24 November 2023

“Tara Suki, Bili Ka Na!” until recently, I used this refrain to call passersby. My name is Aling Maring. I was a vendor in a fruit stand in our province in Laguna. But with the help of my seaman brother, my three children have now finished university and are all working in good jobs. With their earnings, I was told it was time I stopped—after 30 years! So, I stay home in retirement and watch my favourite Korean drama on TV.”

(Editor’s Note: A suki basically means a repeat customer but can also mean their repeat vendor, i.e., the repeat customer goes to their repeat vendor. Aling Maring used to call out to passersby to invite potential customers to be her suki. Being a suki entails reciprocal loyalties forged through a psychological contract. It has various advantages for both parties. For instance, a common practice is for ordinary customers to ask for “tawad”, i.e., to haggle over the price. The suki doesn’t need to ask for tawad because they will automatically be given the best price. They will also be given the best quality of the vendor’s produce, and in some instances, even be texted when fresh supplies are delivered. On the part of the vendor, their suki is the source of their bread-and-butter revenue as it assures them of a minimum sales volume. Even with more limited profit margins per item, there is less risk of spoilage because vendors can plan their deliveries. Also, the more suki the vendor has, the bigger the volume ordered, and the cheaper the unit price. Thus, the need to attract as many suki as possible).

Aling Maring continues, “There were times when I knew that people would tell me they would make me their suki just to get a good discount.  But to me, it’s better to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe next time, they’d truly buy from my stall only. I always had a lot of trust in people. I always thought people would reciprocate the loyalty and trust that I gave them.

“In fact, over the years, I did have a lot of suki. I knew all of them by face, and many by name, enough to do a little small talk every now and then about their children or spouses or hobbies. And among my suki, a few stood out to me for various reasons.

“First was Sgt Lazaro. He was a police sergeant from the local station. He always bought two dozen identical mixed fruits in two separate packages twice a week. According to the word on the street, he bought one for his wife and the other for his mistress.

“There was also Mr Gomez, a government worker at City Hall. He usually threw a lot of parties and gave his guests my fruits as parting gifts when the night was over, or so he said. I always thought then that he was a high-ranking official due to his deep pockets and generous tips.

“Last but not least was Ma’am Cynthia, the rich lady who always came to my stall with her big diamond rings. Ironically, for a woman of her stature, she only bought a few pieces of fruits. I mean, I usually didn’t judge my suki, but with her money, you’d think she’d be buying boxes.

“These three were the most memorable suki I had, probably because they were the ones I sought help from when I got into trouble, which, eventually, threw me out of the fruit selling business. I cannot thank my children enough for the support they are now giving me.

“This trouble happened a couple of years ago as the Christmas season was approaching. Six of us vendors from our side of the market decided to put up stalls close to the bangketa (pavement) where most people pass by. “Isn’t it illegal?”, someone from my group questioned. “We better ask the barangay or the police,” suggested another. A third answered, “Aling Maring knows someone!” Everyone cheered me on. “Sgt Lazaro!”. “Alright, alright . . .” I said. “I have a suki who is a policeman”.

“And so, the next time Sgt Lazaro came to buy his two identical packages of fruits, I asked him about the idea of putting up an extension of our stalls by the bangketa. He motioned me to follow him to a nearby eskenita (alley). “Save me bente every day.” In other words, just for Php20.00 per stall, he would give us his protection. We thought it was a good deal so my group readily agreed.

“Over the next couple of weeks, a handful of vendors and I brought part of our paninda (merchandise) to our bangketa. In just a few minutes, more passersby bought from our new location than in an hour in our “hidden” stalls, now manned by relatives. Every day, Sgt Lazaro would pretend to buy from us a few pieces of fruits. He would hand some small paper money, and we would hand him back the “change,” which was basically our protection fee. 

“Soon, more vendors wanted to join us, but we told them the new rent was too high, that sales were not enough to cover our costs, and that we were in fact thinking of closing. That dissuaded them. But Sgt Lazaro was not deceived. When he saw the great improvement in our sales, he started charging us Php50.00 each. We didn’t mind this increase because it was easy for us to pay for it. Our bounty continued until the inevitable happened.

“Apparently, some people posted on social media about how congested the streets heading to the market had become. Right then and there, our new mayor who had won using a social media-centered campaign pledged to his online followers that he would solve the issue. That very afternoon, Sgt Lazaro came, and as I gave him his usual bag of fruits and “change,” he immediately shoved them back to me and told me that a dispersal unit from City Hall was on its way. “Pack up and go home, fast!”, he said.

“We didn’t have enough time. The raid came almost immediately, and our goods were destroyed or confiscated. Sgt Lazaro was among the raiders, so I tried to approach him, but he pretended he didn’t know me. They herded us and presented us and our confiscated goods before the mayor. Again, Sgt Lazaro pushed me aside when I tried to approach him.

“I had invested a large portion of my savings as puhunan (capital) for a huge delivery of expensive fruits, nuts, and other items for Christmas. Totally alarmed by now, I thought of my other suki, Mr Gomez, in the hope that as a high-ranking government official, he could help me recover my confiscated goods. So, the next day, I went back to City Hall to look for him. I finally found him occupying a small desk in a corner. He said he did not know me, so I reminded him he bought fruits from me for his parties and his mahjong sessions. He told me to get lost! (I later heard he was arrested for running an illegal gambling house).

By now I was desperate, so I thought of another suki, Ma’am Cynthia. I still have the cell phone number of her housemaid as I used it to inform them of fresh deliveries. I texted the maid a couple of times to ask for Ma’am Cynthia’s tulong (help). I didn’t know exactly what tulong I had expected, maybe to borrow money or what. But I wanted to talk to Ma’am Cynthia personally. The maid told me Ma’am Cynthia would call me back. When that didn’t happen, I texted, again and again, asking for their tulong; then I called, but I didn’t get any reply anymore.

I now have learned my lesson. Not everyone adheres to the rules of the Suki. I think people simply throw the term around to get a discount. Or is the Suki getting obsolete? Maybe with online stores, you no longer need to smile and be nice, and exchange stories. Only a few taps on your cell phone and you can send your payment by GCash or PayMaya. It is so impersonal, all business. I really am glad that is behind me.