Philippine Beads - Third World Cottage Industry
So we had seen the cottage industry in Czech Republic and Germany for beads and buttons, which although very industrial and dirty was definitely first world; and we had been to Hong Kong to the sales rooms to buy pearls and stone beads. Although not cottage industry, and actually not factories at all, Hong Kong was also first world. We had visited the bead making schools in Turkey and although they emphasized 4,000 year old technology in making their evil eye pendants and beads using clay ovens, they were also first world. The schools were ultra modern. We wanted to go to a country that made beads known world wide and relied on cottage industry factories to make them. We chose the Philippines because we were going to be in the area, (we were on our way to Hong Kong to lead our bead tour) because their beads were well known around the world, and because, well, the Philippines are tropical, exotic, comprised of thousands of islands, and the exchange rate is 43 to 1. So we would be able to live comfortably while we were there. Just like it was in Czech Republic in the old days, when we first started going there.
After a grueling 27 hours travel by air with huge layovers in San Francisco, Hong Kong and Manila, we landed in Cebu City International airport. It was 85F at 7AM and the weather was wonderful. Our hotel shuttle was waiting for us, and off we went to drop our bags off at the hotel. Immediately leaving the airport we became immersed in the crowds. The roads were pitted and cracked with very large craters, the traffic congested with taxis, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, trucks, and cars all attempting to overtake the vehicle in front regardless of oncoming traffic. Horns blaring, people shouting, it was chaos! I was really glad I was not driving.
Amongst the well-built structures along side the road were squatter houses and shantytown buildings made of corrugated steel siding, patched roofs, plywood and bamboo sticks held together with rope. They were wedged into every available space, and businesses were being run out of them such as automotive repair facilities, restaurants, beauty parlors, you name it. Also housing for entire families, with kids running around and playing in the streets and on the sidewalks. Pirated telephone lines, electrical lines and water pipes were being diverted from the main supply and rerouted to these shanty houses. Chaos. But the place was alive; people were laughing, smiling, conducting business and living life. It was exhilarating to see. Cows, buffalo, goats and chickens were everywhere, roaming free either on the streets or in side yards or empty plots of land. Because we were on the coast of Mactan Island, we could see squatter houses built on stilts over the water that were accessible by boat during high tide and by foot during low tide. Buildings were everywhere.
The shantytown ended at the gates of our hotel, where security guards kept the population at bay. Inside was tropical paradise, with beautiful trees, well kept gardens and fish stocked ponds. Smiling workers greeted you when they walked past. Checking in our bags, we headed to the breakfast buffet, as it was too early to check into our room.
After breakfast, we checked into our room and almost immediately our driver Grace, a friend of our friend who was meeting us to find bead factories was at the lobby ready to take us to our first factory. Grace was a retired corporate executive who lived in Cebu City and volunteered to drive us around as a favor. She was fabulous.
We arrived at the home and factory of Oscar and his extended family. Oscar had married into the business, which was owned by his mother in law. The father was stringing beads when we walked up, and several women were doing some sort of sorting of beads and even cousins were involved in helping in the business.
We introduced ourselves and Oscar opened up his showroom to us, and off we went. It was a wood bead showroom, and the walls were covered in pegboard hooks filled with strands of wood beads. Millions of them!
The wood was all local various woods from Cebu, and it was beautiful. J-Me kept picking styles and shapes and colors, and Oscar was kept busy telling us prices and finding more quantities of what we found. Eventually we had the mother, Oscar and three workers all running around pulling hanks of beads from barrels and boxes stashed in other rooms and all down the hallway for us.
Several hours into this, Oscar sent a worker out into the street for food and water for us. He came back with many of these "Turon" desert, fried bananas on a stick, one coated with cinnamon sugar and one caramelized with brown sugar. They were amazing.
We had to have a lot of the beads restrung into quantities and lengths we needed for resale, which a couple of the workers started doing immediately. We also picked out a few pendants that we needed to order production on, and then we were done. Oscar took us out back to the production area, and walked us through his factory from the raw logs of wood that he purchases from his wood supplier,
Cutting the wood into long rectangles shapes, then cutting the wood into thinner squares to then be cut into smaller shapes, to the drilling of the shapes, the grinding and drilling of the holes with a bead drill press, to the tumbling process, and then to the fine polishing and finishing to get to the final smooth bead.
The larger exotic bead shapes were all individually cut, carved and polished by hand - one bead at a time. The conditions were primitive at best with cotton t-shirts being used as masks to cover the workers mouths and noses from getting saw dust into their lungs (all you could see was a slit for their eyes).
Wood chips and saw dust covered everything (along with the dirt from the earth floors) and when it rained during the summer (and it rained a lot) it became a mushy mess.
Those workers were from the provinces, not Cebu City nor family members, and very skilled at their jobs. One of the workers had been working for them for over 10 years. We left Oscar with instructions on how to ship and wire transfer information for payment once we got home. Then we were off.
Our next stop was at the hotel where our friend was staying while in Cebu City. There we met up with Araceli, who had driven 3 hours to meet us. She owned a small wood bead factory with a small team of workers who also used local wood from Cebu to make their beads. Her selection was different than Oscars, and J-Me worked with her to create beads slightly different than what she showed us. J-Me wanted to create something better for our needs. Araceli agreed to make the changes and would come back to our hotel in a few days with the finished samples to show us. She also had some resin beads on a necklace which although she didn't make herself she knew the maker and would contact her for us. At this point we were getting tired, and Grace drove us back to our hotel and much needed sleep.
Day two started off with a fabulous breakfast and Grace picking us up for a visit to another bead warehouse. This company did do some work themselves, but mainly dealt with over 50 cottage factories around Cebu who supplied them with the beads. They had wood beads, shell beads, lots of resin beads and bracelets, and lots of finished necklaces on display. We weren't as excited about this company, but they were very nice and tried hard to please us.
It was so hot and humid that we decided to stop to have a local ice drink called a "Halo-Halo". It has crushed ice, ice cream, jello, flan, mango, moon beans, tapioca, and heavy cream. Very tasty!
Next, we met with Rosa, who came in a taxi to pick us up and drive us to her showroom, which was in one of those shanty buildings that looked like it could fall down at any moment.
She had two workers building jewelry from her designs in one room, and we sat in the other room which had samples covering all four walls. Everything was order for production in her factory, which was located out in the province, not in town. Her main offerings were resin beads of which we found some really unique and unusual designs. She also made buttons and sandals and handbags and many other articles of jewelry, mostly of her unique design.
During our visit we discussed the Tucson Gem Show, and she immediately offered to come over and help us man our booth next year. She already had her passport and was super excited. We thought she might want to ship over some of her products to showcase at both our booths during the show, to offset some of her costs. We all decided this was something worth exploring. We brainstormed on quite a few ideas and came away from this meeting really impressed with Rosa and her operation, and a nice selection of beads and buttons which she had to go into production on for future shipments to us once we got home.
She then drove us home in another taxi and walked off to meet a friend once we got dropped off at our hotel.
That night we walked out of the gates of the hotel and down the road to find a restaurant to have dinner. One of the guards at the gate recommended a bar and grill 1 block away on the main road. We were solicited all the way by people trying to sell us stuff or escort us to the restaurant, even though it was within view and we didn't need help. But never did we feel threatened or intimidated. At one point three young schoolgirls in school uniforms ran by us giggling and laughing, and took the time to greet us as they passed by. The whole time buses, trucks, cars and motorcycles were roaring past within inches of us, as there were no sidewalks and we were walking on the road or the dirt edge bordering the road. The restaurant was incredible, with loads of tropical ambience and great food. We ate until we were stuffed, and still only spent half what we would have if we had eaten at the hotel.
The walk back was the same as the walk there.
The third day we started off with another incredible breakfast, and then met up with Tita and Ernesto, who owned a snake skin factory. Ernesto started off 30 years before as a taxidermist, then evolved his business into beads and gifts involving snakeskin. They owned a really nice house and factory complex, with a second house, which several workers inhabited. Nothing was cash and carry, but samples were on display for order taking. One of their specialties was metal bracelets covered in snakeskin, and of course lots of wood beads covered in snake skin. We placed orders of course. Tita then loaded us up into her minivan with hired driver and took us on a tour of Cebu City followed by dinner at her favorite restaurant at the Anaya Mall, which is the best mall in the city and the place to go to see and be seen. The food was good, but nobody looked at us. Tita really wanted to wine and dine us, and suggested karaoke singing after dinner, (apparently Filipino's love singing) but we were able to beg off by saying we were tired. Really, no one would want to hear me sing.
Saturday rolled by, and Areceli came to the hotel to show us her samples she had been commissioned to do by J-Me. She came with her husband and another factory owner who made resin beads. They all lived 3 hours away and had cottage factories at their houses. The resin beads were made of a wood base then covered with either onionskin, tobacco leaves or banana leaves, then coated with resin. Very unusual, and exactly the kind of different beads we were looking for.
We were left with samples, and plans to order once we got home. The rest of the day was spent relaxing by the pool and taking naps. Which we would need because we were leaving for the airport the next morning at 3:30am to catch the 5am flight to Hong Kong. Yikes! The hotel staff had breakfast packed and ready for us when we checked out, and a taxi waiting at the curb. And then we were gone and on our way back to our next tour.
J-Me and Guy are the owners of Wild Things Beads, a small family run import business of Czech glass beads and buttons, stone beads and freshwater pearls from Hong Kong, Batonga baskets from Zimbabwe and now wood, shell and resin beads from the Philippines. They also lead bead tours around the world. They can be reached at www.wildthingsbeads.com or by phone at (530) 743 1339, or at their warehouse by appointment, which is located deep in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California.