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5 Reasons To Live In Binondo

This writer recalls the vibrant and bustling Chinatown of her youth

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Original Article: Veronica C. Uy Photography: Kat Palasi Pictorial Direction: Gwyn Guanzon

Manila Chinatown is not quite the big, important district people surmise it to be. Chinatown is really just Ongpin Street and all the alleys radiating from it. North of this commercial hub is a cluster of schools separated by streets and esteros where I spent four years of high school, wearing a uniform common to many schools in the area which is a plain white blouse paired with a blue pleated skirt. The boys wore white polo shirts and khaki pants. My xie xiao was the bastion of Chinese style education. Parents sent their kids there for the Mandarin language classes taught in rote and for the discipline—to paraphrase Mao Zedong's power principle—that emanates from the swoosh of a stick. I wonder: In this new millennium, is the emperor's tongue still taught in that ineffective way? Does corporal punishment still work?

It's a melting pot of people, businesses, and practices.

Between my English classes in the morning and my Chinese classes in the afternoon, my classmates and I would walk or take the calesa to their houses, which were either residential units in tall buildings or old Spanish style houses that double as a store or a bodega. And just before the start of our afternoon classes, we'd loll on the sidewalks outside the school to take a sampling from carts offering hilaw na mangga, siniguelas, lanzones, or any fruit in season. A tiny store across the school that sells all sorts of jellied and preserved fruit (think champuy) is also a favorite.

We also bought our calligraphy writing sheets, brushes, and ink from them. On Friday afternoons, after a long week of lectures, quizzes, and memorizations, Lilibeth (my best friend from Chinese class) and I would usually go to Ha Yuan restaurant on Masangkay Street. Over my bowl of beef mami, her plate of asado siopao, and our glasses of sago't-gulaman, we'd talk about our crushes—my bad boy Hart and her good boy Jerry.

Then food is amazing and varied.

Sometimes we'd venture out of Chinatown and eat lumpiang togue at Gotesco on C.M. Recto Avenue along the university belt. But before going on this allowance-defined food trip, I'd drag Lilibeth to a small gift shop, also on Masangkay, to buy stickers, stamps, and stationery.

It's a place that sells everything.

Sometimes, when Salvacion Ching from the morning class and I had practical arts projects, we'd walk the three kilometers to Divisoria and buy straws, strings, shells, or whatever materials we needed. Then, we'd go to the Tutuban Station to take our ride home-she to Mandaluyong and I to San Juan. Now, everyone knows Tutuban as a shopping mall, not for its late, dilapidated trains.

Old-world traditions still exist.

Once, on my fourth year, I had a sleepover at my friend Belinda's house on Narra Street across a Taoist temple whose big bell promptly-and loudly-rang at 5am. When my an-kong (grandfather) died, my aunts took me to this same temple, where I lit three josh sticks and prayed for his soul. This caused a minor disagreement between my father, a good Catholic who worshipped only one God, and my aunts, good Chinese daughters who prayed for their father in his religion. Speaking of my an-kong, he'd call me ignorant for refusing to eat his hoard from Arranque market—century egg, goat's milk, frog’s legs, and other strange food.

The culture is tangible and colorful.

That Chinatown was ours. Our small eyes and fair skin indicated that we belonged there. And we were not afraid. That swath of prime real estate in the third district of Manila that includes Binondo, Quiapo, Sta. Cruz, and San Nicolas was our oyster.

When I revisited Manila Chinatown recently, the sights, sounds, and smells of my childhood are still there: the clip-clopping calesas, Chinese theater music, United Daily News, the smell of horse dung on the street, the jewelry stores where my aunts buy my presents, the rows of shops that sell everything from food to farm equipment, the hole-in-the-wall shrine behind Binondo Church where people light incense sticks after hearing mass, and President's restaurant where I enjoyed many wedding lauriats.

Editor's update:

From fried oyster cake and fried siopao to kuchay dumplings and vegan dilis, to ube hopia and herbal tea and everything in between, Binondo is definitely an authentic Chinese-food haven. Click here for a roundup of all the current foodie haunts.

Binondo is also a great area to source for affordable hardware, lights, and furniture. The length of Tomas Pinpin Street is the perfect place to look for reproduction chairs, office furniture, modern sofas, and even Italian pieces. Meanwhile, Soler Street is your go-to for sleek bathroom fixtures and accessories, kitchen cabinets, stainless steel doors, and mirrors. Along Dasmariñas and Nueva Streets, you can find fabric and canvas shops, as well as wholesale stores for dry goods and hardware.

The tiny district is also known for its high real estate value, but there are still attainable condo units to be found. Check out Megaworld’s elegant Noble Place condominium, and Anchor Land’s Oxford Parksuites and Princeview Parksuites.

Read the original article ("The Chinatown Of My Childhood") in the September 2005 issue of Real Living Magazine. Download your digital copy of Real Living on the Real Living App. Log on to summitnewsstand.com.ph/real-living for more details.

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