More Than Just Chinatown: See Manila’s History and Culture Through Binondo
by Anne Marielle Eugenio, July 16, 2019 5:01pm
Art by Dani Elevazo
When planning a Manila tour, tourists wouldn’t miss the usual activities—a walk around the historical Intramuros or a visit to the Spanish-era churches. If it’s about practical shopping, they will head to malls and tiangges in Divisoria. But if they want to experience the Filipino-Chinese culture—cuisine, merchandise, and all—then Binondo is the place to be.
Binondo is known for having the oldest Chinatown in the world. Even before Spain colonized the Philippines, the Chinese occupied Binondo and made it the center for trade and commerce. Since then, they introduced a new kind of culture into the country. Their influences enriched the “melting pot” of Manila.
How Binondo Came to be
Binondo, a name which means binundok or mountain, was the center for trade and paved the way for Chinese immigrants who settled in Manila—most who migrated in the Philippines were of Hokkien-descent.
In 1594, Spanish Governor Luis Perez Dasmarinas established Binondo as a permanent place for Chinese immigrants who converted to Catholicism. The Spaniards gave them autonomy, although they are still wary of the Chinese. In 1603, the Chinese wanted to explore a “mountain of gold” in Cavite, which led to the Spaniards’ suspicion of a rebellion. To make the long story short, thousands of Chinese were killed during that year. Fast forward to the 1980s, the business center moved to Makati. But after everything it’s been through, Binondo still stands in all its glory.
A District Filled With Art, History, and Food
Binondo will always be associated with Chinatown. And for those who love a good food crawl, this is the perfect place to satisfy your cravings. In Manila’s Chinatown, you can find the oldest restaurants in the Metro: Toho Food Center (1866), Ramon Lee’s Panciteria (1929), and the ever famous Ma Mon Luk (1930). These depict not only the delicious Chinese cuisine but also the rich infusion of Filipino and Chinese culture through food.
Just within the district is Binondo Church or the Minor Basilica of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz, named after the saint with Filipino and Chinese descent. This Spanish-era church catered to Chinese who converted into Catholicism—another piece of history that lives until this day. It survived wars, including the Second World War. To this day, Binondo Church still holds masses in different languages: Filipino, Mandarin, Hokkien, and English.
There’s more to see than the Fil-Chinese community and their businesses. Just beside Chinatown is the Queen of the Streets—Escolta. What was once a business center is now a tourist spot for people who like a hint of nostalgia. It may seem outdated if we would base on the under-maintained buildings. But its old buildings are office spaces for several organizations and businesses—one of which is the 98B collaboratory, an artist-run initiative, and space in Manila. 98B also started a community called The Hub: Make Lab where people can buy vintage and second-hand items, books, magazines, zines, indie clothing, and artist merchandise. You can visit them at The First United Building along Escolta.
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Just along Escolta lies the home of 98B Collaboratory—an artist-run initiative and space in Manila which serves as anavenue where people can interact, showcase their craft, and collaborate with artists. With all its efforts, 98B helps the people see Escolta with fresh eyes.
We have Chinese trace on our cuisine, traditions, and even in language. Inside Binondo, Chinese culture thrives—entering in it is like having a piece of China without leaving the country. But Binondo is more than just a Chinatown. It is an example of how people can create a harmonious community despite the differences.
So the next time you visit Binondo, may you see it in a different light—see it as more than just a shopping ground or food crawl spot. May you realize Binondo is a piece of history and a proof that two different cultures can thrive in one society.