Small Business Saturday: Palengke Style!


  “Shop Small!”

We might’ve seen it in our social network feeds, on the stickers of doors, and in ads. Since 2010, Small Business Saturday is nestled in between the unforgiving, discount-hungry crowds of Black Friday and the carpal tunnel syndrome-inducing effects of Cyber Monday -- it's a break from both and a chance to shed spotlight on local small businesses that may have since been overshadowed by the conveniences of larger retailers. We also have National Small Business Week, which happens in late spring/early summer and just celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. We hear the reasons on why we should support small businesses and the benefits it entails for our communities.

But how about when we travel? Or better yet, when we go back to the Philippines?

A trip to the Philippines isn’t complete without a visit to your local SM or Robinsons-anchored shopping mall. And how could anyone resist? Going there means less stops for your relatives who are chauffeuring you around or saves you trips navigating through an unfamiliar place by jeepney or tricycle. You’re able to shop under a climate-controlled oasis that gives you a break from the brutal heat and humidity while browsing a place that shares similar creature comforts that you expect from a mall back in the US. If anything, it may be a less overwhelming option than, say, going to the local market.

Ah yes, the palengke and the sensory overload that it entails. You look on at the chaos of bartering customers and retailers that goes on as you walk through the warrens. You might witness some questionable sanitary standards and you try to not to give hints that you’re a foreigner, as heaven knows some folks might jack up the price of their products (albeit by a peso or ten) just because they know you can afford it. On the surface and assuming you’re not the adventurous traveler-type, why would you choose this overwhelming experience over something predictable such as going to SM?

Indeed, Pilipinos at home and balikbayans are voting with their wallet. Piggybacking off the economic growth that the Philippines has been experiencing, we hear more malls opening across the country while expanding existing ones to the point where they are among the largest in the world (SM North EDSA, SM Megamall, and Mall of Asia are #3, #10, and #11 respectively, all of which, alongside SM City Cebu, are larger than the King of Prussia Mall, the largest in the US).

Despite such growth, we still hear more of the poor left out as unemployment increased in 2013, whereas 76% of that enviable GDP growth was pocketed by the 40 richest families with the richest of them all being that of Henry Sy, the founder and owner of SM. And the Philippines is certainly not alone: the decline of wet markets across ASEAN has been noticed and lamented by many, of which one I felt was most eloquently shared by

The reasons of supporting small businesses here at home certainly can apply in our travels, especially when we return to the Philippines. And while it certainly might not be the most convenient nor comfortable of experiences, we immerse ourselves in an experience that is quintessential to the daily lives that our parents and ancestors experienced. We see relationships between buyers and retailers that span generations and are fostered by the shopping experience itself, a contrast to the small talk with a cashier in a supermarket in a limited amount of time, and that’s if we’re willing to be social. We see an experience that is certainly feels more real and down to earth than a jaunt to SM Aura or Greenbelt.

That’s not to say we should dismiss the “treat” of going to the mall completely (can’t say I’m innocent, I crave a dose of Sizzlin’ Pepper Steak whenever I visit the Philippines). However, we should at least try to step out of that comfort zone at least once and experience more of a component that makes up our heritage as well as spend in businesses who can make a greater impact in their local communities.

Back in November, in between participating in typhoon relief operations and attending my lola’s funeral, I stayed at a place in between the La Paz Public Market and the Gaisano City Center Mall in Iloilo. By default, I frequented to the Gaisano until the coordinator from the local Gawad Kalinga chapter managed to have me pay a visit to the market -- something that I was apprehensive on visiting alone, mainly due to concern that my accent will have me receive higher-than-average prices. The market itself is famous for its origins as the birthplace of La Paz Batchoy (now immortalized as a Lucky Me instant noodles flavor) but also has another famous resident: the Madge Café.

The café itself is known as a historical watering hole for urban Ilonggos who, regardless of class or creed, are treated as equal patrons in this spot. The only difference recognized is how often you frequent this place, where such guests receive the honor of being served a dedicated mug with literally their name on it. There I saw relationships that spanned decades, connections that wouldn’t seem to last that long in the revolving door convenience and relative anonymity of dining at the Greenwich in Gaisano. I slowly took a sip of some of the coffee, a welcome relief after a crazy Honolulu-LA-Chicago-Shanghai-Manila-Iloilo routing. As I tried to soak in the surroundings and happenings, I pulled out my phone to double check whereabouts in the calendar I landed myself in. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect…

It was November 30 and I was unintentionally commemorating Small Business Saturday.