Davao City’s Chinatown

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A hotbed of bootstrapping entrepreneurship comes to life in the middle of Ramadan. Our Davao correspondent talks to businessmen from the cornerstone of Davao enterprise

It is past seven o’clock in the evening, but Steven Kho’s store is still filled with customers. They come in droves from Marawi City just to experience Davao’s Chinatown.

“Because it is Ramadan, we find it fitting to buy cheap yet classy cellular phones and other gadgets from Steven because he sells good stuff,” says Ibrahim Sangkula, a Maranao trader who brought his family to enjoy Mindanao’s business and trading hub.

“Chinatown is our favorite buying center because the profits after selling these gadgets are good,” Sangkula adds while handing out new 1,000- peso bills to Kho as payment. Most of the stores in Chinatown—better known as Uyanguren—are usually closed at this hour. But Kho’s and a few others are open till late serving customers as well as resellers cashing in on the low, wholesale prices.

Kho says he settled in Davao City a year ago after staying in Manila for five years. “Most of my friends told me then that doing business in Davao’s Chinatown is good, so I migrated here alone,” recounts the 29-year-old business administration graduate.

With China-made products as mainstays, such as MP4 MP5 players, handheld phones and gaming consoles, and cellular phone accessories, Kho says he plans to add other electronic products so that customers, like Sangkula, would have a wider array of items to choose from.

Newcomers Thrive
The commercial strip, known for hardware stores, banks, textile, Chinese restaurants, housewares, corn and rice dealers, and other consumer merchandise, is home primarily to Davao City’s Chi- nese traders.

Nelson Lim, whose family owns a housewares company, says he finds it difficult to maintain their main business since “customers these days are going for cheaper products, which look just the same as the ones we are selling.”

Say, a branded oven toaster that Lim sells at 800 pesos, can be purchased for only 400 pesos at other stores selling China-made products.

“Competition is very tough,” Lim admits, “so I need to be creative in enticing buyers, especially our old customers who have patronized our store since the 1970s.”

A little creativity coupled with perseverance seems to have paved the way for Lim and other surviving Chinese traders to remain in the trade. On his store’s façade, an eye-catching sign reads: Buy 3, Take 2 for P100! The ad refers to coffee mugs sold at 100 pesos for three pieces.

Still, the influx of cheaper products have forced many stores to either close shop or scale down. A famous housewares store, packed to the rafters with customers for years, now operates in a smaller space. It once had an outlet in one of the city’s malls and employed more than 50 people.

Sheila (not her real name), a former employee, says the owner suffered significant revenue loss when customers started switching to cheaper home products. “The Asian economic crisis also contributed to the burden of my former employers to pay off their loans from the banks,” she says.

A general merchandise store, known for offering a ‘buy now, pay later’ scheme closed down in 2006 due to the high rate of non-payment by its customers and the stiff competition from other retailers in Chinatown.

But for Kho and other newcomers, business seems to be promising.

Better After-sales
Walking through the newly-renovated stalls and small specialty malls reveals thousands of consumer items for budget-conscious buyers and traders. ready-to-wear clothing, watches, home supplies, and a host of electronic and telecommunication products abound in Chinatown. The hottest sellers are cellular phones and electronic gadgets, like PlayStation Portable consoles.

Pinky Rose Tan and her daughter Fiona Ria are frequent customers here. Recently, the elder Tan bought her eight-year-old a red PSP as a gift for making it to the top 10 of her Grade 1 class at an exclusive school.

“But after a week,” Tan complains, “the PSP no longer worked. I decided to go back to the store to complain. I was really surprised that the broken item was exchanged for a brand new one in a second!”

She says many of her friends still believe that traders in Chinatown implement a ‘no return, no exchange’ policy. “But I think the traders are conscious of consumer rights and I commend them for that,” Tan says.

Pedro Colleja agrees. A buy-and-sell trader for years, Colleja says the after-sales service of Chinatown traders is “becoming better. Of course, there is also that thing called ‘warranty’ but I personally enjoy their service, especially for electronic products.”

Local Jobs
In a densely populated city like Davao, employment is a major concern, especially for the local government. With thousands of new graduates every year, plus the high rate of unemployment, landing a job is like finding a needle in a haystack.

The two-kilometer avenue in Chinatown employs thousands of Davaoeños and other migrant workers.

Many come from as far as the Visayas. Dina Garcia, a native of Bohol, has been a salesgirl for more than five years in one of the specialty stores in Chinatown.

“There are few opportunities in Bohol. A friend texted me to ask if I was interested in work here,” says the 21-year-old mother of three. She says she did not hesitate and immediately sought ways to travel to Mindanao.

With complete work benefits and a one-month leave, Garcia says she was able to send her children to school. “I intend to settle with my family here because I have learned to love the city and my workplace,” says the young widow.

An average salesgirl receives 4,500 pesos per month plus commissions if sales are above the daily and monthly quota.

Print ed: 09/11


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