Intramuros and Binondo: A Tale of Two Districts

More than a month ago we revisited the walled district of Intramuros in Manila with friends. On the way there we passed by Binondo, Manila’s famed Chinatown, for lunch. It had been a while since we last visited this bustling district of offices, restaurants, food stalls, groceries and herbal stores. Our latest foray into Intramuros and Binondo stimulated Leo’s interest about the history of both districts.

Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz and Binondo Church, Manila
Binondo Church (officially the Minor Basilica and National Shrine of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz) in the background as seen from Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz in Binondo, Manila.

Binondo, said to be the world’s oldest Chinatown, was established by Spanish colonizers in 1594, and is situated across the Pasig River from the walled city of Intramuros. Trade between Chinese and Filipinos was already flourishing even before the Spanish came and there were a number of Chinese migrants in Luzon.

Bridge of Binondoc in Manila, early 1800s
Bridge of Binondoc in Manila, early 1800s. Original caption: Pont de Binondoc à Manille. From Aventures d’un Gentilhomme Breton aux iles Philippines by Paul de la Gironiere, published in 1855. Courtesy of Henri Valentin, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The first Spanish colony in the country was established on the island of Cebu in the Visayas in 1565. Led by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, the Spanish further explored northwards towards Luzon and were eventually attracted to Manila because of its strategic location, resources and the presence of a thriving trade between the natives and the Chinese. Misunderstandings with the natives led to war in which the natives were eventually overwhelmed and a new city built in place of the old pre-Hispanic settlement of Maynila along the shores of Manila Bay. Manila was declared the new capital of the Spanish colony in 1571.

Casa Manila in Intramuros
Casa Manila, a recreation of a Spanish colonial-era house inside Intramuros, Manila

Manila was often in danger from foreign invasion. In 1574, Chinese pirates under Limahong attacked the city, destroying parts of it before they were defeated and driven away. These threats led to the building of fortifications that enclosed the city, thus the birth of Intramuros which in Latin literally translates “inside the wall.” Intramuros was strictly for the Spanish and the mestizos – those of mixed ancestry from Spanish and indigenous Filipinos. The vast majority of the natives and the Chinese migrants were kept out. For a long time Manila was just Intramuros, the walled city.

patio at Casa Manila
The patio at Casa Manila

The Spanish were particularly suspicious about the Chinese – Limahong’s incursion certainly didn’t help – and kept them in a ghetto-like area known as Parian de Arroceros (now present-day Arroceros Forest Park and Plaza Lawton) just outside Intramuros. The Spanish wanted to keep them out but not totally out; they understood the economic importance of the Chinese. Life in the Parian was harsh for these Sangleys (as the Spanish called them) and was often exacerbated by extortionary taxes and rampant abuse from Spanish officials.

Spanish artillery at Intramuros, 1902
Spanish artillery at Intramuros. In the 17th century, the Spanish kept Binondo well within range of their heavy guns in the walled city. Photo by US military personnel, 1902. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1594, Governor-General Luis Perez Dasmariñas encouraged assimilation of the Chinese by moving Sangleys in the Parian who converted to Catholicism and those who intermarried with Filipinos (Chinese mestizos) into an area across the Pasig River from Intramuros called Binondo.

19th century Chinese mestizos
Left: Chinese mestizos, 1841. Watercolor by Justiniano Asuncion, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Portrait of a Chinese-Filipina, 1875. Photo courtesy of Francisco Van Camp Fotografía, Museo Oriental, Real Colegio P.P Agustinos, Valladolid, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Life in Binondo was much better than at the Parian with no taxes and a certain level of autonomy. Spanish suspicions remained however and this probably explains why Binondo was well within artillery range from Intramuros. Those Chinese who did not convert to Catholicism remained at the Parian. The Parian was eventually destroyed in the aftermath of the Chinese revolt of 1603.

the Jones Bridge at night
The Jones Bridge spans the Pasig River into Binondo (in the background) from Plaza Lawton, the site of the old Parian

Over the years the Chinese mestizo population in Binondo grew rapidly. Trade and economics shaped the life of the district and many of its inhabitants became wealthy. By the 19th century Binondo had emerged as Manila’s center of business and finance. Escolta Street became the city’s main commercial hub well into the American colonial period, housing insurance companies, major banks and department stores.

Escolta Street in 1899
The Escolta – The Broadway of Manila in 1899. Photo courtesy of Alden March, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, Intramuros continued to be the center of Spanish rule over the colony. Manila’s major churches, universities, government offices, hospitals and military barracks were housed within its walls. But changes were forthcoming.

Plaza Roma and the Manila Cathedral
Manila’s main square during Spanish colonial times was the Plaza Mayor, now the Plaza Roma in front of the Ayuntamiento (formerly the Manila City Hall) and the Manila Cathedral

During the American colonial period beginning 1898, the coastline along Manila Bay moved westward with land reclamation and construction of the Manila South Port. The moat surrounding Intramuros’ walls was drained, filled in and turned into a golf course. Some of the universities established in the 16th to 18th centuries moved out of Intramuros while others closed down with only 2 remaining inside (although a few would be added in later years). The residence of the governor general had already relocated to Malacañang Palace, 3 kilometers upstream along the Pasig River in the 1860s. Other government offices would follow in the next century including the Manila City Hall. Intramuros slowly began to lose its political significance.

view of the eastern side of Intramuros
View of the eastern side of Intramuros showing the wall (center) and part of the golf course that used to be a moat. Manila Bay is in the distant right background.

American colonial rule did not affect Binondo’s financial and commercial status, however. Escolta Street became the center of a banking and financial community, housing many banks that have since become major players in the country’s economy as well as financial institutions from the U.K. and America. The first skyscrapers in Manila were constructed in Escolta in the 1920s and 1930s; some are still there to this day.

Calle Rosario, Binondo, in 1915
Calle Rosario, Binondo, now Quentin Parades St., in 1915. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History National Anthropological Archives @ John Tewell, via Wikimedia Commons.

World War 2 and other developments afterwards brought sweeping changes to both districts. Intramuros was practically leveled during the Battle of Manila with only one building – the San Agustin Church – surviving. Most of the other churches were rebuilt elsewhere or were never reconstructed. Many businesses, including the major banking institutions in Binondo relocated to Makati beginning in the early 1960s, eventually transforming that city into the country’s financial center.

San Agustin Church in Intramuros
The San Agustin Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has survived fire, earthquakes and wars

Binondo, however retained its place as Manila’s center of commerce and trade. Because of that it has one of the highest land values nationwide. Naturally, it’s also famous for Chinese-Filipino cuisine as well as a multitude of other products. Although we’ve often dined at Binondo in the past (Nina actually worked there for a time) we’ve only been back probably 3 times in the last 13 years. Heavy traffic and the difficulty of finding parking often discouraged us from visiting.

Eng Bi Teen Store, Ongpin Street, Binondo
Eng Bi Teen Store at Ongpin Street, Binondo

Covid19 changed that however. While it was still a bit difficult to find parking it wasn’t as bad as in pre-Covid days. One of the places to visit for food in Binondo is Carvajal Street – actually more like an alley – which offers some of the best street food in the district. Jumbo lumpia (spring rolls), hopia (mooncake-like pastries with a variety of fillings), pansit guisado (stir-fried noodles) and siopao (steamed, sometimes fried, buns) may be found in the various stalls and snack houses here. Delicacies like black chicken and sea cucumber are also sold.

dishes at Quik Snack, Carvajal St.
Definitely not a quick dine-in at Quik Snack. Top Left: Fried tofu with sambal; Top right: Fried oyster rolls; Bottom left: Radish cake: Bottom right: Stir fried noodles with seafood and veges.

We had lunch at Quik Snack, an establishment that has been around and still going strong since 1967. Despite the pandemic, it was full of customers although the restaurant dutifully maintained protocol and used disposable eating utensils for added safety. We ordered fresh lumpia, fried tofu with Indonesian-style sambal, radish cake, stir-fried noodles, kikiam (a sausage-like roll called ngo hiang in Chinese), oyster rolls and machang (sticky rice dumplings). We enjoyed every single dish but realized it was too much for 4 people and ended up taking the leftovers home. Incidentally the Chinese food in Biniondo (and in the rest of the country for that matter) is Hokkien in origin as most of the migrant Filipino Chinese are from the Hokkien region of Fujian province in China.

Chandeliers and art work at the Café Mezzanine, Eng Bi Teen store
Chandeliers and art work at the Café Mezzanine, Eng Bi Teen store

Afterwards it was on to Ongpin Street, another go-to place for food and a host of delicacies, herbal products and groceries. Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli (famous for their hopia pastries) was our choice for take-home goodies. Eng Bee Tin also has a fast food restaurant besides its main building but in recent years it opened the Café Mezzanine on its second floor. There’s also a museum here but it was closed due to Covid.

We don’t usually do food tours but the sheer number of dining places in Binondo makes it very tempting to go back and do one. Unfortunately this second, deadlier wave of Covid infections continues to make us wait. Until then it’s back to home deliveries in place of dining out.


Sources:

Justin Umali, How Binondo Became the World’s Oldest Chinatown, EsquireMag.ph.
Intramuros, Wikipedia.
Samantha Khor, The History Behind the World’s Oldest Chinatown in Manila, AirAsia.
Binondo, Wikipedia.
Chinese Filipino, Wikipedia.

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