Many countries around the world have a Chinatown community. The Philippines has one of the oldest ones around. Manila Chinatown (founded in 1594), which is different from other such towns due to its unique and flavorful vibe. I got to experience this one fine day in March when I joined the Binondo Food Wok tour of Ivan Dy from Old Manila Walks.
The Binondo Chinatown was established during the Spanish era when the Spanish refused to let the Chinese live within the walled city of Intramuros (where the Ilustrado or elite society lived) due to suspicion of disloyalty. So they acquired a nearby patch of land which was then called Binondoc (meaning ‘mountainous’) and allowed the Chinese to live there. It was later called Binondo.
Binondo may not appeal to everyone. It is a noisy and busy (sometimes smelly) place with tight driving spaces, side by side stalls (some near canals), ‘hole in the wall’ establishments and many very old buildings full of warehouses where you can see simply clad Chinese owners (read: tsinelas and house clothes) and their helpers unloading crates of merchandise from trucks even along high traffic streets. Don’t be fooled – some of these Chinese folks are multi-millionaires!
There’s a chaotic, unorganized feel to it. And while it is overflowing with bargain shopping opportunities, there are even more abundant and affordable eating possibilities at every corner.
The 3.5 hour walking and food tasting tour starts out at the Binondo church, the most iconic structure in the area. Binondo’s main thoroughfares revolve around this church. The church was constructed in 1596, was damaged by fire during World War 2 then reconstructed over the years. It was also in this church where the hero of the Philippine revolution, Andres Bonifacio, got married and also where the Philippines’ first canonized saint, Lorenzo de Ruiz, started his church life as a sakristan (altar boy) before he went out into the world converting people to Catholicism (then was later executed for it). The church has been renamed to Minore Basilica San Lorenzo Ruiz.
This church has other interesting stories. It is said that a mute and deaf man working at the same church one day chanced upon the image of Santo Cristo de Longos (Crucified Christ) which was in a pail of water and he was miraculously able to hear and talk.
The church also houses a trophy-like icon that has painted on it the oldest and much venerated 16th century image of the Virgen del Pronto Soccoro, showing a Virgin Mary with Asian features holding baby Jesus.
Binondo was once the business district of the country until the war. Most businesses moved out to the other progressive cities afterwards and it is mostly traders that remain in the area. One of the stories about some traders included one where they would steal tombstones to balance their ships during travel and would leave them in Chinatown after completing their transactions. Some of the discarded tombstones are now part of the Binondo church’s flooring at the entrance.
Our first food stop was at the New Po-Heng Lumpia House where we tried what could arguably be the best lumpiang ubod (spring roll) I have ever tasted. This was at Quintin Paredes street which was named after a lawyer and former government commissioner and senator who made it easier for the Chinese to process their citizenship papers in the Philippines.
The second stop was Quik Snak restaurant at Carvajal Street where we tried the best empanada (called Kuchay Ah) accompanied by a delicious block of spicy tofu and spicy beef sate noodles. This restaurant had been around since the time of the war and features original recipes by its founder, Amah Pilar.
We then went to the Dong Bei Dumplings restaurant where we enjoyed sugar pancakes (similar to buchi but with nothing inside) which squirted some liquid sugar when bit into, plus some delicious steamed dumplings the place is known for. Surprisingly, the place is quite popular with residents despite being a ‘hole in the wall’ kind of establishment.
Binondo is known for ‘alternative’ medicine supplies. It is not unusual to see things like cobra bile in bottles, live iguanas and other kinds of animals tied to sidewalks (plus the occasionally fried and frozen variety), exotic ingredients like shark skin, and more. Ongpin has become so well-known for such supplies that when people say they are ‘going to Ongpin’ most Filipinos understand right away that the destination is Binondo. Ongpin street itself has an interesting story, being named after Don Roman Ongpin, a Chinese businessman who supported the uprising of the ‘Katipunero’ rebels against the Spanish (he funded the weapons) in 1896 and was later imprisoned for it.
We also tried a unique variation of siopao (pork bun)– a partially fried, partially crispy version instead of the usual steamed ones – with good, hearty fillings. This was at Shanghai Fried Siopao (Machang Bizhu Bizhu). It is a great deal coming in at only P18 per piece!
Binondo is has interesting stories of volunteerism, which include the story of Gerry Chua, the Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli owner who not only sells the famous ube-flavored hopia (a kind of mooncake) but who is also a volunteer fire fighter who gave violet-colored fire trucks (to match his ube products) to the fire fighting brigade. Eng Bee Tin was our last food stop, trying out the store’s various products. I was delighted to discover the custard-style ube hopia and ready-to-eat tikoy (a sticky rice delicacy popular during Chinese New Year) in a tasty banana flavour.
While walking, it was also interesting to see how Chinese and Catholic religions have merged in Binondo at the shrine located at the corner of Ongpin street where people burn incense sticks (a Chinese tradition) before a crucifix of Jesus Christ as part of daily prayers.
Because the tour, which cost P1,300 per head, was only 3.5 hours long we missed some of the other places to see. With that in mind, Binondo is definitely worth another visit!