A Chinatown Christmas

CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren (The Philippine Star) - November 17, 2012 - 12:00am

The malls are a great place to shop but the bargains are still in Divisoria and in the larger district of Binondo. This year we tried something new. We motored off to Binondo to spend a shopping weekend based from the newest hotel in the area — the Ramada Manila Central.

The Ramada is the first premium hotel brand to venture back to the district, which is arguably the oldest Chinatown in the world. It was established over four centuries ago and has always been the center of trade in the city. The district is undergoing a renaissance and development here is starting to rival the relatively younger suburban centers like Makati and Quezon City.

The trip to the district was short and not having visited in a while, we were overwhelmed by changes — tall shiny condominiums and multi-level mixed-use complexes have replaced low-rise gray concrete structures from the 1960s. Then there was the Ramada; at the corner of Quintin Paredes and famous Ongpin St., the 114-room hotel sits right at the very center of Chinatown.

We quickly checked in at the well-appointed hotel and proceeded to say hi to the energetic general manager Karl Velhagen. Karl is a friend, and he was waxing enthusiastically about the new hotel and the wonders of Chinatown.

We did not waste any time, and after an authentic noodle lunch at one of the many famous restaurants (just like Hong Kong or Singapore), we proceeded to the tiangges and all those shopping centers ending in the lucky “8.” I quickly tired of shopping, which is my wife’s forte. I left her and my eldest son Wham at the warrens of shops and detoured myself into a random architectural tour of Binondo.

I had rambled the streets of Chinatown from Juan Luna all the way to the Escolta over 15 years ago. That was when I started to document and research the buildings in the area. This trip gave me a chance to see what’s gone and what’s been conserved.

I started with the Binondo Church, which is now the Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz. It’s one of a handful of central Manila churches rich in religious and architectural heritage. It fronts the Plaza Calderon de la Barca (also now renamed after the first Filipino saint). The plaza is slightly worn at the edges but still vibrant and kept as an open space. Thankfully, it did not get turned into a parking lot.

I walked down Juan Luna St. to the old Aguinaldo’s Department Store. I was glad to find the statues of Jose Rizal, Josephine Bracken, Bonifacio and the Statue of Liberty still there on its façade. The street remains busy as ever but even busier now despite the competition from new Chinatown malls.

I then backtracked and sauntered south along the Estero de Binondo to the Muelle de Industria and the famous cluster of heritage building that include the El Hogar and the old HSBC and FNCB buildings. That El Hogar seems to be shuttered and in disrepair but the FNCB is now undergoing conservation and adaptive reuse as a Knowledge Process Outsourcing center. Wonderful!

Moving on, I managed to get to the Escolta and to photograph the heritage buildings there including the Capitol Theater. The district, in fact, has a lot of old Art Deco buildings left. From the banks of the Pasig River you can also view the historic Post Office building.

I proceeded from there to get back to the Ramada, passing through the edge of the Santa Cruz district and hence back to the hotel through storied Carvajal Street. On Quintin Paredes I spied an old school supplies suki, the Cosmos Trading company. Inside I found my favorite pens, the Pilot V5s and V7s at 30 percent less than suburban mall prices. I grabbed a few dozen.

I rendezvoused back with my wife Twink and son Wham for a lovely authentic Chinese dinner and retired to a great post-dinner massage at the Ramada. Twink went on a shopping rampage and had come back with bags full of goodies for our Christmas gift exchanges. She found cute trinkets and electronic knick-knacks, inexpensive shirts, shoes and accessories. She had to buy one of those expandable bags just like a Hong Kong viajera.

The next day was more of the same. I went off early for some street photography but joined Twink for more shopping. I got myself a pair of badminton shoes, which I could not find any in the usual suburban malls and at a price that did not burn a whole in my pocket.

The whole weekend was spent well and we did actually did not spend all that much at shopping. It’s a lot cheaper than going to Hong Kong and without having to waste half a day in the airport coming and going. The Ramada was very comfortable and convenient. It has a roof deck that gives a panoramic view of Chinatown. It is best for sunset events and cocktails. The hotel has the Old Shanghai bar too.

We drove home in the afternoon with an SUV full of Christmas shopping. I’d recommend it for a change to the usual panic shopping suburban malls. Just bring comfortable shoes and lots of energy. For those who would rather take historic tours of surrounding sites, several are available (try Carlos Celdran’s or Ivan Mandy’s). And remember, Christmas is just down the corner.

* * *

Feedback is welcome. Please email the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com. For more information on the Ramada Manila Central log on to their website www.ramadacentralmanila.com. Ivan Mandy and Carlos Celdran can be contacted via their on sites or facebook pages.



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