The Tycooning of the Humble Chinese Peddler

BY MYRNA RODRIGUEZ CO
May 17, 2010

Filipino-Chinese are among the wealthiest people in the Philippines. Find out how and why entrepreneurship runs in their families.


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When I was growing up in Gagalangin, Tondo, Manila there was a tindahan ng Intsik (Chinese store) in every street corner, which co-existed with smaller Filipino-owned shops we called sari-sari (convenience) stores.

Right across our house, on the corner of Pampanga and Angat Streets, was one such store owned by a man we fondly called Sin Teng. He was a smiling ebullient Chinese with a gold tooth and premature silver in his hair, who didn’t stop smiling and glowing even when young boys made fun of his accent and called him “Intsik beho, tulo laway.”*

He made friends with the housewives who would linger to talk and steal glances at yet another new lady beside him – usually from the Chinese mainland who would be sure to speak no Tagalog – and wait for Sin Teng to introduce her as his wife number two or three or so on.

It was from Sin Teng that we purchased our daily bread and the isa-singko (one slice for five cents) Spam and Kraft cheese slices to eat with it. Same with the coffee and milk and Toddy (a popular chocolate drink) and Coke and Pepsi to chase the bread down with. Mongol pencils, intermediate pad paper, crayons, Manila paper, everything we needed for school – he had stocks of these which never seemed to run out. If someone was sick, we didn’t have to go to the drug store a ten-minute sprint away: we could get the most common medicines from Sin Teng – Capi-aspirina, Mentholatum, Phillips Milk of Magnesia. Sin Teng ran his shop quite unlike the way Mang Iking and Aling Tonya ran theirs, which was right next door and thus should have been the more logical convenience store, but was almost always inconveniently out of every other thing we needed.

On hindsight, I know I should have recognized the implications of work ethic of the Chinese. They bought their stocks in volume so they seldom ran short of stuff and were able to sell cheaper. They mostly didn’t allow credit (or allowed it discriminately and sparingly). Sin Teng didn’t, which was one of few reasons we would sometimes run to Mang Iking and Aling Tonya, on whose wall was clipped several small sheets of paper each of which was labeled with a customer’s name, all caps, underlined. These were in essence yesterday’s credit cards – but for poor people only – for the rich dealt in cash.

 

A Chinese fruit and vegetable merchant in Manila

A Chinese fruit and vegetable merchant in Manila.

Photo credit: Myrna Rodriguez Co

 

Mang Iking would huff and bristle when he spotted one of us headed to his store rather than Sin Teng's but would still take down the piece of paper with “Aling Celing” (my mom’s name) written on it. He would hand us the soy sauce or vinegar we needed grudgingly, but not before adding yet another 50 cents to Aling Celing’s already number-laden card and not before reminding us sternly to tell our mom that our list is getting longer.

But Sin Teng's was the store of choice even if it allowed no credit and even if we had to cross a mean street to reach it. His store was big and wide (easily five times that of Mang Iking) and open, well lighted and welcoming. You didn’t have to knock and shout “Pabili po.” (May we buy some goods, please?) to be attended to. He sold cheaper than the Filipino stores like Mang Iking’s. And he would sometimes give us small gifts – I remember oranges in December and tikoy (nián gāo, a cake prepared from, glutinous rice) in February. I guess Mom was special among his customers because she was half Chinese and could strike up a conversation with his wives with a smattering of Mandarin. Sin Teng was not the only Chinese man of my childhood but he was the most vivid and most stable memory because the others just seemed to pass through.

The other Chinese vendors were itinerants. The magtataho (taho vendor). The magpuputo (puto vendor). The magbobote / magdia-diario (bottle collector / newspaper seller). The cochero (coachman). Mostly were elderly men, dark, and bent, and I don’t remember them to be particularly friendly or chatty or remotely as charming as Sin Teng.

When I left Gagalangin in the early ‘70s to settle down in Pasig with my growing family, Sin Teng's store had just closed. He had left without fanfare to venture into a hardware business and relocate more strategically in some commercial area in the city. I knew when I heard this that Sin Teng was going up in the world. Just like most of the other Chinese in the country.

In less than half a decade, the Chinese is no longer just the storekeeper, much less the magtataho or the magbobote of the Philippines. These are jobs taken over, alas, by the less advantaged but still the more hardworking among Pinoys.

The Chinese are now the commercial, industrial and agricultural titans. And nobody ever calls them “Beho” anymore. Call some of them taipan, if you please. You may have memorized just like I have the names of the biggest of them – Henry Sy, Lucio Tan, John Gokongwei.

 

 

 

Fortune in the new country

Henry Sy was 12 when he came to the Philippines and straightaway worked in his father’s sari-sari store on Echague Street in Quiapo before he went into partnership with a friend to put up the very first S & M shoe store. It was, as everybody knows, the forerunner of what was to become one of the world’s biggest shopping chains.

Lucio Tan, an engineering dropout, ran a small scrap business before he was employed as buyer in a tobacco factory – from which came undoubtedly the experience and inspiration to put up giant Fortune Tobacco Industries. Kuwentong cochero (rig driver’s story, an exaggeration) or not, I remember having read a newspaper interview with him where he recounted having plied the streets as a kalesa (horse drawn carriage) driver.