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Binondo’s Untold Stories

By Ma. Glaiza Lee

Old and new coexist to make Manila’s Chinatown a bustling neighborhood.

Traffic around the Plaza Calderon dela Barca, also known as Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz, is usually heavy as cars and pedestrians go on their way in this busy part of Manila. On that day, we met up with a man in the middle of the plaza, with a boom box in one hand. Celebrity tour guide and culture expert Carlos Celdran, founder of Walk This Way, a walking tour company, was taking us around Binondo to discover Chinatown. The event was organized by Lido Cocina Tsina, a restaurant that serves popular Cantonese cuisine, which is presently celebrating its 80th anniversary.

Here are some initial trivia Celdran shared with us: National Artist Nick Joaquin suggested that the name “Binondo” was derived from the word “binondoc,” referring to the area’s hilly terrain a long time ago. On the other hand, French linguist Jean-Paul Potet said the name might refer to the abundant river mangrove, known as “tundok,” which grew around the area. The prefix “bi-“ indicated its proximity to Tondo.


Originally built in the late 1600s, it became the center of Catholicism among Chinese migrants. Back then, Binondowans created by Spanish Governor-General Luis Perez Dasmariñas as a permanent settlement for immigrants who converted to Christianity. It was meant to replace Parian, where the unconverted remained. In 1594, the Dominicans made Binondo their parish and worked on converting the residents to Catholicism.

The original church was built and rebuilt countless times to accommodate the growing Chinese community and to repair it following natural disasters and war. Only the church’s stone walls and octagonal belfry survived following the American bombing in 1944. It was only in the 1950s that it had a new lease on life. Binondo church is more than just a religious structure; it is also an architectural treasure, combining elements of the Spanish baroque with a touch of Chinese design, as evident with its bell tower. This structure, a holdover from the 16th century, has five octagonal stories, reminiscent of a pagoda.

The altar is loosely based on St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. What is interesting is its flooring with Chinese markings on each stone brick. They were actually tombstones from China, which were used by Chinese traders as ship ballast When the ships reached Manila, these were sold as paving bricks because of their durability. Some eventually made it to the church’s floor.

The church was named after Saint Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Filipino saint. Born of a Chinese father and Filipino mother, he served at the church as an altar boy and calligrapher. In 1981, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II. It was the first beatification held outside the Vatican. He was canonized at the Vatican in 1987.


New Po Heng Lumpia House is tucked away inside the Art Deco Uy Su Bin Building. Its Chinese-style fresh lumpia is made upon order and filled with generously with vegetables and meat, and topped with crushed peanuts and drizzled with sweet sauce.

Just a few meters away is Carvajal Street with its charming street market of fruits, seafood and other goods. Old-timers still know Carvajal as Ho Sua Hang, or Umbrella Alley in Hokkien. Back in the day, this alley was known for vendors selling umbrellas. It has become a food haven, with a couple of popular restaurants. In the middle of crowded Chinatown, one can find a moment of peace at the small shrine located at the Santo Cristo de Longos Building at the corner of Ongpin and San Nicolas streets. The shrine is the perfect fusion of Catholicism and Buddhism. Here, one can see a crucifix adorned with sampaguita while incense sticks in an urn burn at a side, an offering from devotees.

An alley down T. Alonzo Street led us to the original location of Lido Cocina Tsina. Previously known as Panciteria Lido, it was founded by chef Lido, a Chinese immigrant. Now managed by its president Annie Wong, the restaurant is known for its pugon-roasted asado, of pork loin roasted in a brick oven using century-old traditions. You can enjoy the smoky aromatic flavor with each tasty morsel. Walking around Binondo reveals the marriage of the traditional and the modern. You see it in the ambulant street vendors, hawkers selling lucky charms and Chinese medicine stores mixing with newly built buildings


At the end of Ongpin after one crosses the welcome arch is Sta. Cruz Church. First built by the Jesuits in 1768, it has undergone numerous repairs and reconstruction. The church reflects the Spanish Baroque style. On the facade is an image of Our Lady of the Pillar, the patroness of the church.

Fronting the church is Carriedo Fountain. Built in 1882, it was meant to honor Francisco Carredo y Pedero, considered to be Manila’s greatest benefactor, who donated P10,000 to install the city’s first water system.

The fountain was originally located at Rotonda de Sampaloc, but it was transferred to its present location in 1978. It was them removed site and brought to Quezon City when Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System moved from Arroceros to Balara. Former Manila City Mayor Alfredo Lim negotiated with MWSS administrator Luis Sison to return the fountain to its original location. National Artist Napoleon Abueva was commissioned to

create a replica to replace the original structure, which now stands on Plaza Sta. Cruz.

The tour ventured on to Escolta, which was once known as the Wall Street of the Philippines. Historic buildings, such as the Beaux-Arts-style Regina Building and Calvo Building, which houses the Escolta Museum, remain standing.

The First United Building is now home to The Hub: Make Lab, a creative business concept by 98B Collaboratory. With the aim of reviving Escolta to itsformer glory as the commercial district of Manila, the collective gathered artists and entrepreneurs to sell their products, most of them hand-made and one of a kind. The space they now occupy used to be the old Berg’s Department Store.

The walking tour opened our eyes and hearts to what Manila has to offer. It reacquainted us with Binondo, and the capital city as well, sharing untold stories in every nook and cranny of this city that never sleeps.

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