My goal was to save money. I did not save any money, but I did learn valuable lessons about one of Panama’s most important subcultures and a Casco Viejo celebrity.
The distributor who sells us our beverages (cokes, sodas, waters, etc) is unreliable. They never keep an appointment. They do not accept credit cards. Plus, the person in charge of our business account is a prick. So, I decided it was time to look for a new supplier.
Our offices are located near a local corner store, aka “El Chino”. The Chino doesn’t sell in bulk like the distributor. Rather they sell in small lots and individual units. They are happy to sell you a single slice of cheese or a half pack of batteries. Logic tells us that selling individual units should cost more. However, Chino’s operate with EXTREMELY low overhead. They have no air conditioners or fans. The employees are strictly friends and family who live on site. Their low overhead would impress Walmart.
The Chinese community in Panama has an interesting back story. A large wave of Chinese immigrated to Panama during the construction of the Trans-Isthmian Railroad in the 1850s. Subsequently, gradual waves of migration have continued, forming a sizable population. The community is extremely tightly knit. Even to this day it is rare to see Chinese in Panama intermarry. They own and operate literally every corner store in Panama. Hence, “El Chino” refers to corner stores in the Panamanian lexicon.
I decided it was time to approach the Chino to see if they could handle our business accounts. I believed that with such low overhead if we bought in bulk they should be willing to give us a price break. Plus, the close proximity would allow us to run much lower inventories saving us much needed office space.
Entering the Chino, I start perspiring immediately. The lack of air circulation combined with Panama City’s tropical climate causes almost everyone to sweat. Sweating and confused, I was approached by an 18-20 year old, with unusually long finger nails. He asked if he could help. It wasn’t politely asked. Rather, he barked, “whatta need Gringo”. I replied by saying that we are looking to buy in bulk. We pay in cash and will send you alot of business, so you SHOULD give us a discount (I’ve found that assertions are far more effective than asking in Latin America). He chuckles and low balls me. He offers me 5% off. My many years in the developing world have accustomed me to receiving the Gringo price. Sensing that negotiating any further would be an exercise in futility, I decided to regroup and rethink my strategy.
Unbeknownst to the unusually long fingered nailed store clerk, I had a secret weapon. He is an American named Keenan(pictured to your left). Keenan is my business associate. He is also of Chinese decent. Not only is Keenan Chinese, but he is a local Casco Viejo celebrity. He’s unusually tall and slender for a man of Chinese decent and always wears attention-grabbing board shorts. Imagine a Chinese person with the hair of James Dean and the body of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.
I believed that Keenan could leverage his celebrity status and ethnicity with his Chinese brethren to get us a deal. BRILLIANT. However, Keenan was reluctant to go. He believed that I was over estimating both the power of his celebrity status and importance of his shared Chinese ethnicity.
I returned to the Chino, this time with Casco’s most infamous Chinese-American, Keenan. To demonstrate that we meant business, I spruced up my outfit by adding a pair of slacks and a collared shirt. Keenan wore his customary business attire; board short, flip flops, and a tank tap with a Brazilian beer company logo on the front.
We stood patiently in the back of the store. Keenan explained to me that we must wait until the two older Chinese guys dropping off fruits and vegetables left. They were part of the local Chinese mafia and we should not overhear the negotiations. Typically, the word mobsters conjures up images of well-to-do business men wielding tommy guns, not blue collared vegetable delivery men.
Meanwhile, the same young help approached us. Keenan greeted the young man with his usual sarcastic high-five-fake-out-armpit-poke maneuver. He and the young guy started negations. Keenan quickly realized that in order to talk serious business, we must talk to the owner behind the counter.
The mobsters left and we proceeded to the front cash register. The owner of the Chino, a mid-30′s skinny guy with long straight hair, sat behind the till. Again, Keenan initiated the standard high-five-fake-out-armpit poke maneuver. They began bantering back and forth in Spanish. During the negotiations, Keenan would eccentrically pretend to leave the conversation. He would return to the conversation by playfully slapping the business owner’s upper body with a notebook. It was like watching two school children fight in the sandbox.
The conversation was mostly in Spanish. However, occasionally Keenan would randomly interject phrases in Mandarin that would evoke a strange look from the business owner:
At the time, I had no idea what he was saying. I imagined it was some profound Chinese proverb. Some type of verbal cultural recognition saying “Hey, we are part of the same family. I help you, you help me, and together we help each other”. Like the Panamanian equivalent una mano lava la otra y juntas lavan la cara. However, the two phrases Keenan kept loudly repeating were NOT deep nor profound in meaning.
“我愛你” — I love you
“我吃烤鴨” — I eat roast duck
The conversation ended with Keenan abruptly leaving the store in mid-sentence. I quickly caught up to Keenan in the street. I was under the assumption that the 20 minute negotiation had produced a result. We got a better discount or not, but some level of finality. On the contrary, Keenan calmly explained to me that within the first 3 minutes he realized that he had no idea what he was talking about. He didn’t know our current inventory prices, and as a result had no frame of reference with which to judge the Chino’s quote. True to Keenan’s nonchalant attitude, the exercise was more theatrics than a business negotiation.
In the end, we decided to go another route with our suppliers. Yet, the event was not a total waste. That day I learned two things. First, ethnicity is still a VERY important factor in the fabric of Panamanian society. Secondly, Keenan maybe had a point; wearing board shorts to work is the life to live.
Pictures of Keenan.