Monday, February 15, 2010

A Chinese Decision

A Chinese Decision

In 1985, having made the decision to stay in the country, we had offered to buy the house that we had been renting since 1980. It housed our studio as well, while we lived on the second floor that had two bedrooms, one for my husband John and myself, and the other for the children. The living room and a ground floor masters’ bedroom had been converted into photo studios, the library into an equipment room, and we shared the dining room and kitchen with the staff and clients.

When we informed our landlady, with whom we had become friends, that we were interested to purchase her house, she did not want to name a price. Instead, she wanted us to make an offer.

To help me arrive at a fair price to offer her, I decided to look around in the neighborhood to see how much properties were selling for. Then, one day, one of the real estate agents asked me to check out a house in San Lorenzo Village (or San Lo, for short), a first class gated subdivision right next to the Makati Central Business District. Although San Lo was a residential community, they were quite lax and allowed businesses to be established in some of the homes (as long as they didn’t build obviously business buildings). She assured me that San Lo prices were at par with Bautista’s, since Bautista was considered a commercial area.

My only intention for looking around was to get an idea of how much to offer for our house, but I was thrilled to think that there was a possibility that we could live in a nicer neighborhood.

True enough, I found a house in San Lo that met one of the most important specifications that my husband had set – that it must have a living room large enough to be used as a photo studio. I showed it to my husband and he gave his imprimatur. I liked it myself because it had a yard and was near the community park. I envisioned having my young children biking around in this safe neighborhood and making friends with other kids in the neighborhood – something they could not do on busy, noisy and traffic-dangerous Bautista Street.

Since I had a friend in the real estate business who lived in San Lo, I took her to the house to get her advise on how to negotiate with the owners. To my chagrin, she immediately said we should not get that house. I asked her why, and she said “Tumbok yan, and that’s malas” (“tumbok” is the Tagalog word for being at the intersecting point of two roads connecting like a T, and “malas” means to be capable of bringing misfortune). It was my first time to hear the word “tumbok” and I certainly did not believe in superstitions. I argued that my husband and I work very hard and can offset or overcome whatever “malas” the house would bring. “That may be true,” she said, “but many people believe that houses like this are ‘malas’ and if and when you need to upgrade, you would have a hard time selling this property.”

I went home frustrated that we could not push through with buying a house because it was “tumbok” and “malas.” I went to bed early, very disappointed and slightly depressed at seeing all my happy dreams and visions of this San Lo house going pffft, and at the thought of doing house hunting all over again.

All of sudden, a thought came to me that pulled me out of the pits. My inner voice was saying – “Why feel bad? In 1970 when you started the business, you had nothing and hardly any money, and today, you almost bought a house in an exclusive community in the city. You’ve come a long way, Harvey.” That thought was enough to perk me up, and I went downstairs to the studio to reassure my husband that I was feeling okay and not to worry about me.

I saw him working overtime in the studio with a Chinese client. We talked about the house and he (Felix Wu, formerly of Ajinomoto) said he would like to share a story with us of two businessmen – a Chinese and a Filipino.

Here was the story:

There were two entrepreneurs, one Filipino and one Chinese. They both had a “sari-sari” store (a humble variety store that sells, in retail, only small low-priced everyday items).

After a year, the Filipino used the profits of his store to buy himself a TV set. The Chinese man reinvests his money into the store, and turned his “sari-sari” store into a mini-grocery.

After the second year, the Filipino bought himself a second-hand car while the Chinese continued to commute using public transportation. He expanded his store, while the Filipino still had the same “sari-sari” store.

After the third year, the Filipino bought himself a house in BF Homes (a medium-level suburban subdivision) while the Chinaman continued to live in a tiny room above his store, which was by then, close to looking like a department store.

At this point, my husband butted in and said, “You see, the Chinese way is better,” to which I replied, “Better for the business but look at the two and see who is smiling.” It was easy for the three of us to reach the conclusion that the Chinese knew how to do business, while the Filipino knew how to enjoy life.

“Let’s have a Chinese decision,” John said. “Let’s offer to buy this house. After all, the studio is here, we won’t need to transfer, we might lose clients if we transferred, we won’t have to change business forms and stationary, etc.”

“Okay”, I said, “for now, we will have a Chinese decision, but I hope someday, we can enjoy a Filipino decision.”

We offered to buy the house, our offer was well received, and for the next 20 years, we lived and worked here, raised our children and grew our photography business, combining home and business as many Chinese families would. We continue to live our Chinese decision, while waiting for the opportunity to enjoy a Filipino decision.

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