Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Manila's Chinatown, Where Chinese and German Immigrants Intersected

I am a pessimist by nature, but good coffee—the world’s most traded commodity after oil—always cheers me up. To get a cup of coffee from farm/mountain to your mouth requires navigating diverse worlds of marketers, supply chains, bankers, and laws. Because the profit margins are great, caf├ęs can become linchpins of revitalized communities and workspaces. 

I’m in Manila’s Chinatown, in a building once inhabited by German immigrants Ernest and Alfred Berg, who arrived in Manila around 1922 looking for better opportunities post-WWI. Within the Berg building was Cosmos Bazar, founded in 1926 and owned by a Chinese immigrant, Mr. Lim. Mr. Lim eventually sold his store to a Fujian, Chinese immigrant named Mr. Sy, and the full story is equal parts tragedy and fairytale. 

As a teenager, SY Lian Teng changed his name on a ship's manifest to “Ong Tico” to immigrate to the Philippines, working for his father in a sari sari shop. Preternaturally ambitious, he found an unpaid internship at Mr. Lim’s Cosmos Bazar for two years, increasing his business skills. After seeing Mr. Sy’s diligence, Mr. Lim offered the store to him when Mr. Sy was just 20 years old. 
In 1930, at the age of 24, Mr. Sy married LEE Siok Keng. By 1945, however, WWII bombings and fires destroyed the store and killed 8 of his 9 children and his wife. After 4 years of mental recovery back in China, in 1949, he returned to Manila, re-opened his store, and remarried to a Filipina, Emerenciana Antonio Soyangco. They had four children. In 1951, he bought the Berg Department Store from Ernest Berg. A letter to one of his grandchildren carefully reminds his heir that family is more important than money. 

Today, “The Den” coffeeshop is located in Mr. Sy’s and Mr. Berg’s building. It sells the Philippines’ best coffeebeans, from Kalsada Coffee. Cosmo Bazar is nearby and sells only Pilot pens and pencils. 

Bonus, from Fannie Tan Koa’s article: “‘I believe that 85% of Manila was destroyed by the Americans, not by the Japanese...’ ‘They [the Americans] wouldn’t stop bombing the city... to kill the Japanese [occupiers]...’ ‘But the Japanese have retreated; they are no longer here...’ ‘They answered, ‘Sorry, General MacArthur’s orders!’”

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