08 April 2008

Book Review: Chen and Manahan

Only 3 percent of Filipinos are Chinese, but these 3 percent control 70 percent of all businesses in the Philippines.

If only for this startling fact, the book Inside Chinese Business: A Guide for Managers Worldwide (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2001; reprinted in the Philippines by McGraw Hill) by Professor Ming-Jer Chen of the University of Virginia (formerly director of The Wharton School’s Global Chinese Business Initiative) should be required reading for all persons doing business in the Philippines.

Chen correctly points out that non-Chinese doing business with Chinese firms have to understand Chinese history and culture. For instance, formal organizational charts have little to do with the actual decision-making going on in Chinese firms (which he calls “Chinese business families”). In a Chinese firm, there is an unwritten organizational chart that is followed and respected by everyone in the firm. The person on top might not be the one making the final decisions; it could be a person technically lower in rank or a person not even in the chart at all.

Chen’s being Chinese and American at the same time obviously helps him explain to non-Chinese the foundations of Chinese business behavior. In particular, Chen is good at explaining why Chinese business principles can be traced to family behavior patterns, what guanxi really is (it’s not negative, but positive), and why conflicts occur every day between Chinese and non-Chinese negotiators.

A simple observation tells it all: “Traditional Chinese writing runs from the top of the page to the bottom, while the Western writing system runs from left to right. When Chinese people are reading traditional texts, it looks as though they are nodding their heads and saying ‘Yes, Yes.’ When Westerners are reading, they appear to be shaking their heads and saying ‘No, No.’”

Even in the Chinese language itself, differences can be inferred. The first person pronoun is hardly used in Chinese, for example, compared with English, where “I” dominates most sentences in everyday speech. “Who you know is who you are,” says Chen, and this must look strange to Westerners (that term includes non-Chinese Filipinos, who are all educated to be brown Westerners), who value individuality, identity, and individual freedom.

In fact, Confucius taught that we should know others. Contrast that with Socrates who said, “Know thyself.” Clearly, there is a wide gap between the two ways of thinking about the world and about the world’s business.

Chen’s book is too full of insights to be summarized in a short review, but one thing is certain: it contains enough information and advice to make business with Chinese firms much easier and more profitable. There are, in addition, helpful lists of readings and websites, a glossary of Chinese terms, and even short accounts of Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Sun Tzu.

Similarly helpful, particularly to foreigners who want to take full advantage of their stay in the Philippines, is the award-winning Street-Bound: Manila on Foot (Anvil Publishing, 2001) by Josefina P. Manahan. The book won last year’s National Book Award for Best Design.

Street-Bound: Manila on Foot describes itself as a “small book,” but it is small only in size. The concept of the design is large, encompassing the choice of the size of its paper, which is small enough to grasped by one hand but large enough to contain all the information the book gives about touring Metro Manila; the choice of fonts, which is pleasant to the eyes tired from seeing tourist spots but still eager to see more; the manner in which the type and the illustrations are set on the pages, which is functional, meant to help the reader shifting eyes from tourist spot to book not to get lost either in walking or in reading.

The book is not only about the city of Manila, but about Metro Manila, or at least those parts of it that are walkable. Among the places one can walk in, for example, are the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife Center, Quezon Memorial Park, and the tiangge in Greenhills. These offer, as the other places included in the book also do, deep pleasure to those who have eyes to see and ears to listen.

The book has basically four kinds of walking tours, which are not necessarily distinct from each other: nature, historical, cultural, and shopping. Walking around Intramuros, for example, offers one a taste of history and culture, but there is some good and bargain shopping in the area. In fact, Manahan fails to mention that Intramuros even offers a taste of nature, in the sense that trees and wide lawns are rare sights in polluted Manila.

Manahan has a keen sense of observation, and a writing talent that is equal to that sense. For example, here is how she describes walking into Paco Park: “As you enter the inner circle of Paco Park through a fine neoclassic stone archway, take note of two small fountains flanking it: fluted columns surmounted by a lion’s head.”
Tourist books are almost always for tourists only, but Manahan’s book should be useful and delightful even to the native ManileƱo. Natives do not always appreciate the beauty around them.

(First published in BizNews Asia, 17-24 March 2003)

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