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A lease on life

Back when I was still in senior high school, walking back home to San Nicolas was one of the highlights of my day. Having studied in a Chinese school in Tondo, I would wind past shops in 168 Mall, tiptoe over polluted gutters with funky smells, always with my bag held tightly in front of my chest. 

In college, I would come across friends who would be ecstatic to learn that I lived around the  Chinatown area. And I always meet this enthusiasm with a dubious hesitance—it’s not as great as you think. There was always the threat of someone snatching your phone or the unwarranted gaze of passersby…it would be naive for one to leisurely stroll in this area as you would in Taguig or Makati. 

But over the years I have grown to love this densely packed locale. As overcrowded as it is with residents, it is also overflowing with historical significance, playing an oft-forgotten role in the shaping of our revolution, our predilection to Catholicism, and the local Chinese-Filipino community.

But it is hard to love Chinatown right now. Beautification projects smooth over the ills of urbanization: sidewalks are getting narrower as street lanes are reduced to accommodate questionable decorative structures, yet heritage buildings remain dilapidated and forgotten, sometimes left to be ravaged by time, fires, or demolishing trucks. 

Like my friends, it is easy to romanticize this side of the Jones Bridge. The place is a multiethnic cultural melting pot that became a financial district and is now primarily a tourist destination most popularly known for its food. But to me, it represents a group of districts in an area that is being robbed of its lease on life.

In my district alone, San Nicolas (twin sister of Binondo) there are several cultural heritage markers that are collecting dust, sandwiched between banks, apartments, and leased spaces. A panciteria mentioned in Dr. Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo appears dilapidated and ignored, while other heritage jewels such as the Sunico Foundry—a 19th-century workshop that famously made bells for churches from across Luzon to Mindanao—are in danger of being demolished. 

Without participative action to protect these edifices, our spaces and stories are plunged deeper into oblivion, all of which make it so easy for our heritage to be diminished into commercial working and living spaces. 

Presently, advocacy groups have taken it upon themselves to petition for keeping heritage buildings afloat. But it is a tiresome fight when solely left to the hands of citizen advocates. Communities, especially local government units and city officials, have a special role to play in demanding and providing financial incentives to fund the upkeep of these historical structures.  

As the city of Manila celebrates its 450th founding anniversary, there is a collective responsibility for Manilenos to rediscover the hidden beauties of long ago. Escolta Street is thriving with hip, young creatives; the old Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking has been repurposed into a chic cafe. If anything, this proves that caring about heritage does not entail sacrificing progress.

Manileños deserve people-centered urban spaces where industry is married with sustainable living structures that can accommodate not just the movement of life and commerce, but of memory and national heritage. To rebuild these districts culturally is to uplift the lives of present inhabitants so that in the future there is a past to be remembered and celebrated.

Adorning cities with bridges, fancy streetlights, and pretty road signs are passing attempts to soothe the eyes, but to nurture a city’s inhabitants by placing top value on their past and their futures—these comfort the beauty-starved soul. 

By Sabrina Joyce Go

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