A Walk Through Manila’s Chinatown

A walk through Manila’s Chinatown reveals its blended cultural identity and the legacies—places of worship, dishes to worship—of the Chinese Filipinos.

Story and photographs by Lester V. Ledesma

Jun 4, 2019

WITH ITS LOFTY DOME AND HIGH renaissance lines, the four-centuries-old church of Binondo, the Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz, seems no different from other Spanish colonial-era churches in Manila. However, look closely and its ethnic character becomes apparent. “The façade is that of an old church, and it’s got everything you’d expect from such a structure,” my guide Ivan Man Dy points out. “But notice the bell tower’s octagonal shape and red color—it’s like a Chinese temple. Spend some time in Binondo and you’ll realize it’s a melting pot of Filipino, Chinese and Spanish cultures.”

You can credit this fusion to a long history of peaceful coexistence with the natives. When the Spanish first came to the Philippine islands in 1521, they found that xiang lei— Fujianese merchants from the southern Chinese coast—had been living and trading here for centuries. After Manila was made the capital of the Spanish East Indies in 1571, the sangleyes (as the Spaniards called them) were Christianized and relocated to the area of Binondo— thus starting what could arguably be the world’s oldest Chinatown. I am spending the day exploring this locale with Ivan, a prominent cultural and historical guide who has taken academics, Nobel laureates and celebrities (among them the late Anthony Bourdain) around his hometown in order to showcase its mixed heritage.

The heart of the district is Calle Ongpin, a 900-meter-long stretch of grit and concrete marked by Catholic churches on both ends. Ivan leads me into this street, passing by fruit stalls, sundry shops and noodle parlors. Some of these bear Chinese signage, others a mix of Filipino and Spanish names. Inside many stores, Taoist deities and Catholic saints share little altars bedecked with oranges and incense. At one alley, a dragonhead prop sticks out from the back of a jeepney. Ivan points to these as evidence of the long cultural exchange between the Filipinos and the Chinese.

“As more sangleyes arrived into the colony, they intermarried with the locals and bore the mestizo (mixed-race) bloodline of today’s Chinese Filipinos,” he says. “Some Pinoys assume we’re no different from Mainland Chinese. But that’s just not true—four centuries is long enough for Chinoys [short for the slang demonyms ‘Chino’ and ‘Pinoy’] to assimilate and even add to the local culture. We’re Filipinos of Chinese descent.”

A shrine to Taoist god Kuan Kong at the Philippine Chinese Santiago Church

Near the corner of Ongpin and Pinpin Street we stop at the Santo Cristo de Longos, a shrine that bears an incense urn, a pair of divination blocks, and a large metal cross that sits where the Taoist deity should be. Later on, we enter a rather unremarkable-looking building with an intriguing feature: its rooftop hosts a temple dedicated to Kuan Kong, the Taoist god of literature and war. Interestingly, the locals call him Santiago, after the Spanish patron Saint James the Greater. “Chinese are pragmatic,” Ivan whispers while we watch devotees light candles and burn joss paper inside the temple known as the Philippine Chinese Santiago Church. “Taoism doesn’t demand exclusivity so we don’t mind mixing our gods. I was raised a Catholic, but sometimes I pray here just to stay in touch with my roots.”

Binondo has the feel of an inner-city neighborhood, its gritty lanes host an endless parade of pedestrians, clip-clopping kalesas (horse-drawn carriages) and automobiles. Its many aging structures, however, tell of a place that has been left behind by the changing times. The Chinese mestizos remain a driving force in the economy, but gone are the days when Binondo was the premier business district, the seat of Manila’s first stock exchange and the base of the country’s major banks. Compared to the Philippine capital’s modern-day CBD (now located in the city of Makati, some nine kilometers away), commerce in Chinatown is now mostly defined by small-scale, family-run businesses.

A local guide at Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz

The action may have moved elsewhere, but Binondo holds its place as the symbolic hometown of 1.35 million Filipinos of Chinese descent. This I ponder as we sample a uniquely Chinoy delicacy that sums up this district’s character. The hong peah began as a flaky malt-filled pastry in Fujian province, but evolved into the thicker and cakeier hopia when it reached these shores. Gerry Chua, the owner of Eng Bee Tin Deli, took it further and came up with variants that pack ingredients like taro as well as decidedly un-Chinese coconut and coffee. He realized his culinary reinvention was a hit when overseas Chinoys started ordering it in droves. “They said it reminded them of home—of course they were referring to the Philippines,” he says, adding: “You can’t find this in China.” 

It’s easy to find pockets of nostalgia all over this heritage district. At the New Toho Food Center, chefs still whip up plates of time-honored kikiam meat rolls (that’s the Hokkien ngoh hiang) and pork asado (char siew), the way they have been doing since 1888. This is Manila’s oldest restaurant, and it seems only fitting that I end my day of explorations here. The Philippine national hero Jose Rizal (himself a Chinese mestizo) was said to have dined on this spot before his execution by the Spaniards in 1898. This is practically hallowed ground, I tell myself as I join the crowd of locals tucking into their meals. The ethnic Chinese have been around for so long that it’s easy to overlook their legacy in the Philippines. Good thing there’s a Chinatown—no, a Chinoytown—that helps make it easier to appreciate.

Binondo’s Heritage Trail

1. Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz

Dedicated to the first Filipino saint (who happens to be a Chinoy), this church features a unique mix of Spanish, Chinese and Filipino design elements. Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz; +63 2 242 4850.

2. Philippine Chinese Santiago Church

Hidden on the rooftop of a low-rise building, this Taoist temple was rebuilt from a circa- 1800s temple that stood on the ground floor. the place hums with activity at all times, but more so during religious festivals when kaoka—an obscure form of ancient Chinese opera—is performed. it’s a bit hard to find, but the locals know where it is. Kipuja Street.

3. Eng Bee Tin Deli

Gerry Chua’s family business was floundering in the 1980s until his reinvented hopia pastry became a local favorite. the place has since grown from a modest bakery to the de facto pit stop for foodies and visitors in Chinatown. the ground floor is where the take-home goodies are, while the second floor hosts a dim sum restaurant.; pastries from P50.

4. Old Manila Walks

Manila cultural and historical specialist Ivan Man Dy regularly does walking tours and foodie excursions to interesting spots in and around the Philippine capital. However, his Chinoy roots and cultural advocacies have all but cemented his name to that of his Binondo hometown. oldmanilawalks. com; tours from P1,400.

5. New Toho Food Center

There’s nothing new about this eating house, which has stood on this spot since 1888. Manila’s oldest restaurant isn’t the swankiest place to dine, but what it lacks in atmosphere it makes up for with its classic menu of Chinese Filipino favorites. 422-424 Tomas Pinpin St.; +63 2 242 0294; mains from P100. 

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