Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - To those who doubt if he's really the owner of the questioned 3,400-square-meter Marikina Heights lot, impeachment trial witness Demetrio Vicente "invokes" his miniature creations as "witness."
The 70-year-old cousin of impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona shows off his bonsai collection as proof that he owns the property that prosecutors argue still belongs to the magistrate now on trial.
"They can't say this property is Corona's. If I were merely a caretaker, how would this bonsai have roots like that?" said Vicente in Filipino, pointing to an aged bonsai with roots clawed firmly on the ground.
Vicente also said he's the one paying for the lot's real property tax.
Since acquiring the property almost 22 years ago, Vicente, once the country's top bonsai artist, has filled the once empty lot with thousands of miniature trees, his collection hitting 3,000 in his heyday.
Now, he is looking after 2,000 bonsai pots-demanding wards that need constant watering, trimming, cutting and wiring. It may be a tough job for a senior citizen, but the enthusiast has no complaints.
"The hobby is very interesting. It's alive," Vicente said of crafting bonsai plants. "It's not like a painting that can be set aside when you finish it."
"Even if one tree has been adjudged as the best in a competition, you have to water it, wire it, trim it and use insecticide, fertilizer, fungicide. That's why it's very challenging," he said.
The hobby served as his therapy and helped him recover from strokes he suffered in 2009 and 2010, said Vicente, a diabetic and hypertensive.
"I would walk little by little, trim the bonsai little by little," said Vicente.
"It's a different feeling when you are able to create something. You know that it won't always look beautiful so you have to be careful in growing the leaves and branches," he said.
The pastime was not that costly, he said, except for a bit of expense on fertilizers and water.
Moving to the Marikina property in 1990 gave Vicente the space he needed to pursue the hobby he had taken on years before.
Then a businessman renting out heavy machinery in Quezon City, Vicente was first drawn to cultivating bonsai some 30 years ago, when a friend introduced him to the art.
"I started with a few then I got more and more," Vicente said.
Just as he was closing down his business in Quezon City, Vicente said he learned through an agent about the Marikina Heights lot and got interested in buying. He said he did not know the property belonged to his second cousin's wife, Cristina Corona, and her sister Miriam Roco.
"I frequented this place ... then I learned through a broker that this was for sale," said Vicente.
He purchased the property for P1.018 million and constructed a house from scratch, he said.
"There was nothing here except for that big mango tree there," said Vicente, pointing to the towering tree on one side of the lot.
"Then I constructed a house. I rented a house on the other block while this was being constructed. It took me four months before I moved in and it was still unfinished," he said.
The only hitch was, even if he got the deed of sale, he still has not transferred the property to his name. Making that transfer today, 22 years after buying the property, would cost him 200,000 pesos in penalties, Vicente said. He currently pays 35,000 pesos in real property tax every year and he has all the building permits.
Vicente graciously welcomed the Inquirer into his Marikina home and garden on Friday (March 16) while joking about his unflattering photos that appeared on the paper's front page the day before.
Readers had complained that the photos, which showed Vicente's different facial expressions on the witness stand, were offensive and insensitive to the subject, a stroke survivor. The Inquirer apologized, to which Vicente replied:
"Apology accepted. Wala naman sa akin 'yun (That's nothing)."
Slice of a quiet park
The house on Gen. Ordoñez Street in Marikina Heights may look plain from the outside at first glance: A red gate splitting a high wall, with some strands of vines cascading toward the street.
But once the gate opens, a lush garden welcomes the guest, almost like a slice of a quiet park.
The winding mossy adobe pathway is flanked on both sides by rows upon rows of bonsai pots, like green sculptures of different shapes and sizes. Most are varieties of the banyan tree while others are miniature camachile, kamuning, kulasi and Vicente's prize-winning creation, a callos bonsai.
Fruit-bearing guava, macopa and mango trees dot his property, along with other ornamental plants. On one side, he keeps a few Japanese bantam chickens, which he turns his attention to during breaks from his bonsai.
In the middle of the property is his airy red-brick home, which he now shares with Estrelita, his "first and only wife" of 46 years. Their only daughter, 44-year-old Josefina Victoria, has long been away from home, working as confectionery chef in different parts of the Middle East.
"O, ganyan ba ang mayaman (Are the rich like that)?" Vicente joked.
It was near sunset but none of the lights were on. There was no television set in the living room, just simple old furniture, some bonsai picture books and family photos.
There was an old split-type air-conditioner, but Vicente was quick to the draw and said in Filipino: "You know why I never turn that on? Because it's hot. It's too hot for me to pay for the power bill."
In the open garage, there was an old green box-type Toyota and an early model of the Nissan Cefiro. He rarely drove since he suffered a stroke, Vicente said, but would sometimes do runs around the block.
The house is never completely quiet, though. Vicente's Pomeranian Vine and bulldog Paj would at times have barking bouts, while his pair of cockatoos Inno and Bikoy would sometimes blurt out "hello."
He devoted the upper floor of his house solely for his plants, which has remained unroofed so they would always catch the rain.
"A month before I enter competitions, I would be up till 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. trimming my bonsai. I just need music and lights and I do my job," said Vicente.
Among his favorite plaques are a special citation from a bonsai competition in Japan in 1999 and a collection of seven trophies from a single competition in the Philippines in 1997.
"Out of the top 10 bonsai, seven were mine," he said proudly.
The two-time Philippine bonsai champ last competed in an ornamental landscape exhibit in 2009, when he won second place. He is now pleased with just tending to his collection at home with the assistance of a helper.
Now living a retiree's life, Vicente and his wife earn their keep from their 10-door apartment in Quezon City and receive regular remittance from their daughter.
Asked if he would sell some of his creations, Vicente said with a naughty grin: "If the price is right."