From the blowing of the whistle of Sinulog to the beating of the drums of the Chinese New Year, I was in Binondo for a solid Chinese New Year celebration last Monday. It was my first time to celebrate Chinese New Year in Manila’s China Town and it was one great experience.
Binondo was overwhelming to the senses – the sight, the sound, the feel, and the taste. It was like being transported to a different place and in a different time. Binondo or Manila’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown having been established in 1594 by the Spaniards as a move to monitor the movements of migrants from China. The settlement later on evolved as a center for business and commerce. In fact, Escolta was once known as the “Wall Street of the Philippines” with major financial institutions establishing their offices along this hallowed street.
Binondo’s landscape changed dramatically after World War 2 when major businesses settled in newer locations in Makati and Quezon City. Yet business still flourished in the area especially among Filipino-Chinese making Binondo one of the most colourful and vibrant places in Manila.
Welcome the Chinese New Year!
The celebration was in full blast when we arrived in Binondo. Throngs of people filled Ongpin Street, Binondo’s main thoroughfare, who were all eager to join the celebration. Firecrackers erupt every now and then to join the chorus of merrymaking. You could hear distant beating of drums that serves as the heartbeat of the Chinese New Year celebration.
So how do you celebrate Chinese New Year in Chinatown?
Stroll along Ongpin Street, or at least try.
At the heart of the all the revelry is Ongpin Street. The street that is strongly associated with Binondo in such a way that when you mention Binondo, the first thing that will come to mind is Ongpin and vice versa. It is a 1.5 kilometer stretch where you can find almost anything Filipino-Chinese. From food to jewelries to charms to Chinese medicines, you would probably find it here.
A Chinese-inspired arc welcomes visitors coming from Santa Cruz. A similar arc can also be found at the other end of Ongpin coming from Binondo Church. The streets are lined with shops that offer a variety of Chinese goods, Chinese restaurants, and Chinese shops that sell charms for good luck.
Expect that Ongpin Street will be full to the brim during the celebration with Filipinos and Filipino-Chinese gathering to enjoy the festivities. And when we speak of festivities, it is one big party on the street with dragon dancers jumping from one shop to another inviting good luck and fortune.
You would also be amused by the different stalls that are set-up along the streets that sell charms and items that invite good fortune to anyone who purchase these items. Walking along Ongpin Street during the Chinese New Year celebration can be quite a challenge but definitely an exciting one.
Dance with the Dragons
As we were searching for a temple to visit, our group chanced upon a group of dancers that was doing a street demonstration of wushu. Our group got attracted to the swift and graceful movements that we opted to stay and enjoy the street show. As it turned out, they were also the group who were to do the dragon dance which gave us a peek into the amazing Chinese culture.
The dance started with firecrackers commencing the festivities. It was a good 30 minute of crackling firecrackers to shoo away the bad luck and bad spirits. It was then followed by the rhythmic beating of the drums where dragon dancers pranced to its melody. It was amusing to watch a full production of this Chinese tradition that ended with the dragons entering the shop, which I presume was to bring good fortune to the family and the business.
After the whole ceremony, the family shared their blessing by giving away candies and rice cakes to those who watched and attended the ceremony.
Visit a Buddhist Temple
With the rich Chinese culture in Binondo, it is not a surprise that you will also find a couple of temples in the area. Although most of these temples not be open to the public, there are a few that you can visit and explore. One of these temple is the Kuang Kong Temple along Kipuja Street.
Kuang Kong is a Chinese deity who is known as the protector of Quan Yin – the Goddess of Mercy. He is also known as the Patron of Scholars and Martial Arts.
Finding Kuang Kong Temple can be quite a challenge as the temple is well-hidden along the side streets of Binondo so, if you are up to the challenge, you have got to keep your eyes open. First, you need to find your way to the Barangay Hall that is near Maxim’s along Ongpin Street. You enter that street and turn left on the alley. The temple is located on the top floor of the third building from the corner.
The temple is located on the third floor of an old rundown building that would remind you of old Chinese apartments that you watch on television. The waft of burning incense will overwhelmed our sense of smell as we entered the place as it was full of devotees and observers.
The main highlight of the temple is the altar dedicated to Kuang Kong. Offerings are in abundance on the tables. Devotees take the time to light candles and incense and offer prayers to the deity. Every now and then, one visitor would reach out to the temple elders for advice. Interestingly, you can also ask for the elders to look into your fortune for the coming year.
It is definitely a great place to learn and have a better understanding of Buddhism and Chinese culture.
Eat your heart out.
A definite must when in Binondo is to enjoy the authentic Chinese food that its restaurants offer. You will actually find a lot of selection along Ongpin Street from the usual mom and pop eateries to the more established and famous Chinese restaurants. You can enjoy the wide selection of dimsum, noodles, siopao, and Chinese viands.
I always enjoy meals at Estero Fastfood. The place may not appealing because of its location, being close to an “estero” or canal, but it is one where you can enjoy authentic Chinese food. You have a number of small shops that you can choose from and you also have a choice of dining in al-fresco or inside airconditioned rooms. Just do not expect much on the ambiance but I am sure that you will enjoy the food.
Another must try is President Tea House along Salazar Street. This unassuming restaurant has a better ambiance compared to Estero Fastfood. They have a wide range of authentic Chinese food selection. Similarly with Estero Fastfood, the food are freshly prepared when you order. Must-try from their selections are Beef and Brocoli, Hakaw, and their Yang Chow Fried Rice.
Be forewarned though that getting a table on these restaurants can be quite a challenge during the Chinese New Year celebrations.
Charm yourself with treats
Weaving through human traffic along Ongpin Street can also be a visual delight as you would be visually amused by the trinkets and lucky charms being sold along the sidewalks and the shops that line it. These colourful lucky charms can vary from bracelets, house decorations, and rice plants woven together that are believed to bring good fortune to recipients.
Take time on checking out these trinkets and make sure to ask the vendor what the trinkets invite or ward off. You will be amused at the varied charms that they sell.
You should also get yourself some take-home treats from Eng Bee Tin, a shop that is known for its Chinese delicacies like hopia, tikoy, and peanut balls. The store took its roots in Binondo in 1912 and, due its popularity, expanded beyond the boundaries of Chinatown. It is now one of the well-known Filipino-Chinese brands in the country. So make sure that you bring home some of these treats to share.
Post Celebration Notes
Celebrating the Chinese New Year in Binondo was a great experience. As mentioned by one reporter of a major news channel, Binondo is one place where you can see and experience the fusion of two different cultures. It is a great place to learn the differences of Filipino and Chinese culture from which a better understanding will come out from these differences. More than that, it is a great place to see and hear the sights and sounds of two cultures that blended into one unique experience.
Getting there: One can take the LRT 1 and go down on Carriedo Station. Walk towards the Santa Cruz Church where you can start your walking tour of Binondo. The Filipino-Chinese Friendship Arc is located right in front of the church.
Marc del Rosario
I believe in education, entrepreneurship, and caring for the environment.