Located a cannon shot away from the old walled city of Intramuros, Binondo is where Buddhism is woven with Catholicism, tasty treats have been delivered for centuries by family-run restaurants, and where firecrackers and dragon dances inject life to festivals like Chinese New Year.
Binondo’s heydays as the former financial backbone of the Philippines might have left nothing but dirt and rubble, but the harmonious relationship between the Chinese and the Filipinos here is a continuing saga. The two have been exchanging goods, ideas and culture in Binondo and its surrounds long before the Spaniards came and actually founded Binondo, which is why Binondo is believed to be the oldest Chinatown in the world and probably the most assimilated Chinese neighborhood in Southeast Asia.
Landmarks and festivals
Because of its rich history and financial significance, Binondo is believed to have among the highest values of land in the country.
Built in 1596, Binondo Church is one of the oldest churches in the Philippines. It is located in Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz and is the home of the Santo Cristo de Longos or the Crucified Christ, believed to be miraculous. Philippine revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio married another national hero, Gregoria de Jesus, in the church. The church’s façade survived the air raid of Manila by the Americans during WWII. The church’s floor, whose stone bricks are engraved with Chinese characters, are tombstones of crypts from China.
Near the church is Chinatown, the Chinese enclave known for its many Chinese restaurants, groceries, noodle houses and herbal stores, especially along Ongpin Street. Along Carvajal Street, vendors sell fruits and Chinese delis such as sea cucumber and black chicken. In Arranque Market, fresh seafood can be found on sale along with exotic food like pigeons, snakes, frogs, and rabbits.
Yearly, Chinatown is at its most active during Chinese New Year (January/February), when locals perform dragon dances, light up firecrackers, and rush to Buddhist temples like Kuang Kong and Seng Guan Temple to burn incense, know their fortune, and offer fruits and food to Buddha. Chinese New Year culminates with Lantern Festival.
After Hungry Ghost Festival, the people celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is also called Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival because during which, locals eat moon cakes and offer round fruits to the moon goddess Chang’e and to the god of agriculture, Shen Nong. Eating a moon cake also symbolizes unity among the Chinese.
Prior to Makati, Binondo was the backbone of banking and finance, including businesses from the United States and Britain. Most of the banks are strung along Escolta, which is why Escolta then was called the “Wall Street” of the Philippines. Despite the bombing of Manila during WWII, many of Escolta’s original art deco buildings have survived.
Like other Chinatowns in the world, Binondo is famous for its diverse Chinese cuisine. Carvajal Street boasts of savory Chinese dishes, fresh fruits, and a row of Chinese restaurants and stalls selling foodstuffs like mami (noodle soup) and siopao (the Hokkien version of steamed buns or Baozi with meat filling). Among the restaurants that offer these are Wai Ying Fastfood in Benavides Street, Crepe De Chine in Juan Luna corner Dasmariñas Streets, Dong Bei Dumplings in Nueva Street, Savory Restaurant in Escolta, and Ying Ying Teahouse in Dasmariñas corner Yuchengco Streets.
The busy Ongpin Street, also called Estero (creek) for its location beside a canal that used to drain in the Pasig River, also has strings of eateries offering inexpensive Chinese delicacies like tikoy (sticky rice cakes), kiampong (flavored fried rice), siomai (tiny dim sum), machang (glutinous rice filled with meat)m and hakaw (a dim sum variant).
Among the customers’ favorite in Ongpin is Mr. Ube Rice and Noodle House, managed and owned by the same family behind Binondo’s famous Eng Bee Tin hopia (moon cake or filled pastry), whose main branch is right across the diner. The noodle house serves Asian dishes like Singaporean Laksa and Lechon Macau Rice Topping (deep-fried pork belly). A part of the restaurant’s income goes to Binondo’s fire department, whose iconic purple truck is parked beside the Binondo Church.
Another popular culinary haven in Ongpin is Royal Garden, which serves dim sum and exotic Chinese specialties like shark’s fin. The restaurant is always filled with Chinese speakers, making visitors feel like they are in China.
Apart from exotic food, exotic ingredients can be shopped anywhere in Binondo. In the traditional Chinese drugstore Apothecaries, medicines do not always come in capsules or tablets. The store specializes in selling dried snake, shark’s fin cartilage, ginseng, deer horn, bird’s nest, and animal testicles, among other curiosities, that are touted to cure illnesses. Brews, teas, and powders can also be bought from here.
For buying tableas or chocolate tablets being used to make hot chocolates during the Spanish era, there is La Ressurection. Talismans, good luck charms, and gold and silver jewelry can be spotted along chestnut and sugarcane vendors in Ongpin Street.
Binondo has only one hotel, Binondo Suites (Tel. No. +63 2 736-6501, email@example.com, fax: +63 2 7365783), a three-star standard business inn at the heart of Chinatown, specifically in 801 Ongpin and S. Padilla Streets. For more options, the nearest hotels are in Ermita.
Locals of Binondo speak Filipino, English, and Minnan or Hokkien (from Fujian province). Some, especially those who studies or studied in local Chinese schools, also speak Mandarin.
How to get there
Binondo is about a kilometer from Manila City hall and the National Museum. It is just behind Quiapo, across the Pasig River from Intramuros, and right beside Divisoria. There are many taxis in Manila that can get you to Binondo, although taxi drivers often dread going there because of the heavy traffic. By LRT, ride from Baclaran Station to Carriedo Station then start walking from there. You may also get off at Central Station, walk towards the Manila City Hall, and take a jeepney there bound for Divisoria. By water shuttle, the Pasig River Ferry stops at Escolta Station near the Jones Bridge.
Via jeepney, take the Divisoria route via Taft Avenue in Pasay City and ask the driver to drop you off near the Binondo Church. It is relatively safe to walk around Binondo on foot, but riding the calesa (horse-drawn carriage) might provide a different experience.
To get an information-laden, guided tour of the area, you may join the Carlos Celdran tour group (http://celdrantours.blogspot.com/).
Other helpful information
The best time to go there is early morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds and the heat, as well as to capture the area in a sunrise or sunset setting. Wear comfortable clothes and footwear. Bring sunglasses, a hat and an umbrella (especially if you are touring the area on a rainy season). Bring a lot of cash since many shops do not accept credit cards, but beware of pickpockets, thieves, snatchers and robbers.