Interview Judith A. Torres
Images Neal Oshima and Benji Reyes
“Three hundred eighty-nine pesos. I remember the exact amount.”
It was 1982. Benji Reyes was in his early twenties, abandoned by his family, who had migrated to the US. His father, infuriated that Benji no longer wanted to finish his architecture studies at the University of Santo Tomas (UST), had disowned him and left his son with nothing. “He told me, ‘Hilingin mo kahit anong gusto mo, basta tapusin mo Architecture. Ask anything you want, just finish Architecture.’ And I said, ‘I’m not happy with it. This is my life.’”
Benji worked odd jobs to support himself, including teaching practical arts and perspective drawing at Aquinas, where he graduated from high school. His girlfriend, Carina Soriano, knew where his passion lay and urged him to pursue the course he wanted—Fine Arts. “Siguro nakita niya may talento ako sa art. I guess she saw I had the talent for art. She said, ‘Mag–apply ka. Go apply.’”
So, they went to check out the College of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines.
“She picked me up, we went there, they told me what the requirements were. I was to show up on a certain date and bring my portfolio. But I didn’t have a portfolio. Careng said, ‘We have to make one.’ So, we went to National Bookstore, she bought the materials, and I worked on my portfolio for one week. I showed up for the first interview, I passed. Then they said, ‘Sige, you take the talent determination test.’ I took the test and passed. I did all they asked until I was accepted at FA. The next hurdle was, how will I pay the tuition?
“How?” I ask.
“We sold old books from the back of Careng’s car on Recto.”
Claro M. Recto Avenue is one of the busiest streets in the business district of Old Manila. Because it lies within Manila’s University Belt, Recto is swarming with college kids. It’s crammed with food stalls and second-hand stores selling books, school supplies, and everything that conscientious and not-so-serious students might want, including thesis papers and fake diplomas.
The money the two young lovers raised didn’t make the amount Benji needed, so he took his beloved guitar and sold it too.
“I used to play Earl Klugh,” he reminisces. “I was influenced by a very good friend and accomplished musician, Janu Villanueva. He wrote the song Tuloy Pa Rin Ako during our Archi days at UST. Nowadays, I mostly play the blues.”
The sale of the guitar added enough to pay for Benji’s first semester at UP. “Three hundred eighty-nine pesos,” Benji repeats the number. “Every single peso counted that time. So, okay, I enrolled. Next problem: How to get to school? How to get back home? I had no allowance; what would I eat?”
Benji and I suddenly change the topic as Carina, who friends call ‘Careng,’ walks into the room for the nth time. We don’t want Careng to overhear the interview. The tribute to her is a surprise. Besides, she would be embarrassed to hear Benji talk about her as his “Everything.” So instead, we carry on about Benji’s dream to start a woodworking course while Careng gets dressed to go to an appointment.
It will be a three-month course, he says, where the students will live in Tahanan, the Reyes family home in Antipolo. Apart from learning woodworking basics and advanced techniques, Benji’s disciples will go on field trips, learn to recognize different kinds of wood and where to salvage them. They will also meditate, eat healthy food, and do nature walks. (Tahanan is perched above a cleft on a hillside, with a running brook just below the property. It also houses a Filipino restaurant.)
“It’s a holistic course. Woodworking isn’t just learning how to cut and carve wood. It’s a lifestyle; it’s a state of mind. You have to understand wood, and you have to understand yourself. You can’t work if you’re tense and angry or confused,” Benji answers when I ask why he wants the students to live at his house.
Carina is taking her time getting dressed, and once in a while, she joins our conversation. Finally, she leaves the room and the house, and Benji and I carry on with the interview on Zoom without interruption and in our normal speaking voices, instead of whispering.
[Note: The online interview, which was cut towards the end by internet connection issues, was continued by email. Names and dates were added or corrected in the editing of the text.]
Judith Torres: Wow, Benji! Wow! I had no idea your story was so dramatic.
Benji Reyes: It really happened, Judith. This really happened. And so, what Careng would do, during lunch break, she would drive from Maryknoll to the UP Library walk—that’s where FA was located in those days, at the UP Library. She’d have with her a big lunch box, and we would share that.
Grabe! How awesome is that woman?
She also shared her allowance with me. It was 20 pesos. She’d give me 10 pesos, so I’d have transportation money to go home and come back to school the next day. So that’s how we lived. For my Fine Arts materials, it was the FA property custodian, Mang Ely, who helped me out. Mang Ely helped me a lot, God bless his soul! Later on, I lived in a small apartment in UP Village, owned by a lawyer, si Abad. He encouraged me to let go of my resentments with my father. He said, “You know what, Benj, let it go. It’s not worth it. You’ll have more than that in the future.”
Ang tagal ng pinagsamahan namin ni Careng, diba? She and I have a long history, see? You asked what role Carina played in my career. She is everything. It was Careng from the very beginning.
When did you start woodworking?
I took up woodworking almost as soon as I got to UP, 1982.
How did you know that you could do wood?
Dala ng matinding pangangailangan. Out of desperate need. No kidding! I had access to wood. What can I make out of this? I’ll try to build something. Maybe I can sell it, right? That’s what it was like. There was rent to pay. How much was rent? Couple of hundred? It was a lot of money.
By that time, Careng was singing in a band. She was helping support me. All the time, I was thinking, I don’t want to be a burden on this woman. I mean, I love her so much, but I didn’t know what my future would be—what future I could offer her. But the whole time, she was very supportive.
What band was she in?
She was in Hotdog for a while, then Axis, then Chang. Chang was a three-part harmony group; they sang R&B and jazz. Butch Dans was their manager; they did front acts for APO Hiking Society and other performers. They played at Strumms, Giraffe, Kiko’s, and Mandarin. Later on, they would travel to Singapore, China, and Japan three to six months at a time. So that’s what it was like for her.
Did you graduate from UP?
I left UP after one year. I had to work. We had to leave UP Village because I couldn’t afford the rent anymore. We rented a place in Beverly Hills [a subdivision in Antipolo City where Benji grew up] that belonged to Mark Pinlak. It was a bodega, a storage space I just cleaned up, fixed up to make it look like a home. So, we lived there for a while. We must have moved to five different houses in Beverly.
Eventually, people took notice of my work. In fact, they would come to the house, people would come in, and then they would, let’s say, for example, they were interested in the baul [chest]. They’d ask, “How much for the baul?”
I’d say, “3,000.”
But when they look at my place, they’re like, “Kawawa naman ‘to, napakamiserable! This poor guy, how very miserable! O, here’s 1,500. I’ll buy it.”
And then Careng would look at me and go, [Benji shakes his head] “No.”
Sometimes, we’d whisper to each other: “Ano, tuyo ulit tayo mamayang gabi? So, dried fish again for dinner tonight?”
And she’d say, ‘Oo, oo. Yes, yes. Let them be. When it’s 3,000, it’s 3,000.” ‘Yun. So there. Malalim ‘yong pinagsamahan namin ni Careng. Careng and I have been through so much together. But we always look back to those days because it keeps us grounded. She was very supportive of what I did, whether I made a sale or didn’t make a sale.
And then, she loved what I did. She gave me inspiration. “Kaya mo ‘yan! Maganda ‘yan! You can do it! That’s beautiful!” she’d say.
Sometimes, she would source old wood, including from her parents’ house. Once, it was an old bed no longer being used; she asked her dad for it. Then she’d say, “Here, here’s some wood. Work on this one.”
1987, Eena was born. I was selling by then; I had orders for pieces. But at that time, I still was working mostly with palo china [pinewood] because I couldn’t afford hardwood yet. I had no real shop yet. We used Carina’s money to buy narra cutoffs and log ends from sawmills for premium pieces. Careng was really busy with her singing and recording because she was a backup singer and vocal coach for GMA [a television network]. Then, she would travel abroad, and I would be Mr. Mom for Eena. That was one of Careng’s regrets, not seeing much of Eena as a baby because she was always abroad.
Then I met Benru. He was among the first who noticed my work. He helped me and became a brother to me. That story is in the book.
[Benji Reyes Works, published by ABS-CBN Publishing, narrates in the chronology: “1988-1989. Benji meets Atty. Ruben “Benru” del Rosario who lives in the same neighborhood as Benji’s. They would become very good friends though Benru is 18 years Benji’s senior. Benru helps purchase Benji’s first industrial-grade woodwork machinery—a router, a planer, and an electric saw.” Read Del Rosario’s story of how he and Benji became life-long friends in The Shape of Soul.]
1990s, my orders were picking up. I was training people to help me. And then I remember one afternoon, Careng told me, “Sige, bababa na ako, Okay, I’m heading down.” We were living up in Antipolo by then. “I have a gig tonight.”
And I said, “Where are you playing? Magkano ba binabayad sa buong banda for a night? How much does the whole band make for a night?” Then she gave me a price. And I said, “Why don’t I just pay the band, so you don’t have to sing later?” Hahaha!
Then she laughed and laughed. “Yabang mo naman! How boastful of you!”
So, I said, “The business is doing good. We’re okay. As long as you’re enjoying what you’re doing, do it. But, honestly,” I said, “You’ve helped so much already. You really don’t have to. If you want to stay home and help me out, I would be more than happy. But if you enjoy what you’re doing, go.”
And it did come to a point where she got tired of doing covers. She wanted to do original music. I said, let’s ask your band if they want, we’ll pay for a composer, let’s do original music. But they didn’t want to stop doing gigs because it was regular income. Eventually, Careng got tired of the gigs, singing covers every night, so she said, “I’ll stay home na lang. I’ll help you out.”
And I said, “Sige, as long as you’re okay with that.”
What year was that?
About twenty years ago. Before we built Tahanan. [Tahanan was constructed from 1997 to 2000.]
So, when she quit singing, what role did she play in your career?
She would handle the finances of the business, payroll, quotations for the clients. When it comes to clients, I sit down with them, ask them what they need, make my suggestions, and everything. Once everything is okay with them, Careng takes over. She does the final order, costing, prices, quotation, everything. And she follows up on the deposits and payments, and everything else.
You know one thing I love about my Carina? ‘Pag ako, nahulog ‘yong puso ko sa isang tao, when my heart falls for someone, and I want to give them a gift like a chair, she doesn’t begrudge it. She just goes, “Okay, give it, I’ll make the card.” That’s how she is. She never says, “Why are you giving this or that to so-and-so?” She’s not like that.
Yeah, and she knows how to take care of you.
She knows my history. She knows I can get high-strung even with small things.
What? You’re so chill.
It’s part of my being ‘damaged goods.’ Carina understands that and is very careful with that because she knows when that happens to me, I get depressed or too anxious.
Does Carina give feedback on your pieces?
Yes. Mostly for new designs, specifically chairs. It is important for me to know her experience sitting on them for the first time. Armrest’s height and shape, the lumbar support’s feel, are critical feedback from her based on her height and build. Her familiarity with all the chairs is unparalleled by anyone.
How does she give feedback?
How do you take it?
I have to admit, I used to resent her criticism even when constructive. But I’ve learned to take my time before I present her with a new design. You see, it takes months to work on a new prototype. You eat and sleep, having that new concept percolating in your head. It’s your baby. And when it’s done, being me…I get too excited to present it to her without really testing it.
Does she give suggestions for pieces or request a subject matter?
Yes. Mostly for our personal needs. As the saying goes… a carpenter’s home is never finished. Haha!
You said a while ago that Carina inspires you. How so?
My Carina takes care of all my needs. For example, Carina knows that I love the outdoors, and I get my inspiration from nature. She regularly arranges trips for us here and abroad, especially before I start work for an exhibition. She’s so caring and solicitous, especially when I’m busy working on a project and don’t have much time for myself. She’s always been like that since I met her forty years ago. She inspires me to be a better person and to do my best when designing and crafting.
Benji, why is your partnership successful?
There is no perfect partnership. In our younger years, we used to bicker and quarrel a lot. We’ve learned from our mistakes, learned to accept them, and to apologize. We know when we need to give space. We think that success is not measured in earnings or material wealth. They’re all products of a happy and healthy relationship.
Last couple of questions. What’s your favorite song Carina sings?
The Nearness of You.
I love the photo of you playing the guitar with Carina singing. Do you do that often?
We’re trying to get back to that. Kumikita pa naman kami. Hindi pa kailangan mag-busking! We’re still making money. No need yet to go busking! Hahaha! •
The master craftsman at work at @benjireyes