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