How Chinatown stays resilient
MANILA, Philippines - A brief glimpse at the names of the Philippines' richest show a majority with Chinese origin. Many of these now multi-millionaire entrepreneurs trace their humble beginnings in Manila’s Chinatown area.
Henry Sy, the country’s richest man, started with a shoe shop in Quiapo that has expanded into multi-layered shopping malls known as Shoemart or SM. At least 24 of the 40 richest Filipinos in Forbes' list have Chinese descent, including tycoons Lucio Tan (Asia Brewery, Fortune Tobacco), John Gokongwei (JG Summit), David Consunji (DMCI), Andrew Tan (Megaworld), and George Ty (Metrobank).
Since its establishent in 1594 by Spanish Governor Luis Perez Dasmariñas as a neighborhood for the Chinese Catholic community in 1594, this enclave in Manila, the oldest Chinatown in the world, has grown to become a bustling merchant and commercial district.
“We had this massive migration of Chinese immigrants coming to Manila looking for opportunity, escaping hardship in the old country and escaping governance," said Ivan Man Day, the owner of and the feet behind Old Manila Walks, a street tour of heritage areas.
"The majority of Chinese who came here at the time were not really skilled, except for certain things. So when they came here they didn’t have much of a professional choice -- they couldn’t be a doctor or a teacher so most of them ended up doing two things, service industry and trading. Some of things that were quite in demand at the time were things that were made in China. That’s how the Chinese eventually became the merchant class in colonial Manila,” he added.
Most of the initial immigrants came from the southern province of Fujian or from Canton. Today, most of the Chinese–Filipinos are of Hokkien descent.
Watch the video report below for a snippet on how the Chinese-Filipino businessmen evolved with the changing times:
Adapting to change
One famous business resident is Eng Bee Tin whose origins can be traced back to 1912. Eng Bee Tin started off as a simple hopia and tikoy store in Binondo. Its beginnings weren’t easy. The company's profits were waning against stiff competition and a lack of interest in its main generic product: hopia (flaky pastry with fillling).
It was during the 1980’s when 3rd generation owner, Gerry Chua, 21, took the reins that the business turned for the better.
Chua said his grandfather was not ‘into the business’ but when the business was handed over to his father, the direction immediately changed.
“The biggest thing my father brought to the company was his passion and love for the company. That’s what drove him to make this company what it is right now,” said Chua.
It was one spark of innovation: incorporating the flavor ube (grated purple yam) into their hopia that led to the spiralling popularity of their product. Now their line has expanded to include a number of Filipino, as well as Chinese, products such as breads, cakes, processed seafood and frozen food products.
“Now we incorporate the Philippine and Chinese products together. The majority of products are Chinese delicacies fit into the Filipino taste,” Chua shared.
Eng Bee Tin has grown to become on of the biggest international exporters of hopia across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the United States with shops in all corners of the Philippines. It retains the original shop in Binondo.
Passing the baton
Eng Bee Tin is an example of a family-run business that has been passed down from generation to generation.
“A large number of businesses in Chinatown are still family businesses. They are trades that have been passed on from one generation to another. Of course it doesn’t normally end up that way since some of the descendants go to the other trade and do other businesseses,” explained Dy.
Johnson Chua, owner of Sunrise, a Binondo-based feng shui merchandise shop, is a second generation owner whose Tsinoy (Chinese-Pinoy) family has fully integrated itself into Philippine society.
Chua's parents, both Chinese who grew up in the Philippines, put up the merchandise shop. Business has been good since taking over and the shop has expanded to 3 outlets across Binondo.
“Even though Filipinos are very devoted to their religion (mostly Catholic), almost 70% are practicing the feng shui in some way,” said Chua. With such a large Chinese community, the Philippine traditions and practices have integrated.
Businesses get ready for Chinese New Year
Sunrise's Chua, like many of the businesses in Chinatown is able to take advantages of a bump in sales in the run up to Chinese New Year, which falls on Sunday, February 10, this 2013.
“Sometimes you can see about 100 people coming in and out. Mostly they buy feng shui items, like bracelets and trinkets that the can use in their cell phone, wallet and key chains,” he said.
Chua said sales get around a 15% to 20% boost during this time of the year.
Eng Bee Tin's Chua said he uses the festive season to launch new products and test these out on the market. This Chinese New Year, they will be introducing teakoy-tikoy made out of tea and available in 4 flavors.
Another good sale period is the Mid-Autumn Festival, otherwise known as the Moon Cake Festival, held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. This 2013, it falls on Thursday, September 19.
Resilience in business
Sunrise's Johnson Chua said businesses in Chinatown also struggle daily against the influx of cheaper, mass-produced products manufactured in China.
“One of the challenges with a feng shui shop is, you need a lot of initial investment to buy the product. The second is the competition. There are different kinds of factories making similar items at cheaper prices. Sometimes clients cannot understand [differences in quality] so they just go with the lower price and forget the quality,” he said.
While the world’s oldest Chinatown has seen its fair share of business failures, the number of resilient businesses that have rebranched across the country are making their mark in Philippine economy. Playing a big part in keeping up with the times and overcoming business realities is the Chinese discipline and their frugality.
“They were probably more frugal than the average folks on the street because they thought of the business and wanted to make it grow," noted Dy.
"They were successful because they were able to adapt with the time and at the same time they were able to embrace the heritage,” he added.
The success of these once small ‘mom and pop’ stalls can be attributed to the immigrant mentality of striving to carve out new ground and make something of themselves in a land that is not their own. – Rappler.com