Q&A with Joaquin Sy on Chinoy Culture

In this exclusive interview, Joaquin Sy, former Secretary-General of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and past President of Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran, an organization dedicated to integrating Chinese culture into the wider Filipino community, delves into the intricacies of Chinoy consumers. Our discussion explores various facets of the Chinoy culture, values, and experiences, with the goal of fostering a deeper connection with the vibrant Chinoy community.

Q1: How does the Chinoy community celebrate the Chinese New Year, and are there unique customs or rituals that hold special significance, influencing consumer behaviors during this festive period?

A1: Before Chinese New Year’s Day itself, Chinoy families hang red lanterns at home. Lanterns symbolize progress and a raise in one’s social status, and red is associated with life-generating energy. It is the color of celebrations and prosperity.

They offer fruits considered auspicious – apples, mandarin oranges, pineapples, pomelos, etc. They clean the house thoroughly as part of the tradition of 去旧迎新 or getting rid of the old to welcome the new. 

Many have a good haircut to feel clean and refreshed in welcoming the new year. And those who have debts settle their debts to avoid being in the red in the new year. 

On New Year’s Day or 元旦 (Yuandan) itself, young and old wear red to ward off evil and attract good fortune. The Buddhists go to Chinese temples to light incense and pray for good health, peace, prosperity. Some of them actually go to the temple on New Year’s Eve to light incence to welcome the New Year. The first incense stick lighted at midnight just as the New Year arrives is believed to be the most auspicious. 

New Year’s Day lunch usually consists of noodles, fish, dumplings and rice cake or tikoy. Elders give angpaos or red packets with money or lucky charms to kids and grand kids for good luck. They greet each other “kiong hee huat chai” which means ‘”wishing you prosperity”. 

Families and friends flock to Chinatown to join or watch New Year’s Day activities, with dragon and lion dances as main attractions. 

On New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day itself some people, especially those who own business establishments, light firecrackers to usher in the New Year. It’s also part of the tradition of 去旧迎新, sending away the old to welcome the new. 

Q2: Given the significance of family and community gatherings during Chinese New Year, how do you emphasize the importance of these connections, and what strategies can businesses employ to engage Chinoy consumers in a familial and communal context?

A2:  More than the Mid-Autumn Festival or 中秋节 (Zhongqiujie) , Chinese New Year or 春节 (chunjie) is the most important day for 团圆 (tuanyuan) or family reunion. It is best celebrated with family members, and on a bigger scale, with other members of the community. Hence it is a good opportunity for businesses to engage consumers. 

A good example is what Lucky Chinatown Mall and other malls have been doing, offering their venues and facilities for activities related to celebration of Chinese New Year. Needless to say, these activities attract families and members of the community and translate to more sales for businesses in the malls. 

Restaurants, especially the bigger ones, can offer special Chinese New Year set menu for families and groups, with focus on what’s considered auspicious foods to attract not only consumers from the Chinese community but also from the mainstream.

Tour groups can offer and organize special tours around Binondo during the two week-long celebration of Chinese New Year, from the first day to the last day, the 元宵 (Yuanxiaojie or Lantern Festival) which falls on the 15th day after New Year’s Day. 

The special tours can be an opportunity for participants to learn more deeply about Chinoy history and Chinese culture beyond lucky charms and other superficial things.

Q3: In the evolving landscape of Chinoy celebrations, which traditional aspects do you witness gaining popularity, and how can businesses align with these changes? Conversely, are there fading or evolving traditions that marketers should be mindful of?

A3: There has been significant changes in the Chinese community in the Philippines. Because of the influx of new migrants in the last two or three decades, it is apparent that Binondo has become more sinicized so much so that some people call it Little Xiamen. The new migrants or the more sinicized sector has grown not only in number but also in influence. They have formed their own business groups in addition to the ones established earlier by the Chinese Filipinos or Chinoys. To a large extent, this has injected renewed vitality to the Chinese community in the Philippines. 

On the other hand there is the local born Chinoys who are more integrated into the mainstream and have less facility with the Chinese language but still consider themselves part of the Chinese community. This is the traditional market. 

It is important that businesses be equipped to address and meet the needs of both sectors. Language has become an important tool. Whereas before Hokkien is enough to deal with the Chinese community, now some Mandarin is needed to deal with the new migrants who are not from Fujian but are from other parts of China. 

The two TV programs in the community both use Mandarin to reach the Mandatin-speaking sector although Hokkien is still the lingua franca in the community. Job seekers who know Mandarin also have a distinct advantage in getting hired. 

I can share my experiences when I was working with the Metrobank Group. Subsidiaries of the group came out with bilingual (English and Chinese) newspaper ads to address both sectors. They also tried to increase the number of Chinese speaking staff to target the new migrants and more sinicized members of the community, and be able to serve them more effectively. 

Q4: Can you provide insights into the distinctive preferences, behaviors, and values prevalent among Chinoy consumers? What factors set them apart in terms of consumer habits and choices, offering valuable marketing perspectives?

A4: One way to understand distinctive preferences of consumers in the Chinese community is to observe products and services offered by online selling groups targetting consumers in the community. 

Some food items distinctly preferred by the community include native chicken, black chicken, duck, red dates, dried mushrooms, gojie berries, etc. During the pandemic, the preference for Chinese meds like Lian Hua is apparent. This applies not only to the new migrants but also to the Chinoys who may have lost the facility for the Chinese language but still cling to some aspects of traditional Chinese culture which they find beneficial. 

I think members of the Chinese community are always looking for value for money. They are more budget conscious and always on the look out for good bargains, good quality products at competitive prices because they have more sources to choose from. 

We can say with certainty that prices of food and other goods in Binondo are relatively cheaper compared to those outside of Chinatown. That is why frugality and value for money are generally ingrained in the Chinoy and Chinese psyche, especially the former.

Of course there is a great need for services pertaining to immigration requirements among the new migrants.

Q5: Are there specific cultural nuances or symbols deeply resonating with Chinoy consumers, impacting their product preferences and responses to marketing initiatives? How can businesses incorporate these cultural elements effectively?

A5: It is important to be aware of objects and numbers and other symbols considered auspicious or inauspicious by members of the community. 

To this day real estate developers do not use 4, 14, 24 and other numbers ending in 4 in residential buildings because the number 4 is associated with death as 4 in Chinese sounds similar to the character for “death”.

The significance of numbers is also evident in naming the two shopping centers in Binondo 168 and 999. 168 is interpreted as ” to get rich along the way” and 9 is believed to be the luckiest number as it means “eternity” and is associated with the Chinese emperors. There’s a popular Chinese med for flu named 999.

In Hongkong, some soft drinks come in 888 milliliters as 8 is considered auspicious and signifies prosperity. It will probably work with the Chinese community in the Philippines too. 

Q6: In your experience, what strategies have proven most effective in not only appealing to Chinoy consumers but also in fostering lasting loyalty? How can businesses authentically connect and build enduring relationships with this dynamic consumer segment?

A6: Chinoys are generally more budget conscious and bargain hunters and quite prudent in spending money. It is important to give them value for money. The community is small in terms of absolute numbers or percentage of the total population, hence thru word of mouth it is relatively easy to establish a good reputation or a bad one. 

Xinyong or trustworthiness is still an important value in the community. If you have established the reputation of being trustworthy, you develop consumer loyalty and enduring relationships. In the end,

xinyong or trustworthiness and consistency in giving value for money are the key in building enduring business relationships in the community. These are still highly valued in the community. It is even possible to start some business with minimum capital if you have built the reputation of being trustworthy.


Josiah Go is chair and chief innovation strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc. 

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Josiah Go features the movers and shakers of the business world and writes about marketing, strategy, innovation, execution and entrepreneurship


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