Last month I finished up reading Gonzalo Co It’s The Green Cross Saga. Its funny how I thought it’d probably be somewhat controversial to write about the book, and it turns out it was, well, to a few circles at least, but certainly not specifically to me.
The reason being, Mr. Co It is a fairly well – known business personality hereabouts primarily because of his success, and this being the Philippines, whose populace I sometimes liken to being in a big town in terms of news and gossip getting around, anyone saying anything about him is bound to get written about and judged themselves.
The problem is, I had no such intention of involving myself in any form of controversy when I bought the book and writing about it as I am now especially given the light I wasn’t aware it was controversial to begin with, only finding out later after I wrote about buying it. Believe it or not, I only had genuine interest in learning about his story, maybe a little bit about himself (particularly him and why his generation migrated out of China in the 50s), and of course, how he made his millions. I had already read a few other Chinese family patriarch’s stories, and that, aside from the fact it seemed like light reading (I’m a lazy reader) made me decide to buy it.
Suffice it to say most of those questions I had were fairly answered. My interest started after picking up a book called China Hands, which was a recount of experiences by the first American Diplomat to China, who happened to grow up there in his early years and even at one time served as the first CIA operative, trying to find out what was going on behind China’s thick walls. Apparently when they refer to China being cut off from the rest of the world, they weren’t kidding. In the pre – satellite decades of the 60s and 70s, absolutely no one in the West knew what was happening inside China, and first hand recollections from people coming from there were either diluted or planted, and even then could not be relied on to reflect what was happening in such a vast country.
The only signs the country gave at all forebode of a horrible situation. Rivers flowing out of the country floated hundreds of bullet ridden corpses many exhibiting the signs of malnutrition and abuse. Waves of people were often trying to escape via any way possible, including stowing themselves away as cargo on ships and planes, while unrest and disillusionment with communism finally lead to the boiling point, the Tiannamen Square Massacre in 1989, a true People Power scenario where hundreds of College students threw themselves in front of machine guns knowing fully well they were going to be butchered. It makes our own People Power look like a grade school project.
This was the China that Mr. Co It and his generation escaped from, and knowing this helped me understand why they were so determined to prosper in their adopted homes as well. See, coming from such a helplessly tyrannical society of absolute oppression, they probably considered anywhere outside of where they were Paradise. I’ve always believed that people, left to their own devices, would always find ways to try and better themselves, and it became clear to me that this is the underlying reason behind Fil – Chinese family’s success in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
I suppose its best to call it my theory, so I’ll do so. I theorize that the legendary Filipino Chinese businessmen who came here from a boat to become the leaders of industry came with knowledge ingrained in them about doing good business based on good relations with their fellow man along with, of course, hard work and discipline. But they also came knowing that wherever they go, whether it be the Philippines or other countries where a great number of Chinese migrants ended up in (Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the U.S., etc.), it was a fresh start. Here they can do business as they’ve always wanted to without an overseeing body of any sort telling them what to do and how to do it. Not only were they free to practice commerce without hindrance, they were also free of many of the society’s class opinion of how someone should make a buck – prevalent even today.
The Chinese immigrant merchant of 40 to 50 years ago, it appeared to me, had two things going for them. First, they recognized an honest buck as an honest buck, no matter how you got it. So they’ll do anything from washing laundry to peddling all sorts of items on the street, and they will never bewail a person re how he makes his money, so long as it’s earned. Other nationalities (and yes, Pinoys), on the other hand, are all too mired in the ‘what will the neighbors think’ scenario, and so consequently often look behind their backs worrying if what they’re doing duly impresses their peers.
The second thing going for them was that they considered working to improve their family’s welfare as the most honorable thing in the world, and that nothing was more important than seeing to it that their families were well taken care of. Again, I theorize, that the fact they were in a foreign land and fairly cut off from anyone else helped to foster this way of thinking. I figure that since you were free of distractions and had nothing else to do most of the time, you work your ass off, theorizing that the more you put into your business, the more you gain money (and consequently honor) for your family.
I think this is also the reason why many Pinoy families do well abroad, because it is a similar situation. Cut off from the society that used to judge you by what properties you own, how many cars you have or how big your house is, etc., you just earn via whatever employment you can get. Which is why I hear of erstwhile proud Pinoy migrants in the US who take jobs as doormen or security guards – jobs that they’d never think of if they were here because it would be too ‘beneath’ them. Consequently, they start earning well and take jobs away from the natives, earning their ire, inspiring jealousy, etc. You only need to be aware of how Pinoys feel about rich Chinese businessmen today to know how that works out.
Finally, I was about to say that a third situation going for them at the time was that there was hardly any competition in the industries they were involved in, in the case of Mr. Co It, he introduced rubbing alcohol in a marketplace that didn’t have any. In other words, the whole country was his for the taking, and all he had to do was work his behind off to reap the rewards. Compare that to the situation today, where a friend’s father, who happened to be Fil Chinese as well, mentioned to me in passing once how he felt that, at this age, pure hard work and discipline isn’t enough. I was in College then and didn’t give it much thought, but eventually when I came into the thick of trying to earn an honest buck by running a business, I realize the value of what he said. True, hard work and discipline is important, but hardly enough by itself. In fact, the saying ‘Pag May Tiyaga, May Nilaga’, is completely outmoded at this point. There is just too much competition, too many people doing the same things to make money. In order to truly stand out, you need to pioneer and innovate on how things are done. You need to find niches that have not been exploited by others, or if they have, find a way to improve on what’s there. You can’t just work hard because everybody is already working hard. You need to get smart, find your niche in the world and maximize it to its fullest, and only then can you say you’ve got a fighting chance.
At any rate, since I’m talking about Mr. Co It’s book, I suppose its proper to note the situations he recounts which are nothing less than bombshells considering how different they were from the rest of the book. The book was interesting to me because of his story about his early business during and after the war, and a little bit about how his large family got along. He also recounts some familiar places and names, which always helps guys like me who’ve lived in Manila all their lives.
But at some point, he literally drops bombshells, small ones at first, then full – on accusations later on, about how he believes his siblings took advantage of his charity, and while he is not a poor man by any standard today, he claims many billions (?) of his money and properties has been removed from his name without his knowledge and consent.
The truth is, I have to admit this is the least interesting parts of the book to me. It would of course be incredibly important to his friends and family, and if I were the type of person who enjoys involving myself in other people’s business (aka a gossip), I’d probably be in heaven right now. But frankly, I only see myself as an outsider looking in, so these bits have all the effect of white noise.
This is a purely internal issue within their family, and if anything, I feel saddened that after what seemed like a triumphant raising of his family, bringing honor to himself, and overall display of great affection, love and devotion towards his family, his employees, friends and other relations, it ends up in accusations of theft and loss.
I am not in agreement or disagreement over his accusations, plain and simply because I do not care and I should not care, because it’s no business of mine. I have no idea whether he’s saying the truth because all these things he’s saying are just what they are – accusations. And even if they are true, it plainly doesn’t concern me, other than adding more disappointment, given the fact that after all the hard work and goodwill he talks so lengthily about throughout the book, it just ends up in thievery.
I guess disappointment of some measure, sums up what I feel about his book. I enjoyed reading about the past, forming opinions on how the Chinese managed to do what they did based on what I’ve read, and reading about his life. However, the book ended up with bombshells I do not really care about either way, accusations that I find aren’t completely important to the telling of his story, especially because they are mere accusations and not complete exposes based on solid facts, aside from the fact these are so directly different from the stories of happiness he tells in 90% of the book.
I am not surprised it is stirring up a hornet’s nest in local circles, but again as I’ve said from the start, these are circles I am not a part of (thankfully), so I take his book at face value – a wealth of information about the interesting past that helps to form an understanding of the future, and I will take what I can get from it. The rest of the stuff, being of no consequence to me, I will just ignore.