Last August 7 2019, two representatives from AHEAD, including yours truly, decided to take a tour of the newly-opened Chinatown Museum in Binondo. We visited all the exhibits, from the Binondo Church exhibit, to the Panciteria Macanista de Buen Gusto (as seen in El Filibusterismo) and the old Manila streetcars. Here are some things we learned from our little tour.

Binondo was Intended for Catholic Chinese

The earliest catechetical text in the Philippines

Binondo was originally established in the late 1500s by Governor-General Dasmariñas as a home for Catholic Chinese.Those who did not convert to the Catholic faith were relegated to the Parian. To qualify for Binondo, a Chinese merchant had to not only consent to baptism, but cut off his queue/pigtail as well. This was a symbolic transfer of loyalty from the Chinese Emperor to the Spanish Crown, for the queue was a mark of submission to the Manchu Qing Dynasty. Converted Chinese learned the Faith from the Doctrina Christiana, which had a Chinese translation. However, conversion to Catholicism was not merely changing religion, but it was a mark of membership in Spanish colonial society.

The Filipino National Identity Began with the Chinese Mestizos

Jose Rizal was a Chinese mestizo

After these Chinese merchants converted to Catholicism, they would end up marrying native women, since the Chinese arriving in the Philippines during the Spanish period were mostly men. Since these merchants were very busy with supplying the galleons, or running their wholesaling businesses (after the galleon trade ended), their children would be raised in a Hispanic and Catholic culture. Thus, these children would identify with their maternal side. However, the business acumen they learned from their fathers helped cement them as a new elite, and they even appropriated the term Filipino from the Spanish creoles. The Chinese-Filipinos of today would come later, from Chinese immigrants who came after the Spanish era, for their beloved women could now join them.

The Esteros were the Lifeblood of Binondo

An image of the Spanish-era Esteros

Historically, Binondo was considered an island, since the esteros (creeks) cut it off from the rest of Manila. These creeks are known today for giving Manila its trademark stench. However, these creeks were once the roads of Manila, for they allowed farmers from Central Luzon to bring their goods to Manila. They used to sail their boats, filled with their produce, to Manila via the Pasig River and Manila Bay. However, pollution in the esteros, along with land reclamation, ended the glory days of these waterways.

Escolta: the Original CBD

Forget Makati, Escolta was the original CBD

One of Binondo’s famous landmarks is Calle Escolta, which is known for being the original Central Business District (CBD) of Manila. From the 1830s, when the Spanish government opened Manila to world commerce, foreign businesses established themselves in Escolta. Also, the Banco EspañolFilipino (now known as BPI) and the first Philippine branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Company (HSBC) were established in Binondo. Escolta remained the business hub of Manila even during the American period, which is why there are many American-style buildings here, of which a lot are still standing today. Escolta remained the CBD of Manila even after the War, but Makati stole its thunder, which is what caused its decline.

Binondo Played a Big Role in the Revolution

Gen. Paua made his home in Binondo

Binondo was a place that played a big part in the Philippine Revolution because the Katipunan was founded in Deodato Arellano’s house , located along Calle Azcarraga (now Recto Ave.). Also, Gen. Jose Ignacio Paua (Hokkien name: Liu Heng Po), the only Chinese general in the Philippine Republican Army, made his home in Binondo. He was one of the local blacksmiths there, and he used his skills to aid the Revolution. However, when the Americans destroyed the Republica Filipina, he moved to Bicol, where he became a local official. As a result, due to being the home of Gen. Paua and the birthplace of the Katipunan, Binondo was very important to the Revolution.

Binondo is More Than Just Chinatown

Testimonies from eyewitnesses and historians

Today, Binondo is well-known as Manila’s Chinatown (and the oldest existing one). However, what we learned in our Chinatown Museum tour is that Binondo is way more than just a Chinatown, but it was the business hub of Manila, the Revolution had its roots there, and the esteros were its lifeblood. We will be sharing more of what we learned here in a series of videos, which will be released in the near future. So, when you are free, go ahead and visit the Chinatown Museum in Lucky Chinatown Mall, Reina Regente St. Binondo, Manila, so you can see the history of Binondo for yourselves!

Special Thanks to Ms. Janine Cabato and the Chinatown Museum Staff for allowing us to shoot at the Museum.

I would also like to thank Dr. Richard Chu of the University of Massachusetts for getting me interested in the history of the Chinese in the Philippines.

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