A recent lengthy chat in social media with old timers in Binondo revealed the many changes that have happened to the Binondo of my childhood. Binondo is where Chinatown is located. It is a Chinatown that was not created by outside forces but a Chinatown that became what it is because of lives lived, cultures negotiated and transformed, and traditions preserved and discarded. In Chinatown resides a community in flux, constantly adjusting, constantly changing, continuously transforming. And the outcome is one that is uniquely the country’s own.
What struck me most during the conversations over what has become of Chinatown is the recognition that integration has happened among the young generations who were locally born, bred, and educated. Filipino is often the language they are comfortable with and what they use most at home.
The early immigrants who were born in China and migrated to an alien, often inhospitable climate, had to band together to converse and savor familiar things they were comfortable with. In contrast, the young generation of Tsinoys comfortably identifies with the Philippines and Filipinos and the Chinatown they reside in has been a permeable environment influenced and transformed by the majority in mainstream society.
The metamorphosis happened slowly. For a long while, in the late 1980s to early 2000 especially, the Chinatown gave way to a Tsinoytown, a showcase of the unique blending of the Tsinoy and the Pinoy. But the last two decades brought changes in the population that seem to bring back the Chinatown of yore. But it is an environment that no longer caters to the old timers in Binondo; it caters instead to the new faces and lifestyles of new immigrants.
The marriage of two cultures
Hankering for the food and taste of old, of course, was the most talked about topic in our recent conversations. The old timers reminisced and named one by one the panciterias of yore – Hong Lay Kee, Tham To Ki, Sin Jin Yak, Tan Kiaw, Panciteria Moderna. Apparently, only Chuan Kee in Ongpin cor. Nueva, Chui Guat Lao (Ilang-Ilang) and Lo Wan (Shantung restaurant that moved elsewhere) are still thriving. They hunger for these old panciterias that served authentic southern style sate noodles, humba, hot and sour soup, lomi, lobijon, chami, done just the way they’re done in their home villages.
Initially, the Chinatown transformed to become Tsinoytown. Panciterias gave way to fast food chains like McDonalds and Jollibee. The siopao and siomai of old have given way to burgers, chiffon and refrigerator cakes. The mami and bihon have given way to palabok and spaghetti. The familiar e-meng (Xiamen) lumpia became indigenized and filipinized into lumpiang shanghai, lumpiang ubod, lumpiang toge. The old favorite staple Chinese hopia (literally translates to good pastry) became indigenized and transformed using not just the familiar mongo (mung beans) but also other native ingredients like ube (purple yam), kundol (winter melon), piña (pineapple) and other native combinations.
While old shopkeepers use their familiar abacus and speak only Chinese mixed with broken Tagalog, young Tsinoys use their high-tech calculators, mobile phones, and computers, and speak fluent Tagalog mixed with occasional broken Hokkien. By the late 1990s, the old Chinese movie houses and Chinese bookstores have gone. Instead of Chinese songs and movies, the sidewalk vendors offer CDs of the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Paul Anka and pirated Hollywood flicks. The singsong cadence of Chinese music has been replaced by OPM (original Pilipino music), with Freddie Aguilar’s “Anak” being the classic favorite.
By legislative fiat of the late Manila Mayor Antonio Villegas in 1970, which banned the presence of Chinese signs from all business establishments, including those in Binondo’s Chinatown, the pretty, colorful Chinese characters— some rendered in unique calligraphy carved on old hard wood—disappeared. When the ban was lifted during the term of the next mayor, Ramon Bagatsing (1973-1981), most of the businesses opted not to put up their Chinese signs up again, and the China flavor of the Chinatown dissipated even more.
New skyline, new facades
The last two decades have seen another metamorphosis that may yet become the permanent face of Binondo. With the changes in the residents, the structures and the lifestyles, came the changes in the look, smells and tastes of the Chinatown I’ve known since my childhood.
The influx of new immigrants from China also saw the sprouting of high-rise condominiums 40 storeys high, and then some. The skyline of Binondo has changed considerably with thin, tall buildings dominating the landscape.
The accessorias of old, wooden buildings with the ground floor used as storefront or warehouse are nearly completely gone. Replaced by cement and steel structures that seem to reach the sky.
After the restoration of democracy under President Corazon C. Aquino, the economy rebounded from the political and economic instability and uncertainties, especially during the last few years of Marcos rule. In 1988, I counted at least 30 new high-rise buildings, with an average height of 12 storeys. In the mid-90s, new buildings were 20 to 25 storeys high but by the mid-2000s, 30 to 40 storeys became the norm. The new immigrants from Mainland China and Hong Kong are used to small spaces back home and they do not find 40 to 50 square meters too limited a space at all. The units are being lapped up and paid for in cash.
Because of the horrendous traffic and the deteriorating state of peace and order, as well as the threat of kidnapping, many Tsinoy families who moved out to the suburbs started to move back to the Binondo-Chinatown area because their businesses are still in Binondo, and they find the travel back and forth from their residences to the offices inconvenient and time-consuming. Their factories may have moved to the suburbs but Binondo-Divisoria remains their distribution hub.
With limited old properties in the area left, the prices of available real estate in Binondo-Chinatown have risen even higher than properties in elite Makati. These new buildings have residential units in the upper floors and offices and commercial establishments in the lower floors.
Chinatown is back, but not quite
With the influx of new immigrants figuring in the hundreds of thousands, the face of Binondo has again changed, not just physically but culturally and socially. The new immigrants have started to bring back the old “Chinatown” ambiance, with new Chinese restaurants (featuring a range of cuisine from Southern to Northern fare), bookstores, music and curio shops, Chinese specialty stores and drugstores have also popped up to cater to them. McDonalds and Jollibee are joined by Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, Coffee Bean, Dunkin Donuts, and Hsin Tong Yong has now been added to Diao Eng Chay, a shop that sells Chinese food and delicacies.
The presence of new immigrants saw first the rise of Tutuban Mall and Divisoria Mall. It was joined a bit later by the famous 168 mall (168 literally translates to all the way to prosperity), which sold dry goods at rock bottom prices. It is frequented even by former first lady Imelda R. Marcos. A wedding entourage of 10 people can have wedding and entourage gowns made for less than 20,000. pesos. Filipiniana gowns that sell at P8,000 to P10,000 in Department Stores, can be bought at P1,500 to P3,000.
The 168 mall was soon joined by 999 and 11/88. Carpenters, electricians, and other workers enthuse at the affordable tools of their trade at these malls. Due to prohibitive costs, these workers used to rent such equipment when they had job contracts but they can now buy drills, hand saws, wattage testers and the like quite readily. The shops are dark, crowded and uncomfortable but who cares as long as prices are cheap. They were eventually joined by the more upscale Lucky Chinatown Mall, which is air-conditioned, well-lighted and spacious.
Likewise, there are now small shops that sell only Chinese products used in everyday life – dried preserved fruits, herbs, Chinese style instant noodles, tea and the like. My friends in Quezon City ask my help to buy lotus leaves (for wrapping chicken), red dates and black and white fungus (to declog arteries for blood circulation), lingzhi pills (reishi mushroom to boost immunity) si-but (four herbs for recuperating soup) and such products that are now easily available.
Mandarin (the official language of the north), instead of Hokkien (the southern dialect and lingua franca of the Tsinoy community) now rules the cacophony of sounds. Dialects from other provinces, hitherto never heard, are coming to the surface too in many of the shops.
When I asked the small shop owners, “With the phenomenal growth of China, why did you choose to come to the Philippines?” They said that opportunities still abound for small shopkeepers like them, especially with the big Philippine population. “It’s easy to make money here and Filipinos are very kind and tolerant,” they added. Their presence, especially those who have no legal status, is not without problems but this can be left for another piece another time.
A dynamic hub of cultures
While Chinese heritage and culture is the more dominant and visible influence around Binondo, the Chinatown in the Philippines is unique in the world. It is the crossroads where Filipino, Spanish, American and Chinese cultures meet, mix and blend, and end up transforming the landscape. It is not isolated to hear this conversation: “Ikaw kuy-tiam ba alis para alas dos meeting (What time do you want to leave for our two o’clock meeting)?” The young people (children of new immigrants) learn fast and can code switch from Tagalog to Hokkien to English and now to Mandarin.
Through historical to modern times, Chinatown has shown a plural mix of a multi-faceted, multi-functional, multi-dimensional existence in different periods and with different generations. It is a visible and tangible testament to the rich and complex history of the Philippines, where different cultures and different origins are constantly adjusting, adapting, and changing. It’s where traditions intersect, intertwine, and interact and transform into something uniquely the Philippines’ own.