Rise and Fall in a Filipino Market
Mike is an Englishman currently living and working in London. He spends as much time in the Philippines as he can and hopes to move back here soon.
I’ve always been interested in exotic places, particularly the Far East. Instead of going to university I went to work for a big commercial bank in London, became a currency trader, and was promoted and sent to Singapore. But over time I came to hate the stress of currency trading and the climate of fear that came with it. I met my wife, who’s a Filipina. I’d made enough money to live on for the rest of my life, so I decided to go to the Philippines and buy land.
Having blue eyes meant I was an observer and taken as an observer—because I had no influence. A foreigner going to court would lose. In the Filipino way of doing things we were insignificant. I mixed with people on both ends of the social spectrum. I remember one day I was talking to the street sweeper in the morning, and at lunch I had lunch with a former Secretary of the Philippines under Corazon Aquino. Generally the rich tended to be jealous of us—colonial mentality—but the middle-class would welcome you as one of them and not treat you any differently. Certain doors were closed to me, but I didn’t want to mix with the shallow, celebrity world which governed the Philippines.
I loved everything about living here, but was very naïve about business—I got into the housing business here—and I wasn’t used to dealing with desperate people who would do anything to make money. Eventually I found myself with no job and children who had tuberculosis. I was like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I had to do something.
On our land there were mango trees. Every year we paid people to harvest the mangoes. My wife was from a market family, and she said, “I’m going to sell these.” We had a truck which we’d bought for a factory, so we started bringing fruit up from Mindanao to sell in Manila, at one point ten tons of bananas a week, which she sold all around the area. The business grew. Toward the end of 2000, everything looked good.
One fateful day we sent 100,000 pesos down to the canal to bid for the bananas—we sent 50,000 with each person. One of them went to the other and said, “We missed the bidding. I’ll send the money back. There’s no sense in both of us going back up.” He disappeared with it. Then the company which was using our trucks on their return trip decided to make other arrangements. Other things happened as well. All of a sudden I was wiped out and staring at a very uncertain future. All I could do was just go home and get on the floor by the air conditioning. I was exhausted, and I didn’t know what to do.
My wife said, “Well, we’ve got some money left, and I’ve got a chance to buy a store in Marikina Palengke.” I said, “Okay, fine.” After she bought it, we had enough money to set up the stock.
I got involved, and I loved it. I found Marikina Market a very friendly place with a certain magic about it, a massive showcase market, and not quite as dog-eat-dog as one might think. Everyone was very friendly, everyone knew everyone else’s business, the same as you would do in any close-knit, old-time community. People called to each other as they went past or stopped to have a chat. Basically, there were about twelve fruit stores, but only about four or five families involved. There was some wholesale and some retail, but prices were very cheap and products very fresh.
When we went to the business, the heyday of the markets was gone. First supermarkets had encroached on the markets—the supermarkets really started to muscle in around 2004, when it got really hard to make money—and then the big malls. There were times of great activity and times when you wouldn’t see a customer for an hour or two. It was hot, but the market authority wouldn’t allow sleeveless shirts. If there was any rubbish, they’d fine you. Another trouble was the workers. We paid them 250 pesos a day [$5.60] and bought them lunch for an additional 30 pesos. They’d make their money by stealing from us. So we always had to be on the watch after them as well.
In the front of the market you had the fruit stands, and inside the dry goods to one side, and on the right-hand side the meat and then the fish. We were in the fruit section, selling local fruits such as latundan and lakatan bananas, melons, watermelon and pineapple. We also sold exotic fruits, such as apples and oranges and pears. I became a barker. Mam, mangga, mam, saging, mam. That was the patter I used. “Can I get you anything, ma’am. Do you want mangoes, ma’am? Bananas, ma’am. Mangoes, ma’am. Very sweet ones, ma’am. Twenty-five pesos a kilo, ma’am.” You started off with a certain amount of money, and then each night or early in the morning you would go to the big wholesale market. We were open twenty-four hours. We had three stalls, two joined together plus one slightly further down the aisle.
On a typical day, about four in the morning, we went to the wholesale market in Cubao with the Ford Ranger pickup truck and a couple of employees who did the carrying. Early in the morning it was lovely—cool and not so polluted. There was a buzz about the place that was almost like a futures trading pit in Chicago as the fruits and vegetables came in. The big-time banana traders with stacks of bananas six or seven crates high. The specialists in atis, or custard apple, a seasonal fruit which looks like a green hand grenade. The local mangoes, the small fruit called lanzons. Lots and lots of people running around, all trying to do deals. We were well-known, so when we didn’t have money we could borrow.
Around six or six-thirty we went back to the store to arrange things. The fruit had to be displayed just right, all stacked up nicely. Lychees came on small sticks, so you tied them all up to look nice. But all during the day you had to keep wetting them with water, otherwise that bright red color on the outside would turn dull red. Around six o’clock the early shoppers would start coming in for the bargains. I’d be in my polo shirt and shorts and a pair of flip-flops. We’d sit down with some coffee and some pan de sal [kind of Filipino roll], and we get our suki, our regular customers. “Hi, suki, what can I do for you today?” Maybe I would offer them the strawberries I had just bought in Baguio. Filipinos generally are quite loyal buyers. Once they like you, they’ll always buy from you. So it’s very important to be good to your suki. We had some very interesting customers, like the wife of the head of a big corporation who shopped from us.
The bananas came green. You had to put medicine on them to make them turn yellow. Mangoes needed to be hot in order to turn yellow. So you wrapped them all in newspaper, each one individually, in what they called a kain and added the powder that turned them yellow. I had a funny feeling was actually gunpowder or some other kind of explosive. But the sweetest mangoes were the ones that you allow to ripen by themselves. Philippine mangoes are much sweeter than the Indian variety.
Weekdays generally were quite quiet. For lunch I ate at the Thai restaurant, which was very, very cheap. That’s where you really met people. When the sun went down, I’d be sitting there feeling as if I’d done a hard day’s work, carrying around 30-kilogram crates of bananas. Then busy weekend started on a Friday night after work when everyone got paid. Marikina is a big leather area, famous for shoes. So the big shoe company owners would come down in their big cars and send out the maids to get fruit and vegetables in the market. The friendly middle-class people would come. At night time there were the taxi drivers and the bar girls, and you got the gangs of street kids asking for the slightly-off fruit so they could sell it. Once there was one girl with a cleft lip, and the kids were saving money so she could have a lip operation. They were cute and very friendly. No one minded them. They were very loyal. One day my wife’s cell phone was stolen. The street kids saw it, and they chased after the guy and caught him.
Saturday morning was very busy. I’d have ten, twenty people around the store and I’d be trying to remember what they were buying, remember all the change and everything. We were always looking for different ways to beat the competition. I remember once my wife bought an entire jeepney [a small bus for public transportation, originally made of jeeps left behind by the U.S. military] of watermelons at a very low price and we sold them very high. Everything was all about price.
If market people had a good Christmas and a good New Year, they could make enough to survive the rest of the year. Christmas was busy, but New Year’s was busier. According to Filipino tradition, at New Year’s you need to have thirteen different round fruits: for example, grapes, oranges, apples, lanzons, chestnuts, chico fruit, jackfruit. We used to truck in a big, ten-wheeler truck of fruit. At New Year’s, you’d be brushed off your feet at six in the morning. I couldn’t believe how many people. Everyone is grabbing, grabbing, grabbing. On that day we would easily spend 250,000 pesos [$5,555] on fruit, and we’ll end up with probably 450,000 pesos [$10,000] at the end of the day. That was most of a market trader’s money for the year. 200,000 pesos would be just enough to pay the school fees and everything else. It’s not much abroad, but in the Philippines it’s a big amount. Normally on a good weekend day we would take in about 25,000 or 30,000, on an average day about 10,000.
As I said, New Year’s was busy. It was slightly chillier so you didn’t notice the heat so much. In the morning Filipinos actually wore jackets. All the time it was rush, rush, rush—no stopping all day. So that night you took the money that you made on that day and went back to the wholesale market to buy the same amount then for the next day. It all stopped on New Year’s Eve because that’s a holiday. New Year’s Day is absolutely quiet. We went there to open the shop and make one sale. Just for tradition.
When the market was heavily hit I started borrowing money from the loan sharks to pay for our fruit. It got into an absolute turmoil. Everyone was doing the same. It was hard to be worrying about how we were going to feed the children. The debt made things worse. I’d rather have my savings gone than to suck money from the house. We were just treading water. All I was doing was working in the market during the daytime, and my wife was working at night because we didn’t trust the employees. We were hardly seeing each other, and it got harder and harder. And then eventually it had to go.
I love the Philippines. I don’t know why. It’s dirty. It’s polluted. It’s corrupt. But there’s a magic here. There’s a “can do” attitude. It’s a place where people deal with adversity that the West wouldn’t even begin to understand. Filipinos shrug it off with a smile. There’s a great tradition of amour proper, where everything should be balanced. Even when you’re selling.