Lucky in the Year of the Rat? Filipino businessmen cash in on Chinese expats

Jessica Fenol, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 24 2020 10:53 AM

Businesses with Chinese characters line Manila streets where offshore gaming companies operate. Filipinos and Filipino businessmen are cashing in on the influx of workers arriving in the country from the main land. Jessica Fenol, ABS-CBN News

MANILA -- William Cellis unloaded boxes of bagnet (crispy pork) and a portable milk tea machine at one of the Philippine capital's hubs for Chinese expatriate workers, hoping to get extra lucky with his one-year-old business this Year of the Rat.

Since quitting his restaurant job and starting his food truck called "Chef Trolley" in Parañaque, Cellis has converted POGO workers to bagnet, whose flavor and texture is suited to Chinese taste. For Filipino customers, he sells hamburgers.

Small business owners like Cellis are cashing in on the influx of Chinese workers, along with property developers and retailers. However, uncertainties loom as Beijing has expressed concern over alleged danger to its nationals working in POGOs or Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations. Manila is also cracking down on POGO tax cheats.

"Mas malakas daw ang kita dito kasi maraming Chinese (I heard I can earn more here because of the Chinese," Cellis told ABS-CBN News. Eight out of every 10 customers are Chinese, who also look for familiar fare such as chicken feet and spring rolls.

Prices are absent from Cellis' menu board to allow him to sell to Filipinos at lower prices. A burger and fries combo can be sold to a Filipino for P65 instead of P75, he said.

"Hindi naman sa galante sila, pero pag dating sa pagkain pag masarap sa kanila babayaran nila. Pag Pilipino bumibili babaan namin," he said, referring to his Chinese regulars.

(They don't really spend big, but when it comes to food they will pay if it's delicious. We lower the price for Filipinos.)

Former chef William Cellis opened a business near a POGO office in Paranaque. At least 80 percent of his customers are Chinese nationals. Jessica Fenol, ABS-CBN News
Chicken feet, a popular delicacy, is in demand among POGO workers, Cellis said. Jessica Fenol, ABS CBN News
Chef Trolley menu written in both English and Chinese. Jessica Fenol, ABS-CBN News

'DYING' SHOPS REVIVED

In Parañaque, near the capital's main airport, a dying computer shop was reborn as a milk tea house, finding a new market with POGO workers. 

Customers flock to Chabucks after work hours to get their fill of P100-per cup Okinawa or Hokkaido milk tea, said its manager, George Martinez. 

The flurry of activity in the area also transformed their area from an escape route for petty thieves into a commercial space, making it safer to walk the streets, he said.

Loribeth Olarte also owes her job to the growing Chinese community in Manila. She now works at a new Chinese restaurant in Manila, built near shanties and roadside sari-sari stores. 

"Masaya ako kasi nakatambay lang ako dati... Ang prayer ko sana maraming customer kasi sabi nung may ari na Chinese pag maraming customer tataas ang sweldo," said the 29-year-old Olarte.

(I am happy because I was a bum before... I pray we have many customers because our Chinese owner said our pay will increase if we have more customers.)

Loribeth Olarte is thankful for a job at a Chinese restaurant in Manila. The shop sells authentic Chinese noodles and dumplings prepared by their chef who is also from the mainland. ABS-CBN News
A Chinese restaurant along the airport road is built to cater to POGO workers in a nearby building. ABS-CBN News

'VERY, VERY OPTIMISTIC'

Small businesses like food carts, groceries and mom and pop stores are poised to gain from growing consumption, analysts said.

In the run-up to the Lunar New Year on Saturday, Chinese Filipinos will snap up lucky charms and food, Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc President Henry Lim Bon Liong told ABS-CBN News.

"I’m not an economist but then we are in the forefront in business, we are in touch with consumers when it comes to manufacturing, lumbers, steel, food with umbrella chapters from Batanes to Tawi-Tawi… My outlook for the next 10 to 15 years will be very, very optimistic. The momentum will keep on growing," Lim said.

Lim said the economy could grow 6.5 to 7.5 percent this year. Gross domestic product expanded by 5.9 percent in 2019, according to official data released Thursday.

Filipino-Chinese businessmen expect the economy to "sustain very fast growth" this year. Small businesses will likely hire more, said Wilson Lee Flores, chairman of the Anvil Business Club composed of young Chinese Filipino businessmen.

However, travel restrictions to contain the spread of the new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, could "dampen" tourist arrivals, Lim said.

Lim said he was hopeful authorities could contain the new coronavirus like they did SARS in 2003.

On a larger scale, Lim said warmer ties between Manila and Beijing will continue to drive investments.

Martinez, the milk tea shop manager, said it shouldn't be all about profit.

"'Yung mga ibang Pilipino sa area na ito nagsilipatan na dahil 'yung pinaparentahan nila sa mga Chinese doble eh. Mas maganda siguro balanse, hindi 'yung pagdating ng araw magiging dayo na lang tayo sa lugar natin," he said. 

(The Filipinos who live in this area all moved. They rented out their places to the Chinese for double the price. It will be better if there's balance. I dread the day we become foreigners in our own country.)