How the world's oldest Chinatown adapts modernization

Written by: Gaby Flores

Edited by: Dave Mikhail Go; Sharmaine Ibarra


Not just the oldest, but one of the world’s best!


This is how CNN described the cradle of the Chinese (and Lannang) community in the Philippines, Binondo. Binondo is the one of the centers of cultural life within Manila. Despite the constant rush towards modernization within Metro Manila, Binondo’s rich history means preservationists are fighting hard to prevent modernization from changing the area completely. 


Part of the area’s charm is the constant hustle and bustle practically every day of the year, and it’s bound to be a while before you see that same level of activity. There’s no doubt that Binondo is at the top of people’s list once the lockdown eases up, which means that it’s the perfect time to sort out your itinerary and (virtually) appreciate all that Binondo has to offer. 


Image from Spot.ph, no changes were made


Former Wall Street of the Philippines


Before Makati, did you know that Binondo was once the Wall Street of the Philippines?


In 1594, Spanish conquistadors built Binondo for Manila’s baptized Chinese-Catholic residents; the area flourished and eventually became the financial capital of the city. The area suffered huge destruction during the British occupation of Manila, but by then the community was too deeply rooted in the area for it to be destroyed completely. At this point, the native Chinese community assimilated with the indio class through intermarriage and business ventures. Although different Chinese migration continued and spawned different cultural groups, Binondo continued to be at the center of it all: in his 1986 paper on Chinese migration to the Philippines, D. F. Doeppers cites Binondo as “a sort of receiving zone” for these new groups to start their new life in the country. 



Image from Adobo Magazine, no changes were made


Binondo as gastro-tourism


As the financial capital of the Philippines moved to Makati, Binondo became a gastro-tourism. If you’ve read our previous post on must-try Lannang food, you should know that Binondo is the place to go if you want authentic, delicious, and cheap food. Food tourism makes up a huge part of Binondo’s activity, with foreigners and locals alike vying for a spot in one of the many food walks that are offered by Binondo residents.


The influence of these Binondo restaurants span far beyond their geographic location. Family-owned food ventures like Eng Bee Tin and Ho-land Hopia have grown from humble beginnings into massive franchises: their famous delicacies are no longer relegated to the original Binondo shop, but can be bought in food stalls and groceries within the country’s biggest malls. 


Of course, it’s not just the food that’s worth visiting. Binondo’s architecture is a far cry from the modernized skyscrapers you’ll see in places like BGC and Makati. Walking around Binondo is like catching a glimpse from the past, but there are those who are slowly transforming the place while still maintaining Binondo’s old-world charm and history.  


Keeping up with the trends


As instagram-worthy places become popular, some businessmen are making restaurants and cafes in the area more appealing  and accessible to all. One such example is The Den, a tiny coffee shop tucked inside Escolta’s First United Building: aside from serving specialty coffee, owners of The Den have been at the forefront of championing local arts and giving them a space to thrive. Their work goes beyond creating a hipster space in a run-down area. It’s about giving these places, and indeed the whole district, new meaning while continuously situating it as one of the city’s cultural capitals. 


Image via Kaladkarin Diaries, no changes were made


Adapting to change while keeping traditions


Metro Manila is on a seemingly unstoppable march towards becoming a modern and metropolitan city. While there’s nothing wrong with this per se, cultural workers are adamant about keeping Manila’s historical areas intact. These historic areas are sites of collective memory, and the plan should be to incorporate them into today’s way of life instead of doing away with them entirely. 


Although there are now museums built to preserve Binondo’s culture, further work has to be done to ensure that the city’s beloved buildings are kept safe. The transformation of Binondo’s HSBC Building provides the perfect avenue to discuss such matters. When a massive fire hit the district in early 2018, residents were scared that this would be the death knoll for some of Binondo’s most iconic buildings. The HSBC Building was inaugurated all the way back in 1922, which made the damages even more devastating. 


However, a new owner (who has told news sources that they wish to remain anonymous) decided to breathe new life into the building. While much of its original facade has been kept, the building has been transformed into restaurant-slash-office space called 1919 Grand Cafe. Preservation projects in the area might look like this from now on, with creative owners looking to adapt existing spaces. 


Binondo’s continued importance in Manila’s culture proves that the past and present can exist hand-in-hand. The current work being done to revitalize the area also point to how many Filipinos, regardless of Lannang heritage, see the area as an invaluable part of our history. 


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About the author

Gaby Flores

I'm a freelance writer and Comparative Literature graduate student whose interests are in the Filipino diaspora and postcolonialism. I write on lifestyle news and current events, and find these stories a natural compliment to my academic interests on how culture and identity are constantly formed and re-formed. Outside of work and school, you can find me eating lots of spicy food or watching stand-up videos on YouTube.



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