Monday, October 27, 2014

Binondo: cornerstone of Filipino-Chinese friendship

FILIPINO AND CHINESE HISTORY fuse together at the district of Binondo in the City of Manila. Binondo is renowned as Manila’s Chinatown and is the oldest Chinatown in the world. It was founded in 1594 during Spain’s colonization of the Philippines.

Binondo, however, is neither the Philippines nor China.

A walk through Binondo's crowded and noisy streets; the conversations in Lan-nang mingled with Filipino and English words; Filipinos hawking Chinese charms and “Tsinoys” or Chinese Filipinos passionately discussing Philippine politics can leave a tourist confused as to the exact character of this place called Binondo.

Binondo looks Chinese. On second thought, it is Chinese. But it also looks more Filipino than Chinese. One sees more Filipinos on its streets than Chinese.

This "exotic differentness" is at the core of Binondo's enduring “otherworldly” charm. By not being really this or that, Binondo becomes whatever place a visitor decides it should be.

The Chinese Filipino Arch of Goodwill along Ronquillo St., the southern entrance to Binondo

For a tourist from Hong Kong, Binondo can become Kowloon. A Singaporean might feel transported back to Outram, site of the city-state's Chinatown.

A Mainlander will probably be reminded of Xiamen, Shenzhen or the coastal town where he grew up. A visitor from Taiwan will find virtually no difference between his native Hokkien and the Philippine Hokkien spoken in Binondo's streets, where it is called Lan-nang.

For this reason, Binondo is as familiar as home. But this isn’t exactly home. So, Binondo becomes an adventure to be explored.

And that's an important reason why thousands of tourists crowd its crowded streets every week. They want an adventure within an adventure in the Philippines’ most historic city.

This is Binondo.

A friendship across centuries
Binondo's location has ensured its status as a key player in Philippine history. In 1594, only 20 years after the Spaniards established Manila, the Spanish colonial government provided a parcel of land about a square kilometer in size outside the city’s walls and across the Pasig River to Chinese that had converted to Roman Catholicism.

This enclave was part of the mighty Kingdom of Tondo that was ruled by a Filipino “Lakan”or King. The Kingdom of Tondo began trading with the Ming Dynasty in China during the 1370s, some 150 years before the Spaniards invaded the Philippines in 1521.

Mention of the Kingdom of Tondo can be found in “The Ming Shi-lu Annals” that recorded the arrival of an envoy from Luzon to the Ming Dynasty. The annals state that Ming China considered Tondo’s rulers not as mere chieftains, but Kings.

Chinese goods were shipped to Tondo (dōngdū in Pinyin or Simplified Chinese), the most powerful kingdom in Luzon, from the port city of Fuzhou in Fujian Province. The Ming gave a monopoly over Philippine trade to Fuzhou, which it shared at times with the port city of Quanzhou, also in Fujian.

It was also during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that the first Chinese settlers came to the Philippines. The Chinese were well-received by the peoples in the various Philippine kingdoms. They lived together in harmony with Filipinos, eventually intermarrying with them.

The Catholic Chinese that relocated in 1594 north of the Walled City of Manila (eventually called “Intramuros” by the Spaniards) were, therefore, among friends.

The land given them was called “Binundok,” a Tagalog word meaning hilly terrain. At the time, Binundok was a one-and-a-half kilometer long wedge shaped islet surrounded by streams. The Spaniards corrupted the word “Binundok” and named the islet, “Isla de Binondo,” or the Isle of Binundok.

Apart from being given tax-free land, Catholic Chinese were also granted self-government by the Spanish conquerors.

Non-Catholic Chinese in Manila, however, enjoyed no such privileges. They were herded together outside Intramuros (or “Extramuros”) and packed into a ghetto called the “Parian” that was within easy range of the many cannon lining the city’s huge defensive walls.

Those cannon would be used to murderous effect by the Spaniards under Governor General Pedro Bravo de Acuña against the Chinese, both Catholic and non-Catholic, during the “Chinese Revolt of 1603.”

This revolt is bitterly referred to as the “Luzon Tragedy” (Lǚsòngcǎnàn) by ancient Chinese historians because of the massacre of some 20,000 Chinese by the Spaniards, the Japanese and a few subjugated Philippine tribes allied with them. The Chinese would again rise in revolt in 1639 and would again be silenced.

These revolts, however, would be the only instances on Philippine soil in which Filipinos and Chinese fought each other in their shared 700-year history.

The Second World War saw Chinese Filipinos battle alongside Filipinos from 1942 to 1945 to defeat a brutal common foe: the Imperial Japanese Empire.

Which brings us to the present day.

With their past anchored in tolerance and friendship, Filipinos and Chinese have maintained a beneficial symbiotic relationship to this day. One sees many examples of this symbiosis in Binondo.

The historic Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo Ruiz along Ongpin St

The business of Binondo is business
Many of the businesses in Binondo are owned by Chinese Filipinos but many of their employees are Filipinos.

One can see this dichotomy in the many shops along Ongpin Street, Binondo’s main road. In practically all of them, there are one or two Chinese or Chinese Filipinos (more likely the owners) surrounded by Filipino employees.

The 2007 census counted just 1.1 million Chinese Filipinos in a population of more than 85 million Filipinos. Binondo has a population of some 12,000 persons, most of whom are Filipinos and not Chinese Filipinos.

The influence of Chinese Filipinos on the national economy, however,has been enormous: from the start of the 20th century until the 1970s when the exodus to Makati City began in earnest, they made Binondo the Philippines’ de facto financial and business capital.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, Juan Luna Street was famous as the location of the headquarters of most large Philippine corporations.

The country’s most important banking and financial firms and institutions also made Binondo their base. Until the 1970s, most of the big foreign banks including HSBC, Standard Chartered and Bank of America had their head offices in Binondo.

Among the leading Filipino banks with headquarters in Binondo, or more specifically Escolta Street, were the Philippine National Bank and China Banking Corporation.

Binondo was also the site of the Manila Stock Exchange, the Philippines’ first stock exchange, from its founding in 1927 until 1992 when it merged with the Makati Stock Exchange to form the Philippine Stock Exchange with twin headquarters in Makati City and Pasig City.

It was also Binondo that gave birth to the department store as we know it today. Escolta Street became the most famous address in Manila, and perhaps the entire country until the 1970s because of the presence of “haute” shopping havens for the elite such as Aguinaldo’s Department Store, Berg’s, Syvels and Oceanic Commercial.

The lack of land, however, killed Binondo’s future as the center of Philippine business and finance.

Makati, a neglected small town to the southeast of Binondo infamous for its seedy nightlife, began replacing Binondo in this role in the 1960s thanks largely to real estate developers (many of whom were Chinese Filipinos) with an abundance of cheap Makati land in their portfolios.

What Binondo was left with after the business diaspora to Makati was some of the priciest real estate in the Philippines. Ironically, this was another factor that made business firms flee to other cities and towns in Metro Manila.

Too many people at Juan Luna St. in Binondo

Tourism, nationalism and religion
Binondo today remains a center for business—but mostly those classified as SMEs or small to medium enterprises. These are the businesses one sees aplenty along Binondo’s many crowded streets and alleys.

Binondo’s close proximity to the Port of Manila, the Philippines’ largest, is fueling the growth of Binondo’s SMEs by allowing them to sell an inexhaustible array of imported goods (mostly from China) at cheap prices.

The Big Boys, however, have fled to Ayala Avenue, Bonifacio Global City, Eastwood City and Ortigas Avenue.

Along with an overabundance of SMEs, which are your basic “mom and pop stores,” what strikes one about Binondo is a deep nostalgia for a glory that fled this district a scant five decades ago.

That nostalgia, however, has been translated by Chinese Filipinos and other imaginative Filipinos into a thriving tourist industry. Binondo has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Manila, especially among overseas Chinese, of course.

Tourists have become a growing source of business revenues in Binondo. Today, Binondo is famous for its tourism offerings that include bargain shopping; exotic “Binondo cuisine;”places and Chinese Filipinos linked to the Philippine Revolution of 1896; religious sites and historic buildings that harken to its past greatness.

“Food tourism” is now a staple of a growing number of tourism packages in Binondo. The presence of dozens of mom and pop Chinese restaurants concocting hundreds of dishes and variations on these dishes has created a lively and popular tourism sector called “Food Tourism.”

Adventurous “foodies” (or gastronomes, in more formal conversation) take a group of fellow foodies or tourists on a walking tour of select Binondo restaurants. Here, they savor the Chinese menu while the foodie tour guide spews titillating facts about the cuisine, the restaurant or Binondo Cuisine, in general.

The tour starts at about US$30 per person.  You can find video of some of these Food Tours or Food Trips on YouTube.

Chinese good luck charms and tikoy for sale at Ongpin St in Binondo

Binondo: a center for Catholicism
There’s also historical and cultural tourism focusing on the role of Chinese Filipinos in the Philippines’ revolution for independence against Spain in 1896, and the saga of Roman Catholicism in the Philippines.

Surprisingly, the centerpiece of both these tourism forms is a Roman Catholic Church: the Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo Ruiz located at Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz along Ongpin St.

This church is a holy shrine to both revolutionary nationalism and pious religiosity. It is named after St. Lorenzo Ruiz, a Chinese Filipino martyred defending Roman Catholicism in 1637. He was tortured then murdered by the Japanese in Nagasaki after refusing to recant his Catholic faith.

St. Lorenzo Ruiz is the first Filipino saint; he was canonized or declared a saint in 1987. The Chinese Filipino saint was born in Binondo to a Chinese father and a Filipina, both of whom were Catholics. St. Lorenzo Ruiz learned Chinese (most probably Hokkien) from his father and the Tagalog dialect from his mother.

He was educated by friars of the Order of Preachers, popularly known at the Dominicans, who were in charge of the Binondo Church during that time. The saint served as an altar boy in this church that is today named after him.

Another Filipino who will become a Roman Catholic Saint is also Chinese Filipino. She is Venerable Ignacia del Espíritu Santo, also known as Mother Ignacia.

She was born in 1663 to a Chinese father (he was from Xiamen) and a Filipina. She is cherished for founding the Congregation of the Sisters of the Religious of the Virgin Mary, the first convent with approved pontifical status in the Philippines. This order runs the network of Saint Mary’s colleges and academies throughout the Philippines.

She was declared Venerable, two stages before sainthood, in 2007. Her eventual canonization is widely expected.

The three major forms of transportation in Binondo (from the left): the horse drawn calesa, a pedicab and the jeepney

Binondo and the Philippine Revolution
The Binondo Church’s link to the Philippine Revolution of 1896 is by way of Andres Bonifacio and his wife, Gregoria de Jesus. They were married at the Binondo Church in March 1893, eight months after Bonifacio and other patriots founded the Katipunan.

The Katipunan (or The Association) was the secret Philippine revolutionary society that ignited the Philippine Revolution against Spain on August 26, 1896. Bonifacio led the Katipunan as its “Supremo” (Supreme Leader) from 1895 until his death in 1897.

Katipunan is the short form of the Tagalog phrase, “Kataas-taasan, Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan,” or the Highest and Most Honorable Society of the Children of the Nation. The Katipunan defeated the Spaniards in 1898 and declared Philippine independence that same year.

Ongpin Street, Binondo’s two kilometer long main road, is named after a Chinese Filipino hero who helped the Katipunan win the war for independence against Spain in 1898.

Roman Ongpin, like St. Lorenzo Ruiz, was born in Binondo. Ongpin’s father came from Fujian while his mother was a Filipina.

Ongpin became a merchant and established an art supplies store called El 82. His store, however, was not an ordinary art supplies dealer.

With Ongpin’s consent, Filipino revolutionaries of the “Katipunan” met at his store to plan their attacks on the Spaniards. During the Revolution of 1896, he used the store’s revenues to buy guns and ammunition for the “Katipuneros ”(or Filipino rebels belonging to the Katipunan). When his store burned down in 1898, Ongpin donated the insurance money to the Katipunan.

Ongpin, however, was eventually caught and imprisoned by the Spaniards but not executed.  He was also jailed by the Americans for supporting Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, who led the Katipuneros (following Bonifacio’s death) in the Philippine War for Independence against the Americans from 1899 to 1902.

Ongpin died in 1912 and was buried wearing a “Barong Tagalog,” the formal wear of male Filipinos. It was a stirring affirmation of what Ongpin, a Chinese Filipino, thought of himself: he was, heart and soul, a Filipino.

His imposing bronze statue is located beside the Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo Ruiz.

Photos by Art Villasanta
(Published in Zest Air Inflight Magazine, 2012)