St Christopher's Church is at the heart of Taipei's Filipino district, but over the years the area has gradually begun to serve commercial and social functions as well. Business is always good at the Bing Go market, which paved the way for this development. The photo shows Filipino workers watching TV in front of Bing Go on a Sunday afternoon after Mass. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
From Taipei to Taoyuan, the Fili-pino markets that once catered exclusively to Taiwan's Filipino workers have begun attracting Taiwanese. The shops typically carry more than 1,000 products ranging from food and beverages to daily necessities, but it is their fruit-related items that are drawing the greatest interest.
It's a Sunday afternoon, and the Bing Go Supermarket located beside Taipei's St. Christopher's Church is showing a Filipino lightweight boxing match on the TV by the door. Customers drift in and out on what is typically the busiest day of the week for the store. This stretch of Chungshan North Road is known for shops that cater to Taipei's Filipino community. Their owners are typically themselves ethnically Chinese Filipinos or are married to Filipinos, and Bing Go's owner, Chen Wen-hsiung, is no different.
Chen, whose wife is an ethnically Chinese Filipina, began as a street vendor selling daily necessities to foreign laborers more than ten years ago on Chungshan North Road. As business improved, he began importing a greater variety of goods and finally simply rented the storefront next to St. Christopher's to hang Bing Go's red and white shingle. After more than ten years in this location, business is steady. So steady, in fact, that when EEC, another large market catering to the Filipino community opened in the neighborhood two years ago Bing Go continued to do great business.
Everyone's first choice
In addition to his Chungshan North Road location, Chen operates a second Bing Go in Hsinchuang that caters to the Southeast Asian workers in Hsinchuang and Taishan. Though the two stores stock everything from shampoo to drinks and snacks, the Filipino workers who comprise their customer base don't have a lot to spend. What they do have tends to go largely on instant noodles and canned goods, sales of which account for about 50% of the stores' revenues.
"Saturday and Sunday have been accounting for about 70% of my business since the day I opened," says Chen. Though that's remained unchanged, Chen notes that he's seeing more and more Taiwanese customers.
Chen says that Taiwanese are drawn to his stores by his prices. Take toothpaste, for example. A tube of mainland-China manufactured Colgate toothpaste sells for different prices in the Philippines and Taiwan. By comparing prices, these shops are able to import goods to Taiwan at lower cost and then sell them more cheaply. Dried mangoes offer another example. By purchasing the same dried mangoes directly from the Philippines, Chen can sell them much more cheaply than local supermarkets.
Taiwanese are also attracted by the unusual nature of some of the products. Many become Bing Go customers after sampling soda crackers, dried mango, or the popular Filipino banana chips and fruit drinks.
The Philippines abound with tropical plants, and produces large volumes of pineapple, mango, and coconut. These in turn are widely used to produce dried mango, canned fruits, and juices, as well as in ice creams and everyday dishes.
Filipino fruit juices, for example, are quite different from their Taiwanese counterparts. Whereas Taiwanese juices tend to be light, low-calorie concoctions, the Filipino juices are thick and flavorful beverages that contain a great deal more sugar and many more calories. Filipinos also commonly use fruit in sodas, including the kumquat and lemon sodas that have recently been selling well in Taiwan. The availability of mixed-fruit juices, cookies with unusual fruit fillings, and fruit powders further reflects the remarkable diversity of fruits available in the Philippines.
Opening the floodgates
"For things like peanuts... Taiwanese peanuts are generally eaten without the shell," says Chang Kuei-yin, owner of the shop Yazi Yapeng. "In the Philippines, they eat them like we used to in Taiwan--floured then fried." When Chang first began doing business in 1985, she sold telephone cards. Later, after discovering that she liked Filipino snacks, she began importing them in volume to sell at her shop in front of the Taoyuan train station. Chang's shop started seeing business from Taiwanese seeking new things even before Chen's did. "These days, probably 10% of my customers are Taiwanese," she estimates. "But because Taiwanese have more money to spend, they amount they buy is approaching the amount bought by Filipinos." Chang says that, as at Bing Go, many of the Taiwanese who come to her shop looking for cookies and crackers have Filipino colleagues. They try some of the snacks their colleagues have brought into work, like them, and then buy some for themselves.
In January, Chang opened Kabayan, an online retailer that, in addition to selling Filipino foods, drinks and other daily necessities, shows visitors how to prepare Filipino dishes. Right now, Kabayan's hottest-selling items are banana chips, which are offered in two sizes--a 40-gram bag for NT$20 and a 165-gram bag for NT$45. Kabayan sells NT$150,000 worth of the chips every month. Dried mangoes and other snacks are also popular items.
"If you try something, there's a chance you'll like it," says Chang. "I plan to import Malaysian coffee and other Southeast Asian products next. I'm certain people will like them!"