The Alley, a new restaurant near Chiang Kai Shek College where most of the customers are students from the area. Photograph by Jilson Tiu
Culture Spotlight

Binondo by Night: is this the new face of "the world’s oldest Chinatown"?

While we weren't looking, the landscape of Binondo has transformed—and at no other time is this change more visible than at night. Photographer Jilson Tiu takes us to a neighborhood no longer as familiar.
ANC-X Staff | Jan 14 2019

This photo essay comes less than two months after President Xi Jinping's state visit to the Philippines--an event that further strengthened the alliance between the country and China. It was a visit that yielded more than a hundred deals and projects. In a joint press conference, President Xi Jinping said he and President Duterte agreed to elevate their relationship to one of  “complete strategic cooperation.” He said this vision would send a strong message to the world that the Philippines and China are “partners seeking common development.”

New LED construction signs seen in the district.

This alliance has spawned complicated reactions in the country, with people like Senator Joel Villanueva remarking on the high visibility of foreign workers in malls and in business centers. He claims that this new wave of migrant workers is responsible for taking away the jobs and livelihoods of Filipinos. Meanwhile, another camp thinks an influx of Chinese workers will boost the local food and real estate industries. But between the West Philippine Sea issue, and the recent naming of Udenna-China as the country’s provisional third telco, as well as multi-million dollar surveillance system deals with a Chinese firm in the works,  what else are we willing to lose, and what do we really stand to gain with this alliance?

Just one of the new restaurants in Chinatown.

We commissioned these photographs originally to accompany another story but as we waited for a counterpoint to the feature we had on hand, we were convinced the collection of pictures we got is a narrative on its own, possessed with the kind of honesty and immediacy that make stories newsworthy. 

The new neon signs are changing the color of Binondo evenings.

In this series of photographs, Jilson Tiu, the young photojournalist, gives us a tour that can only be described as Binondo Noir. He takes us with him as he wanders through the streets of Binondo—or what some call "the oldest Chinatown in the world."

Tiu spent his Sundays here—often having breakfast with his grandparents in Masuki, and carrying his grandmother’s shopping bags for her. “The land where you grow up has a significant impact on what you will become,” says the 27-year old freelancer. He notes the new LED construction signs done in Chinese, the new high-rises everywhere in the area, Chinese mainlanders opening businesses. Things have changed in Binondo, says Tiu, and some of the pre-war buildings are being torn down. 

For Ivan Man Dy who is famous for his walking tours of Binondo, however, having new immigrants is nothing new in the district. "It's a cycle that has been ongoing for the last centuries—but its only now that it's maybe getting politicized." But even Dy says there are changes that happened, "between the Tsinoys and the new immigrant dynamics of Binondo."

Such as? we ask.

"New restos opened by new immigrants," says Dy who is also an advocate of heritage conservation. "I find them a welcome addition to the culinary landscape." 

Click on the image below for slideshow

New high rises have sprouted everywhere.

One of many food establishments in the area.

Benavidez Street where new and old Chinese establishments exist among each other. 

Local stores and vendors in Ongpin Street. 

A new Chinese salon. 

An alleyway convenience store in Chinatown. 

Juan Luna Street, a haven of cheap merchandise by day. 

Another convenience store in the area.

Metropolitan Chinese Hospital seen from the lighted area at night. 

The 39-floor Mandarin Square, considered a landmark in modern day Chinatown. 

A new "beauty and wellness" establishment. 

The First Hotel in Ongpin Street. 


But while that may be a good thing, new massive development money is changing the landscape, says Dy, "and threatening the heritage fabric of the place. So it's a double edged sword."

These are no doubt hinted at in Tiu's photos.

Known for his street scenes that neither romanticize the Filipino condition nor denigrate it to the kind of poverty porn expected of us by the international market, Tiu has always lovingly portrayed his city and the Filipino way of life. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Camus writes, as one must imagine the Filipino happy, no matter what his circumstances are. In Tiu’s pictures, amid wild swathes of neon light, we see a Binondo hurtling towards the kind of progress consistent with the current administration’s aims. His ambient, moody images capture a new Binondo—one that might reflect our future.


Photographs by Jilson Tiu


You may also be interested in: