Welcome to Chinatown
By Ellen Joy Anastacio
Venturing into Manila’s Chinatown is exactly that: a trip to little
China, Manila style. Passing the Manila City Hall, Central Post Office,
and Jones Bridge, one will pass the Filipino-Chinese Friendship Arch
that brings you to Chinatown. Take Quintin Paredes Street, the road
that leads to Binondo Church and one of the more popular streets in
Chinatown, and you will already know that you have indeed, entered Chinatown.
With the old Savory restaurant on the right, you’ll see Chinese
characters written prominently in various signage down the road.
Also noticeable is the various banks located in that short stretch of
road, represented in both English and Chinese, of course. A lot of
stores line the street, a testament to how the Chinese made, and
continue to make, money in the Philippines.
And while most banks and buildings in Ayala Avenue in Makati,
considered by most as the financial and commercial capital of the
Philippines today, are now condensed in gleaming skyscrapers and new
buildings, Chinatown remains old world. Buildings hardly seem to have
been renovated. If they have, they’re not too noticeable at all.
But there also lies the charm of Chinatown, that things mostly seem to
be as they’ve been. And old it should aptly be, having been the only
part of Manila that survived the widespread bombings in Manila during
the Second World War. In fact, the starting point of this trip, Binondo
Church, still has its original bell tower and façade left over from
when it was first built in 1596. I’ve always considered it one of the
main points in Binondo, and aside from its location, the imposing
structure with interiors that remind me of a European cathedral just
reinforces the point.
For this foray into Binondo, a calesa ride was in order. I’ve always
been a bit nervous about riding in a calesa, a horse-drawn carriage
maneuvered by a kutsero, which, in Manila, may only be found in
Chinatown and around Rizal Park. But to my surprise, even stepping up
to the carriage, the scarier part for clumsy me, wasn’t hard at all.
It was actually fun to go around parts of Chinatown in a calesa,
because despite the heat, a balmy breeze could be felt. And what’s
more, the locals are so friendly! Once they sense that we were tourists
(could the calesa have been the dead giveaway?), almost everyone we
passed gave a friendly smile, wave, or hello.
We went to streets like Jaboneros, San Nicolas, Sevilla, Penarubia,
Barcelona, Elcano, Caballeros, where you can still see old houses
standing amid new structures. We saw Madrid Bakery, supposedly the
oldest bakery in town. Standing at the corner of the street is this
old, three-story house that has been featured in several history books.
Conflicting stories come from its current dwellers. Some say it was
owned by a Chinese person, someone said it was owned by a mestizo,
while another pointed out the numerous doors inside one big room and
said it’s a hospital. Whatever the case, it’s still a little piece of
history leftover from the olden days, although it’s terribly rundown.
Lest you think everything’s old, think again. Aside from additions
like telecom centers, a spanking new Starbucks right around the corner
from Binondo Church, and signages from sari-sari store proclaiming soda
brands, there are also new additions that come from the present
generation of Filipino-Chinese. Hip coffee shops have grown from the
previous generation’s hardware shops, cute and funky gift shops have
also sprouted in Gandara, Quintin Paredes, Ongpin, etc.
But tradition is still tradition and Chinatown is still Chinatown. Eng
Bee Tin, the home of the famous hopiang ube, a product of Chinese
innovation in the Philippines, has resulted in that stretch of road
being colored purple. Chinese herb drugstores sell real Chinese
medicines like Pei Pa Koa. Stores that sell Chinese items like Buddha
figurines, incense sticks, mahjong sets, red angpao envelopes also
And of course, what would Chinatown be without the food? Places like
the President Restaurant to the Po Heng Lumpia restaurant, where the
lumpia was truly yummy, huge, and only thirty pesos! Fresh fruits are
also sold in Ongpin, and there’s even a small alley off Quintin Paredes
that sells fruits, fish, meats, fishballs, all in one short lane!
We capped off our trip with a visit to the Seng Guan Temple located at
Narra Street. Designed like a
stupa, the Buddhist temple’s vast
interior houses what seems to be a worship area at the first level,
where you can light incense sticks, and get free Buddhist literature
if you are so inclined. The second level features a mural that features
the life of Buddha, while the third level is simply amazing. It contains
ten thousand Buddhas, lining the walls of the third level, with a giant
Buddha dominating the center.
The Chinese have pervaded almost every aspect of the Filipino culture,
from food, superstitions, to our language. And more than any other
place, Chinatown gives us a glimpse of how much the Chinese has been
embraced by the Philippines – and vice-versa.
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All images copyright Ellen Joy Anastacio. Unauthorized copying, reproduction, or deep-linking is strictly prohibited.