MY friend, Judy Lao, took me on a tour of Binondo last Sunday. Sunday because it’s a day of rest and there is less traffic.
We started off with a visit to the Chinese Cemetery, which is a quiet enclave even on a visiting day like Sunday. There were a few caretakers lounging about the quiet and well-ordered streets fronting mausoleums, some multi-storied, others smaller and more modest in scale but everyone honoring ancestors, ascendants and relatives gone to the next world. Despite the concrete there were a good number of flowering trees and bushes, some grass and small flowers that lent a mixed world of cement and Nature. Caretakers were watering the plants.
The only notable sight in the cemetery was an array of parked cars at one end, each of which had a sign that it was owned by a doctor. Apparently with the Chinese General Hospital one wall away and maybe just a gate to get through, it serves as a parking lot. Actually, the site of the Chinese General Hospital right next to the Chinese Cemetery has been an object of comment. Is it practical or depressing?
Onward we went to Binondo, passing landmarks like the San Lazaro Hospital, crossing Rizal Avenue’s end, noting Solis Street that leads to Tondo.
Judy was born and raised in Binondo, so she knows it like the back of her hand. She went to St. Stephen’s School, an Episcopal Church school that after her time expanded to acquire the original St. Luke’s Hospital. We went in while the chapel was holding Sunday service and noted the rather spacious campus with trees in the congested Binondo area.
It was a Sunday but business was still going on. And though there was decidedly less traffic than on a weekday, there were many parked cars and very little parking. We toured around, noting streets like Mayhaligue (now Masangkay), Gandara (now Sabino Padilla), Nueva (now Yuchengco). We also saw Rosario (now Quintin Paredes). Plaza Calderon dela Barca in front of the Binondo Church is now Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz. Wholesale changing of names confuses returning residents, readers of the Rizal novels and even historians who wonder what the new names are all about. It seems progeny of tycoons and Manila officials, especially councilors, are bent on memorializing their ancestors by pinning them over old street names. This is one of our idiosyncracies in our belief that new is always better than old as well as status-seeking, of course.
Having said that there are still many old street names like Lavezares (Spanish Governor General) and Elcano (for Sebastian Elcano, who brought one of Magellan’s ships back to Spain and is credited with being the first circumnavigator of the world. There is also Madrid Street and San Fernando Street, Salazar, Meisic, Reina Regente (Judy rattled them off but I fear this last has had its name changed to something less colorful than the Regent Queen). One house, a very old one, still had its street name on its wall—Jaboneros (soap makers).
In Sto. Cristo, which is the street of wholesale fruit distributors, we managed to buy grapes. Judy pointed out a store across saying that the action of buying fruit there took part in the evening up to way past midnight. Perhaps because by then traffic had eased and residents were at leisure.
There are also quite a few liquor stores as there are large liquor distributors based in Binondo.
Then there were the hopia and other Chinese goodies like the sesame seed ampaw (hollow baked item), peanut cake, sticky rice cake (tikoy), and oodles more. The shops were very busy with their bakeries just behind.
Binondo is also very residential with condominiums taking over from accessorias or row houses with relatively low, small rental rates. Now Binondo real estate is supposed to be the highest in the country per square meter. There are still 1950s houses and prewar structures as well as really old houses in much disrepair. On this last we speculated that there were too many heirs not arriving at a common decision on what to do or in litigation. Nevertheless, the built landscape is fascinating to watch. There are groceries, wholesale establishments, lots of eateries, some of long provenance and some modern fast food. Somewhere there is a Sincere Restaurant, whose specialty fried chicken is known as Sincere Chicken, of course. Office personnel who work in the area can just phone in their orders and they are delivered to their place of work. Because of a busy traffic, there is a lot of walking in Binondo, whether holding office, tending a store, going to a restaurant or going to church and home. It is a residential community and it has its share of modern high-rise condominiums. Thus, it is always a lively place that doesn’t quite close up for the night.
Judy spotted her old basketball coach from St. Stephen’s getting into a taxi and an old family friend walking about. Binondo might have huge business transactions but it is still an intimate place for residents who are well known to each other and to the commercial establishments in the area.
The bridges in Binondo have their own unofficial names besides their formal designations. They cross the creeks or esteros mostly; Ongpin (named after my husband’s revolutionary ancestor) Street has a few and connects the Binondo Church (Our Lady of the Rosary) with the Sta. Cruz Church. It is considered the principal street and sometimes Chinatown, as Binondo is known to be, is referred to as Ongpin. Somewhere in Plaza Sta. Cruz we saw the old Carriedo Fountain back in the heart of Manila where it was first located.
Judy lamented that there was no more Scala Theatre and other second-run theaters that in her day showed double programs for the price of one. Now cinema is somewhat less popular as it competes with television, video and whatever else entertainment as well as the ubiquitous internet.
Binondo is not in a time-warp but very dynamic. It has residents, businesses, churches, schools, and modernity even if it still keeps some of its historic material structures. It is a living entity. Some long-time residents have moved away but others have taken their place. And those that have moved away come back for their business or leisure. It must have been this way from historic times.