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November 2018

Issue: November 2018

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Travel to Manila


Neighbourhood: Binondo, Manila

1 November 2018

Since the 16th Century, Binondo has been the life and soul of the Philippines’ Chinese community – an island of tradition amid Manila’s frantic push to modernise

To stand on the centre of the sweeping Jones Bridge, which connects Manila’s two most historic districts across the Pasig River, is to straddle not only a megacity but two continents. On one side is Intramuros (Latin for within the walls), the core of Spain’s colonial trade from the Philippines to Mexico. On the other is Binondo, a vibrant, variegated business district crammed with cafes, restaurants and architectural relics that mark it as the world’s oldest Chinatown.

Binondo was founded in 1594 by Spanish conquistadors to house the Catholic Chinese residents of Manila: only baptised locals could live there. From then, Binondo became the financial heart of the Philippine capital, curtailed only by 18th-century British raids, and a subsequent earthquake, that razed many of its traditional Chinese buildings to the ground.

All that remained back then was the bell tower of Binondo Church, a grand, grey-bricked basilica that stands proudly at the edge of the Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz, the rambunctious, traffic-choked centrepiece of Manila’s most interesting quarter. It is among dozens of sights most visitors miss, preferring the tourist-friendly trappings of Intramuros. But they’re missing out. Intramuros is beautiful but it is a museum. Binondo is still living large, thronged by pedestrians, mopeds and iconic jeepneys, the Philippine “kings of the road”. Its local residents are often known as “Tsinoy,” a portmanteau of “Chinese” and “Pinoy”, an informal Philippine demonym. 

Centuries as second-class citizens have entrenched traditions and art seen nowhere else in Metro Manila. In the 1960s, as Chinese fled Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, the Philippine government banned Chinese symbols, and demanded lanterns and shop signs be decorated either in English or Tagalog, the Philippine national language.

Today that has changed, and Chinese script lines every street. Despite having long been toppled as the capital’s economic ganglion by nearby Makati, Binondo is a warren of trade and tastes unlike any other in town. “If you ask me, Binondo is not the heart but the soul (of Manila),” says Go, who takes foreigners around Binondo, sometimes even cooking Chinese dishes for them. “You walk past these people, these cars, you see normal people. You don’t see people in suits. You see people in slippers, shorts. You’re just you here.”

Start: Escolta Street

Once Manila’s hip, downtown shopping district, this bustling street is better known today for its clutch of crumbling, yet beautiful, art deco buildings that thrusted skywards during the Philippines’ American colonial period, between 1898 and 1935. Below them sat perfumeries and boutiques that have been replaced by office space and gimcrack food joints. But the architectural charm of the Capitol Theater, First United Building and others are unlike anything else in Manila.
Escolta Street, Binondo 1006 Manila

A five-minute walk from Jones Bridge to Binondo Church

The recipient of a recent, lurid paint-job, including Michelangelo-esque frescoes on its walls and ceilings, this centuries-old church – officially the Minor Basilica of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz – is the undisputed heart of Binondo, and a popular meeting spot before a night on the town. The paving outside is made from Chinese cemetery headstones, as are many Binondo streets – some of which still carry their initial inscriptions.
Plaza L. Ruiz, Binondo 1006 Manila

a five-minute walk to Carvajal Street

Diving right off Quintin Paredes Street, just before you get to Binondo Church, you’ll find Carvajal Street, a partially-covered market road on which food stalls and fruit and veg sellers rub shoulders with coffee shops, fast food eateries and, on some days, fishermen hawking their catch. Known once as an umbrella market, this cramped street is, in many ways, the essence of the neighborhood: cramped, fun and friendly. Quik Snack and the Ho-Land Bakery are particular local favourites. 
Carvajal Street, Binondo 1006 Manila

A 10-minute walk to New Toho Food Center

This neighbourhood restaurant, with its drab, purple-daubed walls and outside rotisserie, may not look much at first glance. It’s actually Manila’s oldest remaining restaurant, established in 1866 and still so popular that most of its fresh-cooked meat dishes – many of which combine Chinese and Filipino cooking techniques – are sold out by 1.30pm. Its name means “just enough” in the Hokkien language of southern China, from where many of Binondo’s residents hail. Philippine national literary hero Jose Rizal came to eat lumpia: local spring rolls.
New Toho Food Center, 422-424 Tomas Pinpin St, Binondo 1006 Manila, +63 2242 0294

A 10-minute walk Cafe Mezzanine

As its name suggests, this second-floor restaurant offers panoramic views of the neighborhood, and serves a wide variety of traditional Chinese food like kampong – flavoured rice with nuts – and a wide range of dim sum. A good spot to people-watch, or simply to unwind after a long day’s walking.
Cafe Mezzanine, 650 Ongpin St. Binondo 1006 Manila, +63 2288 8888 ext. 230, cafemezzanine.com

A 6-minute walk New Chinatown Arch

Marking the formal entry into Binondo from Jones Bridge, this 2015-built edifice is the largest of its kind in the world. Not everyone’s happy though: most Tsinoys prefer the old arch, inscribed with “Filipino-Chinese Friendship Arch”, just a hundred-or-so metres away. It is still a great way to enter Binondo – not least because at pretty much any hour the streets below are choked full of auto-rickshaws, jeepneys and rushing foot traffic. When looking out across the Pasig River, it’s a great spot for photos.
Binondo Chinatown Arch, Quintin Paredes Rd, Binondo 1006 Manila

A 14-minute walk Lucky Chinatown

This monstrous, 108,000 square metre shopping mall and entertainment centre has become an icon of the new, wealthy Binondo, into which Chinese and middle-class Filipino money is pouring. Officially opened in 2012 it replaced two public schools, and has now arguably overtaken the Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz as the district’s prime meeting point. It might not be as pretty or historic as its neighbours, but as a slice of neon-soaked Tsinoy life it’s unparalleled.
Lucky Chinatown, Lucky Chinatown Plaza, Lachambre St, Binondo 1006 Manila

A five-minute walk back to Escolta st. to The Den

Many locals fear for Binondo’s historic architecture: few preservation laws exist, and many owners are happy to sell as a Chinese-spurred building boom plots tower blocks all over the neighbourhood. There is, however, some good news. While some art deco gems like the Capitol have been stripped to their bare facades, others like the First United Building have been repurposed by young Madrileños. The Den, for example, is a Brooklyn-esque cafe and arts space, that’s a hive of hip and exciting events. 
The Den, 413 Escolta St, Binando 1006 Manila, +63 2960 365

Words: Sean Williams