Words by Teena Apeles
Personal Space: Each month, writer and home-tour addict Teena Apeles gives us a peek into the spaces of AA+PI creatives around the country. She’ll explore what’s out in the open—from their unique collections and family heirlooms to quirky tchotchkes and vintage furniture finds—and delve into the stories behind them, to find out what makes each person’s house a home.
Anyone who has encountered multi-hyphenate wonder Giselle “G” Töngi—a self-described, “professional slashy”—knows that she’s the kind of person who leaves a lasting impression. No doubt her smile and enthusiasm are infectious, among the qualities that led to a prolific career in the Philippines, first as a model, then as an actor in television, theater, and film, without any prior training. Eric Quizon, son of the Philippines’ “King of Comedy” Dolphy, approached her at a discotheque in Manila and asked, “Would you like to be in movies?” when she was 16, and she went on to star in more than 30 films by age 21, at which point she left for New York to study at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. (The actor is especially proud of the 1997 film Langit Sa Piling Mo, directed by Quizon, and, more recently, stars a supporting role in the film Labyu with an Accent, currently playing in select U.S. theaters.) But it’s Töngi’s tireless commitment to raise the visibility of FilAm artists of all ages and promote FilAm and Pilipino culture that perhaps make her most beloved stateside, including her work producing and hosting the only daily talk show for and featuring FilAms in North America, Kababayan Weekly, which aired 2014 to 2017 on public access TV stations in Los Angeles and Hawaii.
Today, Töngi continues to be an invaluable force in the FilAm community, serving as the executive director of the arts organization FilAm ARTS: The Association for the Advancement of Filipino American Arts and Culture, producing the popular annual Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture (FPAC) in Los Angeles, first started in 1993. Under her leadership, FilAm ARTS’ audience went global in 2020, when the org produced online town halls and live streamed the three-day festival, virtually assembling prominent FilAms in arts and entertainment to perform.
I visited Töngi in the South Bay city of Gardena, where she shares a midcentury home with her husband, Tim Walters, their two kids, and lovable animals. The actor has lived in Los Angeles longer than anywhere else in her life, moving here after studying in New York. She chose it because it has “the best weather in the world and is home to the biggest demographic of Filipinos outside of the Philippines.”
Their family just moved in last summer; “it’s a work in progress,” says the first-time homeowner. The move from an apartment to a house was prompted by their growing family, but not in the way one typically expects. “Our dog Amii just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. We thought she was a Pomsky; she was supposed to be small. We got a DNA test only to find out that she’s an Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Husky mix,” Töngi shares. “Ammi couldn’t even turn around in the hallway! So we had to figure out a new living situation.”
While the dog was a catalyst to expand their living space, she says they’ve always wanted to buy a home, and the timing ended up being ideal financially as well. Their family’s favorite pastimes, going out to the theater—both her kids share her passion to perform onstage and watch musicals—and eating out (“Because I don’t really cook,” she says), were not indulged in due to the pandemic, so they managed to save money for a down payment for the Gardena residence.
Töngi was born in Paris to a Filipino mom from Batangas and a Swiss father who immigrated to Australia as a teenager. The two met when they were neighbors in Japan, where her mom was working at a travel agency and her father was a satellite engineer for the Nippon Electric Company. “I get my wanderlust from her,” Töngi notes. After her father passed away suddenly when Töngi was 11 months old, the single mother raised her five kids in different countries—Switzerland and back and forth from New Jersey and the Philippines. “The idea of home as something permanent is something I’m still really coming to grips with,” she admits. “Like, what does it mean to have a home? What does it mean to have a base?”
Töngi’s cultural roots are reflected practically everywhere you turn, inside and outside the three-bedroom home, with traditional and whimsical décor from or inspired by the Philippines, unlike her childhood home in Parañaque. “What I remember most about our home is that my mom had paintings of Jesus and Mama Mary, like, big paintings,” she laughs. “And then we had a lazy Susan.”
Among the items in the Gardena home are familiar native carved objects and figurines (posing carabao and oversized spoon and fork, check!), a Sarao jeepney sign, weaved baskets and bags (one with the Philippine flag and another in the shape of a jeepney), capiz furnishings galore (lamp, chandelier, repurposed screen panels), and tropical-themed carpets. “Even though I’m in LA, the Philippines is always in my heart, and that has to be translated into every single item,” Töngi explains. “And I hope that as an ambassador of the culture, I’m able to educate people about every beautiful thing that comes out of our country.”
She proudly points out tikis that Walters carved and other Philippine artifacts he found for the home. “He likes thrifting in the Philippines,” Töngi mentions. His appreciation of her culture is among the reasons that drew her to him. He actually had visited the Philippines twice prior to meeting her. “I’m lucky because I have a partner that understands that I find inspiration in the space that I’m in. And I love the fact that every single thing that I’ve acquired [for our home] always has some sort of link to my culture.”
Numerous plants positioned throughout also help transport visitors to the archipelago. “Some plants are my unicorn plants from the Philippines. We call them unicorn plants because of their rareness and value,” Töngi says while excitedly pointing out different Monstera species and sprouting new leaves, including a Monstera esqueleto, aurea, and deliciosa (aka Swiss cheese plant). “I’m a fan of anything with fenestration,” plants with leaves that have openings or clear splits. She credits her friend Tots, who owns the plant store Pinky Spikes in Quezon City and used to be her production designer, for teaching her about such plants. “To me, plants are like children, you have to care for them. I’m not the type of person to just relax. So nurturing and caring for the plants gives me purpose.”
It’s surprising that Töngi even has time for plants knowing what a busy life she already leads. She still acts locally and abroad, and she serves as the director of communications and community partnerships for Island Pacific Supermarket, in addition to her work for FilAm ARTS. “I’ve really been able to meld my passion for community and understand how to bring resources to artists,” the community leader says of her many roles. “And I’m really so grateful that I’m able to have the skills to find funding to advocate for Filipino American artists.” A prime example of this is securing funding from California Humanities to launch a workshop series to train the next-generation of documentary filmmakers (ages 7 to 17), connecting them to such established industry professionals as Hollywood film editor and producer A. J. Calomay, ABS-CBN International/TFC journalists Yong Chavez and Steve Angeles, and Francis Cullado, executive director of long-standing AAPI media arts org Visual Communications, which screened their films in fall 2020.
When asked about her office space, Töngi takes us on her very short commute from the dining room to the far corner of the living room, where her desk is next to a packed bookcase. She stretches out her arms and says, “This is it,” smiling. “I have all my Filipino books here,” pointing to the top shelf of the bookcase, “and then all of my nonprofit books here,” motioning to the bottom ones.
We then venture out to the backyard where their family enjoys hosting gatherings in a cozy, semi-enclosed seating area with wicker furniture, a capiz chandelier and string lantern lights from the Philippines. “I call this space ‘Isla Gardena' because it is my own ode to the Philippines,” shares Töngi. Multiple projects are underway in other areas of the backyard, such as possibly restoring what used to be a pond, as well as big dreams for a converted garage: “I’d love to put a second floor and build an apartment for the kids and fix the bottom so it becomes a lanai.”
The family’s dogs happily trail Töngi and Walters as they lead me around the backyard, pointing out plants they added (including ylang-ylang, taro, and malunggay) and the fruit trees (citrus and Concord grapevine) and plumeria tree original to the property. The backyard is quite lush thanks to the marine layer that comes in from the coastline and perennially sunny SoCal weather.
What the animal family members don’t know is that Töngi will be spending time away in New York City later this year for a dream gig on Broadway, serving as the cultural and community liaison for the Broadway debut of the disco musical Here Lies Love, which follows the life of former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos, written by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. As an actor, community leader, producer, and writer, who better to take on this unique role? And Töngi will be working with friends: Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas is one of the producers, and Tony Award winner Clint Ramos is the costume designer.
She still enjoys acting, “her first love,” but Töngi feels advocating and producing opportunities for the FilAm community is her ultimate superpower: “I’m understanding more and more the power of representation and how important it is that Filipinos see themselves on screen [and onstage], because I know, whenever I see a Filipino, I get so excited.”
Published on January 12, 2023
Words by Teena Apeles
Teena Apeles writes about art, culture, design, activism, and history, and edits books on an even wider range of subjects. Her latest book, 52 Things to Do in Los Angeles, is now available from Moon Travel Guides. She is also the founder of the creative collective Narrated Objects, which produces books and experiences to showcase the diverse voices of Los Angeles.
Photography by Joanna Joanna Garel
Joanna Garel is an actress/model turned director/photographer and artist. She finds inspiration in the creativity of others and immerses herself in interior design and fashion. Art gallery hopping is one of her favorite past-times. Her work has been published in SURFER magazine, People magazine.