Carlos Chan, Filipino entrepreneur
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - February 23, 2019 - 12:00am

I first heard of Carlos Chan from Ramon Sy, a self-made man and the Cavite banker who breathed new life into the moribund Coco Bank. Ramon and I talked about our country’s problems, the great wealth amassed by our ethnic Chinese, and the social responsibility of the rich. Carlos Chan, Ramon said, is the rara avis I have been looking for. For sure, all business owners are lured by profit; Carlos Chan, the chairman of Filipino multinational Liwayway Group, is not an exception. But among our ethnic Chinese, he is one who is deeply concerned about our people trapped in the vagaries of a turbulent world.

Before President Gloria Arroyo appointed Carlos Chan special envoy to China, a position which President Aquino and President Duterte also conferred on Chan, the man was already acting out the job, introducing visiting Filipinos to China and to the fundamentals of dealing with the Chinese bureaucracy, and how they should comport themselves in that culture. He has had a lot of experience in this for he started his enterprise in China early enough in the 1990s to corner a large share of the snack food market there.

This soft-spoken, low-profile businessman was born in Tanay, Rizal, but grew up in Paco, Manila.  His parents were from Fujian, and were the original distributors of Liwayway Gawgaw, that memorable brand of starch popular among two generations of Filipino housewives. The family is still in the gawgaw business, more out of sentimental reasons for the manufacture and distribution of Oishi snacks is now Liwayway’s flagship enterprise.

Oishi is an ascending brand beyond Southeast Asia and China. Carlos Chan’s employees are in the thousands, many of them Filipino managers. He has more than a dozen factories in China, plus those in the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, and South Africa, all of which – with the exception of India -- fly the Philippine flag.

In 2014, China positioned an oil rig in Vietnamese waters. The Vietnamese responded with a flotilla of ships and, amid anti-China protests, demonstrators set fire to several factories believed to be Chinese-run, affecting Singaporean and Taiwanese plants as well. The Oishi factory was spared.

With his enterprises in countries of varying cultures and food habits, how does Chan flourish and maintain industrial peace? He says we Filipinos know how to adapt. As for sound labor relations, he said we Filipinos are traditional practitioners of “pakikisama.”

Many of our wealthiest, as Ramon Sy correctly observed, are not producers. Neither are they builders of a modern and dynamic economy, which Carlos Chan is. Liwayway is in Cavite, Cagayan de Oro, Cebu, and Tarlac, with another factory under construction in Iloilo.

He is concerned with food security, with agriculture, which is ignored. He is helping to develop our agriculture potential, the production of cassava – a lot of which he currently has to import for his products – and the production of affordable coffee. Most important, in a country afflicted with malnutrition, there is a focused effort to make Oishi products nutritious.

Why Oishi? It is a Japanese term which means delicious. Way back in the 1980s, on a visit to Japan, he saw a machine producing snacks. He brought one to the Philippines and started the snack food business.

Chinese civilization is a continuum.  Long before the Spaniards came to the Philippines, the Chinese already traded with us. It accepted tributes from neighboring states. From the Philippines, the Sultan of Sulu went to China with such a tribute. He died in China. The tomb of this Filipino ruler (there was no Philippine nation then) was restored by Carlos Chan to commemorate that ancient connection.

The Chinese take the long view of their own history. We must also learn to take the long view of our history, and of our relations with China and with other countries in the region.  We must deal with China as a neighbor. This means being patient with China, appreciating its pre-eminence as the middle kingdom, and kowtowing to it as the occasion demands. At the same time, we must show how resolute we are in defending our sovereignty; we were the first Asian nation to oppose western imperialism with arms. We should be prepared to do the same to a country that encroaches on our sovereignty and demeans us.

If loyalty to this country is quantified, Carlos Chan thinks the second-generation Chinese-Filipinos are 80 percent Filipino. He says the third and succeeding generations are Filipinos; they grew up here, their friends are here, they know no other country.

He also says that the Confucian tradition, which was dented during Mao’s cultural revolution, is reviving at a pace in keeping with China’s economic ascendancy, and that the Confucian ethos, which emphasizes hierarchy and harmony, will eventually guide China.

While so many look at China as a bully, they should also look at that vast nation for opportunities, a market for our products, a source of new technologies.

The philanthropies of Carlos Chan are low-key like the man himself, but very extensive. In the Philippines, they are in education, culture, and humanitarian assistance. Imus in Cavite is the home of Oishi’s main Philippine factory. He founded a school in the town and provided homes for his employees so that they do not have to commute. I visited the factory; it is a model of efficiency and cleanliness. The town of Imus has adopted Carlos Chan as a son. I think that this acclaim is perhaps the most meaningful among the many awards of this quiet yet significant Filipino entrepreneur.

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