There is a common misconception that Binondo and Ongpin are one and the same. Many use the names interchangeably to refer to the oldest Chinatown in the Philippines and the world, but Binondo is the official name of Manila’s Chinatown and Ongpin is merely one of the most famous streets. Nestled near the heart of Manila, Binondo thrives today despite the narrow streets and intense heat.
This Lunar New Year, The LaSallian took a trip to Binondo to experience firsthand the celebrations and traditions kept alive by members of the Chinese Filipino and Filipino community. Getting to Chinatown from Taft was easy—it was only a few stops away via train and a short walk, and there we were under the iconic arches that welcomed us into this historic place.
Glenielle, Binondo Church
As someone whose knowledge of Chinese culture ended at Mano Po 5 and lumpiang Shanghai, I went in with an eager mind and yet the firm belief that everything would feel foreign and unfamiliar. The sight of the Binondo church and the teeming throng inside, however, was something I know in my bones. This was familiar; the wooden pews, the opulence, the hushed whispers of the devout. But a pop of red altered the scenery: churchgoers clad in crimson, the scarlet Chinese lanterns, and characters proclaiming luck in golden lettering. Outside was sampaguita, crucifixes, and the unmistakable scent of Buddhist Incense. Then it struck me—to label Chinese culture as altogether foreign would be an injustice to the vitality of the curious blend of Filipino and Chinese culture that has made its home here.
Anakin, Happy Delicious Kitchen
I celebrate Chinese New Year like any other Filipino gathering—it is the food that sticks to my memory.
We had merienda in a small Chinese diner. Nicole—my Editor who happens to be Chinese—gave the entire group a small tour of the food. I wanted something other than dumplings so Nicole mentioned a tasty and refreshing dessert, but it was made of fungi.
The adventurer or the utter fool in me decided to try it out for myself. Imagine having leftover nilaga stacked in a small plastic plate in the fridge, but instead of meat there were small orange berries and the “lettuce” was a semi-translucent white instead of green. Nicole told me that the dish is named pe bokni, it was fungi served as a dessert. It tasted like water with a small hint of natural sweetness. At that moment, I was reminded that my Filipino tongue isn’t used to the lack of strong seasonings.
I finished it with sips from my co-staffers’ hot-and-sour soup and kiat-kiat, small and sweet Mandarin oranges. Though somewhat revolted upon finishing the bokni, I never felt a hint of dehydration during the entire trip. I came out of the diner realizing there’s more to taste and more to do in our country and its big little cities.
Glenielle, Yuchengco Street
The streets were packed, people moving in different directions and yet moving as one. Now and then, the brief flash of fire from the fire dancers caught us off guard. In the distance was the sound of the approaching lion dance. We are all under the spell of the festivities. We are enamored by this haze—of the allure of a crowd verging on wildness—the thrill of wandering. I think again of the vitality of the culture I saw in the muffled silence of Binondo church, and I saw it amplified in these streets. We are alive.
Sophia, Ongpin Street
I return to Binondo at least once a year, usually accompanying my relatives from America. It was always the same experience for me, but being here with my co-staffers instead of my immediate family made all the difference in the world.
As our group approached the sea of red and gold, I caught sight of President, the go-to restaurant of my family. Then I saw Salazar’s, which made me recall moments spent waiting for my titas to finish selecting their bread. I was acquainted with everything, but why did I feel the need to prove that I knew where I was? This street was familiar, but I’ve never felt more lost. I did not share the same attachment some of my Chinese co-staffers had to the place, I was merely a visitor in the area, even as a child. I couldn’t say I grew up here, but at the same time, I also did. At that moment, I felt so so displaced. I call my elder sister Achi (eldest sister), but I call my grandmother “mommy”. I have statues of Buddha at home, but only my grandfather prayed to him. I often get asked if I’m Chinese, but nowadays, I just say that I’m not. I shared the blood, I tried the culture, but what does it mean to be Chinese?
The staffers from the Menagerie and Photo section of our paper ended up forming two separate groups. The former watched a flaming performance, while the latter went around, immortalizing the moment. Both sections were soaking up the experience, thinking of ways to bring a piece of this memory to others.
After a tantalizing show, it was finally time to return.
“A good strategy is to pretend like you’re used to this place,” my editor Nicole said. Following her anti-theft advice, I looked straight ahead, weaving through the crowd like a dragon in the air. My co-staffers and I formed one line and held onto each other’s shoulders, hands, or bag straps. Forming our own lion dance, we made our way back to the entrance of Chinatown. The closer we got, the louder the beat of the drums from the actual lion dance grew. It was as if every single strike came from my chest, and for a moment, I felt at one with my surroundings. It was a short period of peace among the chaos.
I felt like I belonged, like I no longer had to pretend.
Then, as quickly as it came, the emotion was gone, and we were back at the beginning.
Living in Binondo can make one easily jaded this time of the year. Wading through a crowded Ongpin makes the Binondo native think, “Heck, I’ll just come here tomorrow.” But the occasional trip to the loud hub does bring pride to my chest—seeing the awestruck faces of my co-writers reminds me of the heritage I am lucky to be a part of.
Amidst the thrumming of the drums and the throng of performers snaking their way through the crowd, it doesn’t take a trained eye to discern tarps specially erected by politicians for greetings and giveaways, street vendors and Feng Shui shops selling pampaswerte trinkets that can only do so much for your luck—it’s just strange.
Maybe my enthusiasm for the festivities has long since flared out, but I will not deny the significance of the Lunar New Year to the Philippine community. Declaring it as a national holiday also reinforces the strong bond between the two cultures. Bringing people to my hometown is always fun and seeing them absorb the culture makes the experience even more worthwhile. Hopefully for my co-staffers, the image of Binondo is something they remember in their hearts.
Nicole, Binondo Forever
I’ve never been to Binondo during Chinese New Year. Most Chinese I know prefer avoiding the crowds that inevitably clog up the streets, Binondo is usually crowded enough—during the New Year, even more so. Fire dancers breathing fire across our paths, and it was in their breaths I saw how the spirit of Chinatown lights up for her visitors.
The celebration brought the streets alive in a way I’ve never seen before, but the most striking image would be the small children dancing the lion dance. They weren’t professionals by any means, their props and costumes nothing more than scraps found at the side. But they laughed and they smiled—looking for all the world like they enjoyed every minute of their dance. Though their “lion” had almost none of the traditional colors, the way everything seemed to gleam brighter as everyone came together in this serene and festive moment, well, it more than made up for it.
People crowded around to take photos. They don’t know it but they helped me re-appreciate the beauty of this small town, how it brings together people of all sorts to come and be a part of tradition—and maybe even make new traditions while they’re at it.
I missed Chinatown, it’s been so long but still, it feels like home.
It is a surprise for many to find out that a great number of those celebrating in Chinatown weren’t actually Chinese. But therein lies its charm, no matter who you are and where you came from—everyone is invited to dance to the beat of the drums.