Starweek Magazine

Hopia man and firefighter

- Ivan Man Dy -
It’s hard to miss the color purple in Barangay 289 in the heart of Manila’s Chinatown. Purple street lamps, sign boards, store attendants and fire trucks all remind passersbys of how one Chinatown businessman struck branding goldmine using this Barney-esque shade.

Meet Gerry Chua, barangay captain, restaurateur, volunteer fireman, master baker and man at the helm of Eng Bee Tin Deli and Bakery, the most popular Chinese deli this side of Manila. His recipe for success? "Ube hopia," he says. That, and his passion as a volunteer fireman.

On ordinary days, you’ll see him watching over his little domain: morning rounds and greeting guests at his two restaurants–Chuan Kee and Café Mezzanine, while talking on one of his two cellphones. What seems like mundane routine is actually a combination of his twin passions: text messaging and being an active volunteer fireman.

"My newest project," his says, eyes lighting up, "is called Text Fire 0918-688-8888."

But that’s getting ahead of this story. Started by his grandfather Chua Chiu Hong in 1912, Eng Bee Tin was one of the many bake shops that sold hopia and other Chinese pastries. Competition was stiff, and by the 1970’s business had gone from bad to worse. By the time Gerry stepped in to run the business in the early 1980’s, the bakery was in doldrums.

"Those were terrible days," Gerry recalls. "Our checks were bouncing left and right and vendors were refusing to make deliveries of much-needed supplies." To make ends meet, Gerry would bake a batch of hopia and drive all the way to San Pablo, Laguna just to consign his goods. "That is why old-style hopias were tough–they needed to withstand a longer delivery time." Despite the losses, however, he kept on. Gerry kept himself motivated by doing the one thing he really loves: putting out fires.

As a little boy, Gerry had no inkling that he’d be a volunteer firefighter. "It was my ninong who actually forced me to be one. He said that I was well-built for it since I was plump, but initially I was very hesitant," he recalls.When he was 16, he lost his pinkie finger in a freak accident during one of his on-call duties. It could have easily ended his firefighting career, but it didn’t. "I’ve learned to love the vocation." Continue he did, little knowing that this calling would eventually catapult him to success.

One summer day many years ago, Gerry walked over to a nearby grocery to cool himself with an ice cream cone. He inadvertently asked one of the sales ladies what the best selling flavor was. Ube was the reply.

And then it struck him. He bought a few bottles of ube and experimented with turning it into hopia filling. Thus, the trademark that catapulted Eng Bee Tin to success was born.

When TV-presenter and former Cityline host Cory Quirino was looking for a story on Chinatown and Binondo’s fire volunteer brigades, it was Gerry who was tasked to be her resource person. What followed was a flurry of features around the historic district, including the ube-hopia’s media debut.

"I always tell people that if I hadn’t dedicated myself to being a volunteer firefighter, then Eng Bee Tin wouldn’t have been where it is today." he acknowledges. Today, Eng Bee Tin has six outlets around Metro Manila with two more opening soon. And ube hopia–as well as tikoy and other Chinese pastries–is now enjoyed by Filipinos across Southeast Asia, North America and Europe.

Of late, Gerry has his hands full doing fire-based activities. His recent induction as the president of the 4,500—member strong Association of Philippine Volunteer Fire Brigades (APVFB) means that he’ll be busy charting the course of the country’s biggest voluntary firefighting group, something he is most keen about.

"One of my goals it to professionalize volunteer firefighting here in the Philippines," he says. Already, he has coordinated with the National Fire Institute for training as well as updating skills of volunteer firefighters. On the education front, a fire instructor group which, with the help of a costumed traveling Dalmatian by the name of Sparky the Fire Dog, goes around schools to talk to young children about the importance of fire-prevention and preparedness.

And then there is Text Fire. "It’s really very simple," Gerry says. "My objective is to get everyone to be involved as a text volunteer."

Text Fire was born out of Gerry’s obsessive penchant for SMS, an excessive and even nonsensical hobby of many Filipinos. "I found out that a lot people have the same hobby and I thought why not capitalize on it?" he adds.

On December last year, he invested in an automated computer system that gathers and helps disseminate–especially to volunteer firefighters–incidents of fire throughout the city. To date, there are 11,000 text volunteers spread across three major cities: Metro Manila, Cebu City and Bacolod. Text members participate by registering themselves and reporting any fire incidence. And they also get a dose or two of Gerry’s "Ube News", one-liner reports of the day’s headline-making news.

Over at Café Mezzanine, a restaurant whose proceeds help support the nearby the Binondo-Paco volunteer fire brigade, Gerry spends a good chunk of his day texting away at his personal cellphone and coordinating Text Fire on his other unit. He looks back at his tribulations and achievements and prophetically declares, "In life, only a good deed, not lucky charms, can beget a good deed. If you do good to others then it will surely be thrown back to you."

He turns to check his Text Fire phone set: yet another fire alert. It’s the fourth one in the course of our interview. And off Gerry goes to do his firefighter duties–and that definitely means the end of our interview.











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