Emilio Congco and Trista Vega
Walking down the Plaza Mayor, beyond the rushing cars driving around the busy square, we are faced with a rustic structure which evokes a by-gone colonial history defined in its moss-covered stone. There is an outpouring of people, mostly inside, and a select few standing in the heat of the morning sun. It is the morning mass at Binondo Church. This old structure is backdropped by the emerging modernity reflected in the global brands such as McDonalds. Despite this large contrast of new and old, this square, this church and its peripherals, was the starting point and the focal point of our immersion into the Chinese-Filipino culture in Binondo.
Strolling down the narrow side streets of Binondo, we were faced with buildings adorned with advertisements in Chinese alongside its English translations. These buildings have a specific pattern: for most buildings, the first floor was a commercial store while upper floors were the residences of the Binondo community. Also, each side street had a product specialization, ranging from a paper street, footwear street, food street, fung shui street, as well as a street for religious paraphernalia such as paper money, tall dragon embossed red candles and incense sticks. Alongside these shops were franchises of famous stores and banks like HSBC, KFC and Starbucks (all their names with Chinese character counterparts).
When we asked a local about the specific pattern, the local explained that Binondo was first and foremost a business district for the Chinese-Filipino community with families with different specializations, and that the specialty shops usually clumped together. This explains the street specializations which we encountered, as well as the business oriented building structures of the district.
The products themselves were different from the Manila markets as there were stores which are typically more Chinese in nature like a crystal shop, medicinal shop and a video shop where most videos were in Chinese. The street food were also different compared to the typical hawker food (isaw, fish balls, etc). The street food sold by the vendors were a variety of dimsum and Chinese pastries like hopia. What is interesting is that some of these food were infused with Filipino ingredients such as coconut and ube (in the macapuno hopia, for example). Also, a lot of stores had booming Chinese music heard in the narrow, traffic-infused streets.
In a lot of stores, the communication between the buyer and the seller was a mix of Filipino and a Chinese dialect. It was also observed that there was an evident social stratification in a lot of the stores. Most of those who handle the money or appear to be the owners appear to be of Chinese descent while those who do the manual work such as cooking, stacking products, cleaning and the like were more of Filipino descent.
Perhaps the most striking feature in Binondo is how Filipino it is in appearance and population, yet so different in many ways as well. Perhaps this can be epitomized in the religiosity which is evident in the Binondo community. After all, the Binondo Church serves as the central place of worship of the Chinatown community. Binondo can be said to be predominantly Catholic, as seen in the multiple altars found around Binondo. But what makes these altars different is that though there are large crosses in some recessed areas of buildings, these are adorned in incenses and candles as those which we encountered in the stores. Indeed, the differences lie in the small details. The street surrounding it is filled with the scent of incense as those facing the altar are covered in a light plume of smoke. Beyond this smoke, we see people who touch the cross and bow in great reverence.
It might seem absurd how Chinatown can be pervaded by Christianity. It must not be ignored that Taoist and Buddhist places of worship or temples continue to exist in the area. These temples are situated inside commercial buildings. The facades of the commercial buildings containing these temples are very similar to the ones we see in the metro (aside from the Chinese characters). It would be easy to miss these temples if not for the humble signs outside the buildings. These temples might not be as imposing or as grand as the Binondo Church but they are still places of worship that can be seen as traces of the faith of the first generation of Chinese migrants. One would expect for the different places of worship to seem like they are contending against each other but that is exactly what make the community of Binondo, Binondo: the unity despite the diverse multicultural backgrounds.
This striking hybridity that we have observed in Binondo reflects the harmony among the presence of multiculturalism in our country. This harmony, balance and hybridity in itself is a very Asian concept (compared to the more forward religions like Catholicism propagated by the Spaniards). In a way, Binondo can be seen as a mirror of Philippine society with its hybrid of cultural backgrounds.
It must be noted that the concept of Chinatown can be described as being universal in this fast-paced age of Globalization. Chinatowns exist in the world but the countries these Chinatowns are situated in will always put their own stamp and personal twist in terms of the locality in which their in.
All of this brings us back to the structure which we can say fully embodies the Binondo culture: the Basilica Minor de San Lorenzo Ruiz or the Binondo Church. It is, first and foremost the most evident reminder of the reason of Binondo’s existence: a history of Chinese-Filipino exclusion in Manila’s primary inner circles as well as the embodiment of the beginnings of the Catholic-Chinese hybridities present in BInondo today. Binondo church embodies how this district is adapting to the progressive force of globalization. It is the evidence that culture, in itself, is neither absolute nor stagnant. From different cultures comes a divergence and birth of a new one, in itself unique and dynamic yet still imperfect (as seen in the stratifications in the community).
We end with the story of our experience with the church which fully embodies the Binondo culture. As we entered the church, we are met with a small stall selling devotional candles. Yet each colored candle signified a specific prayer (orange for studies, red for health, blue for prosperity), evoking a fung shui approach to devotion. There were people who lit incense at the foot of the statue of San Lorenzo Ruiz, he himself a product of what was then a newly hybridized Binondo culture. As we walked on, we saw the church announcement boards donated by multi-national corporations and banks like Visa. As mass was being held, we see a disabled man sitting in the large facade of the church, ignored by most of those who enter for spiritual nourishment. Though filled with silence and solemnity under one newly painted dome, the people are divided, sitting separately, mentioning the same chants. As we exited, a man offered us scapulars, then asked us for donations. As we are handed these, he asked us if we felt enlightened and healed as we held the scapulars in our hand. A couple, talking in Chinese, enters the church, bows, and goes to mass.