Simon Li Tuanqui: Chinese Catholic benefactor of Peñafrancia Shrine

Courtesy of Mr. Lito Tuanqui
The earliest known Chinese Catholic identified by name in Bicol history is Simon Li Tuanqui. A pure Chinese, he was described by the 19th century scholarly Dominican Bishop Francisco Gainza as “an cristianong inchic.”

Although he is now most known for donating the now equally well-known pair of “Li Tuanqui Bells” to the Peñafrancia Shrine in Nueva Caceres in 1863 and 1868, he shared more than mere bells during his lifetime.

From Nueva Caceres (now Naga City), he later took permanent residence in Polangui, Albay due to his marriage to local lass Maria Sarte, and thus became a parishioner and benefactor of the Sts. Peter and Paul Parish. His extended family in Polangui donated a portion of land to this Parish. The lot is located behind the Church.

Li Tuanqui’s life as a devotee and philanthropist to the Peñafrancia Shrine is documented by Bishop Gainza, the 25th Spanish prelate in the See of Caceres, in the annex to his Bikol account of the history of the Virgin of Peñafrancia, which was translated to English by Jose Barrameda Jr. 

According to verbal accounts obtained by Barrameda from people who heard descriptions of Li Tuanqui from earlier descendants who either saw Simon or his pictures, which are now non-existent, or heard of the descriptions passed on from much older people, Li Tuanqui wore his hair in the traditional Mandarin Chinese pigtail.

In his early 40’s, Li Tuanqui was baptized by Bishop Gainza himself, and given the Christian name Simon, after Simon Vela, the French Marian devotee who, out of divine guidance, found the original image of the miraculous Lady in Peña de Francia, Spain in 1534.

In 1863, when Bishop Gainza started renovations on the Peñafrancia Shrine, Simon donated the major portion of the funds for the belfry. In addition, he gave the first of two “Li Tuanqui Bells.” He donated the second, identical bell in 1868. They are said to have been cast in Binondo, Manila.

In 1994, Barrameda inspected the man-sized bells to see for himself the inscriptions thereat. On the first bell were indeed inscribed the words: “PARA SA IGLESIA DE NTRA. SRA. DE PEÑAFRANCIA ANO D. 1863 SIMON LI TOANGOUI” and some Chinese ideographs. On the second bell were etched the words: “OBSEQUIO DE SIMON LI TUANQUI A NTRA. SRA. DE PEÑAFRANCIA ANO. 1868.” [Note how the spelling of the name evolved, which is characteristic of Chinese surnames.]

In 1997, the “Li Tuanqui Bells” created a stir, when the Filipino-Chinese Centennial Movement headed by anti-crime crusader Teresita Ang-See formally requested for the donation of the antique bells to the organization, in exchange for replica bells, so that they could showcase Chinese influence and contribution to Philippine culture and history at the Kaisa Heritage Center, a museum in Intramuros, Manila during the country’s centenary celebrations. Msgr. Leonardo Legazpi, Archbishop of Caceres, had acceded to the request but parishioners and other sectors including local media opposed, so the bells remained where they presently are.

Li Tuanqui’s generosity led to his good standing with the Church hierarchy. He is the only Chinese mentioned by name in Bishop Gainza’s writings. He wielded influence among the local Chinese as a successful trader. His wealth included real estate in the heart of downtown Naga. With his stature, he spearheaded the local Chinese community in financing the building of the first Pagoda, the water vessel now called “Sakay”, used in the annual procession of the Ina in the Naga River.

Li Tuanqui had four children by Maria Sarte. His only son Rufino became mayor of Polangui, and then a provincial board member, and finally a governor in 1916. Among his present-day descendants are Marcial Estevez Tuanqui—former vice governor of Albay and past president of Albay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Fr. Eleuterio Espinas—former ambassador to Canada and the Netherlands, Clementina Natividad, Manuel Tuanqui, Tomas Tuanqui, Glicerio Tuanqui, Godofredo Tuanqui, Dr. Ramon T. Caceres, Dr. Arnel T. Borja, Vicente T. Natividad, Rudy Tuanqui, Marcial Tuanqui IV and Michael Tuanqui.

Li Tuanqui lived a tranquil and upright life in Polangui, where he passed on to his extended Filipino family a tradition of special love for the Ina. In fact, his descendants led by Marcial E. Tuanqui, inspired by the deeds of their illustrious forebear, donated a substantial amount to the Peñafrancia Shrine in 1996 for the renovation of the wooden belfry into concrete. The Li Tuanqui descendants again donated in 2014, this time to the Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Polangui, Albay, a generous amount for the construction of the QuadriCentennial-Pearl Arch, a grand main gate to serve as memento of the Parish’s 430th milestone anniversary.

Simon Li Tuanqui died in 1896. But even after the passage of 118 years, he lives on in the annual Peñafrancia phenomenon, in his descendants who find it worthy to emulate his unselfish deeds, and in the two Li Tuanqui Bells, which continue to peal to the faithful every single day, to this very day, for more than 151 years now… and will continue to do so for a long, long time. (Courtesy of Mr. Lito Tuanqui)