Manila’s Chinatown is called Binondo – derived from the Tagalog word binondoc, which means ‘mountainous’ as it’s set on a hilly landscape. Founded by Spanish Governor Luis Perez Dasmarinas in 1594, the site was originally meant for Chinese immigrants who converted to Catholicism, making it the world’s oldest Chinatown district.
The location attracted many newcomers, which is why the district now contains more than just Sangleys (people with pure Chinese ancestry). Spaniards, Americans and Japanese are now also common in the local community. The historical churches and temples are the star attractions of the area, with the shopping opportunities and Chinese restaurants close behind.
One of the must-visit sites in Chinatown is Binondo Church, an ancient Catholic place of worship. This church is also known as Quiapo Church or the Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz, dedicated to the first Filipino saint.
However, Christianity is not the only religion represented here, in fact there are also 2 famous Buddhist temples: the Seng Guan Temple and the Kuang Kong Temple. Seng Guan Temple is usually packed with people burning incense and offering fruits and food, but Kuang Kong Temple is the most popular as people go there to have a little glimpse of their fortune or to obtain simple answers to their questions.
The ritual is easy: quietly formulate questions that can only be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no', take 2 moon-shaped wooden discs and let them drop on the floor. If the 2 halves face each other, wishes and requests can be granted. If they face away from each other, it’s a ‘no’, but you can pray again and repeat the ritual.
Hiring a calesa (horse-drawn carriage) is one of the best ways to explore the beauty and charm of Binondo. Be sure to get the driver to pass under the Filipino-Chinese Friendship Arch by the William A. Jones Memorial Bridge. A complex and colourful structure, it solidifies a special relationship and serves a bold reminder of the history between the 2 communities.
Binondo is considered the centre of commerce, finance and trade for all types of businesses. As such, the Manila Chinatown experience is not complete without visiting Escolta Street. The street is the shopping hotspot of Manila, where many luxurious brands were once showcased in the old art-style buildings. It remains famous for its gold and jewellery stores, as does Ongpin Street.
The Divisoria shopping mall on Commercio Street is a landmark in the area and is a hub where suppliers, consumers and bargain hunters get to exchange goods.
Escolta and Ongpin streets are also stars of the local dining scene, and especially for great Chinese cuisine. If you want an adventure into exotic food such freshwater turtles, Peking duck, century eggs and other food that’s normally hard to find, restaurants and food stands in the area are always open to serve you.
- Location: Binondo, Manila, 1006 Metro Manila, Philippines