh, you really let it out there, don’t you?’. He just laughed.”

Without a doubt, The Peninsula Manila has one of the most enviable art collections amassed by a hotel. That includes works by important Philippine artists like Jose Joya, BenCab, Mauro Malang Santos, Cesar Legaspi, and Larry Alcala, some of whose drawings were kept as “mementoes” by hotel guests.

READ ALSO: In Photos: A Look Back At The Plaza And The Pen, Two Luxury Manila Hotels That Are Celebrating 45 Years In 2021

The most visible of them all would have to be Napoleon Abueva’s tantalizing sculpture. Mounted on the hotel lobby’s high ceiling, it has become a defining feature of The Pen’s lobby.

Missy Sanares Reyes and her team work on restoring KiuKok’s watercolors

Just before the lockdown, the hotel unveiled the newly-restored and reframed 20-piece collection of Ang KiuKok’s works on paper, purchased at P1,600 to P1,700 each back in the seventies. “It’s now worth a lot more zeroes,” Evelyn Lim Forbes likes to say.

The daughter of PL Lim , the Pen’s late chairman emeritus, Lim Forbes was instrumental in choosing the artists for the hotel’s suites, executive offices, and the like.

She brought in her best friend Elizabeth Punzalan, an American married to a Filipino, who was one of the early art dealers in Manila. “She started in the 70s, and was already visiting artists in their homes back then,” Lim Forbes recalls. For her father and his good friend and partner at the hotel, Charlie Palanca, the hotel, launched in 1976, had to have only the best, because it was envisioned as a showcase for the world.

From left: PL Lim; Charlie Palanca

“The roots of The Peninsula Manila stem from the Peninsula Hong Kong,” Lim Forbes explains. “It’s been there since before the war, and it had this tradition that was almost Victorian, the feeling of luxury and service that was carried over to Manila. Which is what you pay for, hello.”

As a child, Lim Forbes recalls staying at The Peninsula Hong Kong with her father, where they would get a suite in the old wing. “His initials are monogrammed in the stationary, soap, etc. “So when he walked in, it was like his own bedroom,” Lim Forbes remembers. “The suite also had a shoe cabinet, which would have all my father’s shoes newly-shined when he opened it in the morning.”

Her father and Uncle Charlie “brought that sophistication through art,” Lim Forbes further explains. “They wanted modern, and the artworks should show the progression in the country, that it is at par with the rest of the region.”

An archival photo of The Pen’s Tipanan Bar Lounge (now the location of the Spices restaurant) taken around the time of its launch in 1976

As per the hotel board’s directions, Ang KiuKok’s works will hang in the suites named after Philippine provinces and regions. Lim Forbes recalls meeting the “kind and gentle” KiuKok who was “nothing like his paintings at all,” she says. “I was in my twenties then, and he was older and already married. I told him, ‘Oh, you really let it out there, don’t you?’. He just laughed.”

“He knew where his works were going to be mounted,” Lim Forbes continues, “because we didn’t want him to come in cold. And he understood his role. I mean, you can’t just draw an angry dog for Masbate or a screaming cat for the Cordilleras. There were a lot of discussions on what the theme was going to be for each room. And we got 20 wonderful works.”

Since then, KiuKok’s paintings have been moved around the hotel through various renovations. For its first revamp back in 1993 to 94, the iconic sculpture by Napoleon Abueva was installed, and the color palette of the grand lobby lightened. Starting in 2006, the hotel rolled out a two-phase renovation from 2006 (around the time when KiuKok’s works were put in storage) to 2008, and the succeeding redesign from 2008 to 2010.

The hotel’s lobby prior to its restoration in 1993 to 94 (left), and after (right) when the color palette of the lobby was lightened, and Napoleon Abueva’s sun sculpture was installed

Another renovation sometime in 2019 to 2020 saw the transformation of The Pen’s gallery into the Gallery Club Lounge. “And that’s how the story of reviving the KiuKoks started,” Mariano Garchitorena, director of Public Relations, recalls. “We needed to fill those walls.”

But first, the pieces needed to be restored and reframed. From the hotel side, Garchitorena and the Pen’s PR officer, Grace Lim, headed the restoration team. Deciding it too risky to move the art pieces out of the premises, the hotel brought in the restorers—from Missy Sanares Reyes Art Restoration and Conservation—who worked on the paintings for a couple of months in time for the Gallery Club Lounge’s launch in 2020.

While it has been closed for the past two years, the Peninsula Manila’s VIPs and suite occupants can look forward to the Gallery Club Lounge reopening this March 18.  There, a rare treat awaits: “We have 20 KiuKoks, the largest KiuKok collection of any hotel in the Philippines, as far as I know,” Garchitorena proudly exclaims. “I could be wrong, but until somebody refutes it, we stand by that.”

A Manila Peninsula page with one of the restored commissioned watercolors by artist Ang KiuKok

KiuKok’s works were commissioned for the hotel’s suites, which were named after Philippine provinces and regions. “Most of what you see in the Gallery Club Lounge are not like the artist’s usual works ,” Garchitorena shares. “They depict regional sceneries and traditions, such as the Peñafrancia festival in Bicol, the San Juanico Bridge in the Visayas, etc.”

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