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Liwayway Gawgaw: From Cornstarch Company to a Global Behemoth

Liwayway Gawgaw gave birth to Oishi, one of only three Filipino companies that have significant international footprint.
IMAGE Mario Alvaro Limos
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Few Filipino brands are as iconic and successful as Liwayway Gawgaw, manufactured by the Liwayway Marketing Corporation. Unknown to many, it is the parent company of Oishi, and one of the sons of its founders also established Bench (the retail brand of clothing, bags, accessories, footwear and fragrances), which is a conglomerate of its own under the Suyen Corporation.

The Roots of Liwayway Gawgaw

Photo by Mario Alvaro Limos.
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Sa minsang gamit ay ’di ninyo malilimot ang linis puti at puri na pananagutan namin.” (“With one use, you will remember the clean-white pureness that is our commitment.”)

These are the words printed on the simple paper packaging that Liwayway still uses to this day. It has remained unchanged since 1946, and has outlived other nostalgic icons that went with it: the steel batya (a metal basin used for washing clothes, usually hung on fences to dry), the palo-palo (a flat, wooden hammer used to hit wet clothes to remove dirt), and gawgaw (a glue made by boiling Liwayway and water, usually sold in colorful plastic tubes).

Liwayway was established in 1946 by Filipino-Chinese couple Lib Chan and Ying See. The couple repackaged bulks of cornstarch which they bought wholesale, and sold it as Liwayway Gawgaw. During that period after World War II, the Philippines experienced a strong nationalist sentiment: For the first time in history, Filipinos were truly and independently their own people and country. Filipinos saw a powerful shift from Americanized products to localized ones.

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The Chans realized this and decided Filipino branding was essential. The name Liwayway literally means dawn, which many Filipinos associated with many things related to their postwar independence: new beginnings, hope, and nationalism.

On the packaging, the Chans decided to use Tagalog for the instructions and product description, which helped cement the brand as a household name.

Photo by Mario Alvaro Limos.
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Liwayway Gawgaw not only captured the market for the lower income classes, but also the high-income bracket. In the late 1940s, men still wore all-white Americana suits and pants. They used Liwayway for starching or pag-aalmirol, which kept their Americanas crisp and white all day. Women also used the almirol made from the product for their baro’t saya.

Pag-aalmirol or starching is the practice of washing and then rinsing linen and fabrics with starch to keep them looking fresh and clean after drying and ironing. Some households still do it today using Liwayway Gawgaw.

In the 1960s, Liwayway launched a highly successful radio campaign that would go down in Philippine history as one of the most iconic jingles.

How Liwayway Marketing Corporation Gave Birth to Oishi

In 1966, Liwayway Marketing Corporation expanded and distributed basic food commodities like coffee and snacks. Brothers Carlos Chan and Manuel Chan, sons of Lib Chan and Ying See who founded Liwayway, ran the food division. Their brother, Ben Chan, would later establish his own company, Bench, in 1987.

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But it was not until 1974 when popular snack brand Oishi Prawn Crackers would be made, together with Kirei Yummy Flakes.

Then, in 1984, the Liwayway group decided to penetrate the Chinese market and enter as Oishi Shanghaojia. Liwayway partnered with state-owned firms to open its first overseas manufacturing plant in Shanghai. As head of Oishi, Carlos established factory networks in China, greatly improving distribution and solidifying the company’s footing in the Chinese market. According to Forbes, Liwayway’s Oishi is now one of China’s most iconic brands, distributed and sold by over 700 wholesalers in the country. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2010 that it was one of the top five snack food companies in China.

Because of Oishi’s success in the Philippines and in China, it was able to expand to key markets in Southeast Asia: Vietnam in 1997, Myanmar in 1999, and Indonesia and Thailand in 2006. Liwayway, through Oishi, was included in Asia-Pacific’s top five snack-food brands as of 2015, controlling 2.2 percent of the market and competing with other global brands such as PepsiCo's Frito-Lay (3.8 percent) and Calbee Foods of Japan (3.4 percent).

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Liwayway Marketing Corporation Today

Today, the Liwayway Marketing Corporation is a highly diversified multinational company that operates in at least six countries. According to Rolando Dy, economist at the University of Asia and the Pacific, Liwayway joins only three other Filipino companies with a strong international presence: Universal Robina, the Philippines’ largest snack-food group; Del Monte Pacific, which bought its parent company Del Monte Foods in the U.S.; and Jollibee Foods Corp, as reported by Forbes. “Liwayway's overseas sales are estimated to be 90 percent of its total sales,” says Dy.

But despite the success of its Oishi brand, the cornstarch company has kept its postwar packaging of Liwayway Gawgaw as homage to the humble yet hopeful beginnings of the empire. Although Liwayway Gawgaw is not the quite the money maker that it used to be, Carlos Chan still manufactures the beloved icon. Liwayway Gawgaw’s simple packaging and design have remained faithful to postwar vision of positivity, prosperity, and hope for an independent Filipino nation.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
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