Rediscovering historic Manila Chinatown
BULL MARKET, BULL SHEET - Wilson Lee Flores (The Philippine Star) - April 28, 2014 - 12:00am

I’m astounded by people who want to “know” the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown. —Woody Allen

Who once said that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach? When my editor recently asked me if I’d be interested to join a food tour of Manila’s Binondo Chinatown area being organized by the 75-year-old Philippine Bank of Communications (PBCom), to be led by famous tour guide Ivan Man Dy of Old Manila Walks, I quickly said yes because I love food — especially Chinese food. I am also a history buff and Chinatown is like a giant living museum!

One-stop culinary, cultural, and shopping destination

Tour guide Ivan said, “Binondo is one of the most colorful places you can explore in Manila. It is home to our city’s Chinatown district, a one-stop culinary, cultural and shopping destination.”

I’ve never lived in Chinatown, because I spent my early childhood in the nearby Tondo district until I was seven years old, then the rest of my years in Quezon City. Aside from being where PBCom and all other major banks started from, present-day Chinatown was also where my paternal ancestors started out, traded in and lived. 

Accompanied by several PBCom officers led by first vice president James Y. Go, central metro region head Annabel Lee, sales group head Mary Geraldine L. Nakpil and corporate communications head Meryll Yan, the bankers and media guests followed Ivan in “The Big Binondo Food Wok!” for three and a half hours of short walks, admiring historic spots and eating diverse culinary delights. We also passed by several PBCom branches to see their new renovations.

We also went to the former head office of PBCom on Juan Luna Street to see their museum, where we saw old machines and the narra office table of the late PBCom chairman Ralph Nubla (who once told me in the 1990s that he was my late father’s grade-school classmate and that he had even met my grandfather).

Ivan requested that we not mention all the names of the food stops “to protect the integrity of the tour,” but it was okay to cite a few eateries. While at Quik Snack on 637 Carvajal Street, PBCom’s James Go recounted that the late entrepreneur who owned the former Chinese resto across the street known as Carvajal Restaurant (the building was demolished and the resto is long gone) used to send gifts of Chinese food to then imprisoned Senator Ninoy Aquino.

Another eatery we liked is a small but excellent hole-in-the-wall serving handmade Beijing-style dumplings called Dong Bei Dumplings at 642 Yuchengco Street (formerly Nueva Street).

I suggested to Ivan that he include another hole-in-the-wall eatery known for fresh lumpia and misua noodles, where I heard SM founder Henry Sy used to buy homemade fish balls: the New Eastern Garden resto at 954 Ongpin Street. 

City of my ancestral roots

Chinatown is where my paternal ancestors lived from the 1790s up to the early 20th century. Based on my research, my paternal great-great-great-great-granduncle Dy Phi-Phay first came to Manila circa 1790, which was about the time the Spanish colonizers had ended the last of their Chinese ghetto system called the “Parian” just outside Intramuros, a segregated area similar to the Jewish ghettos of medieval Europe. 

I had no idea where that first-generation migrant Dy Phi-Phay lived; also no idea where his nephew, my great-great-great-grandfather Dy Siu Gam, lived. Elders say that our third-generation ancestor, my great-great-grandfather Dy Han Kia, diligently worked for a lumber business for 18 years somewhere in 19th-century Manila before he saved enough to open his own business at Muelle de Binondo.

His lumber business, during those Spanish times, used his personal name but he also used a Chinese-language trade name, “Guan Hoc” (meaning “Wellspring of Fortune”). He later opened four other firms, eventually moving to Calle Arranque (renamed Teodora Alonzo Street in the early 20th century). Part of his original lumberyard’s land on T. Alonzo Street now has a condominium there across the street from Ling Nam resto.

Great-great-grandpa Dy Han Kia was the fifth of seven brothers; he later assisted the families of his six brothers to settle in 19th-century Manila and go into the lumber business. He also built mansions in Fujian, south China, for all his brothers.

Among the many descendants of this clan of seven brothers included business pioneers and civic-minded community leaders: Dy Han Kia’s fourth son, lumber magnate and Buddhist philanthropist Dee Tian, whose prewar lumberyard was at C. M. Recto Avenue of Manila; nephew Calixto Dyyco, the late 19th-century lumber pioneer (a street was named after him in Paco, prewar Manila, it’s now often misspelled as “Calixto Dyco”); nephew Dy Pac, the lumber tycoon whose lumberyard was on Juan Luna Street; grandnephew prewar “Lumber King,” China Bank founder and nine-term Chinese Chamber of Commerce president Dee C. Chuan, whose lumberyard on Soler Street is now the 168 Mall (another sawmill was on Honorio Lopez Boulevard, formerly Northbay Boulevard); grandnephew, lumber magnate and 1950 Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce & Industry, Inc. executive vice president Dee Hong Lue (father-in-law of Unilab founder Jose Yao Campos), whose lumberyard was in Tondo; grandson Lee Tay, whose prewar sawmill was at T. Alonzo Street; grandnephew banker Dee K. Chiong, and others.

Other descendants of this clan included Dy Han Kia’s grandsons, World War II martyrs Dy Hok Siu and Dy Hok Khe, who joined the resistance movement against the Japanese invaders of the Philippines; his great-grandnephew, the late Bonifacio Sawmill boss and Christian philanthropist Samuel Dee (who in the 1960s was a prime mover behind creating Grace Village in Quezon City, where Grace Christian High School moved to).  

Among the sixth-generation descendants of this clan include Assisi Development Foundation chairman Ambassador Howard Q. Dee, Ayala Land, Inc. president Bobby Dy, stockbrokerage CLSA head of Philippine research Alfred Dy, who has repeatedly been awarded by Institutional Investor and Asiamoney as the “Best Analyst” in the country.

Among the seventh-generation descendants included topnotch cardiologist Dr. Dy Bun Yok, who former Chief Justice Artemio V. Panganiban wrote in his column was “the best in angiogram procedures”; China Bank president Peter SyCip Dee, Metrobank president Fabian Dee, Del Monte Pacific CEO Joselito “Butch” Dee Campos Jr., United Laboratories (Unilab) chairperson Jocelyn “Joy” Dee Campos Hess, Ateneo de Manila University professor Dr. Queena Lee Chua; Jed Dy, who last year won in the boys’ nine-year-old category at the US Kids Golf World Championship in Pinehurst, North Carolina.

In the eighth generation, the late social worker Lawrence Dee Ong helped establish a school for impoverished Aeta children and was active in other civic causes; topnotch dentist Dr. Joseph Dy Lim of Dr. Smile Dental Clinic was also the dean of National University’s College of Dentistry.

In the ninth generation, a notable clan member is Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) star guard Paul Lee of the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters Team. He just got included in the training pool for the Philippine National Men’s team known as Gilas Pilipinas competing at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain this year.

Manila’s Chinatown has been described by CNN as “the oldest Chinatown in the world.” I am not sure if this is accurate, but it sure is the place of my roots and heritage.

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