In his signature purple sports shirt, Gerry Chua, also fondly called “Mr. Ube,” is usually found standing at the doorway of Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli along Ongpin St. in Binondo. He’s a jolly fixture with matching purple glasses who happily assists customers, bellowing a cheerful “Hello! Welcome!” as they enter the shop, and “Tosia [Thank you!]!” in Hokkien when they leave, arms heavy with goodies.
“I’m semi-retired now, but it still makes me happy to greet people and just check on what’s happening around the stores,” says the well-known businessman.
Born and raised in the Philippines, Chua, 55, is a proud third-generation Chinese entrepreneur, whose grandfather, Chua Chiu Hong, sailed across the seas to the Philippines from Xiamen, China. A master baker, his progenitor established Eng Bee Tin, “ever beauty precious” in Hokkien, then a small stall on Nueva Street, just a few blocks away from where it currently stands.
“When my grandfather established Eng Bee Tin in 1912, business was hard, and continued to be hard even when my father took over. The sales were really dismal,” Chua reveals. Eng Bee Tin gave their family a livelihood for years, but was never quite the success. “I wanted to be different.”
Starting from scratch
More inclined to business than his father, Chua, the eldest of four children, was poised to take over the family business, harboring a grand vision for Eng Bee Tin. But his dreams were deemed too big and too ambitious, with many – including his own father – telling him he was crazy.
Crazy, indeed, were his plans for reviving the struggling mom-and-pop bakery. “Money was hard to come by. And when I took over at 21 years old, I started from nothing. Actually, baon pa kami sa utang (we were deep in debt)!” he admits. There wasn’t enough money to make payments, or even buy supplies such as sugar and flour, and so the young man knew he had to do something drastic. He hatched a plan to transform their homely hopia, which was the “bread and butter” of Eng Bee Tin then, into something that was more palatable.
“We were really known for hopia that was dry, hard and had a very thick crust,” says Chua. “It lasted longer, but it didn’t taste so good. Even when I was just eight or seven years old, I didn’t like it. Kung ihagis mo sa pader, hopia pa rin siya (If you threw it against the wall, the hopia wouldn’t break)!” he laughs. “It was that hard!”
As soon as his father retired, Chua took the wheel, determined to steer Eng Bee Tin into a new direction.
The first order of business was to make the crust softer by making it thinner, and Chua tweaked the recipe for the monggo bean filling by using corn oil instead of the typical lard. The final product was, indeed, better, but the idea didn’t fly too well.
It was while cooling down at the nearby supermarket that he was hit by inspiration. “I used to hang out a lot at Ongpin Supermarket because libre air-con. The guards actually thought I was a shoplifter, because I’d be there all the time and didn’t buy anything!” he laughs.
On one particularly hot and humid afternoon, he asked the saleslady what the best-selling flavor of ice cream was, to which she replied: “ube.” In a moment that he could only describe as ‘divine intervention,’ he came up with the lightning bolt idea that would forever change the course of Eng Bee Tin’s history. “I clearly heard it, a voice said: ‘hopiang ube’.” He rushed home, bought six jars of haleyang ube, and made hopiang ube. At first bite, he knew he had created something amazing.
Not as easy as pie
Of course, it took some time before people caught on to the delicacy, as this all happened in the age of pre-social media. Chua became crafty and resourceful when it came to marketing this new product. He designed his own mailing list, using the directory of Davao and Cebu lent by family and friends. “I would type addresses on each envelope and send free coupons to residents in those cities, even if we didn’t have Eng Bee Tin stores there. Usually, their curiosity led them to call up friends and family here in Manila and tell them to check out Eng Bee Tin in Binondo and buy.”
Hopiang ube gradually gained traction through the help of William Lim, who helped export the product to the US, and Cory Quirino, who was then host of CitiLine. “Cory gave me my big break. She gave me a few lines to say on TV about my hopiang ube, and the rest is history!”
Today, decades since it was first invented, hopiang ube remains to be the best-selling variation at Eng Bee Tin. (There are more than 20 flavors of hopia available, and Chua’s three kids are adding new exciting flavors and products each year.)
“I’ve always believed in innovating and trying new things – not only with flavors, but also in marketing, PR and machinery.” At one time, he drew ridicule from family and fellow bakers, because he bought a P900,000-piece of equipment (a hefty sum in the ‘90s) that would automate the making of peanut balls. Never mind the fact that peanut balls were only sold once a year, after Chinese New Year.
“I was called crazy, ambitious and mayabang!” he says chuckling. The words had hurt then, but he still fully stands by his decisions. “I was confident to take those risks, because I always kept in mind what my grandfather said, ‘It’s OK even if you earn a small profit, just make sure that the quality is great. Your customers will keep coming back’.” And that business wisdom has proven to be true to this day. Chua doesn’t take any shortcuts. He puts a premium on quality and makes sure not to be frugal with their ingredients.
“Even though I’m Chinese and matipid, it’s okay for me to invest in equipment, in people, in ingredients, because I’m thinking long-term.” Eng Bee Tin, imbibing the same enterprising spirit of its owner, has become an innovator. Aside from being the first to experiment with hopia flavors, Eng Bee Tin is also the first to use foil, pillow packaging and use metal detectors and X-ray equipment as part of its quality assurance methods.
Rising and expanding
Today, Chua’s resourcefulness, ingenuity and creativity as a businessman have paid off. Eng Bee Tin has become an icon in Chinatown, and has more than 20 stores in Metro Manila. Eng Bee Tin products are sold in 18 countries, including the US, London, France, Dubai and Kuwait, wherever there is a Filipino community.
Though still youthful at 55 and bursting with new ideas for his business, Chua is already handing over the reins to his three children, each of whom has assumed key roles in the family enterprise. Gerik, the eldest son, 27, is heading operations, while Gerald, 24, is managing the two commissaries in Paco, Manila. The youngest and Chua’s unica hija, Geraldyn, is handling finances and the construction of the family’s newest project – the Eng Bee Tin flagship store.
Painted a crisp white, the five-level structure, set to soft open in October, will highlight a grand floor space featuring the store’s popular pastries and delicacies, while the upper floors will carry different regional snacks and sweets, and showcase a museum that traces the Eng Bee Tin history and how hopia is made.
Geraldyn Chua, a management honors graduate from Ateneo de Manila University, says:“This was all Dad’s idea. Aside from Eng Bee Tin bestsellers, we want to show the best of the best of our country’s products. As he often says, the success that we’ve been blessed with, we should use that to help others. Let’s help bring more attention to the different products of the Philippines.”
Chua came up with the idea for the flagship store-museum, because “when tourists and travelers come to Chinatown, the experience is kind of bitin (lacking), considering there’s so much that we can offer. Binondo is, in fact, the oldest Chinatown in the world.”
Another unique example of Chua’s philanthropy is his other life as a volunteer firefighter. As a young man, Chua had always been fascinated by fire, joining the brigade at 16 as a volunteer. As a certified firefighter, he can put out fires, provide medical assistance in emergencies and fulfill all the duties of a typical firefighter.
In 2002, he formally established Txtfire Philippines, the largest organization of volunteer firefighters. Chua also created an innovative network using SMS to disseminate fire alerts. Thanks to Chua’s family’s donation of 10 fire trucks and two ambulances, the fleet of Txtfire Philippines and its affiliates have received much needed augmentation to its current 400+ fire trucks and nearly 40 ambulances. All fire trucks, donated by Chua, are branded in an eye-popping purple color, in honor of the generous benefactor also known as “Mr. Ube.”
“I’m still very passionate about fire prevention and safety. Just call me and I’m willing to go to schools, gatherings and meetings to teach fire prevention. Even after more than 30 years, Chua is still a passionate, hardworking volunteer. “In all honesty, I can retire from Eng Bee Tin, but never as a volunteer firefighter.”
His daughter Geraldyn further reveals that she and her siblings intend to expand operations, with new stores outside of Manila.
“I’m very lucky, because my children want to continue the business I’ve worked so hard for. Not many bakers and businessmen like me are so fortunate,” Chua beams with pride.
As he sits happily in his corner at Café Mezzanine, above the deli, surrounded by happy diners who have become his friends, Chua shares his hopes for his children: “All that I wish to remind them about – when it comes to business or life – is to be honest, to be God-fearing and to always work hard.” Simple, honest words that are heavy in wisdom, indeed. And this, Chua nods, has been the secret to his sweet success.
Chua’s Must-Do’s When Fire Hits
• When cooking and the grease catches fire, do not throw water to extinguish the flames as this will only cause the fire to become bigger. Instead, turn off the burner and carefully slide a lid over the pan to smother the flames.
• Keep cooking areas clear of combustibles, and wear short or tight-fitting sleeves when cooking.
• If an appliance has an unusual smell or begins to smoke, unplug it immediately and have it repaired or replaced.
• Replace your air-conditioning units every five to eight years.
• Do not overload extension cords and do not run electrical cords under rugs.
• Install smoke detectors and check them once a month. Change the batteries at least once a year as well. It is recommended to have at least one smoke detector on every level of a structure.
• Treat burns by placing it under cool water for 10 to 15 minutes. Go to the doctor immediately if the burn blisters or chars.
• If a fire threatens your home, leave and seek a safe location outside of the home first. It is better to get out and place the call to fire authorities from there.
• To report a fire or emergency, send: REPORT AREA CODE EXACT LOCATION to (SMART) 0918 6888 888, (SUN) 0922 6888 888 and (GLOBE) 0916 4888 888