Binondo is known as the oldest Chinatown in world, having been established during the Spanish era. It was actually established for the Chinese immigrants who eventually converted into Catholicism. Until now, the place is bustling with businesses owned by Filipino-Chinese and is considered as one of the center of commerce found in Manila. Our group, despite coming from families with Chinese background, not once had the chance to fully explore Binondo because we live in areas that makes Chinatown rather inconvenient to access. Since we were given a free cut last Wednesday by our professor in Sociology and Anthropology, we took this opportunity to explore the busy streets of Binondo as part of our project. The group planned to visit some famous and historical sites in Chinatown and also decided to hold a food trip and visit a Chinese (Buddhist or Taoist) temple too.
The first place we visited was a Buddhist temple. This was not actually in the Binondo area, as it is found somewhere near Divisoria already. Located at Narra Street, the temple actually looks quite small from the outside until one enters the building and discovers that it is actually quite spacious inside. The hall appeared smoky and a bit dim; it gave an atmosphere of utmost solemnity and silence since it was almost empty except for a few visiting patrons. When we entered, we were greeted by a large golden statue of Buddha and the strong scent of burning incense. According to our informant, Marvin Eucariza, this is the most popular Chinese illustration of the revered Indian deity who founded Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama or more popularly known as the Enlightened Buddha. The center of attraction in this temple, however, is the Bodhisattva—an equivalent of a saint in the Catholic religion— at the farthest side of the huge hall, positioned at the center with other Bodhisattvas named Guan Yin. Guan Yin or the Goddess of Mercy, is the Bodhisattva whom the Chinese most often pray to. She is the deity to whom the Monkey King and his friends ask for help in the Chinese classical fantasy novel, Journey to the West.
Right beside Guan Yin is another familiar figure—Guan Yu. According to Marvin, Guan Yu is Boddhisatva revered for his loyalty. We were surprised to know that the old man Yin is actually revered as a Bodhisattva too because what we know of the old general Guan Yu is that he was a sworn brother and loyal servant of Liu Bei—the general of the Shu Han country during the Three Kingdoms Period when China was divided into three countries ruled by generals. Guan Yu was a very talented tactician and warlord and yet he was loyal to Liu Bei despite Liu’s incapacity to win battles until his death. Rulers of the two more powerful countries tried to win the services of Guan Yu when they were able to catch him but they were turned down repeatedly and the rulers had no choice but to spare him for they couldn’t bear to execute such a talented and loyal man.
The first main hall—this temple has actually three—that we entered was called as the Avalokishvara. This shrine is considered as the ancestors’ shrine and allows Buddhist practitioners to pay homage to their ancestors as their belief that they can guarantee their ancestors’ well-being even after death. We saw a man light up a joss stick and proceeded to kneel on one of the many kneeling pads found there. Marvin encouraged us to follow the man’s example and directed us to the area to get some joss sticks. We were to get three sticks and light them up using the candles beside the tray of joss sticks. Then we proceeded to kneel in front of one the altars, starting the one near the temple’s entrance. Marvin explained that paying homage to the images is the same as offering prayers in the Catholic faith. Any problems or big decisions to be made are raised in the prayers, asking for the ancestors’ guidance and wisdom. After that, we placed the joss sticks in a massive jar filled with ashes at the center of the hall and went back to place where we prayed. We kneeled down once again, this time to put our palms together and bow three times to finish the ritual. One of our groupmates, Micah, was actually hesitant to do the ritual at first because he felt awkward in the doing the prayer but after a while of coaxing from Marvin and the rest of the group, Micah agreed to do the ritual.
Next, the group went up the second level and found a hall that shows paintings and sculptures of Gautama Buddha’s earthly life. There were also several statues of deities and kneeling pads, same as the ones found below. And on the left side, we saw another of the main halls—a larger one. The large hall is called as the “Hall of the Ten Thousand Buddhas” and at the very center, we saw a tile shaped like a big lotus located just below the Stupa lined by the ten thousand Buddha relics. Marvin explained that this grand hall was used by the temple for special occasions like charity events.
After the visit in the temple, the group now heads to Binondo. On our way, we observed that traffic was really terrible in the Divisoria area. There were beggars wandering around, litter in the corners. Jeeps and public transportation were running amok, there was no traffic officer maintaining order. People were also bringing out their karitons filled with merchandise in preparation for the night market. We managed to pass by the newly-constructed 999 mall in Recto and had the chance to go inside to have a look. At the time of our visit, there were quite a lot of people—mostly Filipino—shopping and looking around. The place was well-lighted and pretty spacious; a variety of things were being sold—from clothes, shoes to hardware and gadgets. The group also stopped by the new mall of the Megaworld Corporation, the Lucky Chinatown Mall. In contrast to the previous mall we visited, Lucky Chinatown Mall or fondly called as LCM, is filled with shops that sell branded and expensive products. International labels and restaurants mainly dominated the mall, with a few local stores here and there. As from what we have observed, there were a lot of Chinese people in the mall—probably businessmen within the area, residents or parents waiting for their children who are studying in nearby Chinese schools.
As we arrived in our destination, we stopped by the famous Binondo church. Binondo church, or formally known as Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz, was founded by Dominican priests in 1596. The church was built for the Chinese converts living in the area. The original building was actually destroyed in 1762 but a new granite church was completed on the same site in 1852. However, during the Second World War, the building was almost destroyed with only the western facade and the octagonal bell tower surviving. When we went inside, there were quite a lot of people. It was also quiet in the building except for the chorus of prayers being said.
After the visit at the church, we continued our way in Chinatown. Despite its reputation as a centre of commerce, there were still the presence of rundown buildings, squatters and beggars in the area. Behind high rise buildings were shacks and make-shift houses for the poor. Although Binondo is rather clean, there were also garbage littered here and there, creating a mild foul scent. Like in Recto, traffic was bad but not really terrible. Jeeps kept running out of the lanes and people are jaywalking everywhere. We noticed that several establishments like Mcdo, Pancake House and Starbucks bore Chinese names in respect to the Chinese community. We stopped by Eng Bee Tin to have a little snack and a taste of Chinese food while we were in the area. The group was grateful to have the chance to visit the Chinese community here in Manila. Although we cannot go here as often as possible, we hope to come back here for we still have much to see and learn.
1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
Based on our group’s experience, we came to a conclusion that participating instead of just observing gave us a realistic feeling of what it is like be part of an unfamiliar culture. In our brief stay at the Seng Guan Temple,we were able to do the same rituals that the Buddhist devotees regularly do through the guidance of our informant Marvin Eucariza—who by the way is a Buddhist devotee himself. We lighted incenses, kneeled down to the Buddha and the Boddhisatvas and bowed down three times. One of our groupmates, Micah Tan—who is the most unfamiliar with the Chinese Culture among us—felt that doing the ritual was sort of awkward. Being inside the temple alone gives us an unfamiliar aura but doing what the people there do regularly gave us a whole different feeling—it seemed like we are part of their culture and yet we don’t feel like we completely belong. Moreover, observation gives observers a chance to see the bigger picture of the thing but participating in the activity itself gives the participants a chance to widen their perspectives on the subject matter.
2. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
Having a key informant helped a lot since he helped us clarify our observations, answered questions and gave some insight regarding the place and activities. For example, without Marvin Eucariza, our key informant, we wouldn’t have identified the statues we saw in the temple–that of Guan Yin and Guan Yu–and relate that to what we already learned in our Asian History class. It is through Marvin that we were able to make connections from what we learned in class to the actual things we had seen. It will not hurt also to have a key informant who basically grew up in the area and can provide us with trivias and controversies about the place.
3. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
The main difference that can be brought out by doing participant observation rather than conducting an interview is the feeling of the experience that a person gets in a participant observation. In participant observation, a person will get an opportunity to go through what a person will feel when doing a particular activity. Comparing interview with participant observation is the same as comparing participant observation with just observing.
4. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
If you’re aiming to gather details, conducting interviews and having people answer surveys might be a better way to get information. Participant observation could only get you so far; because even though you have an upper-hand when it comes to experience, your knowledge can still be limited.
Tan, Keith Micah
Ty, Eunice Abegail