The Pearl of the Orient Series

About Clarence Henderson
Columnist for Pearl of the Orient Seas:


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Henderson Consulting International, Manila, Philippines

Clarence Henderson, an independent management and marketing consultant based in Makati, Philippines, provides an array of services that include strategic planning, corporate and marketing communications, market research/competitor analysis, outsourcing evaluation (including call centers and business process outsourcing), and organizational development. His clients include multinational and Filipino corporations, international development agencies, and firms scattered around the world who take advantage of real time information flows to employ his services. He is a creature of globalization, with clients in Asia, Europe, and the states. While he certainly welcomes the business, he pleads guilty to occasional confusion related to processing information and meeting deadlines in five time zones simultaneously.

In addition to his work on the Asia Pacific Management Forum and the Asian Business Strategy & Street Intelligence Ezine, Clarence writes articles and commentary for the regional business press. His articles have appeared in Revolution: Business and Marketing in the Asian Digital Economy, Customer Contact World, and the AmCham Business Journal. He speaks regularly for business groups, management and marketing seminars, MBA classes at De La Salle and Ateneo de Manila Universities, and e-commerce events in the Philippines and elsewhere in the region.

Clarence's unique perspective is grounded in an intellectual cocktail that integrates Scotch-Irish/hillbilly roots, the sixties counterculture, involuntary military service in the Vietnam conflict, a deep appreciation of blues music, and a bit too much education (of both the self and Ivy league varieties). He has adopted the Philippines as his home and has been happily married to a Filipina for two decades. As documented in the Pearl archive, he maintains a nuanced, delicate, and complex relationship with all things Filipino.

Please feel free to contact Clarence with feedback, comments, diatribes, threats, or requests for professional consultation at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. You can also learn more about his consulting services.

June 1999

An Oversimplified History Lesson

by Clarence Henderson

Even Western businessmen with extensive Southeast Asian experience in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur often don't know quite what to make of Manila. Sure, it's centrally located in the region, Manila's only a short hop away from the other major capitals, and the kamikaze taxi drivers weave around through the infinitely congested traffic more or less like they do in Bangkok. But . . . but . . . there's something about the Philippines that makes it very much a horse of a different color, something that's hard to put your finger on, but something very real nonetheless.

To the uninitiated professional, doing business in Manila can seem somewhat surreal (think of HAL analyzing the situation rationally and concluding that things just don't quite compute). To use another '60s reference, Manila can really be a trip. If you think you can do business here like you can in London, Frankfurt, New York, or (as in my case) Los Angeles, you'd better think again . . . everything gets filtered through a rather fascinating cultural screen, and if you don't invest at least some effort in understanding the culture you might as well pack up your bags and go home.

Why should doing business in Manila be so different from operating in neighboring lands? The answer can be found in the unique history and complex cultural amalgamation experienced by the Philippines over the last few centuries. From the moment Ferdinand Magellan spotted the distant peaks of Leyte looming in the morning mists of March 16, 1521, things were never the same again. The Spanish colonial era, dating from the 1570s, brought with it a nearly complete dominance of the Catholic Church and the imposing of the accompanying cultural values. In practice, what resulted was a complex blend of indigenous traditions with the substance and trappings of Catholicism.

Then, to complicate things further, the Americans made their own imperialistic moves at the end of the 19th century. As soon as the Yanks defeated the Spanish in Cuba (1898), Admiral Dewey steamed into Manila Bay and proclaimed dominion over the archipelago. The American era did not start smoothly, to say the least; indeed, the first years of this century featured an ugly and unethical clash between American military power and native guerilla opposition that foreshadowed the nastiness of Vietnam half a century later.

However, within a few years the opposition was "pacified" (as they said in Nam), and Uncle Sam ruled in grand colonial fashion for the next four decades. The two countries became intricately and intimately bonded together in what some have described as a "special relationship." More critical analysts have focused on the one-sided nature of the relationship, as reflected in William Howard Taft's demeaning phrase "little brown brothers." Sociologists would probably describe the American colonial era as one of cultural penetration, with American culture, values, and behaviors being superimposed on top of the already complicated matrix of native and Spanish blended culture. Even after the traumatic Japanese invasion and occupation, and after Philippine independence in 1946, the American influence has remained predominant.

With this much oversimplified history thumbnail in mind, consider the following observations about contemporary life in Manila:

  • Taxi drivers, who often have rosaries dangling from their rear view mirrors and Virgin Mary statuettes on their dashboards, cross themselves whenever they drive past a Catholic church, regardless of rate of speed or traffic congestion. But there are also likely to be some Disney figures jiggling alongside Mary.
  • Everywhere you go you see Coca Cola this and Coca Cola that -- Coke signs, fully loaded Coke trucks, guys peddling bicycles with sidecars piled to the heavens with cases of Coke -- and there seems to be a McDonalds on every corner and side street of this massive metropolis.
  • American fast food joints adorn every corner, with the added twist that they have fleets of motorbikes for delivery. From my house in Makati I can pick up the phone and have a Shakey's pizza, a Wendy's burger, or KFC greasy chicken brought to me within half an hour.
  • Manila has cloned LA malls, featuring all the latest designer stores and franchises (Guess, The Gap, Tower Records), with generic layouts and heavy pedestrian crowds. However, on Saturday evenings and Sunday, the main atriums feature Catholic masses, with all the shoppers taking a break for appropriate religious observance.
  • The two most popular sports in the country are probably hoop (Naismith never would have dreamed) and cockfighting (obviously from the Spanish side of the equation).

Now, I can't pretend to tell you what this all means. Let's just say that today's Philippines has been shaped by Spanish, American, Malay, Chinese, and native influences -- and that the outcome is a complex blend that's probably more Latino/American than it is Asian. Indeed, I suspect that it might be of more value for an ex-pat business executive coming to Manila to have worked in Bogota or Mexico City than to have worked in Tokyo or Hong Kong.

In future columns, we'll turn to some more specific observations about doing business in this fascinating and wonderful country. We'll probably jump about from topic to topic, and I would welcome any suggestions or feedback at any time. I'll probably do a few of the basic "cultural do's and don'ts" sort of things, and provide some quick and dirty glossaries of useful Tagalog terms; but I suspect most serious readers are more interested in analyzing the nitty gritty of doing business in the Philippines (which means mostly Manila), so that's what we'll concentrate on. Hopefully the next few columns will provide some useful information about what the aspiring businessman in Manila should do, shouldn't do, might do, and had better never do.