My earliest memory of Chinatown in Manila is eating Sunday lunch there with my family when I was 10 years old. My father, who’s second-generation Chinese-Filipino from Iloilo province, had been craving fish-head soup. So we trekked to Binondo, aka Chinatown, from the Makati business district where we lived. We sat at a table outdoors next to a smelly canal while my parents enjoyed the broth. It was a dish that I, even as someone of Chinese heritage, considered exotic at the time, and this exoticism has remained the essence of Chinatown for me.
Philippine ties to China run deep into history. Before Spain claimed the Philippines as its colony in 1565, the Chinese and Filipinos (before that’s what we were even called) were already visiting each other’s shores to trade, as recorded as far back as the 10th century. In fact, Spain colonised the Philippines to cash in on trade with China without needing to build an outpost there. The Spanish trading ships – Manila Galleons – sustained the Philippine economy through trade that saw the outflow of mostly Chinese goods and the inflow of Mexican silver.
To say the Spaniards and the Chinese in the Philippines distrusted each other is putting it mildly. After the Chinese pirate Limahong and his men raided Spain’s three-year-old Manila settlement in 1574, the Spaniards built a Walled City known as Intramuros (‘within the walls’), which still stands today as a fortress next to Manila Bay. Outside the walls, across the Pasig River and within reach of their canons, the Spaniards in 1594 confined the Chinese community to the district of Binondo. This became the oldest Chinatown in the world.
On a recent visit to Binondo, I find that not much has changed since that Sunday lunch three decades ago. The smelly canal (actually an estuary) next to the row of eateries is still there. The art deco buildings along Quintin Paredes Street still look shabby but hint at the former stature of Chinatown as the bustling financial district during the American colonial era before World War Two. With its maze-like streets, gnarly electric wires dangling next to dusty lanterns and small, family-owned shops with names like Happiness, Chinatown feels like a world unto itself. On Ongpin Street, a young man sings along to a Chinese pop song blasting out of In-Time Supermarket and almost convinces me I’ve stepped into Hong Kong. On Benavidez Street, the turtle and bull-penis stewing in pots at True Herbal Chinese Eatery transport me back to the Chinatown of my childhood.
Despite its stand-still feeling, Binondo clearly has been evolving, too. The most obvious and literal signpost of this change is the new Chinatown arch rising at the bottom of Jones Bridge that links Intramuros to Binondo. Inaugurated in June 2015, the new arch stands a few metres in front of the original one of the 1970s, and is now the largest Chinatown arch in the world. Glistening like mahjong tiles, this tiered pagoda gate was sponsored by the city of Guangzhou, a dominant place of origin among Chinese in the Philippines.
In the ‘80s, my Chinese aunt visited Binondo every Wednesday to do her shopping in Divisoria Market, a wholesale emporium selling everything from kitchenware to fabrics. Today, my aunt wouldn’t recognise the shopping malls that have sprung up in its place. There’s 168 Mall for bargain hunters and the five-year-old Lucky Mall on Reina Regente Street. Like most upscale malls in Metro Manila, Lucky is connected to modern high-rise condominiums. But in keeping with the Chinatown vibe, it has a courtyard lit by red lanterns strewn among artificial shophouse facades.
It might not be long before I revisit Binondo via that upcoming billion-peso bridge from Intramuros that the Chinese government is funding. For now I’m happy to take the newly operating e-trike into the inner streets of Chinatown. Despite all the developments, I hope Binondo will stay a wonderland of hole-in-the-wall joints, at once familiar yet exotic – just as I remember it.
Fran Ng is a Manila-based children’s book author and artist
Cathay Pacific flies to Manila from Hong Kong 49 times a week