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Conversation with Lilia Hernandez Chung, Ph.D.

Lilia Hernandez Chung, Ph.D. graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Letters  from the University of Santo Tomas where she taught for four years after graduation. In 1958, she won a Fullbright scholarship and received a fellowship for graduate studies from Syracuse University in New York where she earned her doctorate degree in the Humanities. She met her husband, Kai Lai Chung, at said university where he was a Professor of Mathematics. They later moved to Stanford, California where she taught Ethnic Studies at Foothill College for 24 years and also served as one of its directors of Multicultural Affairs. Dr. Chung received the Women of Achievement Award from the League of Friends of Santa Clara County Commission on the Status of Women in 1980. She has three children and four grandchildren. She divides her time between the Philippines and California.

Aside from being an educator, Dr. Chung is a published author. Her publications include Peninsular Prose Fiction of the Philippines, Jovita Fuentes: A Lifetime of Music and The Rush of the River. She translated the travel chronicles of her father, Fernando Hernandez and uncle, Jose Hernandez Gavira and published these under the title, The Muslim World: What We Saw in Jolo and Zamboanga. Dr. Chung’s latest publication is the second edition of Mi Copa Bohemia, Poesías by J. Hernandez Gavira which was published in collaboration with Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA). 

How did you find the writing path?

As a teenager, I gravitated towards writing. A retired professor of English, Prof. Viterbo, read a short essay I wrote for the Capiz High School newspaper and in a conversation with my father, he mentioned the essay and said that if I wanted to continue writing, I should read good books. He mentioned a book that he thought I should read. I had never read that book, but his affirmation of my ability to write made me aware that perhaps I could write. My relatives readily saw me as a writer. 

What inspired you to write your first novel, The Rush of the River?

My aunt, Jovita Fuentes*, entrusted her diaries to me and thus, I began the serious task of writing her life story. The biography, which was very well received, gave me the impetus to rewrite and seam together the stories I had written over the years. Thus was Rush of the River born.

*Jovita Fuentes was an accomplished opera singer and was recognized as National Artist for Music in 1976 by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. She was born in Capiz in 1895.

What was challenging about writing the biography of Jovita Fuentes?

My aunt’s diaries were written in Spanish. I had to translate them first before I could begin writing her story. She was ill when I completed her biography but my cousins read every page of my manuscript to her. Her approval was total.

What was it like living with Jovita Fuentes?

I think of my aunt whom I called Tata as music with a capital M. Gatherings at our home were filled with musical performances. I became familiar with the opera from watching my aunt at rehearsals. Tata and her sister, Mercedes Roxas, sent me to the College of the Holy Spirit for piano lessons. I had to practice playing the piano for three to four hours daily for my piano recital. 

Among your recent cultural projects in Capiz were the Jovita Fuentes anniversary retrospectives at the Ang Panublion Museum and the piano concert at Filamer University with renowned pianist Ingrid Santamaria. What motivated you to bring a concert pianist to Capiz?

I wanted to keep alive the musical legacy that my aunt left behind. 

How did you find the time to write while holding a full time job at Foothill College and a busy family life?

I think what made everything possible for me to write was the fact that my husband accepted my intellectual aspirations without any reservation. I always felt free to take whatever path I chose.

Do you have a favorite author?

I don’t have a favorite author. I’m basically a curious person. I like to browse in bookstores and pick up books that catch my fancy.  

Books have been my constant companions since I was a child growing up in the Philippines. They were especially comforting during the war years when my family had to leave our home. I’ve kept some of the books my father gave me when I was in my teens. These volumes are wartime editions meant for the Armed Forces of the United States. It offers a rich selection of poetry, essays and classic literature from Beowulf to Thomas Hardy. I still leaf through its well worn pages on occasion.

What is your reading preference, print books or ebooks?

I prefer print books as I’m not good with tech gadgets. I do like to go back and reread certain sections of a book and highlight passages. 

What new literary projects do you have in the burner? 

I’m preparing to publish a second edition of Jose Hernandez Gavira’s book of poetry, De mi Jardin Sinfonico: Poesías. It was first published in 1921. It’s been a little difficult to get the first edition due to the pandemic but I’m hopeful this will be resolved soon. I’m also looking into the possibility of a second edition for the biography of Jovita Fuentes as many people have expressed interest in acquiring the book. 

Philippine Education Secretary, Leonor Briones, indicated the need to improve the educational system in the country. As an educator, what improvements do you think should be made to the educational system to prepare the Filipino youth to be productive in our society in the next 50 years? 

Aside from the degree programs we currently have in place, we need excellent vocational schools in the Philippines for students for whom the degree programs may not be suitable. There is a need for good craftspersons because fine craftsmanship is a marketable skill and is in high demand by society in general.  

Parents often impose their own dreams on their children instead of trying to understand their innate abilities. The educational system should give children solid, basic skills to enable them to function competently in the community. Schools should recognize and foster the skills and strengths of every child. Opportunities should be made available to encourage their aptitudes. No one plan fits all.


About the author: Charie Albar is a travel writer and lifestyle blogger. She is the founder of Balay ni Charie Foundation, a grassroots organization that gives school supplies to the children in Capiz. She divides her time between Capiz and California. You can check her stories here:

Conversation with a Capizeño is a series of interviews with Capizeños who are making a difference in their community. 

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