Sari-Sari stores: The Chinese connection-A A +A
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
THE sari-sari store has always been a symbol of Filipino culture. It is often a small shack on the side of the road, a kind of general store where one would be able to buy cigarettes, noodles, shampoo, rum and even school supplies. Sari-sari stores can be seen everywhere, from the busy city streets to the some uncharted mountain road up in God-knows-where.
Because of their omnipresence and importance as an economic center of the community, the sari-sari stores have become inseparable from the Filipino way of living.
It is often said that the sari-sari store is a purely Filipino institution. While it’s true that they were invented in the Philippines, it was the Chinese who dominated the sari-sari store business for the longest time. It all started just after the discovery of this country by Spain, when the Chinese traders were all relocated and stripped of their land. Several enterprising Chinese decided to set up roadside stalls to circumvent the land ownership laws and hawk their wares to the Filipinos and Spanish settlers alike.
A pre-WW II statistical paper by a certain Felix de la Costa showed that in 1938, Filipino sari-sari stores outnumbered Chinese sari-sari stores by 7.3 to 1 – however, he adds that “…in size and general efficiency those of the Chinese were far superior. The average investment of the Filipino store amounted to only P352, as compared to P1,916 in the Chinese owned sari-sari store. The average stock of merchandise on hand in the Filipino-owned sari-sari store was P133, as against P1,131 in the Chinese store. The average gross receipt of the Filipino store was only P363 while that of the Chinese store was P4,023.”
In other words, the Filipino people were being beaten at their own game. In fact, the Philippine government took notice of this and got so nervous about it that they passed a law called the “Nationalization of the Retail Trade Law” which forbade Chinese sari-sari store owners from passing their businesses on to their children. Undaunted, the Chinese simply put their stores under the names of their Filipino wives and continued with business as usual.
The Chinese businessman is no stranger to persecution. In the United States, the Chinese were forbidden from becoming citizens and setting up business, and they were taxed to the point of starvation. In the Dutch East Indies, 10,000 Chinese workers were massacred because of something to do with an outbreak of malaria amongst the Chinese population and the threat of a Chinese revolt. In the Philippines, 23,000 Chinese were massacred by the Spanish because the Spanish colonial government felt that they were becoming too numerous and too rich. Even sari-sari stores came under attack – in addition to the nationalization of sari-sari stores that was previously mentioned, Chinese sari-sari store owners were required to pay a P15,000 naturalization fee and to keep their store records in either English or a local language.
However, the Chinese businessman is patient, prudent, and adaptable. In the old days, little boys would ask for some free salt from a Chinese store, which was given to them with a smile. They would then throw it into the owner’s face. If this was done to a Filipino shop owner, the boys would be chased away with a stick, but the meek old Chinaman at his store did nothing. The boys’ parents would still shop at the Chinese store, but they’d refuse to shop at the Filipino’s store because they’d consider him to be “dangerous.” Chasing the children of potential clients around with a bamboo stick is not good for business.
The reason why there are so few Chinese stores nowadays is because all of them have moved on to greener pastures. Back in the day, it used to be commonplace to see enterprising Chinese people buying things like old bottles, newspapers and containers to be used in their stores. Today, it’s more likely to see a Filipino doing things like that. Nowadays, the Chinese are known for owning big businesses like retail outlets, hardware shops, or even entire malls.
Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on November 06, 2013.