With the enticing smell of Filipino-Chinese dishes wafting through the streets and the Hokkien dialect still spoken in daily conversation, Manila’s Chinatown is an enduring reminder of Chinese presence in the Philippine capital.
Situated across the Pasig River from Intramuros, the former headquarters of the colonial Spanish government, the bustling district of Binondo is considered the world’s first and oldest Chinatown.
The Filipino-Chinese Friendship arch that serves as an entrance into Binondo. Image: Instagram @world_citizen_64
Established in 1594 by Governor and Captain-General of the Philippines Luis Prez Dasmarias, Binondo was intended as a permanent settlement for Chinese immigrants, particularly those who had converted to Catholicism and intermarried with indigenous Filipinos.
The Spanish were distrustful of the Chinese, and Binondo was said to have been intentionally situated to put some distance between the Spanish elite and sangleys – an archaic and derogatory term for pure-blooded Chinese immigrants – but close enough to keep an eye on them amid fears of an imminent invasion from China.
The settlement was a big deal to sangleys in Manila, as Chinese tradesmen and artisans in Manila were previously confined to the Parin after they were forbidden from living within Intramuros.
The land was granted to the community in perpetuity, tax-free and with the power to appoint their own governor, giving the Chinese a small measure of autonomy and security.
While those who did not convert were left behind in the Parin, Catholic sangleys and the Chinese mestizo community thrived in Binondo.
Spanish Dominican priests soon set up Binondo Church in 1596, and went on to convert even more of its residents to Catholicism.
Binondo Church in 1902. Image: Jennifer Hallock / Pinterest
In the years that followed, Binondo became the first stop for Chinese immigrants who arrived in Manila in search of a new life.
Even after over 20,000 sangleys were killed during the Sangley Rebellion in 1603 – which, incidentally, also claimed the life of Dasmarias – Chinese merchants and tradesmen, mostly from the coastal province of Fujian in southeastern China, continued to flock there.
By the late 19th century, Binondo had become the main centre of business and finance of colonial Manila.
Escolta Street emerged as the city’s primary commercial district, housing insurance companies, commercial banks and department stores, as well as some of the city’s earliest skyscrapers, such as the Manila Stock Exchange.
Escolta Street in the 1960s. Image: Instagram @jovzbazaar
In its heyday, before World War II, Binondo was often referred to as the “Wall Street of the Philippines”.
After the war, many businesses and financial institutions began shifting south to the city of Makati, which eventually replaced Binondo as Manila’s central business district.
While Binondo is no longer the main financial hub, the district’s long legacy of trade lives on in the Filipino-Chinese businesses that continue to thrive there today.
Ongpin Street in Binondo. Image: Instagram @deybidluis
Locals and tourists alike flock to Divisoria to scour for bargains on goods ranging from trinkets and traditional herbs to clothing and jewellery.
Restaurants and food stalls on Ongpin Street and Carvajal Street offer Chinese-Filipino dishes like lumpia (spring rolls), hopia ube (a mooncake-like pastry with purple yam filling), pansit guisado (stir-fried rice noodles) and siopao (steamed buns).
The streets of Binondo are particularly alive in the days leading up to Chinese New Year, as the community prepares for the celebration.
Shanghai Fried Siopao on Ongpin Street (left) and New Po Heng Lumpia House (right). Image: Instagram @friendswithbacon and @eatboydotcom
Despite centuries of colonial influence and modern developments, the residents of Binondo have never forgotten their roots and the traditions brought over by their ancestors.
Hokkien (or Fookienese, as it’s known locally) is still spoken here, while incense sticks are burnt in front of church altars, a sight unique to Manila’s Chinatown.
Binondo Church (left) and the Santo Cristo de Longos shrine (right). Image: Instagram @jcyjames and @leicatweeter
Even with modern shopping malls and high-rise condominiums popping up in recent years, most of Binondo’s historical structures and shophouses still reflect their origins.
With guided tours showcasing the best of Binondo’s food as well as cultural and historical sights gaining popularity over the last few years, it seems the district’s distinct old world charm will prevail for years to come.