Remembering Joyce Juan-Manalo
Joyce Juan-Manalo wanted to make polvoron. She never made the Filipino treat before but had this little burst of energy the day after receiving her third chemotherapy treatment and wanted to do something creative. She was always doing something creative.
“I need a polvoron molder,” she explained. “They should have one at Seafood City.”
I hopped in our car with my mom and zoomed through the fog of Daly City. We sent pictures of the tin molder to Joyce, and she gave a thumbs-up. When I got home, I placed the tin molder next to a bag of flour, powdered milk, and pinipig—ingredients Joyce had ordered a week before. By the next day, her energy dissipated. All she wanted was to lie down on the couch. Weeks later, I shelved the polvoron ingredients and the tin molder. She never got to make her polvoron.
Joyce passed away peacefully on Monday, July 17, 2023, at our apartment in the Sunset District under my care and the help of her Kuya Boni—four months after experiencing a stroke, seven months after being diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, and almost 22 weeks since she attempted to make her polvoron. She was a fighter until the end.
For decades, Joyce played a central role in shaping and strengthening Filipin@ arts and culture, particularly in San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural Heritage District, SOMA Pilipinas. She supported countless shows and Filipin@ American artists, from helming Bindlestiff Studio to leading the theater group Teatro ng Tanan in the late 1990s and the Asian American arts organization Kearny Street Workshop (KSW).
While at KSW, she co-created the “Celebrate Your Body” fashion show that celebrated positive body self-image. She also produced her favorite project of all, the “Tagalog” festival of plays from 2019-2022, which promoted Pilipino languages by showcasing original Filipino playwrights to American audiences. She was a true visionary.
Joyce was born and raised in Mandaluyong, Metro Manila, to Avelino Juan and Librada Dimalanta. She was the youngest of three brothers and an eldest sister. Her father’s nickname for her was “Chokit,” her pronunciation of the word chocolate as a little girl. Her mom called her “pretty rosebud.” She attended St. Paul College Elementary School in Pasig and continued at Central Spryfield Elementary School in Halifax.
Following her father’s passing in 1974 at the age of 47, Joyce joined her mother and her Kuya Boni and migrated to Canada upon the petition of her sister, Zenny. Joyce and her mother later returned to Manila, where she attended high school at St. Paul College, New Manila, in Quezon City. After completing high school, they returned to Canada, where they purchased a house. Yearning to be back home, Joyce returned to Manila in 1994 to join Boni, who had resettled in the Philippines a year earlier.
I met Joyce in January 1995 during my first visit to the Philippines. I was a California boy born to a family that immigrated to Monterey Bay in the late 1950s. Little did I know meeting her would change my life. I was introduced to Joyce at the Blue Cafe, a gay bar in Malate where many of Manila’s theater artists hung out. I was performing standup comedy at the time. I was taken around the performing arts scene by Chris Millado, the previous executive director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
At first introductions, Joyce was not interested in me, politely shaking my hand like it was a sock she found on the floor. With the help of Melvin Lee, an actor from PETA, Joyce was invited to attend a pre-Valentine party he hosted annually called “The Lonely Hearts Club.” Joyce gave me another look at the party, and we hit it off immediately. After a whirlwind romance of several dates in the span of a week, I had to sadly return to San Francisco with the promise of seeing Joyce again.
We both kept in touch via letters and phone calls. My phone bill was so high I could have purchased a round-trip ticket back to Manila. I asked Joyce to join me in San Francisco and bought a one-way ticket with the rest of my savings. She arrived in April to a proposal and an engagement ring at the Golden Gate Bridge. On June 18, 1995, at 2:00 a.m., after a standup comedy gig in Las Vegas, we married at City Hall on the old strip by Las Vegas’ Justice of the Peace. (We couldn’t find an Elvis chapel that was open).
For the next year, Joyce accompanied me on the road, performing in a college tour of a game show called “Blizzard of Bucks.” Joyce took on the role of “Vanna Brown,” the gorgeous game show host assistant. We traveled through 43 states, performing in more than 400 colleges, universities, and a couple of shopping malls. This extended honeymoon forged our dynamic working relationship in the years to come.
In 1996, Joyce and I settled back in San Francisco, where I revived my Filipino comedy troupe, “tongue in A mood.” By 1997, “tongue in A mood” gained popularity and needed a venue to perform. While attending a performance of Babae by the young Pinay theater artist Lorna Aquino-Chui at the suggestion of Joyce’s buddy Ogie Gonzales, we found the venue we’ve been looking for—a small black box theater in the South-of-Market area called Bindlestiff Studio. “tongue in A mood” was booked for a September show, with Joyce handling the logistics and publicity. By the spring of 1998, Joyce and I took over the operations of Bindlestiff Studio. We converted the venue into an epicenter of Filipino American Performing Arts, the only one of its kind in the entire country and still in operation today.
Since then, we have been fortunate to have met, nurtured, and showcased hundreds of budding Filipin@ artists. Because Joyce and I never had children, these artists became our “kids,” and to this day, we continue to feel their embrace.
Joyce will be deeply missed and forever remembered for her love of community artists, her strong “Áte” vibe (although she never liked being called ‘Áte”), her no-bullshit humor, and her ability to make others around her shine.
On October 15, 2023, we will celebrate Joyce’s creativity and love of Filipin@ artists on a day we are calling “Don’t Call Me Áte.” The celebration will start with a Pinay artisan pop-up called Blue Gayuma, the name of a gift shop Joyce and Boni opened in Manila back in 2005. The day will continue with a live performance at Bindlestiff Studio, the theater Joyce supported and loved. All proceeds from ticket sales will go to the Joyce Juan-Manalo Legacy Fund for Pinay Artists. For more details, please visit joycejuanmanalo.com.