William’s parents were Chinese who migrated to the Philippines in the early 1950s in search of better opportunities. They struggled to eke out a living in Manila but remained poor. Life got so difficult, William’s father left to try his luck in Butuan City. There he put up a restaurant, and found business better. He sent money and visited his family occasionally. Eventually William’s mother Songo also started her own business. When family finances were more secure, Songo moved her young sons to Quezon City and put them in the private Xavier School.
William was a quiet and unexceptional teenager, quite short for his age. He was a college sophomore when Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law. He became an activist, revealing previously unseen gifts and skills.
He turned out to be an exceptionally daring person. He joined rallies and protests which Marcos had banned under martial law. In one occasion, soldiers hunted for him in La Salle, and he had to hide in the car trunk of one of the more understanding teachers so he could leave the campus.
He was also resourceful. Soldiers came to raid his family’s apartment house looking for him and threatened the family if they did not reveal his whereabouts. William asked help from a school friend, who was a general’s son, and suddenly, he was not being hunted anymore.
In his senior year, he became editor of the campus paper The La Sallian, and he showed a keen writing ability.
He moved to the University of the Philippines to pursue his law degree, joining the fraternity Scintilla Juris. He continued to write critical articles, contributing them to Nassa News, a church newsletter that had become one of the most valued outlets for views and news about the anti-martial law resistance. The stories about the sufferings of sugar workers in Negros province made a huge impact on him. He began to see the role he could play as a lawyer for poor people. Among his idols were the late senator Jose W. Diokno.
He married his college sweetheart Betty, then graduated in 1983, the year the late senator Benigno Aquino Jr. was killed. As he started his law practice, William joined the Movement of Attorneys for Brotherhood, Integrity, Nationalism, Inc. (MABINI) and immediately started representing laborers and human rights victims in court.
He helped publish a satirical newsletter called Sick of the Times, whose biting essays and editorial cartoons made fun of the dictatorship and its abuses. One of the most memorable articles in the newsletter is a satire on an ailing president. The article was titled “Autumn of the Patriarch,” taken from another article written by Colombian writer and journalist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The newsletter was witty, funny, irreverent, defiant, and with a funny sense of the absurd, so much like William himself.
William pursued his bias for laborers, defending workers of Shoemart in Makati in a strike (although he counted a son of the SM owner Henry Sy as one of his school friends). He handled a case for workers of Baxter-Travenol, and won it before the Supreme Court.
After the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, William turned his attention to exposing and prosecuting corruption and crime. He served as legal counsel for the nongovernment Citizens’ Action Against Crime, taking up mostly pro bono cases of kidnap victims. He prosecuted 20 kidnap-for-ransom cases, many high-profile and dangerous. He prepared for these cases so purposely he won convictions in all cases.
He also offered his legal services to the Foundation for Worldwide People Power, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Pinoy Times. He helped Haydee Yorac, then with the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), expose questionable issues about the coconut levy under martial law. He also assisted Yorac in government efforts for peace talks with armed groups.
He handled right to information cases, such as the Aquino-Sarmiento vs Morato et al, and freedom of expression cases, such as the Gonzales vs Kalaw-Katigbak et al. One of his best-known cases was in 1992, when as counsel for then Congressman Joker Arroyo he exposed a syndicate in Congress manipulating election results. This led to the dismissal of several electoral tribunal officials in the House.
He was awarded the Jose Rizal Award for Excellence in 2003 given out by the Manila Times and the Filipino Chinese community and posthumously received the Parangal Lingkod Sambayanan (Public Service Award) given by the Ateneo de Manila University in 2005.
At the time of his death, William was managing partner of Arroyo Chua Caedo and Coronel Law Offices. He had a very wide circle of friends coming from the left, right and center of the political spectrum, who mostly admired his talent, his guts, his commitment, and his integrity. Writer Sheila Coronel said William showed that lawyering was “about justice and compassion.”
William battled with pancreatic cancer and died in hospital in 2004.
Old friends noted that William grew much taller than his old classmates over time. He had become, quite unlike his teenage image, a big man, with a big voice, and big gestures. It was more than William’s physical self that had expanded. He gave as much of himself to others as he could, and in so doing, just grew and grew. A former classmate from La Salle had written about him after his death: “(William) kept on growing even after most of us had stopped.”