The Tycooning of the Humble Chinese Peddler

May 17, 2010

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

For his part, at 15, John Gokongwei, who has holdings in food manufacturing, petrochemicals, and financial services, had to help his mother support his family by buying and selling basic commodities before he engaged in small trading in a skiff, and then worked as shopkeeper in a merchandising business.


The 26-diameter iconic steel globe has come to symbolize SM Mall of Asia since it opened in 2006.

The 25-diameter iconic steel glove has come to symbolize SM Mall of Asia since it opened in 2006.

How did these Chinese migrants progress so phenomenally in the Philippines?

When one is a member of the minority race in a country, he has to be very resourceful. There are tough barriers he has to overcome to get into the more conventional occupations usually reserved for the locals. He has to explore other options and all too often he chooses entrepreneurship. Even then he has to work doubly hard. The Chinese – or at least the first-generation migrants that came from China to the Philippines shortly before the war – were steeped in the Confucian values of industry, frugality, self-discipline, and respect for their elders.

They came here hardy and ready for hard work. No work was too menial that they wouldn't take it. They did not mind long hours, measly wages, or inhospitable working conditions.

They came here hardy and ready for hard work. No work was too menial that they wouldn't take it. They did not mind long hours, measly wages, or inhospitable working conditions. Most of all, perhaps, they came here needful. And Need is the Mother not just of Invention but also of the Enterprising Spirit. When they left their jobs to start their businesses, they were content to begin modestly. Not for them were plush offices and air-conditioned lounges and other trappings of power. They were willing to sit down on apple boxes while conducting their business while a sensible electric fan rotated behind. They had no second thoughts about mopping floors, carrying and delivering heavy merchandise, selling house to house, and doing almost anything needed to keep their business going. They denied themselves, tightened their belts, and kept an eye on future and long-term benefits. Today, psychologists call that “delaying gratification.”

It is said that the basic Chinese principles of doing business have been written down many years ago by the ancient taipan Tao Zhu Gong. Of these, the most well known and practiced is the strategy of seeking low-profit margins, while aiming for high sales volumes, as applied by retailing tycoon Henry Sy, Jollibee founder Tony Cak Tiong, and yes, even the genial shopkeeper of my childhood, Sin Teng.

Tao Zhu Gong has inspired many business principles. ticks off some of these: (1) Do not be myopic and narrow-minded. Look at the bigger picture. (2) Do not worship grandeur. Be focused. (3) Do not be indecisive. Be alert and flexible in order to seize opportunity and counteract threats. (4) Do not be lazy or complacent. Work hard and lead by example. (5) Do not be stubborn. Stubbornness can lead to missed-out opportunities. Stubborn men do not make good leaders. (6) Do not be insensitive. Learn when to score and when to retreat gracefully. (7) Do not be greedy for credit. (8) Do not engage in unnecessary competition. A very focused person does not seek the limelight nor rush into battle with a competitor. (9) Do not weaken savings and surplus. (10) Do not ignore changing business trends and conditions nor over-rely on current products or services.

The traditional Chinese way of raising children also resonates with Confucian values. Children raised in the old Chinese discipline had to learn a trade or a craft or an artisanship in their formative years. Rather than hang around and chill out during off-school days, they worked in the family business or in the business of a family friend as young trainees, beginning their apprenticeship doing the most menial of jobs. They obeyed and revered their elders. They knew the value of work and were told from the outset: Everything you want to have, you have to work for.

The second and third generation Tsinoys (Filipino-Chinese) may no longer be as stoic or as driven as their patriarchs. However, being scions of self-made taipans and even of lesser entrepreneurs, they were sent to the best schools and got premium education in Ivy League universities.

It is this generation of highly educated Chinese entrepreneurs that have improved and innovated mostly traditional businesses handed down to them by their patriarchs and parlayed them into the modern, highly-systematized and professionalized, global business empires that they are now.

I seldom visit the Gagalangin of my youth these days. But in the rare times I do, my eyes would sometimes seek out the street corners where the “tindahan ng Intsik” used to be. There are still stores there, to be sure – but smaller now, darker now, grilled now for security for times are harder and more desperate, and tended by my own countrymen who will never be taunted as “tulo laway” – but then who knows that as a consequence they are not missing out on a push and a trigger to make something bigger of themselves.


*Note: “Tulo laway” (drooling) is a mockery against the Chinese people as they have been labeled as “Intsik beho, tulo laway.” “Beho” which means viejo or old man who usually is a peddler or a vendor. As for the ptyalism, Chinese have been known to be industrious people who work really hard early in the morning and then take naps during midday when business is slow. As mandibles are relaxed during sleep, drool oozes out of their mouths. (Source:


Myrna Rodriguez Co also blogs at Ode2Old and Philippine Online Chronicles