The district of Binondo is known to many as Manila’s Chinatown. Locals flock there to savor authentic Chinese cuisine, look for Chinese goods, and buy supplies and materials at bargain prices. With its share of noodle and dimsum houses, Chinese pharmacies, and battery of commercial banks, Binondo is a self-sufficient quarter and is testimony to the unique Filipino-Chinese culture in the Philippines.
Binondo unfolds through narrow roads, introducing generations of Chinese entrepreneurs and commercial establishments, unraveling an ongoing history where both tradition and modernity, heritage and commerce, exist side by side.
Off the northern walls of Intramuros and across the Pasig River, the predominantly Chinese quarter of Binondo is an island surrounded by an estuary. A borough where the mix of East and West vibrates, Binondo has controlled the economic growth of the Philippines since the Spanish colonial era. The story of Binondo revolves not just around its roads and edifices, but around the Chinese for whom the small hilly island of Binundok (meaning “hilly place”) was appropriated.
Philippine contact with the Chinese has existed as early as the Tang Dynasty (618–807 AD) until the Ming period (1368–1644). Parts of the archipelago, including Manila, were visited by Chinese merchants, since the ports were part of the Chinese junk trade in Southeast Asia.
The Sangleys, as the Spanish colonial authorities called the Chinese, did extremely well in all trades and crafts. Spanish officials relied heavily on Chinese labor to sustain their everyday life. Sangleys who settled in the Philippines went into different occupations. They were artists, porters, fishermen, bakers, shoemakers, and masons. They were providers of food, retailers, and artisans who readily engaged in a host of professions, and charged cheaply for their services.
Yet, the Chinese were despised by the colonizers. Their increasing number in the colony caused fear among the Spaniards. The Chinese were viewed as a being potentially dangerous, a threat to the security of the Spaniards.
To more easily administer the Sangley population, Spanish authorities herded the Chinese into a ghetto where the Sangleys could reside, trade, and provide services. Established within the walled city of Manila (now known as Intramuros), the Parian de los Sangleyes eventually grew to be the main commercial center and downtown of the Spaniards, mestizos (natives with Chinese parentage), and natives. The Parian, to which today’s Binondo traces its roots, was a market where activity hummed and business thrived.
By the 17th century, the Sangleys in the Parian frequently revolted against the harsh treatment of the Spaniards. Chinese uprisings and the succeeding massacres of the Sangleys often led to the destruction of Manila’s commercial area. These events led the colonial government to transfer the Parian and expel its residents outside the city walls—far enough for military protection, but within range of Fort Santiago’s cannons and near enough for economic convenience.
The area of Binundok in the opposite bank of the Pasig River was especially appropriated for the Sangleys. The land was given to the Chinese—many of whom had already converted into Christianity and married native women—in perpuity. Self-governing privileges were granted to mitigate the damages caused by their expulsion.
The formation of Binondo was not just motivated by the Spaniards’ love-hate relationship with the
Chinese over the centuries. It was partly motivated by the preference of the Sangleys to live in a Chinese neighborhood, to socialize with fellow Chinese, and to feel safe and secure in their own enclave. This form of segregation from larger Filipino society can be seen in contemporary groups such as the Japanese and Koreans.
The Parian was transferred nine times to sites the government deemed appropriate for security before its final dissolution in the 18th century. When the Parian was dissolved, its residents were allowed to disperse and mingle with the natives in the different districts of Manila. Many established themselves in Binondo, which was already the center of Christian Chinese and mestizo activities.
During the 19th century, when the commercial center of Binondo was in its prime, indio (native) settlements crept into the area exclusive to Chinese Catholics. Soon, Binondo grew into a motley community of sangleys, foreigners, mestizos, and indios, very much similar to what it is today.
Binondo is a special part of Manila that continues to nurture the country’s Filipino-Chinese community. Few districts in Manila can compete with its Chinese origins, economic importance, and rich history. The neighborhood is the first business hub in the country, the original financial district.
To celebrate the timeless heritage of Binondo, the Yuchengco Museum illustrates the history and culture of the borough in an exhibit titled “Binondo: Pride of Place.” On view until May 10, the exhibit juxtaposes both old and new memories of Manila’s Chinese quarter.
Antique photographs, prints, and maps from the Lopez Memorial Museum and Library provide a glimpse of Binondo’s historic past, while young curators from the University of the Philippines, Manila share their insights into today’s Binondo, using essays, photographs, and videos.
With the ravages of World War II, the integration of Filipino-Chinese into mainstream society, the destruction of colonial-era structures for more modern infrastructure, and the lack of appreciation of Manila’s cultural heritage, however, Binondo gradually morphed into an area ridden with both wealth and squalor.
The exhibit at the Yuchengco Museum highlights the need to preserve Binondo’s old structures from the Spanish and American colonial past. The exhibit hopes to bring viewers to experience a sense of pride, responsibility, and reconnection to a place that continues to create history daily.
print ed: 05/08