Reading, Writing, Walking
Friday, November 23, 2007
Dusty Old Binondo (by Iris Tan)
Dusty Old Binondo

By Iris C. Tan

As a child growing up from the Bicol province, my Chinese parents brought me to Manila during summer vacations. Always always we would visit Ongpin. I have many impressions of the place. "Wang-pin-tsie-thow" (Ongpin Street) taught to us in Chinese high school talked about what it represented; it is almost a literary piece to Chinese Bicolanos.

Ever since then, I have been to Ongpin and to Binondo a million times; it is hard to separate the two. To the common tao, it is ChinaTown. When I was little, I held a lot of fascination with the red and gold Chinese little lanterns that hung in the small shops, over dimsum, tikoy (a sweet sticky rice cake) and other delicacies of various colors, textures and taste -- found in a certain Salazar bakery – there at the corner of Salazar and Masangkay. Ampao (literally red bun), made of red-colored rice crispies baked as sweet hollow crunchies, was particularly special to a wide-eyed kid. We always stayed at Fortune Hotel, a sterile hotel with what I thought were killer elevators that still exist to this day.

Later on when I entered the university and stayed in Manila, I would come to Binondo every weekend. It kept me busy. It is such a tight-packed place, distinct I would say from the rest of Manila: by sight, sound, smell, and yes taste. You have the close-knit stores advertised with Chinese characters. Whiffs of herbs and spices from the drugstores contrast with the smell of horse dung and vehicle exhaust. Bustling would be the word on a typical day: from vendor calls offering wares, fruits and veggies, to wind chimes from the trinket shop, to the sounds of horse shoes against granite as horse drawn carriages called Calesa pass by, and the sound of car horns. All things Chinese are found here, including Chinese mass at 6pm Sundays in San Lorenzo Ruiz Church, the peanut soup at the old deli corner with those iron-bolted stools, Oyster Cake at the old estero, now demolished. Yum, yum – birthday misua in Carvajal! Definitely, it is a place for food trippers. Anthony Bourdain would have a feast here.

Anyone for exotic animals at the Arranque Market, or Chinese gold to be haggled at Wyn's Jewelry? How about some peace and quiet at the Chinese Temple just between the hardware stores and the lumpia-shop PatLin? For incense, paper money, good luck charms, try Condesa street just beside Binondo Church. The place is a treasure!! Despite the smell of dung, despite the atrocity treated to those poor Calesa horses, despite the spitting public, and despite the dusty crowded streets, Binondo is my haven and the destination to be, were I to be put on auto-pilot.

I am now in midlife and I have traveled around the world; I still find Binondo a most unique place. I find that I have a lot of stories and nuances to share to friends. I continue to discover new things too. Believe me, while it is traditional it finds a way to keep itself interesting. The popular Eng Bee Tin now has a non-profit violet-themed (as its stores are) café – all proceeds going to a Binondo volunteer fire brigade. Down farther Benavidez along Soler, there is a Japanese coffee shop called Ku Khin where wealthy Taiwanese teenage immigrants hang around.

Binondo is not perfect but I find a lot of pride and joy in making the discovery with other people. Just as it had taught me curiosity, a sense of adventure in the most mundane of circumstances and ultimately an appreciation of my roots, I hope that it also touches other people and teaches them the appeal of the ordinary.
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