Filipino entrepreneur Bing Go's spectacular rags to riches story is just as riveting as the dramas that are told in "Magpakailanman" (Forevermore) and "Maalaala Mo Kaya" (Do You Remember When?) - two of the Philippines' top television series.
Considered a household name among Filipinos in Taiwan, Bing - owner and proprietor of the Bing Go Filipino chain store in the country - says she has not let the success that she enjoys today turn her head.
"I always remind myself of where I came from, of how I started, and of the people who have tirelessly helped me along the way," Bing says. "This has kept me grounded and humble. There's so much that I should be grateful for - my loving family, my devoted staff, and my very loyal customers. Without them and without the Lord's blessings, I'm nothing."
Born Maria Magdalena Aldaba Go, Bing is a native of Iloilo - a charming Philippine province celebrated for its delectable cuisine and its charming people. (The soft-spoken Ilonggos are known for being "malambing" or carinoso.) Her father hailed from China while her mother was a native of Antique.
Bing is not ashamed of her modest beginnings.
"I am only a high school graduate," she says. Bing attended Iloilo Chinese Commercial High School.
She was employed in an electronics shop when a recruiter offered her the chance to work in Taiwan in the mid-1980s - for a price. Young and fearless, the 23-year-old Ilongga grabbed the opportunity.
"I was a TNT (short for 'tago nang tago' or 'always in hiding'). I was working illegally then," says Bing. "At the time, there were fewer migrants in Taiwan. I worked as a nanny, a caregiver, a factory worker. I tried everything."
As a nanny, she found herself looking after two children. The kids were a godsend to the homesick Ilongga.
"They were my family in Taiwan," she continues. "Napamahal talaga sila sa akin. (They have really endeared themselves to me.) I considered them my own flesh and blood."
Bing eventually moved on to another post, trying her hand at caregiving. Her patient at the time, she says, was an elderly woman who was nearly twice her size.
"It was an exhausting job," says the petite Filipino-Chinese. "My patient then was totally dependent on me since she was already bedridden. I had to carry her up and down the stairs."
Bing however is one person who does not give up easily.
"Physically, I may not be very strong but I was still able to accomplish my tasks," she says. "If you are working as a caregiver, you will eventually develop techniques that will make it easier for both you and your ward to move about. If we're climbing up the stairs, for example, my ward and I had to take it one step at a time. Talagang kailangan ng tiyaga. (You have to have a lot of patience.)"
After working in that caregiving household for several months, Bing decided to move on. She found work at a factory.
"I guess it's fate," she smiles, "because that's where I met the man who eventually became the love of my life - my husband, Awei."
It wasn't however love at first sight for Awei (Chen Wen Hsiung) and Bing. For some reason, the two often found themselves arguing over the most trivial of things. Bing thought Awei was the ultimate "alaskador" (pest) while Awei felt Bing was too stern and tough for his taste. There was even a time when a very incensed Bing, brandishing an "itak," drove the poor man out of the dorm.
"A friend of mine, also a Filipina, was Awei's girlfriend at the time. I felt I had to put up with him out of 'pakikisama' or out of respect for my friend," she says.
Awei's relationship however did not last long. Eventually, his ex-girlfriend and the other Filipinos employed at the factory decided to return home. Taiwan at the time was granting amnesty to illegal foreign workers who voluntarily turned themselves in. Bing chose to stay.
"I wanted to make a little bit more money," she says. "I had no savings yet."
One day, after work, Bing was surprised when Awei offered her a ride home. They started to talk, and discovered that they actually shared a lot of things in common.
"That marked a new chapter for us. We became very good friends," she says. "After several months, we went to Yangmingshan with some of our pals. Out of the blue, Awei blurted out, 'If I ask you to marry me, will you say 'yes?'"
Shocked, Bing replied, "Ewan!" ("I don't know!")
"But that marriage 'proposal' changed everything," she laughs. "After that Yangmingshan incident, he started courting me. He brought me food and little gifts. He even introduced me to his parents. The first thing that his mother asked me was, 'When are you two getting married?'"
Bing gave Awei an ultimatum: If he really wanted to marry her, he should follow her to Iloilo.
"I decided to avail myself of the government's amnesty program," she says. "Sure enough, Awei did go to the Philippines and asked me to marry him. Today, we have two beautiful children. They are our pride and joy."
To make ends meet, the couple decided to start their own business. They operated a "mobile" Filipino store - a small van - that sold Philippine-made goods from soap and toothpaste to canned goods and snacks at various Taiwan factories employing Filipinos. On Sundays, they sold their merchandise behind St. Christopher's Church in Taipei.
"But the police eventually got tough on sidewalk vendors, so we decided to bring our little business to Taichung," she says.
Several months later, a shop alongside Zhongshan North Road in Taipei was up for rent. Bing seized the opportunity.
"Naglakas loob na rin kami (we decided to take that chance), and that investment paid off. Our brand became synonymous with Filipino goods," she says. "When a commercial space right next to St. Christopher's Church was up for rent, we moved our store there. It was the best decision we've ever made."
There was no stopping Bing and company after that.
Today, the Bing Go Filipino Store franchise is comprised of 11 outlets selling anything and everything from dried fish (tuyo) and Filipino-style corned beef to bagoong (shrimp paste) and instant mixes such as palabok (noodles topped with rich shrimp sauce) and sinigang (fish or meat soup flavored with tamarind). Bing's stores are packed on Sundays with Filipinos eager for a taste of home.
"We want to give our customers value-for-money deals, so we have kept our prices affordable," she says. "We also make them feel welcomed. The moment our customers step into one of our stores, they know they are 'home.' There's something comforting about that."
Her entire team also lives by the slogan, "the customer is king," she notes.
"Without our clients, we will all be jobless," says the Ilongga. "Without their support, we will not last this long or grow this big."
The kids that she used to babysit during her TNT days actually visited her at her flagship store in Taipei. The children, now in their teens, were studying in Switzerland at the time.
"They were so happy for me," she says. "They also told me they were so proud of what the Bing Go team has accomplished."
Bing naturally has a soft spot for migrant Filipinos.
"I was a worker just like them; that's how I started," she says. "I know what it's like to be away from your loved ones, to be surrounded by strangers, and to perform menial tasks. I know what it's like to scrimp and save, to make every dollar count."
The Reverend Joy Tajonera, a priest with the Maryknoll Society, is one of Bing's biggest fans.
"She is a very generous person,"says the priest. "Unknown to many, Bing has helped so many migrants and supported several community events. She does not announce those good deeds because she does not want to call attention to herself. Despite her success, she has remained humble."
When she heard that a group of migrant Filipinos was participating in a labor march last year, Bing immediately provided them with sandwiches and other refreshments, he continues.
"No one asked her to do that but she did it anyway," Tajonera says. "If she hears of a migrant who is battling a serious illness or of a worker who has sustained critical injuries at work, she would immediately ask, 'How can we help this person?'"
Bing's generosity and humility have impressed not just her loyal customers, but her employees as well.
The entrepreneur says she values her team because the Bing Go franchise would not have been successful without the support of her devoted employees.
"Our senior managers have been with us for more than 10 years," she says. "I owe them a lot. To them, this is not just an ordinary job; it's a commitment. There's a sense of ownership."
Often, her employees work long hours, Bing adds.
"And they don't complain," she says. "If they think our stores' supplies need to be replenished, they will go to our warehouse and pick up the items that are needed. May initiative sila. (They have initiative.) They know that if our stores are empty, then there's nothing to sell. If there's nothing to sell, then we will have no revenues. They care about this outfit."
Honesty is another trait that she values, she continues. "In this business, trustworthiness and integrity are critical to your operation," says the entrepreneur. "If you don't have that, you have nothing."
Bing's advice to her kababayans? Stay focused and you will achieve your dream.
"I started with nothing," she says. "If I can do it, you can do it too. All that you need is plenty of determination, and faith in God."