Gerry "Mr. Ube" Chua approaches life and work with gratitude and grace

Gerry Chua approaches life and work with 
Gratitude and grace
By Walter Ang
March-April 2009 issue
Asian Dragon Magazine

To fans of ube hopia, the man who invented it is endearingly and simply known as Mr. Ube. Gerry Chua, the man behind the delectable delicacy, is owner and manager of Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli, a small empire that counts several branches in Manila and exports its products all over the world.

Rotund and gregarious, Gerry also owns Chuankee Eatery, a popular restaurant offering humble Fujian staples like fish soup and kiampong (salted rice with mushrooms and peanuts); Café Mezzanine, a coffeeshop whose profits are donated to the Binondo and Paco Volunteer Fire Search and Rescue Brigade; and, recently, Mr. Ube, a tony restaurant featuring noodles as its main draw.

The tale of Gerry's success is the stuff of television soaps and is a testament to his tenacity and conviction. In the early 1900s, Chua's grandfather Chua Chiu Hong, a farmer from China who came to the Philippines for new opportunities, opened Eng Bee Tin (Ever Precious Beauty) Hopia Factory in Ongpin Street, Binondo, Manila.

Management was eventually passed on to Gerry's father Benito, under whose watch the business fell on hard times in the 80s. Gerry, then 18, was a management major at Philippine School of Business Administration (PSBA) when he took over a family store that was losing out to competition, had mounting debts, and was near bankruptcy.

"No want wanted to lend us any money. This is a small community, once word is out that your business is failing, everyone avoids you," Gerry says. "In times of crisis, you'll find out who your real friends are. I had to be self-reliant, I had to do everything. I was manager, baker, cashier, and delivery boy. I traveled as far as Cavite and Quezon just to deliver our products. I still have scars on my arms from all the baking I used to do."

One of his lowest points was being denied an extension for the cut-off time for cheque clearing in one of the local banks, an incident that reduced him to tears inside the bank. "It was that bad, that I had to wait to see if I could sell a bit more after lunch to see if I could earn the money to pay off cheques that I had issued," he says. "It pushed me to work even harder."

Fortunately, a friend gave him an unsolicited loan that helped him survive. He used the infusion to initiate changes to their flagship product. "Instead of using lard, I switched to corn oil, which is healthier," he says. Something was still lacking, however, and it was a fortuitous visit to the grocery store across the street that finally introduced him to his magic ingredient.

"I hung out at the grocery store because it had airconditioning," he laughs. "I found out that the most popular ice cream flavor at the time was ube." Hopia only came in two flavors then, mung bean and pork. Chua bought six bottles of ube halaya, went to his kitchen, and concocted what would become the now famous ube hopia.

It didn't catch on right away, however. "People laughed at me, they mocked me, they called me crazy," he says. The big push came in the form of television exposure through the defunct show Citiline of Cory Quirino. "The day after the episode aired, my phone rang the whole day from people who wanted to order," he says.

He also relentlessly peddled his new product to a hopia exporter who constantly rejected his offers. "I finally offered it to him at a loss just so his customers abroad could try the product. When he finally started asking me how much my hopia actually cost, I knew it meant my hopia had started selling."

By the early 90s, he'd renamed his grandfather's business to Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli and it has thrived to this day. The store has not only given him business success but also love. "My wife came here to buy hopia, she ended up with more than just hopia," laughs this father of three children.

"When I finally earned profit, I bought a firetruck for the Binondo Volunteer Fire Brigade," he says. "People called me crazy again, but I believe in being thankful for good karma. I was actually interviewed by Cory Quirino as a representative of the fire brigade first before she interviewed me about my ube hopia. If it weren't for my involvement in the fire brigade, I may have never been able to succeed in my business."

Gerry has seen firsthand the dangers to volunteer firefighters, having lost part of his finger in a fire. He'd been a volunteer firefighter since he was sixteen years old, inspired by his godfather, also a volunteer and the former owner of Chuankee Eatery. "When he saw my success with Eng Bee Tin, he bequeathed the eatery to me in the mid 90s," he says. Gerry wasted no time in creating Café Mezzanine on the second floor of the eatery. Aside from the profits of the coffeeshop, Gerry has already donated six firetrucks to the brigade, all colored bright purple, and an ambulance is in the works.

"Hardwork and perseverance can give you success," he says. "But you also need patience and gratitude. You have to learn to give back." Gerry points out that only one raw materials supplier agreed to sell to him during his bad times. "When I was no longer in debt, I continued to buy from him even if his prices were higher than the rest and even if I could get big discounts from wholesalers when I finally became president of the Philippine Bakers Association. I only stopped buying from him when he finally closed his business."

Never resting on his laurels, Gerry has continuously expanded his businesses and developed new product lines. His hopia now come in flavors like buko pandan and mocaccino and even in combos such as ube-pastillas and choco-peanut. His fondness for ube has been incorporated into tikoy and even siopao dough. "I like experimenting and trying out new things. People will eventually get tired if they keep on eating and seeing the same thing," he says.

In the same manner when he went to Pampanga to learn the making of ube halaya himself, Gerry still puts great weight in research and development. He travels to keep abreast of new techniques and shares the knowledge with his staff. "You must always be on top of things in running your business. If you gain, share it with your employees. Always be good, always do good, and don't expect anything in return," he says.

Sharing and serving come easy to this devout Catholic who espouses, "All your hard work won't go anywhere if you don't pray to God." He served as a barangay chairman of Binondo for close to two decades where he undertook various projects to improve the community such as street light installation and improvement of sewage and sanitation. In fact, for all that he's achieved in business and public service, he is most proud of the fact that he's created a text-based system, the first in the world, that allows anyone with a cellphone to report fires.

Gerry's four main enterprises are but a few steps from each other in a narrow stretch of street and each is small and slightly cramped, a visual and spatial symbol, perhaps, of his humility. Self deprecating and unassuming, he arrived for this interview in a plain purple shirt and would have been easily dismissed as another restaurant patron if it weren't for all the other patrons greeting him, full of warmth and pride, for this son of Binondo.