Adaptation
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 13, 2020 - 12:00am

The food court with a red fence along the Alabang-Zapote Road has reopened, this time with Filipinos no longer told to keep out.

It’s now called the Laspiñas (their spelling) Night Market, and there’s a large sign at the entrance bidding everyone welcome to the place that looks like the open food courts of Taiwan and Singapore.

Most nights there is hardly room to sit; the open court is packed mainly with young Chinese wearing the unmistakable casual black t-shirt of Philippine offshore gaming operators and the POGO service providers.

The Chinese are brought to the food court from their offices or dwellings by the vehicles of choice of the POGO industry: white and sometimes black Toyota Alphard vans.

There are still no official receipts issued and no BIR-registered point of sale machines, but there are more signs in English and a lot more Filipino workers, assisting the Chinese cooks or helping Pinoys order food.

It would be impossible to present an accurate menu in English. Many ingredients and food preparations have no English equivalent. I’m familiar with several types of regional Chinese cuisine and their ingredients, but many items on display in that food court are alien to me.

The prices are reasonable for the portions, and a soup I ordered on Saturday night, priced by the kilo, was scrumptious. Truly, the Chinese can cook anything and make you eat them.

If the food court isn’t crawling with POGO workers, it could actually become popular among Pinoys.

*      *      *

Long past regular office hours on a weekday, look up at the buildings around you, especially the new ones mushrooming in several areas of Metro Manila.

The lights in the buildings are switched on all the way to the top floor, and you can see people seated in front of desktop computers. At the lobbies of the office buildings, you can tell immediately the nature of the activity: POGO.

Not too long ago, the night owls who gave the 24-hour convenience stores and restaurants a thriving business were the Filipinos working at call centers.

Today the Chinese POGO workers are competing in numbers with the Pinoy employees in business process outsourcing. In some parts of Metro Manila, it seems like the Chinese are even starting to outnumber the BPO employees.

The POGOs and their service providers are spreading at an astonishing rate. Forgotten, it seems, is the plan announced last year by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (PAGCOR), that all Chinese offshore gaming would be confined to self-contained hubs where they need not worry about local sensibilities and cultural assimilation.

PAGCOR’s takeover of POGO supervision from the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority effectively allowed the POGOs to leave Cagayan and set up shop anywhere in the country.

When the POGOs and their service providers were just starting out in Metro Manila, a supply chain was created that catered almost exclusively to their mainly Chinese employees, excluding Filipinos and skirting Philippine tax regulations.

Several of these downstream businesses were shut down. But it looks like mainland Chinese entrepreneurs are adapting and learning how to do business in the Philippines.

*      *      *

The Laspiñas Night Market is in a spacious compound where several gray multistory buildings are now set to open, with another one under rapid construction.

Across the road is a Chinese grocery store that now employs Filipino salesladies and issues an official receipt at the point of sale, which is manned by a Chinese who speaks very little English and I’m guessing even less Tagalog. There is no more smoking inside the premises. Such grocery stores and Chinese restaurants have mushroomed it seems everywhere.

You will still have to be familiar with Chinese goods to buy what you want, since there are no English product markers, and the Pinoy salesclerks are largely clueless about a lot of the merchandise. But the shopping experience for locals has improved.

Such grocery stores used to be packed with Chinese. But the POGO employees have discovered local supermarkets and no longer confine themselves to their compatriots’ stores.

Several supermarket chains now have aisle and product signs in Chinese characters. I now have stiff competition for my fresh carabao milk from Nueva Ecija; the sales clerks tell me the Chinese love the stuff. Who said they’re lactose-intolerant? They order meats and seafood by showing the English words on their cell phones to the sales staff behind the counters.

Last year before Christmas, a taipan’s son told STAR editors that he welcomed the expansion of the POGO industry, saying local businesses were starting to reap the benefits.

*      *      *

The local partners of Toyota Motors surely agree. So do the supermarket and shopping mall owners. Local and Western fastfood chains are also doing good business.

And for sure, so do property developers. Condominium buildings are sprouting all over Metro Manila, in anticipation of an ever-growing mainland Chinese clientele.

The developers are unfazed by numerous reports of private homes being leased to POGO workers, at triple or quadruple the prevailing rates, and then being badly damaged and turned into virtual dumps. One reason is that the operators reportedly cram as many employees as they can into the living quarters. There are stories about some quarters so crowded employees take turns sleeping.

Despite the overcrowding, the large amounts offered as rent, with six months’ advance paid in cash and another six months in reserve under the lease, make the Chinese desirable tenants for Filipino property owners. And the Chinese proliferation is driving up real estate prices.

They are also fueling concerns about a property bubble. Stockbrokers say such fears recently pulled down the share prices of at least one major property developer.

With reports of kidnapping, extortion, violence and prostitution attributed to POGO workers, it’s ironic that this industry is growing under an administration that professes to give priority to the campaign against criminality and corruption. And the intended main reason for the expansion – tax collection – isn’t even being accomplished.

Our GDP is heavily reliant on sectors that give little incentive for undertaking structural, social and political reforms. Are we going to add online gaming to these sectors?

Beijing has asked Manila to stop the online gambling, which is prohibited for Chinese citizens. But China has been roundly rebuffed by the Philippine government.

POGOs are here to stay… for now; what happens after 2022 is anybody’s guess. Where this industry is taking the Philippines is uncharted territory.

ALABANG-ZAPOTE ROAD NIGHT MARKET
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