Starweek Magazine

Binondo: Behind the Bamboo Curtain

- Ivan Man Dy -
It stands on an altar in an alley along Ongpin Street, a relic from the old country. Smoke billows from joss sticks offered to it. This is the Philippine Chinese Santiago Church, more popularly known as Kuan Kong, lord of the altar and the Taoist god of literature and war.

On the day that we dropped by with some tourist-friends, a kau-ka or Chinese opera and musical troupe, possibly the last remaining of its kind in the city, was letting off a strangely familiar shrill as it performed in honor of the mighty Kuan Kong. We were lucky to catch a rare scene from vintage China, right in the heart of Binondo, Manila’s iconic Chinatown.

Such is the district’s charm: It is a meld of the old and the new, where calesas elbow their way along its narrow confines beside American SUVs, where centuries-old bahay-na-bato shophouses sit side by side with modern condominiums and where remnants of old Amoy co-exist with age-old Philippine traditions.

For over 400 years, Binondo has been a place of contradicting cultures: part Chinese, part Filipino, part Spanish, part American. Yet it is a place of tradition, a living community that’s as old as Manila itself. It was created specifically for the Christian or mestizo Chinese when Manila–then confined to Intramuros–was a compact walled city with a mere 64 square blocks. It was the center of Philippine economy and trade from the 18th century up until the not-so-distant 1960’s. It is a distinction that the district has never quite shaken off– even today.

As Manila’s bustling Chinatown, the past and the present overlap in Binondo. Ongpin Street, one of Binondo’s main arteries, starts where Basilica Minore de San Lorenzo Ruiz (formerly called the Binondo Church) still stands, a magnificent 16th century architectural souvenir from Spain’s colonization. It produced the country’s first Filipino Catholic saint, San Lorenzo Ruiz, and welcomes thousands of Tsinoy and Pinoy faithful to its embrace every week.

Further down the street are a mesh of traditional Chinese herbal drugstores, an honest-to-goodness chocolate factory, goldsmiths, Chinese delicatessens and restaurants that peddle goods and services gleaned from the past in 21st century commercial transactions.

Perpendicular to Ongpin is Quintin Paredes Street (formerly Rosario), where the country’s top banks, stationery wholesalers, and old-style retail bazaars perpetuate Binondo’s old economic glory.

Other streets that branch out from this single-lane stretch are home to a Chinese food market cum outdoor pet shop (the Arranque market on Alonzo) and time-worn panciterias such as Lido and Ling Nam. The arrival of fastfood chains like Jollibee and Red Ribbon cannot kill the scent of a freshly-rolled, Amoy style lumpia from Polland Hopia Bakery. Neither can instant champorado mix outdo the consistency of hand-ground tablaea chocolate made at the La Resurrecion chocolate factory along Ongpin as a breakfast staple.

On Carvajal, a bustling corridor still known to local residents as "Ho Sua Hang" or umbrella alley–an appellation harking back to the days when it was the center of the umbrella trade–a sidewalk-style wet market does brisk business. Fruit and vegetable hawkers tempt passers-by with their neatly arranged reds, greens and yellows. Exotic dinner finds like sea cucumber, pork knuckles, preserved vegetables and dried herbs are also for sale. Nearby, a dry goods store sells the more familiar hebi (dried shrimps), dried mushrooms, sugar coated peanuts and sweet caramelo sticks.

Apart from its vibrant and eclectic street culture, Chinatown stands as proud proof of our Spanish colonial history. Not to be outdone by Intramuros, her more famous sister across the Pasig, Binondo boasts of an equally illustrious past. Significant firsts–a hotel, a skyscraper, a department store, a Chinese-language school and a Catholic Filipino saint–are Chinatown’s contribution to the national story.

Today, as Binondo scrambles to keep up with the frenzied pace of the future, the past casts beguiling shadows, waiting to be discovered. Historic properties, with their elaborate details, beautifully arcaded facades and magnificent balustrades allow one a glimpse of a rich architectural past. In the neighboring district of San Nicolas, 19th century shophouses flaunt their finely crafted objects. Along the Escolta, 1920’s Art Deco skyscrapers show off streamlined details in multi-hued tones, unmindful of the urban noise pollution beneath.

This is why Chinatown is an urban adventure. This eclectic cultural brew easily manifests itself on the streets of Binondo.

Culture, commerce and history have blessed it with an intense spirit that is uniquely its own. So the next time you go downtown, all you need to do is take a walk to lift up Binondo’s bamboo curtain to experience its sights, sounds, tastes and, best of all, charm.
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The author conducts walking tours of this district where he grew up. You can reach him at 0917-329-1622 or email [email protected]. You can also check out www.oldmanilawalk.blogspot.com.











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