Exploring Binondo on a Student Budget
March 16, 2019
by Franz Legazpi
Many consider Binondo as one of the densest, most dizzying places in Metro Manila. But as a student who loves adventure, history, and local cultures, I’ve always seen the bustle of Binondo as its main charm. Nestled snugly in old Manila alongside other historic districts like Santa Cruz and Divisoria, a visit to the oldest Chinatown in the world always feels like a fresh experience.
Binondo was established in 1594. Interspersed within its ancient alleyways are numerous Chinese shops that sell jade and gold trinkets, famed generation-spanning restaurants, and Spanish architecture, most notably the red-and-grey Binondo church. Historically, the area was known as a trading and business hub (Escolta street in the southern part of Binondo, for example, was once called the “Wall Street of the Philippines).
Now, the district is famous for its bargain prices on products not normally found in the Metro, such as Chinese jewelry and delicious food. There, one can also celebrate and appreciate Chinese culture in levels that cannot be found anywhere else in Manila.
I decided to go to Binondo last February 5, during the Chinese New Year. Why I decided to go on Binondo’s busiest holiday remains a mystery to me even until today. But my curiosity outweighed my apprehension, and with only about 200 PHP (around 4 USD) in my pocket, I set off to experience Binondo at its literal fullest.
Going to Binondo
There are many ways to go to Binondo. But me and my companion, a fellow student, decided to take the most student-friendly way possible: by jeepney. The jeepney terminal can be found in the corner of Nicanor Reyes Street and P. Paredes Street, a few steps away from the nearby Far Eastern University.
Interestingly, instead of handing over money to a conductor (as is common in most jeepney terminals), the Binondo-bound jeepneys employ a casino chip system. Here, you hand over the exact base fare (in our case, only 9 PHP), and the conductor gives you one chip, which you will hand over to a barker (a Filipino worker whose job is to shout out jeepney routes to passersby) before entering the jeepney.
After plying the hot roads of Recto Avenue, we got off at a crossroads near Divisoria. Those wishing to continue towards Binondo would have to take a short walk. For many passengers, the initial stopover before going to the deeper parts of Binondo was the nearby mall of Lucky Chinatown. The mall employs distinct Chinese aesthetics, such as the paifang or Chinese arches, and several red lanterns strewn above the main walkway. Although the presence of a very modern-looking establishment in this historic place was a little disconcerting, the centralized stores and restaurants (not to mention its air conditioned interior) made the mall a one-stop shop for many visitors. My journey to see more of Binondo, however, does not end here.
Further down the walkway, we saw a rather sizable crowd milling around a gigantic red-and-gold pig. After all, 2019 is the Year of the Pig. According to Chinese zodiac beliefs, the pig symbolizes good fortune and material wealth.
The modern mall features several restaurants and shops inside. When we visited, it was nearing lunch time, and many families were already waiting outside various eateries. My stomach was rumbling, since I hadn’t been able to eat a decent breakfast. However, I was craving for something a little more rustic and authentic. So, bidding adieu to the mall, we walked a little over a block away to the Minor Basilica of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz, more famously known as the Binondo Church.
Binondo Church really stands out. Maybe it was its dark red-and-grey granite aesthetic, or the old church’s imposing look amid surrounding grey-white buildings. Definitely it had gravitas, the way excellently preserved historical sites often do. Built only two years after Binondo was founded, the church has its own hefty history. The original building was destroyed by the British in 1762, at the start of their short lived occupation of Manila. The first Filipino saint, the eponymous St. Lorenzo Ruiz, trained here as a convert. Andres Bonifacio, the famous Revolutionary hero, married Gregoria de Jesus here in 1893.
When we arrived, the interior was packed to the brim with a large crowd of churchgoers. Deciding that the daily congestion of the Metro was enough for me to further foray into jam packed places, I decided to explore the more dynamic world outside instead.
Beyond the church’s walls, life bustled like there was no tomorrow. Vendors with pink and red heart-shaped helium balloons milled about, while cages full of small, colorful lovebirds chirped incessantly. Another vendor sold small, fluffy bunnies at only Php 100 (around 2 USD), while a fortune teller had a tarot card set ready on a table in a corner. Most popular were the vendors of tikoy or nian gao, also known as the Chinese sweet rice cake, which has the consistency of sticky Japanese mochi. Like Christmas hams during December, sales of this delicious treat soar during the Chinese New Year, as tradition states eating it brings good luck. Tikoys, however, are available here all year round, running from 50 – 120 PHP (1 – 2.30 USD) depending on the size.
Last stop: Ongpin Street
I saw a cart selling crispy chicken skin at only 20 PHP (.39 USD) per packet, and I knew I had to try it. It was every bit as delicious as I thought it would be. Be aware, however, that street food in the Philippines is not popular for its cleanliness. Other Filipino deep fried street food classics, such as the kikiam, orange kwek-kwek, and fishballs, were also present.
Every so often we would see groups of street children engaging in the traditional dragon dance. They creatively employed rudimentary equipment like cut shoeboxes, colored cartolina, and flowing pieces of cloth to make cartoon-like renditions of dragons. They dance to the amusement of a watching crowd, who gives them alms, while another child beats rhythmically and expertly on a repurposed bucket of paint like a percussion. The dragon dance is perhaps the most famous Chinese New Year tradition, as dragons symbolize strength, justice, honor, and power for the upcoming year.
After seeing many of the restaurants already filled up with the lucky early birds, my companion and I decided to forego lunch altogether, deciding that the experience itself was enough to satisfy the hunger of a couple of students with a sense of wanderlust. I bought a small tikoy instead, which cost Php 55 (around 1 USD). After a rather long walk, which took us to more ancient paifangs and charm-and-jewelry shops, we finally exited to the Santa Cruz Church Plaza, in front of the historic Carriedo Fountain. Santa Cruz, much like Binondo, has its own fair share of Philippine history, but that’s an article for another day.
I left Binondo with around 130 PHP ( 2.51 USD) left in my pocket. Although I missed many of Binondo’s most unique offerings, particularly its famous food establishments and hidden shops, the experience made me more appreciative of its history, the dynamic nature of its ever curious crowds, and the embedded history along each nook and cranny.
Binondo might not be the most relaxing or even the most opulent getaway to experiencing Chinese culture, but for a student on a budget, it’s the next best thing to booking a flight to China.