Philippines' products stand tall over China's territory

By MARIA TERESA T. ALMOJUELA (Minister and Consul General, Philippine Embassy Beijing)

Philippines — One may ask — amidst the preparations for the summitry of the State Visit of President Benigno S. Aquino III to China next week and its weighty agenda — how is the Philippines seen in China?

A quick survey of Philippine presence in China would bring up an eclectic mix of Philippine “flag bearers” – things, people and places that shape the images conjured by the word “Philippines” in the minds of the common Chinese.

The list would be topped by edibles found in the markets like dried mangoes, the pan de sal (labeled “Filipino bun”), Philippine bananas grown in Mindanao and Oishi snacks and mango juices. Seafood from the Philippines is also in high demand – gaining ground in high-income cities in mostly-landlocked Chinese consumer markets.

Since the success of Philippine lobbying in the 1990s to secure access of Philippine bananas in China, the country has become the third largest market for Philippine bananas. These days, Mindanao-grown cavendish is a staple in Chinese tables – one sign of the dramatic change in consumption patterns in China over the last two decades, a change that has accultured the Chinese to the best of what the outside world could offer – from food, music and clothes, to luxury cars and yatchs.

Thanks to the efforts of the Department of Tourism to build up the Philippines in a very competitive but numbers-rich outbound travel market in China – Boracay (called the Changtan Dao – meaning Longbeach Island) has carved its own name in China.

The strength of the Boracay brand, as an island-paradise get-away that is not far from China, and the market’s familiarity with Cebu, resonates in the popular impressions of the Philippines’ tropical destinations among the Chinese.

One would easily know this from cab drivers and pedestrians who voluntarily share these images of the Philippines when they encounter a Filipino.

This branding has made Cebu and Boracay the most popular destinations of Chinese tourists in the Philippines. The market is booming and blooming: China is one of the fastest-growing markets for Philippine tourism, ranking fourth in terms of arrivals in 2010.

Chinese impressions of the Philippines are enriched by personal contacts with the increasing number of Filipinos in China – currently estimated at 10,000. This includes Filipino musicians and bands playing in watering holes from Xinjiang to Tibet to Heilongjiang to Shanghai, English teachers, and corporate executives and engineers employed by global giants and Philippine companies.

There are many individuals of notable distinctions – from tycoons like Carlos Chan (known as Shi Gong Qi) and Lucio Tan (Chen Yong Cai), whose business interests span the entire Chinese map, to journalists like CNN Beijing Bureau Chief Jaime Flor Cruz, Harvard-educated Intel executive Lara Tiam, architect Marco Torres who carried the Beijing Olympic Torch and who persuasively tells the Chinese of the wonders of the Philippines through networking sites, blogs, tweets and his lifestyle magazine, chef Rey Lim who has been whipping up appetites in high-end Western fusion restaurants in the Chinese capital in the last 17 years, and Elmer Reyes, an athletics teacher at an international school who runs ultra marathon and triathlon races.

Among these individuals are agents of cultural interaction such as soprano Anne Luis of the Bayanihan Dance Troupe, who studies Beijing Opera at the National Theater Academy of China. With her, the Chinese people are very much taken by the homage a Filipino talent is paying to China’s ancient theater form.

The Philippine Consul General in Beijing, Maria Teresa Almojuela, says that “the Filipino men and women in China are not merely bearing witness to China’s changes: they are contributing to the energy of the Chinese society and taking part in its history.”

There were three Filipinos, who enthusiastically threw themselves into the City of Beijing’s fervor for its 2008 Olympic hosting: aside from Marco Torres, the father-and-daughter team of Jaime and Michelle Florcruz were chosen by the Beijing government to be among the 58 expats to carry the Olympic torch. It was the first time for Philippine nationals to run with the Olympic torch since the 1964 Tokyo games – and these Pinoys delivered with aplomb.

These Olympic torch bearers reflect the Filipinos’ penchant for giving themselves to Chinese civic causes. The Philippine Ball in Beijing, organized by the leaders of the Filipino community bi-annually, raises funds for Chinese charities. There are community projects like schools and orphanages in China which are supported by Filipino benefactors and volunteers.

These examples have strong historical precedence. Records show that in 1930s Shanghai, Philippine veterinarian Dr. Honorio Evangelista led the Philippine company of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps, ready to help the city in the outbreak of hostilities. The Filipino volunteers were said to be “keen volunteers and always participated in activities and hazardous assignments, earning for themselves medals and honors.”

Since the 1990s, China has warmly received teachers from the Philippines, mostly in the English language. To date, there are over 2,000 Filipino citizens who teach English in all levels of education in China, from pre-schools to graduate schools.

Filipino educators also founded the first international school in the province of Fujian in 1993. The Manila Xiamen International School (MXIS), founded by Filipino educators Roman and Mildred Go, now boasts of a student population of 328 students representing over twenty countries.

A Filipino traveling to China will be surprised that most Chinese know the Presidents of the Philippines by name. The Chinese are after all an educated people who still devour books, read newspapers and watch the evening news, keenly following China’s public affairs.

The average Chinese could easily remember the names of Presidents Marcos (Ma-ke-si Zhongtong), Estrada ( Ai-si-te-la-da Zhongtong) and Arroyo ( A-lou-ye Zhongtong). It is also known in China that President Aquino ( A-ji-nuo Zhongtong) is the son of former President Corazon Aquino, whose visit to China in 1988 included a journey to the laojia (hometown) of her great-grandparents’ ancestors in Fujian.

The Chinese profess an admiring impression of the women leaders of the Philippines and hold the Philippines as a model for gender equality in politics. This is the reason Philippine women Presidents like Aquino and Arroyo capture the imagination of the Chinese public.

The older Chinese generation in their 60s, 70s and 80s could still recall their first enchantment with the Philippines and the Filipino woman in the image of Imelda Marcos. Her visit to Beijing in 1973 was beamed in Chinese state television. And so the image of Filipino women to that captive audience – and for a very long time in China - was Imelda Marcos herself – regal and svelte in pink terno being toasted by Chairman Mao Zedong, and carrying both beauty and power as she paved the way for our formal ties.

Contemporary Chinese hardly miss the fact that the Filipinos are a musically-gifted people because of the presence of Filipino musicians in China.

Filipino musicians are among the most sought-after performers in the Chinese music scene, headlining shows in the most popular bars and hotels in China. Some bands have so captured the fancy of their Chinese audience that they are even invited to perform in variety shows on local television channels.

It is estimated that there are over 3,000 Filipino musicians working in China. While it may seem on the surface to be a recent trend, records show that Filipino musicians were in fact very much in the Shanghai music scene in the 1920s and 1930s – playing nightly in the plush clubs, cabarets and hotels in the city in combos with 6 up to 12 members until the wars stopped the music.

The Philippine presence in Shanghai in its days as Paris of the East was such that the former French concession had a Manila Road (pronounced locally as Man-nun-la-lo). Today, this is named Yan’An Road – a busy beltway of flyovers at the heart of the city.

Philippine flavors are also making headway to the Chinese palate. The importation of fruits and food products to China, including dried mangoes, banana chips and polvoron (shortbread cookies), mango, calamansi, coconut juices, purees and concentrates are adding new flavors in a country whose young, diverse, and open-minded market welcomes new culinary experiences.

Many Chinese are becoming more aware that leading snack food brand Oishi is made by Liwayway Marketing Corp., a Filipino company which first ventured into the Chinese market in 1993 with two companies in Shanghai. In less than 20 years, its China operations has expanded to 14 facilities all over Mainland China under the head company Liwayway (China) Co. Ltd.. Oishi’s range of range of products includes more than 50 variants of salty snacks, cereals, popcorn, cookies, powdered juices, and sauces.

Bistro Luneta is flying the Philippine flag proudly in downtown Shanghai, serving amazingly delectable squid sisig, chicken empanada, chicken and mushroom adobo, lechon kawali and other Filipino gastronomic treats.

Luneta is probably the only Filipino restaurant in the entire Mainland China. By doing successfully, it may also be paving pathways for other Philippine restaurateurs to enter China’s culinary scene.

Oishi and Bistro Luneta both represent the range of investment ventures that Filipinos have made in China’s dynamic and huge market. Since China’s opening up at the beginning of the 1980s, the cumulative volume of Philippine investments in China has grown to US$2.78 billion by the end of 2010. Currently, the Philippines is one of Asia’s top sources of investments in China and ranks as China’s fourth largest ASEAN investor.

This is one of the key features of the bilateral economic relationship, and places It also places the Philippines in an extremely good vantage point to engage China towards a stronger economic partnership, especially as the latter has recently become, according to the UN World Investment Report of July 2011, the fifth largest source global investor.

A Filipino travelling to China will find numerous high-rises, malls, factories, and ventures across the territory that illuminate the role of Philippine investments in contributing to the synergy of the country’s economic transformation in the last three decades.

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