The Indestructible Chavit Singson
It was Chavit Singson’s birthday. He has spent his actual birthday celebrating in Hong Kong the week before, but come Monday, he was back at the office of First Global Transit, an online payment solutions company and one of his newer business interests, and the team wanted to show their appreciation. Three attractive women in stilettos led the procession to Singson’s corner office, singing “Happy Birthday” and carrying a Jura coffee machine box topped with a bow (in case you were wondering what to get the man who has everything). The women each gave their boss a buss on the cheek, and he proceeded to unnecessarily unwrap the present, which was obviously a Jura coffee maker, one or more of which he already owns in one or more of his houses.
The man known as Governor was in a good mood. He had just turned 76, survived a recent heart attack, a helicopter crash, as well as seven attempts on his life throughout his storied career in politics. Despite his name being attached to numerous controversies over the last two decades, his latest headline-making exploits were mostly positive, concerning the successful, if not costly, mounting of the Miss Universe 2016 pageant.
Presently, he is the municipal councilor of Narvacan, Ilocos Sur (pop. 44,000), having maxed out his terms as Governor of the province for a total of nearly 29 years. Some say he wanted to take control of Narvacan, which was ruled by the Zaragoza political clan, but Singson insists he only wants to help the poor town, which he claims has not prospered despite receiving millions from the tobacco excise tax. He has filed a plunder case against the Zaragozas for misappropriating said funds. Chavit himself was charged back in 2002 with three counts of graft for allegedly diverting P26 million in tobacco excise taxes (auditors would later find P1.3 billion unaccounted for), but years of delay in the investigation led to the dismissal of the cases—yet another lucky escape for the Gov with nine lives.
Singson took us to lunch at Dario’s, a new Italian restaurant he owns in Serendra, BGC. Maybe he thought it would be profitable to get into the restaurant industry, or maybe he just really liked the food at Caruso and wanted to fund the co-founder’s breakaway restaurant. In any case, it’s always a good idea to have an entire restaurant to yourself when you need it.
He had just turned 76, survived a recent heart attack, a helicopter crash, as well as seven attempts on his life throughout his storied career in politics.
“Don Corleone!” Dario Gardini, the chef and co-owner, greeted Singson warmly. Singson sat down at the center of a long table next to the three attractive women he calls his Angels. I learn that two of them work at the office and while the other one was “on call,” meaning she shows up to events as needed. They are just a part of the revolving entourage that Chavit rolls with; he is never by himself, and he is never not making deals. On the side, he met with his daughter Richelle, an officer in his holding company The LCS Group, to talk finances and sign checks. A group of Chinese businessmen were waiting at another table to propose a possible investment in a car manufacturing plant. Dario would come and serve courses of vongole and ravioli while discussing plans about the restaurant he and Singson are setting up in Vigan. He too will be flying with us to Chavit’s hometown after lunch; it will be Dario’s first time to inspect the facilities, which will be right in the middle of Singson’s famous private zoo.
Lunch over, we follow Singson’s black Hummer to the hangar where, to our mild disappointment, we’re told we won’t be taking his private jet, which is kept on standby for the President. We board his private propeller charter, whose extra seats were opened up to public passengers. From the Vigan airport—built in the style of a heritage house, by Singson, of course—we were whisked away to Baluarte, a 100-hectare property where wild deer roam and at least 12 (14? 16? “More than 10, less than 20”) Bengal tigers are kept. There are ostriches, zebras, camels, and wallabies scattered about the area, with more to be brought in, using whatever extralegal method required to transport protected species from their homeland (he informs us that two giraffes have already died in transit). But the real spectacle of Baluarte is his museum of dead things, or his hunting trophy room called the Safari Gallery, housed in what appropriately looks like a mausoleum from the outside, with its Roman pillars and hammered copper mural depicting the wild animals of Africa on its facade.
A polar bear, standing ferociously tall; a lion posed to look like it is attacking a buffalo, a black bear, looking more afraid of you than you are of them, a black rhino, nearly extinct; several types of antelope, their heads mounted on the walls; a hippopotamus, its enormous jaws propped open wide, and a beautiful little leopard, which Singson says he is not satisfied with because of its size—these are all of the animals he has shot and killed, and as far as hunting bucket list goes, he has killed them all. In a convoluted way, big game hunting is reasoned to help in animal conservation efforts, as the fees for these limited hunting permits, which only the very wealthy can afford, are meant to go back into the community to help maintain the rest of the wildlife that aren’t earmarked for execution. Singson paid $200,000 to hunt the elephant in Zimbabwe. He also spent another $50,000 to have it stuffed—or “preserved,” in hunting parlance—plus more than that combined to ship it back to the Philippines.
Glenn Gale, a veteran columnist, social insider and buddy of Chavit, noted with amusement that “the biggest attraction in the gallery is Chavit himself,” when visitors spotted the Governor and started swarming around him with selfie sticks. Whether they see him as a hometown hero, powerful warlord, or just a wildly successful entrepreneur, Singson’s repute certainly carries more cachet than your run-the-mill celebrity.
“The biggest attraction in the gallery is Chavit himself.”
Among the trophy photographs hung on the walls of the gallery were the odd paintings, and I mean odd: Chavit as a centaur, and a 2D painting of a tiger whose head manages to holographically morph into Chavit’s. Two framed newspaper clippings commemorate a different kind of hunt—the attempt on his life in 1972 by way of hand grenade. In the photograph, the dazed 30-year-old newly elected governor lay in a hospital bed looking at his bloodied barong. The caption to the AP wire photo reads: Singson was injured in a hand grenade attack killing 17 persons and injuring nearly 100 in a crowded town square. The attack was attributed to political feuding and relatives say it was the fifth attempt to assassinate since election last November.
“I was dancing with a fat lady,” Singson says. “She shielded me.” The lady did not survive.
Singson, by all means, seems like a man to be feared. Aside from the political turf battles and gangland brutality that comes with being a provincial ruler, there are the other stories—like the alleged beating of his former wife Rachel Tiongson and her lover, after they were caught in flagrante. It was widely believed, but never proven, that while he was deputy National Security Advisor for President Arroyo, Singson or one of his henchmen mutilated the man’s penis and even kept photographs of it. To the media, Singson would alternately confirm and deny that he abused the couple, but he was not terribly convincing with statements like, “They should be thankful I didn’t kill them,” or “They deserved to die.” Tiongson, the mother of five of his children, eventually dropped the charges against him, her reputation destroyed as she was painted as a gold-digging adulteress who deserved to be smacked around, never mind that Singson himself was a hardcore philanderer.
Which makes his patronage of the Miss Universe competition somewhat problematic, although people seemed to conveniently forget the allegations in favor of the glitz and glamor that Singson rained down on the candidates. It was ironic, or perhaps fitting, that the Miss Universe Organization asked Singson to cough up another US$1 million for their “Women Empowerment” program.
To be fair, Singson pulled off what was heralded all around as one of the most successful and well-produced pageants ever, bringing it back from the precipice of cancellation when the MUO pulled out after President Duterte’s Hitler remarks and “putang ina” reference to President Obama. William Morris Entertainment, the company that owns the MUO, is headed by Ari Emanuel, the Hollywood super-agent (and Jewish American) whose brother Rahm happened to be Obama’s former Chief-of-Staff. The organization offered $US3 million in settlement, but Singson’s lawyer said they were entitled to US$10 million for the breach of contract, since they had paid the deposit in full.
“I wrote them a letter: ‘you can cancel it and I won’t file damages. But I hope you reconsider. You will lose credibility,’” Singson says. “I showed them I was not interested in money. After a month, they agreed to come back.” Singson had also sent his Israeli business partner, a friend of Emanuel’s, to convince the organization to change their mind. He then made sure that the candidates’ every need was catered to, buying a new yacht, a plane, and 30 buses to tour them around and show them a good time, spending an additional US$1 million on private security.
The staging of the pageant fell to him like many of the other businesses he’s involved in— people just come to him with ideas, schemes, and propositions. He passes them down to his CEO to study before he makes a decision. This is partly how he’s come to have such varied and wide-ranging interests from tobacco, construction, mining, transportation, and hotels; to financial services like remittances, banking, microfinancing and online payments; and random ones like the restaurant, Miss U, and a sporting goods store franchise. Is there any industry he’s not dipped his paws in? Singson pauses to think. “No….almost everything. Lahat.”
Singson emerged as a national figure in 2000, when the then-governor of Ilocos Sur dropped the A-bomb that his long-time drinking and gambling buddy Erap was the “lord of all jueteng lords.” He accused the President of collecting P5 million in protection money from jueteng operators every month— he would know, because he was the bagman. He also blew the whistle on Erap’s partaking of P70 million from the tobacco excise funds of his province (we’ll get back to this tobacco tax later), which led to the impeachment trial, which led to EDSA 2, and the rest is… subject to revisionist history.
Is there any industry he’s not dipped his paws in? Singson pauses to think. “No….almost everything. Lahat.”
“They were going to kill me,” Singson explains. “I did it for survival.” The Governor had gotten word that he was about to be targeted by Estrada’s goons. On October 3, 2000, Singson’s vehicle was stopped by several policemen for running a red light. Sensing an ambush, Singson somehow managed to escape. (The ousted President later denied that he would do such a thing to his friend). However, all’s well that ends well—when Erap’s mother, Mary Ejercito, died at 103 years old in January 2009, Singson decided to show up at the funeral.
“Nagulat sila,” he recounts. “Everyone parted, parang suklay. But I wasn’t guilty, so I had nothing to be afraid of.” The old pals reconciled, they began attending each other’s parties again, and Singson even had his starring role edited out of Erap’s conspiracy video—the film the former president makes all his houseguests watch. He laughs at the memory. Good times with Chavit Singson.
In the middle of Baluarte stands a golden tower nine stories high. It used to be Singson’s “hideaway” when he wanted to lay low in Vigan, but he’s since built a more understated villa, one not sheathed like a glittery disco ball.
We tour the circular building starting at the rooftop bar, which has sweeping views of the province, with the West Philippine Sea to the west and the Cordilleras to the east. The bar area is fashioned like a cave carved from sandstone, but it’s all made out of plaster. On a lower level is Singson’s private suite, where a bronze tiger head hangs in lieu of a doorknob. The room is everything you would expect from a larger-than-life figure like Chavit—leather couches, shag carpeting, first-class cabin massage chairs, cowhide, shiny marble surfaces, and yes, a hot tub that can fit “eight Brazilian models” (I don’t remember who exactly said this, but it was said). Prominently displayed on the nightstand is a framed photo of Singson and Paris Hilton, who he says was one of the first guests to party at his pad.
Singson is proud of the things he’s built. “This pillar cost P2.5 million,” he says, pointing to a massive post encrusted with mother-of-pearl. There were four of them in the lobby. Baluarte is free of charge, anyone can come in to look at the animals, dead and alive, and if you’re lucky you could probably have an ogle inside the golden citadel. We also checked out the new Safari Lodge where Dario’s restaurant was going to be located. When completed, guests can stay at the lodge, with its South African-inspired cottages fronting Singson’s savannah. LED palm trees dot the grounds, probably to remind you that you’re not really in Africa, but in Chavit’s world of pure imagination.
We were billeted at Chavit’s Vigan hotel, the lovely Hotel Luna, an architectural hybrid with one part being a restored ancestral house that connects seamlessly with a completely new structure. A collection of artworks from Philippine masters like BenCab, Napoleon Abueva, Juan Luna, Ramon Orlina, Araceli Dans et al makes it a museum destination in itself, but you’re more likely to waste time figuring out the high tech Japanese toilet inside the bathroom. Before dinner, we walked several blocks down cobblestone streets to Plaza Salcedo to catch Vigan’s second most bizarre attraction: the dancing fountain show.
“This pillar cost P2.5 million,” he says, pointing to a massive post encrusted with mother-of-pearl. There were four of them in the lobby.
Conservation purists would probably balk at what transpires nightly at the plaza named after the founder of Vigan city. But the locals seem to enjoy this modern addition to their UNESCO Heritage Site. At one end of the plaza stands the haunting Vigan Cathedral, where Floro Crisologo, Singson’s uncle and political foe, was shot dead while kneeling for communion back in 1970. The P10-million musical fountain with Korean technology was installed in 2013, a gift to the town spearheaded by whichever Singson kin was in charge at the time. We went up to a special air-conditioned viewing box to watch the show.
Lasers projected a silhouette of the Governor on a fine mist of water that surrounded the obelisk in the center of the plaza’s reflecting pool. Hydrotechnical madness ensued: From K-Pop to Beyonce to “Twerkin’ Like Miley” to Celine Dion, water squirted, sprayed and splooged in time to the music and pulsating neon lights. The choreography—if you could call it that—was mesmerizing, with the glowing liquid rising and falling rhythmically like water sprites. I think I lost my mind in those 30 minutes.
After that little slice of Burj Khalifa, we made our way to BarTech, which, needless to say, Singson owns. Dining al fresco among a mix of authentically dilapidated buildings and carefully reconstructed ones certainly has its charm, bringing to mind other colonial Hispanic towns where all the action happens on the streets. And a street dinner hosted by Chavit for visitors wouldn’t be complete without a cultural show. A cultural show in Chavitland, however, involves a troupe of female performers, also called Chavit’s Angels, who dance to the latest Bruno Mars hits in tiny shorts. The males are just called Chavit Dancers. They’re all scholars from Ilocos Sur who entertain at fiestas around the province, and get busy particularly during campaign season. After their set, the girls lined up to give Il Padrino a kiss.
Tonight, Singson brought out Dayo, his black panther. The man known for his obsession and identification with tigers was showing a little love for one of his other cats (his leopard and white lion will have to wait their turn). A black panther is actually a leopard with melanism, I learn. “Manong Chavit has always loved animals,” Germaline Singson-Goulart, his younger sister and current mayor of Caoayan, Ilocos Sur, tells us. Collecting wild animals on one hand and trophy-hunting big game on the other constitute a rather unique kind of love, one would think. A dish of freshly shot wild duck adobo was served. Singson had once gotten flak for hunting the apparently endangered Philippine wild duck, but he argues that wild ducks are plenty in supply, to the point of infestation. “Kinakain namin,” Singson says. “Pero minsan,” he chuckles, “may naiiwan na bala.”
Germy, as the mayor is known, recalls the time when the troubles started: “The Crisologos put up a tobacco blockade in the ‘60s. Tobacco grown here is sold in places like Pampanga and Tarlac, but the Crisologos started their own redrying plant and monopolized the trade. Tobacco farmers couldn’t sell their leaves outside the province anymore.” Floro Crisologo was a Congressman while his wife Carmeling was governor; the family acted with typical warlord-esque impunity. Their private army of saka-saka burned two Ilocano barangays to the ground simply for supporting opposition candidates. A few months later, Floro was shot in the cathedral, after, according to one author, he threatened to expose President Marcos and General Ver for grabbing the lion’s share of the proceeds from the tobacco monopoly.
It was in the midst of this turmoil that Singson came to power. Singson was Floro’s nephew, and had been appointed by him as Vigan Chief of Police at the age of 21. Singson’s parents already owned a tobacco plantation, and the entrepreneurial Singson soon became the biggest shipper of tobacco in the province. Naturally, he opposed the blockade, and soon the two families turned against each other, often violently. Ilocos Sur was the Wild West, and blood ran down its streets at alarming levels (Singson, a trained mortician, also happened to own the local funeral parlor. And people wonder how he got rich?) Someone had to stand up to the Crisologos and their reign of terror, and for the long-suffering residents of Ilocos Sur, that person was Chavit Singson. “I put an end to the killings when I became governor in 1971,” Singson says. He had confiscated some 7,000 guns, dismantling the saka-saka.
Of everything he’s done, he considers his most significant achievement to be the creation of Republic Act 7171, a law Singson authored during his only term as a congressman from 1987-1992. The Tobacco Excise Tax Law returns 15 percent of government tax collected from the tobacco industry back to the Virginia tobacco leaf-producing provinces: Ilocos Norte, La Union, Abra, and Ilocos Sur, which grows 60 percent of the yield. In theory, it’s a great law intended to improve the lives of the farmers through funding infrastructure, agricultural and cooperative projects.
“Ilocos Sur used to be a fifth-class province, one of the poorest in the country. Now it’s a first-class province,” Singson says. With such an immense purse, however, graft and corruption are never far behind (Ilocos Norte governor Imee Marcos is the latest official to be embroiled in a tobacco funds misuse scandal). During Estrada’s impeachment trial, Singson admitted that he “agreed to be used by a corrupt president,” when he allowed Estrada to embezzle the tobacco revenues. Just that one time, though, he added.
The next morning, we prepared to leave Vigan, armed with several kilos of longganisa and bagnet courtesy of the Governor. He had a dental appointment to catch, after which he’ll take us on a quick spin on his new superyacht, the M/Y Happy Life. At the back of the plane, I tried to sneak in a nap (balling with Chavit was hard work), but the ruckus up front kept me from dozing off. Singson was playing a hand of cards with the flight attendant, who shrieked and laughed hysterically. Glenn Gale would later say that this was one of the rare moments he’s seen Singson truly relaxed.
On the boat, which was docked at the Manila Yacht Club, we were joined by Singson’s doctor and family. It is apparent that Singson hates being alone—he says he feels lonely. We inspect the P600 million, 42.5-meter Italian yacht—the largest in the Philippines—with eight cabins, beautiful wood detailing all throughout, and a karaoke room with a colorful tent-like ceiling. Glenn informs us that the boat’s previous owner was an Arab tycoon, hence the Bedouin touches. Singson has yet to sail it outside the Manila Bay, but let’s be honest, this is a party boat first and foremost. Singson most recently entertained a dozen ambassadors aboard the Happy Life; I wondered if he also made them, as well as the Miss U candidates, take their shoes off and put on rubber slippers to protect the plush white interior carpeting.
I had to ask, weren’t the ambassadors afraid of the Governor given his reputation, and their possible miscomprehension of local politics? Glenn, who has observed a lot of Singson’s social maneuverings, says that there were a couple who rebuffed his invitations, but he eventually won them over, and even introduced them to women whom they ended up marrying. Singson likes to keep people on their toes, though—I can imagine the uncomfortable laughter at quips he makes about feeding his tigers: “one hundred kilos of chicken; sometimes, my enemies.”
Chavit's gold-plated business card
His associations with the emissaries are mutually valuable—they make Singson look like an upstanding citizen, while they get access to arrangements that could benefit their home countries. Recently, Singson opened the Vigan Banco Internacional with branches in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Los Angeles upon a tip from one diplomat concerning the huge demand for remittance centers among Latino migrant workers.
“It’s not yours unless you spend it,” Singson likes to say. “Alam ko ’di ko madadala eh.” Like his pal Pacquiao, he’s very generous with his wealth, but unlike the Senator-Boxer, he’s invested wisely and widely (he attempted to give a heap of money away to deserving people on his TV show Happy Life, but he says most of them squandered their award.) With over a hundred firms in several countries and none of them listed, save for one mining company in Canada, we can only estimate how much he’s really worth. In one Entrepreneur article, Singson put his net revenues at P120 million a month, but judging from the reactions of his cohorts, that’s likely a lowball figure.
Singson likes to keep people on their toes, though—I can imagine the uncomfortable laughter at quips he makes about feeding his tigers: “one hundred kilos of chicken; sometimes, my enemies.”
Singson just wants to live his best happy life, to be surrounded by beautiful women, play a few games of chance, and spend his hard-earned cash. After all, he raked in his first millions from the tobacco trade at a young age, half a century ago. When he was in his early 20s, he made enough money to purchase the Vigan electrical plant, and he continues to acquire profitable businesses to this day. At 76, any plans for retirement are off the table. “Kakalawangin ka,” he says. He’s still wheeling and dealing, putting stock in future operations, and buying up most of the Philippine coastline where black sand beaches will be mined for magnetite. This could be an environmental disaster in the offing—think large-scale erosion—but the Governor begs to differ, saying responsible mining would keep it in check. Singson may be admired and feared for the things he’s done in the past, but the truth is, he’s only just Vigan.
This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of Esquire Philippines under the title "The Man Who Bought The World."