Auntie Terry (as played by Angeli Bayani) and her ward Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) in a scene from ‘Ilo Ilo’.
During the 66th Cannes International Film Festival held in May, Anthony Chen’s feature film debut “Ilo Ilo” became the first film from Singapore to win in the world’s most prestigious festival. After earning a 15-minute standing ovation during its gala premiere, it was awarded the Camera d’Or, given to the best first feature film presented in the Official Selection, International Critics’ Week or the Directors’ Fortnight section where it was an entry.
The film focuses on the relationship between the Lims, a typical Chinese-Singaporean family, and their newly arrived maid, Teresa or Terry, an OFW from Iloilo (hence, the title), in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. The maid was played by Filipina independent film actress Angeli Bayani.
Anthony Chen displays his Camera D’Or award at the 66th Cannes Film Festival in May. (Reuters)
As it turns out, the story was based on the director’s childhood and inspired by the Pinay domestic helper whom Chen and his two younger brothers referred to as, yes, Auntie Terry.
As reported by the Chinese-language newspaper of Singapore, Lianhe Zaobao, Chen embarked on a search for the real Auntie Terry shortly after winning the Camera d’Or for his film. With the help of Iloilo natives or Ilonggas as we know them, it did not take long before Auntie Terry (real name: Teresita D. Sajonia) was found still living in, of course, Iloilo.
“Sometimes, even after years of separation, there are those who are destined to meet again. On Sunday 23rd July, in a small hut in the village of San Miguel in Iloilo Province, Anthony and Christopher were reunited with the real Auntie Terry after a 16-year separation. Words were unnecessary as they embraced. It was an emotional moment for all who were present,” according to Lianhe Zaobao as translated by the movie’s Facebook site from the original Chinese report.
Now 56, Auntie Terry was also described in the report as looking a lot older with ragged clothes, greying hair and wrinkled face, a far cry from how Anthony Chen remembered her: “a cultured, young, and beautiful lady who loved to dress up and listen to cassette tapes of ‘Evita’ and ‘Miss Saigon’”.
The article as it appeared on the Chinese-language Singaporean newspaper Lianhe Zaobao.
Her current living conditions are also hardly what anyone would consider as that befitting a former OFW. The report further revealed that Auntie Terry now lives in a foul-smelling run-down house that’s akin to “a chicken shack” in their village. Characterized by wooden planks, bamboo materials, muddy floors, well water, no toilet and lit only by a small light bulb, Auntie Terry’s place only has an old radio for its only appliance.
According to the report, Auntie Terry is one of the classic cases of OFWs who worked hard to support their family but in the process, forget to look after their own welfare. When she was working in Singapore, she sent most of her salary to her family, setting aside P80,000 for herself.
The Chen siblings, Anthony, Justin and Christopher, had very fond memories of their Auntie Terry during the eight years that she worked for their family.
“After she returned to her village, Teresita missed the three boys very much. She didn’t marry and had no children. Up till today, she still carries photos of the three boys with her, as if they were her own children. She wrote to the Chen family once, but unfortunately the family moved to a different address and they lost contact,” the report continued.
When she returned to the country due to health reasons 16 years ago at the age of 40, Auntie Terry went back to Iloilo and never returned to Singapore. Now living with a partner who, like her, suffers from poor vision, she lives a hand-to-mouth existence bartering her chickens for fish and usually eats just bread twice a day.
Fortunately, the Chens did not forget her. “There are many domestic helpers working in Singapore. We thought when they return home, they’ll be able to afford a big house, or run a small business. But the truth is not always the case,” Anthony said in the same report.
When the Chen brothers found Auntie Terry, they gave her money, vitamin supplements and bought her a pair of glasses, some clothes, T-shirts, jeans and shoes.
Thanks to the efforts of businessman Charles L. Lim — a Singaporean himself who has been living in the Philippines for many years and learned about Auntie Terry through “Ilo Ilo” — Auntie Terry and her partner only known as Mr. Jhunie will be flown to Singapore free of charge to attend the film’s premiere in the city-state.
This will mark the first time in 16 years that Auntie Terry will set foot again in the Lion City, as well as her first time to watch a movie in a cinema — a movie whose story she inspired.