By Hanah Tabios

A descendant of famed 19th century Filipino artist Juan Luna will vacate a spot in the iconic Harrison Plaza in Manila that served as his second home for about 42 years when the mall closes at year end.

IMG 7896 1 - Painter Fred Luna bids goodbye to his four-decade old shop in Harrison Plaza

Portrait artist Freddie Luna Cruz, 67, a descendant of famed 19th century Filipino artist Juan Luna, soon vacate his spot at Harrison Plaza after 42 years. The former upscale shopping complex will cease operations on Tuesday, December 31. (Photo by Hanah Tabios)

Freddie Luna Cruz, 67, a portrait artist, was dubbed by his fellow tenants the “icon” of the historic seven-hectare establishment. He has been occupying the country’s first ever one-stop-shop mall since 1977. But the fate of his business remains unknown in the face of the property’s impending closure on Dec. 31.

“Noong opening ng mall andito na ako. Ito ang unang-unang mall so this is almost 43 years old na ngayon pero 50 years ang contract nito. Unfortunately, ibinenta ito ng may-ari, ng Martel, sa SM. Ang SM naman binili ito kay Erap,” Freddie told the Manila Bulletin in an interview.

(I’ve been here since the mall opened. This was the first mall so this is almost 43 years old, but its contract is for 50 years. Unfortunately, it was sold by its owners, the Martels, to SM. SM bought this from Erap [former president Joseph Estrada].”

Reports say the Martels sold the property to SM Prime Holdings. The land is actually owned by the City of Manila and was previously the site of Harrison Park and Ermita Cemetery. The Martels had a contract with the city to develop the site.

With the Martels’ contract ending in 2020 or 2022 (depending on how the legal technicalities are interpreted), SM Prime is poised to take over and enter into a long-term joint development agreement with the Manila city government.

Luna’s customers and some curious shoppers would often pop into his store, located at the heart of the mall, asking him the same question: “Saan na po kayo lilipat?” (Where will you move to?)

But Freddie’s response was just a simple: “Hindi ko pa alam eh.” (I don’t know yet.)

Bearing the pride of being a descendant of Juan Luna, Freddie took a fine arts course at the University of the Philippines-Diliman in his youth but failed to earn his undergraduate diploma amid the chaos brought by martial law and the protests against it. He said he was among those who trooped to the streets during the massive protests under the Kabataang Makabayan national democratic movement.

He transferred and enrolled in the same course at the Philippine Women’s University, where he finally earned his degree.

For him, arts would always be a part of his life even if his father had discouraged him from pursuing his passion. It was his talent and pure perseverance that made him into the well-known portrait artist that he is today, long before he earned the label “icon ng Harrison.”

“Dati nasa Mabini lang ako. Doon ako nag-o-on-the-spot sa mga hotel. Quick sketch lang, 50 pesos. Uupo ako sa lobby ako ng hotel, masaya na ako doon kasi mahirap kumita ng pera,” he said. (I used to ply my trade in Mabini, I would do on-the-spot sketches for 50 pesos. I’d sit the lobbies of hotels, and I’d be happy dong that, because it was hard to earn money.)

Among his sketches were portraits of the late king of pop Michael Jackson and boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who visited the country in 1996 and 1975 respectively.

“Noong mabalitaan ko na ito ang the first mall in the Philippines, lumapit ako sa mga Martel, pinakita ko yung mga works ko. [Ang] may-ari ay mahilig pala sa art, ‘yon, ‘Let me see your works,’” he continued.

(When I heard about this, the first mall in the Philippines, I approached the Martel family and showed my works. The owners were fond of art, so, ‘Let me see your works.’)

Amazed by his paintings, the Martels gave him a spot in a gallery inside the mall. That was during the time when personal sketches were in high demand.

Years later, Freddie established his own contacts through his clients. His business blossomed and he was later tapped for several commissioned artworks, including oil in canvas portraits of five Philippine presidents–from Corazon “Cory” Aquino up to the current chief executive Rodrigo Roa Duterte. He entered the Malacañang grounds three times as he was invited to several Palace events.

The pictures hung on his store’s wall can tell many stories.

“The first na nagawan ko ng painting ay si Cory. Siya ang unang president nagawan ko, 1986 after the EDSA Revolution, noong nadeclare na siyang presidente. Nabakante noon ang Malacañang [dahil] lahat ng painting ni Marcos ninakaw. Doon nagstart na ‘yung career ko, hanggang sa ginawa akong artist ni Cory sa tourism. Nakapag-round the world ako na nag-o-on-the-spot sketches ako sa mga embassies,” he added.

(The first president I painted was Cory Aquino, in 1986 after the EDSA Revolution when she was declared president. Malacañang was empty then because the paintings of the Marcoses were stolen. That’s when my career started. Cory made me an artist for tourism, and I went around the world doing on-the-spot sketches at embassies.)

But with Harrison Plaza to soon become just a part of everyone’s memory, Freddie will leave the place with a heavy heart.

Despite his long-standing connection with the Martels to whom he owed a lot for his successful career, Freddie stood up for his fellow workers. Since the first eviction notice issued in May, he formed an informal union despite a ban from the management.

He said they fought until the very end.

But the order issued in November was final. A new owner will take over the property to build another business.

But seeing himself working inside Harrison again under the new management is currently out of the picture.

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