Manila Chinatown rides out coronavirus fallout with grit

Jessica Fenol, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 14 2020 06:39 AM | Updated as of Feb 14 2020 08:40 AM

Buyers and sellers in Binondo wear masks to protect themselves from the COVID-19. Businesses run as usual despite lower foot traffic and decline in sales. Jessica Fenol, ABS-CBN News

MANILA -- In one the world's oldest Chinatowns, calesa (carriage) driver Gerry Sebastian now depends on locals to earn at least half of his daily wage before the coronavirus outbreak in China slowed the flow of tourists from the mainland.

His build too frail to work in construction, Sebastian and his horse, Moro, roam Chinatown in Manila's Binondo district looking for passengers to earn at least P500 from 5 trips. Before the COVID-19 scare, he can can earn up to P1,000 per day.

"Palagay ko mga kalahati ang nawala sa akin. Minsan madalang pero hindi pwedeng wala," Sebastian told ABS-CBN News.

(I think I lost almost half of my earnings. Sometimes customers are very rare, but it can't be zero.)

Kalesa driver Gerry Sebastian about to give a regular Chinese customer a ride home. ABS-CBN News

The Philippines is among countries that temporarily banned inbound travelers from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, a source of customers for Chinatown workers like Sebastian.

The coronavirus, first detected in Wuhan, Central China, has claimed some 1,300 lives, mostly in the mainland. In the Philippines, there are 3 confirmed cases so far, including 1 death, all from the city of Wuhan.

The tourism industry lost about P14.8 billion in February alone due to worries over the virus, Tourism Undersecretary Arturo Boncato Jr. told a Senate panel.

Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Benjamin Diokno earlier said the virus could be a "downside risk" to inflation as it could slow tourist arrivals from China. He said it could shave 0.3 point of economic growth in the first half.

The Philippines, however, is poised for a softer hit compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors since tourism accounts for just 3 percent of the economy, said Sagarika Chandra, associate director of sovereigns team at Fitch Ratings.


Charms seller Claire pushes her luck every time a customer buys bracelets from her roadside stall. She suggests that they buy other items instead of getting a cash change.

Foot traffic during the Lunar New Year earlier in February was visibly fewer said Claire, who refused to reveal her real name. She said she had become more stingy when giving discounts.

"Malakas talaga dapat pag Chinese New Year, walang ihian, walang kainan. Noong nakaraan mas lamang ang upo,” the Filipino-Chinese businesswoman said.

(Business is supposed to be good during Chinese New Year. You won’t have time to pee or to eat. This year, we were just seated most of the time)

Claire's staff has a lot of time to arrange items as very few customers drop by on a supposedly busy season in Chinatown. Jessica Fenol, ABS-CBN News

Cebu Pacific, Philippines Airlines and AirAsia suspended China flights to prevent the virus from spreading. Outside the country, international conferences and meetings were canceled.

Travel curbs negatively affected hotels, aviation, cruise, retail, tourism and trade globally, said Wilson Lee Flores, chairman of the Anvil Business Club composed of young Chinese Filipino businessmen.

Despite the current slowdown, "nimble" Chinatown entrepreneurs are poised to bounce back, Flores told ABS-CBN News.

"Binondo shall endure and thrive, even in crisis, due to its vibrant, unadulterated, gutsy entrepreneurial ethos and culture," Flores said.

Tikoy (sticky rice cake) vendor Julie De Goma sold 800 boxes this Lunar New Year compared to the usual 2,000, cutting her total sales to P30,000 from P80,000.

Julie De Goma brings her youngest to Binondo everyday so she can sell tikoy and breastfeed at the same time. Sales were cut by more than half after the coronavirus outbreak in China. Jessica Fenol, ABS-CBN News

"Napansin ko dito 'yung mga tao parang ayaw na magsilabas, mula nung bago lang. Samantalang dati, anong oras na marami pang tao, ngayong nakaraan maaga pa wala nang tao,” the 41-year old mother of 4 told ABS-CBN News.

(I noticed people don't want to go out, especially when reports about the virus came out. Before, the crowd lingers until late at night. Today, the crowd disperses early)

Crystals on display in a store in Binondo. Filipino-Chinese and Filipinos flock Chinatown during the Chinese New Year to buy lucky charms and crystals for good luck. ABS-CBN News

Claire, the charms seller, said she wouldn't let slow sales discourage her.

"Hindi ako magpapaapekto. Laban lang. Magpapa-apekto ba ako, araw araw ka kumakain?," Claire said.

(I won't let it affect me. Just fight. How can I let it affect me when I need to eat everyday?)