The 1981 Manila International Film Festival was designed by First Lady Imelda Marcos as an elaborate showcase of Filipino culture. To everyone's horror, the only film that sold to the world was a midget spy film - a miniature mockery of Western pop iconography, and a joyously naïve celebration of Filipino Goon Cinema - called For Y'ur Height Only. Its star, a two-foot nine primordial dwarf named Weng Weng, became the most famous Filipino celebrity of his generation both inside the Philippines and abroad, yet curiously, less than 30 years later, the real Weng Weng story has all but been forgotten even by those who worked alongside him. Blame faulty or selective memories, or a fad-driven culture that never pauses long enough to ask "who?", "what?" or "why?" - truth is, the story of Weng Weng has become one of the Philippines' greatest urban legends, and the wildest and woolliest of stories fill in the gaps. Stand-up comedian married to a porn actress, real-life secret agent, hit karaoke chanteur with Imelda, the flow is endless. Once the horsecrap hardens, it's almost impossible to extricate truth from fiction, the right from the rot.
It's taken me over a year, three visits to the Philippines and more than 40 interviews with the people closest to him, including his only surviving relative, brother Celing de la Cruz, to glean the following information. There are still enormous gaps, but this is the most detailed portrait of Weng Weng I am able to put together; my documentary The Search For Weng Weng is as complete as it ever will be.
Weng Weng was born Ernesto de la Cruz, the youngest of five brothers, on 7th September 1957 in Balacaran, a district of Pasay City (now part of the sprawling 17-city Metro Manila). A condition known as primordial dwarfism caused him to be born, in the words of his brother Celing, "no bigger than a coke bottle", and he spent the first 12 months of his life in an incubator. He was not expected to live. Naturally, it was declared a miracle when he did, and in a country that venerates miraculous acts of faith, it is no surprise that Weng Weng was dressed as the Christ-child figure at the head of Baclaran's yearly Santo Nino parade.
A cheerfully mischievous child, his family nicknamed him Weng Weng, an epithet usually reserved for toy dogs. He was obsessed with martial arts and trained almost daily, until his instructor contacted film producer Peter Caballes and said, "You just have to see THIS." Peter and his wife, the successful businesswoman Cora Ridon Caballes, took Weng Weng on the rounds of film producers, including Bobby A. Suarez, whose novelty kiddie films The Bionic Boy (1977) and Dynamite Johnson: The Bionic Boy Part 2 (1978) were already international hits. Suarez turned down the idea of Weng Weng as a midget Superman, but successful indie producer/director Luis San Juan, who specialized in kung fu films for the export market, cast Weng Weng in a cameo in a film whose name is now lost to the sands of time. Peter Caballes then introduced Weng Weng to the King of Philippines Comedy, Dolphy, who cast him as his kung-fu kicking sidekick in his spy caper The Quick Brown Fox (1980) and western parody Da Best In Da West (1981).
Weng Weng, meanwhile, was a frequent visitor of the Marcos family at the Presidential Palace, where he was made an honorary Secret Agent by future President General Ramos, and was presented with a badge and a 25-callibre pistol. This act may have been the direct inspiration for Weng Weng's first starring role as Agent OO in the James Bond parody For Y'ur Height Only, produced by Peter and written by Cora Caballes for their company Liliw Productions. Eddie Nicart, renowned stunt director for the SOS Daredevils, trained Weng Weng every day for three months to be a professional stuntman, and was given his first opportunity to direct.
It's hard to pin down the appeal of For Y'ur Height Only - whether it's the inadvertently genius deconstruction of both Western action films and their Pinoy counterparts, surreal pot-addled dubbing by American expats (and Apocalypse Now survivors) Jim Gaines and Nick Nicholson, or inspired casting of every Bad Guy (or "Goon") still alive at the time, and the James Bond of the Philippines himself, Tony Ferrer aka Agent X44, as Weng Weng's boss. It all adds up to an absurdist masterpiece of gloriously bad cinema, one which was sold all over the world and became one of the Philippines' most successful exports.
Weng Weng became an instant superstar, appearing on TV and at parties, film festivals, movie openings. Liliw Productions quickly cranked out a much less successful Agent OO sequel, The Impossible Kid (1982), and a modern Pinoy western D'Wild Wild Weng (1982), starring Weng Weng as a government agent known as "Mr Weng", which doesn't appear to have made it beyond the Philippines borders. There may be other Weng Weng film appearances, including a starring role in Agent OO (c.1981) and a guest cameo alongside the stick-thin Palito's character "James Bone", but even in the Philippines information is sketchy at best, if not non-existent.
As the profits diminished, Cora Caballes moved on to a political career and Liliw Productions folded. As a result, Weng Weng found himself no longer flavour of the month and without a film career. According to his brother, his family was poor before he became famous, and afterwards remained as poor as ever. In a bizarre twist of fate, General Ramos decided to put Weng Weng through paratrooper training; this time he was given a genuine Agent badge and was sent on infiltration missions where his size would been used to its maximum advantage. Thanks to the Caballes' connections at Manila Airport, Weng Weng was seen patrolling the Arrivals Lounge in the mid-Eighties in his blue uniform as the unlikeliest "Welcome To Manila" banner.
He continued to live in the family home in Baclaran, gained weight and, according to some reports, drank heavily, and developed hypertension after a severe reaction to eating crabmeat. His health declined steadily over the next twelve to eighteen months, and he died of heart failure on 29th August 1992, just short of his 35th birthday.
The Philippines' tiniest film icon is buried in a modest white marble tomb with his parents, grandparents and great-grandmother in Pasay City Cemetary.