Binondo: Manila’s Chinatown
Established by the Spaniards in 1594 within a cannon shot of the Old Walled City of Intramuros, Binondo, the world’s oldest Chinatown, explodes with a cacophony of sensuous experiences of food, culture and the continuing saga of the Chinese story in the Philippines.
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Located in an area of just about 1 square kilometer right in the heart of the city of Manila, Binondo bustles daily with trade and commerce which the Chinese are known for and it culminates thousands of years of Filipino and Chinese relations dating back to the Ice Age when tribes from Southern China are known to have reached the Philippines through the land bridges. During the Spanish period, Governor General Luis Pérez Dasmariñas created Binondo as a permanent settlement for the Sangleys (Spanish term for the Chinese derived from the Hookien “siong-tay” which literally means “often comes”), converted Chinese immigrants, across the Pasig River from Intramuros where the Spaniards lived. This was meant to replace the Parian where the unconverted Chinese resided. It was under the Dominicans who rapidly proselytized the population to Catholicism and through intermarriages, a new Chinese mestizo class was born. The assimilation of the immigrant Chinese into the fabric and lifeblood of Philippine history is now complete. It was said that the Filipino-Chinese (also called Chinoy/Tsinoy) are the most assimilated Chinese community in Southeast Asia. Out of these Binondo intermarriages came St. Lorenzo Ruiz, the First Filipino Saint – Binondo Church is officially named Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz. A visit to Binondo is never complete without dropping by the church whose original façade survived the massive carpet bombing of Manila by the Americans during World War 2. Check out the floor whose stone bricks curiously come with Chinese characters by the main entrance of the church, these were apparently tombstones of graves in China brought to the Philippines and sold by the enterprising Chinese. Another prominent Chinese mestizo of Binondo is the Venerable Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo who is the founder of the first congregation for Filipino women.
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The syncretism of both the Catholic and Buddhist religion is still evident today in Binondo. Just on the corner of Ongpin and San Nicolas Streets is a shrine by the wall of a building called Santo Cristo de Longos where a cross is adorned by garlands of sampaguita (jasmine) and a jar where incense sticks are burned by devotees and curious passersby. According to stories, the site was a former well, and there was a deaf-mute Chinese whose speech was restored after finding an image of a crucified Christ on the shrine’s very spot.
Photo by themollyjayne
Binondo was the main center of commerce in the Philippines before the last World War where Spanish Filipinos, Chinese and the Chinese mestizos conducted business and finance complete with banks, insurance companies and financial institutions from the United States and Great Britain. During the Spanish era, the Chinese in the Philippines were a major lynchpin in linking the Chinese junk trading system and the Silk Road to Acapulco (Mexico) and to the rest of Europe through the two and a half century Galleon Trade. That said, the Chinese in the Philippines were the backbone of the Spanish colonial economy. Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) opened their first Philippine branch in Binondo in 1876 taking advantage of the booming Philippine sugar industry while financing infrastructure projects like railways which connected the rest of Luzon to Manila. Escolta, nicknamed as the “Wall Street of the Philippines” was then the equivalent of Ayala Avenue in Makati now. A stroll through the Escolta today still reveals some of its former glories, while in Escolta, don’t forget to drop by the Escolta Museum which is located on the mezzanine floor of Calvo Building where you can have a glimpse of fin de siècle Escolta and its vicinity through old photographs, newspaper articles, advertisements, vintage bottles and scale models of existing and non-existing buildings located along the short thoroughfare along the Pasig River. A replica of an entire row of Escolta was built in the Ciudad Acuzar in Bagac, Bataan.
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Photo by themollyjayne
During the Marcos Regime, the Philippines suffered a major financial crisis around the early ‘80s. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank of the Philippines) was found to be broke, the national treasury plundered to dust. Binondo earned the moniker “Binondo Central Bank” as businessmen in the district engaged in a massive US dollar black market which often dictated the actual movement of the Philippine Peso against the American Dollar. To get Marcos off their backs, the Chinese businessmen readily acceded to ‘requests’ of the regime to infuse fresh funding into its drying coffers. Today, despite its gritty façade, Binondo remains to be one of the major centers of commerce in the country.
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Photo by Dave Ryan
Like other Chinatowns in other parts of the world, Binondo is also known for tastiest Chinese cuisine in the entire metropolis. My personal favorites are located along the tiny alley called Carvajal Street where we would sometimes head out to eat the most savoury Chinese dishes for lunch when I used to work in a bank nearby. During my last visit with Carlos Celdran, performance artist and tour operator, the Stone Lion Food Haus wasn’t around anymore but the row of other Chinese restaurants and the stalls of fruits and other foodstuffs still exist on this street. Carvajal is also known for its Hookien name Ho Sua Hang or Umbrella Alley as the street used to be famous for shops selling umbrellas. Another area of major culinary interest would be the bigger but equally busy Ongpin Street. The Estero (literally meaning estuary as the area is located by a creek) is a Binondo institution where a row of eateries conduct their daily business of feeding its many regular customers. Breaded pork chop is one of the most famous dishes here for being delicious and cheap. Another personal favorite is Mr. Ube Rice and Noodle House, owned and managed by the same people of the famous Eng Bee Tin, which serves yummy Asian dishes like Singaporean Laksa which is definitely worth a try. The Lechon Macau Rice Topping (Deep Fried Pork Belly) was a little bland but was good enough for me. A part of the proceeds of the sales of the restaurant go to Binondo’s Fire Department and other local community projects. One of the most popular Binondo food items would be the hopia of Eng Bee Tin. The hopia is a bean filled pastry introduced by Fujian immigrants to the Philippines around the early years of the American occupation. Eng Bee Tin literally revolutionized this humble pastry by introducing different kinds of filling, the most famous of which is ube, Filipino for purple yam which became a big hit, as with innate marketing savvy, sales soared. The owner of Eng Bee Tin donated a fire truck colored purple to the community in reference to Eng Bee Tin’s famous Hopia Ube. Binondo as a culinary destination is varied and exciting that one is only limited by his or her imagination by the surprises that its streets offer.
Currently there are many Chinatown tours being offered, and even if I was familiar with Binondo already, I took one done by the highly recommended, renowned performance artist Carlos Celdran’s tours (Walk This Way – http://celdrantours.blogspot.com/ )and as usual I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from weaving through Binondo’s main and side streets, we also experienced Binondo in a calesa, (a horse drawn carriage). The Chinatown tour was peppered with a lot of intriguing trivia which Carlos often injects in his tours. There are many ways to get to Binondo, you may take any of the jeepneys bound for Divisoria from Taft Avenue in Pasay City and get off at the Binondo Church or you may also take the LRT and get off the Central Station and walk in the direction of the Manila City Hall, then take the same Divisoria-bound jeepneys. Taxis usually dread going into the part of the city due to heavy traffic. Wear comfortable clothes and footwear and bring extra cash as a lot of shops don’t take credit cards.
Ryan: Carlos Celdran Walk This Way Tours to Quiapo and Binondo are suspended indefinitely due to apparent meddling by the local cops around the Quiapo area. There are other tours that do Binondo however like the Binondo Food Wok (firstname.lastname@example.org). They are also highly recommended by some of our contacts in the travel circuit.
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To learn more of the Chinese heritage in the Philippines, one can drop by the Bahay Tsinoy Museum at the Kaisa Heritage Center (http://www.bahaytsinoy.org /+email@example.com) at Anda cor. Cabildo Streets inside Intramuros. The museum is a repository of the Filipino Chinese heritage tracing the history of Chinese presence in the Philippines long before the Spaniards arrived to the modern times.
Today, Binondo and the local Filipino-Chinese community more than ever remain as an integral part of Philippine history, culture, politics and economy.
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Ryan supports socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable tourism, as well as the promotion of the Philippines as an alternative Asian tourist destination.
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