Chinatown pic
Eek! Me in my weekend element…

Pinoy Connection : Pound the Binondo pavement with the Chinatown kid
Posted 07:11am (Manila time) April 10, 2005
By Eric S. Caruncho, Inquirer News Service Editor’s
Note: Published on page Q6 of the April 10, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

FORGET it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

That, at least, is what a lot of people seem to say when someone suggests going down to Ongpin St. for some Chinese food other than Chowking, to Calle Soler for a quick screw (at the hardware store, dummy), to the Chinese drug store for some liver and kidney pills or some brain tonic (God knows we could all use some), or just to get out of the mind-numbing routine of office-mall-house. But that would mean—gulp!—actually going to Manila. “You’d be surprised,” says Binondo-born and bred Ivan Dy. “We all live in one big city, but we really live in our little villages. People from Alabang or Makati have told me that they’ve always wanted to visit Binondo, but they were scared to go.”

What’s not to fear? In many ways, Manila is still the middle-class suburbanite’s nightmare. All the reasons they moved to the suburbs in the first place are still here: the teeming hordes of the great unwashed, the traffic, the noise, the pollution, the saliva…

But so are a lot of other things that you won’t find in your average gated subdivision: history, culture, the throbbing pulse of modern urban life. Not to mention great food, fantastic bargains and a temporary escape from the cut-and-dried, predictable rut of office-mall-house.
Fortunately, for the timorous, there’s one way to take that first step: take a guided walking tour.

On weekdays, the 26-year-old Dy is the operations manager of a Manila-based trading company. But on weekends, he dons his pigtailed silk cap and becomes-ta-da!-the Chinatown Kid. “I got the idea when I joined walking tours abroad, in Singapore, Shanghai, Montreal and Washington, D.C.,” he says. “When you go on one of these tours, you get a different feeling because your guide is a native of that city and he’s proud of his city.”

Natural appreciation

When he got back from his travels, Dy thought similar tours would be ideal for helping people overcome their initial Manilaphobia. He had worked as a guide at the Bahay Tsinoy, a museum of Filipino-Chinese history and culture at the Intramuros. But nothing brought history to life better than actually pounding the pavements where it all happened. Having grown up in a neighborhood where people could still point out, say, the street where Rizal’s mother lived, or the house where Antonio Luna was born, Dy had a natural appreciation for history on the hoof, as it were.

Last year, he put up a website:, where interested parties can sign up for one or more walking tours. Putting the actual walks together was the easy part, because it covers what is essentially Dy’s own backyard. He put together three walks, with appropriately descriptive tags: “From Boondocks to Boomtown: A Chinatown Walk,” “Power, Palace and A Shot of Beer: Poking Around Old Millionaire’s Row (San Miguel)” and “Mounds, Magnates and Mausoleums: A Chinese Cemetery Walk.”

“I was born and lived in Binondo until I was eight years old, then my family moved to Sta. Cruz,” he says. “I was the fourth of six kids, and we lived in a typical Chinese compound where three families lived, so I grew up with grandparents, aunts and uncles and lots of cousins.”
From an early age, Dy was already drawn to the old. “While other kids were playing with Transformers, I was reading history books,” he recalls. “My dad encouraged me to read history and cultural stuff. Growing up in Binondo, a place which reeked of historical mementoes, my interest particularly zeroed in on the history of the Tsinoy community. Of course, the growth and evolution of the community had everything to do with Manila’s, our country and our region’s history so it was a natural inclination.”

Dy attended high school at St. Jude’s, which brought him to another historic district of old Manila, San Miguel. “In San Miguel, it would the antebellum mansions of San Rafael, Arlegui and Solano streets,” he says. “I always get a kick when I show them the Abbey of the Montserrat (a.k.a. San Beda Church). It never fails to get ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhhs.'”

Morbid interest

As for the Chinese cemetery, apart from the fact that some of his ancestors are buried there and the obvious morbid interest, Dy also finds it endlessly fascinating.
“What I particularly like about it is that it’s one big architectural history book,” he says of the numerous mausoleums and the styles in which they were built. “You’ll find bahay na bato, over-the-top Southern Chinese temples, Art Deco, Neoclassical. There’s even a turtle-shaped plot, and an ancient Chinese burial mound, which is very rarely found nowadays, even in China. The Chinese cemetery is also where you’ll find the oldest Chinese temple in the Philippines-the Chong Hock Tong temple.”

Dy says the Chinese cemetery is also uniquely Tsinoy: You won’t find anything remotely similar on the mainland. The custom of building mausoleums, he says, is a cultural accommodation combining Chinese ancestor worship with the Spanish-Filipino tradition of honoring the dead on Todos los Santos.

“If you go to Paris, you visit Pere Lachaise; if you go to Washington, you visit Arlington; why not visit the Chinese cemetery?” he asks. But by far the most popular walk is the Binondo walk, because apart from seeing the sights, you also get to taste the tastes, because it is partly a culinary tour. “One my aims is to introduce people to the wide variety of ‘Chinese-inspired’ food in Binondo, and their significance to us as part of our culture,” he says. “The eats that are part of my Binondo walk isn’t your typical Chinese fare. Some of these joints are places which a lot of people in Chinatown grew up with, like mami at Ma Mon Luk. Some are restaurants with a cause, such as the Cafe Mezzanine-a restaurant run by a Binondo Volunteer Firemen’s group. Still others are restaurants serving non-traditional fare, places which serve tea-cooked eggs, Hokkien-style fried rice (called kiampeng), Amoy-style hand-rolled lumpia, comida china or even Northern style dumplings.”

The Binondo tour has its share of exotica and chinoiserie. One can enter a sidestreet and walk up to the Kuan Kong Temple, a Taoist place of worship dedicated to the God of War and Literature, where visitors can burn incense or paper “money” offerings, or have their fortunes told by shaking a bamboo cylinder of divination sticks. Or visit La Resurreccion, where workers still hand-roll chocolate tableas the old-fashioned way. The wet market, with its tubs of sea cucumber and picked mustard greens also holds its own fascination, as do the newsstands and video shops selling Hongkong movies and Cantopop CDs. “In all my tours, I make it a point to show people not just beautiful, architecturally-interesting places,” says Dy. “I show them everything—even the not-so-pleasent ones. They may not be your ideal tourist sites, but these patches, like the esteros of Chinatown or the slums beside the Chinese Cemetery, are part and parcel of our city’s evolutionary fabric, and they do have their own stories to tell too.”
Speaking of evolution, Binondo itself is in flux as a new wave of immigrants comes in, drawn by the economic opportunities they see in Manila. Many of them speak Mandarin, rather than Hokkien, and are viewed with mixed feelings by the more established second- or third-generation Tsinoys. The “newcomers” come from a China that’s very different from the one that the “oldtimers” knew. Standing on some of the most expensive real estate in the country, Binondo is an interesting vantage point from which to view Manila’s emerging multicultural society.

This is all the stuff you’d miss if you stayed in the mall.

Says Dy: “I hope that those who join my walks leave with a lot of laughter, a satisfied palate, a better understanding of the Tsinoy community and an enriched appreciation of Manila-warts and all.”
For tour information, text 0917-3291622.