A book depicts the colourful life of Tessie Agana, child wonder of Philippine cinema

The fascination towards child actors and their impeccable acting prowess is not new to the Filipino audience. Despite being young, Shirley Temple, an indomitable Hollywood figure, was then the gold standard for child actors who could captivate movie-goers. There was Tita Duran, on-screen partner and wife of the late Pancho Magalona, deemed the Shirley Temple of the Philippines before the war broke out. The Philippine cinema then was marked by Westernised standards and yet brought to the silver screen the fantasies of every Filipino. Indeed, it was a template, especially for production studios seeking greater success in ticket sales and marketing. In the Seventies, there was Niño Muhlach, the Guttierrez twins in the Eighties, Richard and Raymond, Nora Aunor’s daughter Matet de Leon, and other actors like Serena Dalrymple, Carlo Aquino, and a lot more.

But if we‘re to talk about a child actor, whose success at the box office salvaged one of the country’s most prominent production studios of its time and brought it to greater heights, it was Tessie Agana. Her legendary story is the subject of her daughter’s book and 15-year passion project, The Legend of Tessie Agana: Beloved Child Star of the Philippines, recently released by Bookshelf PH.

“Eventually, Tessie Agana with her charm and charisma, and approximately 20 movies as the starring role became known as the [new] ‘Shirley Temple of the Philippines’,” said Mylene Richardson, author of The Legend of Tessie Agana: Beloved Child Star of the Philippines. “She was also deemed as the ‘take one’ actress, so other actors need to be ready for the emotional scenes as the directors knew she only needed ‘one take’.”

Agana starred in films alongside her mother, Linda Estrella. Eventually, she had to finish her studies in the United States, which had put her successful career on hold. At 18, she returned to the Philippines and starred alongside Susan Roces and Amalia Fuentes in the 1960 classic and cult-favourite romantic-comedy film, Amy, Susie and Tessie. Eventually, Agana left the limelight and settled in the United States after marrying Rodolfo Jao, a doctor. There she built her family and took care of her nine children.

“When we celebrated my eldest son Chapman’s first birthday in 2009, I stared into his curious big brown eyes and felt that he needs to know his unique family history, especially about his grandmother, Tessie Agana, and great-grandmother, Linda Estrella—not from me but from their own voice and words,” Richardson recalled.

“This was the impetus of it all. I swept the dust away from old photo albums dating back to the 1940s. This became the roadmap of my journey. I began my interviews and research, starting with my beautiful grandmother and mother, and would drive Chapman from Chicago to Indiana where he would play with all my grandmother’s rosaries in her room, while we recorded our hours-long conversations,” she recalled.

From her humble beginnings as a child actor in post-war Manila to her experiences on mental health and motherhood, Richardson details Agana’s contributions to Philippine cinema and how it has ultimately influenced the majority of our films to take on family-centric storylines. (Read more on Tatler Asia)

By Franz Sorilla IV, Tatler Asia
February 28, 2024

Mylene Richardson

Mylene Richardson

Mylene Agana Jao Richardson was born in Manila, Philippines, and is the sixth of nine children (six boys and three girls) from Tessie Agana Jao and Dr. Rodolfo Jao. Although she grew up in Indiana, her trips back to the Philippines are her most memorable family vacations. Mylene currently lives in Arizona, with her husband Andy, and their two sons, Chapman and Harris.


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