They call it Extramuros, Binondo’s Chinatown, the oldest in the world – 422 years, to be exact – as it lies across the Pasig River, outside the Walled City of Intramuros, enclave of the Spanish ”conquistadors”.
Binondo was the first stop of peasants who immigrated to Manila from Hokkien (Fujian province, on the Southeast coast of Mainland China), explained Ivan Man Dy, our guide for the Globe MyBusiness customized tour of Old Manila.
The Binondo Church – the Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo Ruiz, stood at the heart of the district. Dominican priests built it to convert early Chinese immigrants to the Catholic faith. And many streets radiating from the church are still known by their old Hokkien names.
Carvajal Alley Market is Ho Sua Hang, Hokkien for “umbrella” because a famous umbrella maker set up business there in the 1900s.
Quintin Paredes Street is Chiu Wah Hua for “canal” or “estero” where goods are unloaded from the boats.
Calle Nueva is Ao Kue-Ya, “back street”, an alternative path to Rosario Street, formerly the main road.
Strangely, little has changed in half a millennium, judging from the old map of Manila.
The locals’ lives still revolve around trading goods. Office buildings huddle side by side with residential towers but many shops do business in the same place where they sprouted almost a century ago.
Even the food reflects the character of the original people – fare for peasants and laborers, simple but filling and quite cheap.
Our first stop was New Po-Heng Lumpia House, 531 Quintin Paredes Street, famous for its Chinese spring roll – “ Lumpia”.
The small canteen tucked in the ground floor of an old building opens to a courtyard looking up to pink apartments with a profusion of fire escapes. Workmen’s clothes dangled on the wall in plastic hangers behind the counter.
As we entered, waiters bundled off a protesting oversized cat napping under monoblock chairs. He weighed at least twenty pounds and they call him “Liit” (Tiny).
Yet customers pack this place like sardines and long lines snake outside, especially on Chinese New Year’s.
The best-seller is its crunchy fresh “Lumpia” – tofu, chopped cabbage, shredded carrots and cilantro, with ground shrimp heads to taste, rolled together in a thin pastry skin.
As waitresses served us fat spring rolls heaped on plates, Ivan demonstrated how to eat it.
Simply unwrap the roll, dribble a drop or two of soy sauce, add a dash of sweet and spicy sauce for some kick, dip in ground bihon and seaweed then ground peanuts with powdered sugar, dab with chopped garlic in vinegar and enjoy.
One serving of “Lumpia” costs P70, with 20 per cent discount for seniors. It’s filling too. One’s good enough for a meal.
Next, our guide took us to the Co Ban Kiat Building at 231 Juan Luna St. for a bit of history. It’s not open to the public but he secured special permission from the owners.
The 8-storey structure once housed the Manila Stock Exchange, the Standard and Chartered Bank, the Japanese Consulate General’s office and other prominent business firms in the pre-war “Chinatown’s Wall Street”.
Built in the Art Deco style of the 1920’s and the 1930’s, the Co Ban Kiat Building had the same boxlike design and geometric lines of New York’s famous Art Deco skyscrapers – Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.
“Art Deco” is short for the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes of Paris in 1925. It espoused a style which inspired Cubism in painting, Bauhaus architecture and the avant-garde Ballet Russes.
For 75 years, the Co Ban Kiat Building was known as SJ Wilson Building. Built in 1936, it was named after American businessman and mining executive Samuel J. Wilson, who worked for the printing business Carmelo and Bauermann.
Cobankiat Hardware, which also owns Coby Hardware and retail hardware chain Ace Hardware, bought the building in 2011.
Around that time, private developers have demolished and cannibalized three vintage landmarks – Michel Apartments, Army & Navy Club and Admiral Hotel.
Mercifully, the Cobankiats’ third generation scion, Johnny, opted for adaptive re-use, successfully restoring the building to its old glory.
While the building survived the bombing of Manila during World War II, the Cobankiats had to refurbish its façade, interiors and ceiling roof – no mean feat considering its blue print no longer exists.
“We relied on the memories of those who had seen in the building in its heyday,” explained in-house architect Deogracias B. Degala. “We talked to a lot of people, family members of former owners, tenants, an old man who had worked here for 30 years.”
They tried their best to capture the building’s original look, painting the heavy façade China white, keeping the original windows encased in wrought-iron grills, the stylized buttresses and mansard roof. They also restored the cornices, mouldings and striped pilasters.
Walking past the ionic columns flanking the doorway, below an escutcheon showing a coat of arms to the high-ceilinged ground floor, I felt I was stepping in a time machine through a bygone age.
White concrete against antique wood newel posts, pilasters and dividers simulated the interiors of a Commonwealth era bank. Even the old glass panels with the name of the company in gold-leaf created a nostalgic effect.
To go up the fourth floor cafeteria, we took the original hand-cranked elevator. Light flooded the place from huge windows and the open deck looks down on historic Juan Luna St. Miniature wooden signboards of past tenants covered the support columns and on the walls hanged sepia portraits of old Manila.
Back outside, we explored the adjoining narrow alleys, the “callejon” of Carvajal Street lined with all sorts of shops, traditional Chinese drugstores, fruit, vegetable and fish stalls.
Past Nueva Street, we went and Tomas Pinpin. Each had their specialties. One sells only haberdashery, another just appliances. “It makes things easier and more organized,” according to our guide.
Our third stop was New Victory Trading at 754 Ongpin Street, a 70-year old Chinese engagement and wedding one-stop-shop.
Amazing, how lots of modern Filipino-Chinese desire to get hitched in the old way, with all the elaborate rituals.
During the Ting Hun – Chinese engagement, everything is prepared in pairs. The groom’s family introduce themselves to the girl’s family, conduct a tea ceremony and exchange gifts to show respect and capacity to provide.
So far, one of the shop’s hottest sellers is the red lantern – a fertility symbol which newlyweds hang in their bedroom to guarantee the bride conceives a son.
Jewelry is usually the most expensive item. However, P25-28,000 covers almost everything a couple need for a traditional engagement party.
Most objects come in red and gold – the auspicious colors. The glass displays held red tiered containers for sweets, red chamber pots (bedside urinal) and satin slippers, bunches of raw eggs – 120 real ones with sang hee stickers – given as fertility symbols, all sorts of charms and red “ampao” envelopes for gift money.
A P1,800 red box contains a complete gift set for the engaged woman to give to her future groom – ginger and tubers to signify fecundity, wedding “misua” – raw noodles to signify long life, a dried root to bind the couple and ensure faithfulness, two raw eggs with “sang hee” stickers for fertility, plus fragments of charcoal to ward off negative energies.
Our fourth stop was Bee Tin Grocery, 733- 735 Ongpin Street corner Salazar Street.
Here, they have the widest range of Chinese and oriental food specialties, spices, dried fruits, mushrooms, seeds, seaweed and seasonings.
Gleefully, we munched through samples of boiled peanuts, preserved “Santol” – cottonfruit, ginger and cherries, cured meats – “Tapa” and pork floss – “Mahu”, to our heart’s content.
I loved the dried blueberries best – and no doubt will come back for more.
By this time, we’ve been walking for a couple of hours. The grocery stop sharpened our appetite and we’re keen for our light dinner stop at Dong Bae at 642 Yuchengco Street.
From the doorway, we can see workers kneading dough and making dumplings. Their specialty happens to be fresh leek – “kuchay” pork dumplings, dipped in three-day aged vinegar, soy sauce and garlic sauce mix, with a dash of chili oil for that little kick.
After two helpings of boiled dumplings, they served us fried Chinese pancake, stuffed with leeks and minced pork.
All ingredients tasted fresh and everything was lovingly hand-made.
From there, it was a short walk to our final stop for dessert – Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli at 628 Ongpin Street, the same spot where the store’s founder, Chua Chiu Hong, set up his “Hopia” stall in the heart of Ongpin in 1912.
Hopia, from the Chinese “Ho”, meaning “good” and “Pia”, “cake” or “pastry”, is a popular bean-filled pastry from Fujian.
The traditional filling is mung beans until third generation owner Gerry Chua experimented with “Ube” – purple yam.
Now, they have all sorts of “hopia” fillings, from the best-selling “Ube” to “Langka” (jackfruit), “Pandan”, wintermelon and “Mahu” – pork floss.
We sampled every flavor we wanted though I favored the chilled custard Hopia, custard with “Buko” (young coconut), which tasted like a bite-sized “Buko” pie and mung bean with salted egg yolk, which tasted like a mini mooncake.
Drenched with sweat after three and a half hours stroll in the broiling heat, I devoured a good bit of history and plenty of munchies. I felt tired but I was full and happy.