Episode 11: Eat your way through Chinatown! The Big Binondo Food Wok!

Ah, Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown. The long-enduring witness to the heritage and identity of the Tsinoy community. A district that’s home to 400 years of history, religion, Filipino-Chinese friendships, trade and commerce, international influences…

…And tea houses, steamed dumplings, noodles, street food, hopia, and that purple hopia fire truck.

Yup, welcome to Binondo.

The “Big Binondo Food Wok” is one of the popular historical tours of Old Manila Walks, the city’s walking tour outfits. Here we can see Binondo, not only as a bustling community or a historical landmark, but also as a “food-obsessed historical quarter.”

Ivan Man Dy, also our tour guide at the BCG Passion Fest Food Tour last May, led the tour around Binondo’s heritage and food trail. He also gave us a lot of tidbits about Binondo and Chinese cuisine’s place in the district’s history.

Binondo is located near the Pasig River in Manila, across what would become Intramuros, the Walled City. It was established in 1594, and is known as the oldest known Chinatown in the world.

The Chinese have been trading with the ancient Tagalogs for some 800  years. It was easy for them to immigrate to the country because of its proximity to China. (Today, the Filipino-Chinese or “Tsinoys” is the largest ethnic group in the Philippines, making up about two percent of the total population.)

When the Spaniards first came to the country in 1521, they made it a point to return to Manila and establish their seat of government there. Recognizing the large number of Chinese that have immigrated to the city, the colonizers established Binondo and urged them to settle there.

Binondo was founded in what the Spanish call “extramuros” (outside the walls), as opposed to “Intramuros”, the only part recognized as “Manila”. The Spaniards gave the Tsinoys there self-governing privileges as a reward for converting to Catholicism. However, this was actually to stem the Chinese community’s numbers and prevent them from revolting. It helped that Binondo was within the range of the Walled City’s cannons.

The district has a mix of Catholic and Chinese influences. One of the most popular of these is the Binondo Church, now known as the Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz (the first Filipino saint). Despite the colonial features, the church squeezes in one reference to the influence of Binondo’s Chinese: its octagonal bell tower.
Another Catholic icon is the Santo Cristo de Longos Shrine. Legend has it that a deaf-mute Chinese found an image of the crucified Christ near an old well and regained his speech. The shrine was the site of that well. Today you can see people praying to the cross while waving incense sticks, a remarkable mix of Chinese and Catholic rituals.

Towards the 20th century, Binondo became Manila’s central business district. The already existing businesses there were among the factors behind Binondo’s financial success. For some time Binondo was home to a bustling banking and financial community.

The Tsinoys have kept in touch with their ancestral roots while adapting to Filipino society for 400 years. The mix of Chinese-Filipino influences have resulted into a cultural heritage that has made Binondo so unique.

The Chinese immigrants in Manila were mostly Hokkien peasants who only had their street smarts. Without the educational attainment to make it big, these settlers engaged in the trading and service sectors. All they needed were suppliers, customers, and a long credit line. This gave rise to the proliferation of specialized businesses such as slippers, construction materials, clothing… and yes, FOOD!

Our first food stop was Cafe Mezzanine, a coffee shop for volunteer firefighters at Ongpin Street. The place is owned by Gerry Chua, the owner of the Eng Bee Tin Hopia Factory franchise. (The purple hopia fire truck I mentioned a while ago was donated by Chua. It’s colored purple in homage to Eng Bee Tin’s ube hopia.)

Here we tried the Kiam Pong, a Fookien rice meal with pork, chicken, dried shrimp, mushroom and peanuts. Ivan said this, mixed with a simple soup broth, was a staple meal among the common folk. The meal came with a refreshing glass of cold coffee.

Chua’s story is typical among the businessmen of Binondo (and Filipino-Chinese in general). After working with Eng Bee Tin for so long, he inherited the family business, and eventually managed his godfather’s restaurant (part of which is now Cafe Mezzanine). Most businessmen here start out with the simplest of tools to start a business, just like the peasants of long ago, and their descendants eventually develop it.

Speaking of Eng Bee Tin, hopia was a relatively new pastry introduced by Hokkien immigrants during the American period. There are two types of hopia: the flaky type which uses Chinese puff pastry, and the cake dough type which uses a soft cookie dough. Eng Bee Tin claims to have popularized the ube hopia.

Our next stop was Dong Bei Dumplings along Yuchengco Street. Dong Bei, unlike most restaurants who mainly serve Cantonese dishes, specializes in Northern Chinese cuisine. (They also serve pancakes, home-made noodles and fried rice, among others. Most noteworthy is that their dishes are home-made.)

Ivan mentioned that dumplings were actually a specialty in Guangdong province, Northern China.

Dong Bei prepared for us steamed dumplings with meat and celery or cabbage fillings. These were served with two kinds of sauces: one was spicy and the other was a bit sweet and tangy. (Ivan recommended the spicy sauce). They also served meat-filled pancakes, which are just as good as the dumplings.

We then visited what Ivan described as “food street.” Ivan says Binondo’s streets are divided according to the businesses in the district. There’s a jewelry street, a carpentry street, a clothing street, among others.

Ivan says some parts of Binondo have a so-called fraternity, where each Chinese can bond with fellow Chinese with the same family name. If, for example, a person with the surname of Tan comes to Binondo, he may visit the Tan “fraternity” who will help him settle down. He says this tradition has been followed since the colonial times.

At the food street, we had a small meal consisting of pan-fried siopao and bicho-bicho (fried dough pastry) at a street shop. Ivan actually lampshades the Filipino’s fascination for siopao; apparently what is considered a light meal among most Chinese only functions as a side dish to mami (noodles).

Street shops like the one we visited are popular in this area; these sell other food items such as roasted meats and fish, noodles, fruits, dimsum, and bread. There are various restaurants and groceries around the area too.

Along the way we passed by a bakery named “Ho-land”, which, like Eng Bee Tin, sells hopia and other Chinese pastries and breads. Apparently, bakeries such as this have been popular in Binondo, so popular that at one point in history, even Eng Bee Tin almost lost to the competition, if not for the ube hopia, but that’s another story. To prove this, Ivan mentioned another hopia business and a rival of “Ho-land”. Its name?

“Polland.” No kidding.

We ended our tour at the New Po-Heng Lumpia House, located in Uy Su Bin Building at Quintin Paredes St. near Binondo Church. Po-Heng is known for its fresh Hokkien spring rolls, made with vegetables and crushed peanuts. It also has peanut sauce on the side for dipping, made more delicious with chopped garlic.

Here we’ve learned that the recipe for lumpia was brought from Fujian province and became one of the country’s most popular dishes associated with the Chinese. Now if there’s one thing we Filipinos have taken for granted as far as Chinese food is concerned, it’s lumpia. Heck, we’ve made so many variants of lumpia (lumpiang Shanghai, anyone?), it’s already a staple in every restaurant and feast.

There are so many places worth visiting in Binondo that stands witness to everything distinctively Tsinoy. So much can be said of this place’s history and surroundings, its cultural heritage and culinary delights… but visiting Binondo first-hand is one experience tourists, history junkies, and foodies should never forego, and can never go wrong with.

When you find yourself in Binondo one of these days, take the time to look around, savor the sights and sounds, learn the history, and then perhaps follow the scent trail to the nearest hopia store or tea house. It’s gonna be a trip that will make you hungry for knowledge… and hopefully, dumplings.

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