Binondo : Manila’s Chinatown

My mum once told me a saying, “Where water flows, there will be Chinese people.”

As a fourth generation Overseas Chinese, I couldn’t agree more. We’re everywhere on the planet. My ancestors were poor people, and they left China on boats in search of a better life – as many others did to countries as far away as Haiti and Iceland. Our culture and values, which place a big importance on ‘wealth and prosperity’, also meant that many Chinese became traders and businessmen.

Binondo, or Manila’s Chinatown, is the oldest in the world: established in 1594 by the Spaniards as a way to keep an eye on their ‘immigrant’ population’ (lol ironic seeing that the Spaniards are immigrants themselves – but hey, the winner writes the history book, right?). Over hundreds of years, these original settlers have intermarried with the locals, creating a lineage called Chinese mestizo.


This place has seen much grief – in the 1600s, a revolt was put down by the Spanish and subsequently, more than 20,000 of the colony were killed. It was also ransacked during the British invasion of Manila, and hundreds of innocent civilians died. In later years, it became an important banking and financial hub just before World War II, so much so that the area around it was called the Wall Street of the Philippines. Today, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Manila, housing various souvenir shops, food stalls and historical buildings.


We arrived on a rainy morning, so the roads were slick and wet with mud. It was the third day of Chinese New Year so festivities had winded down, but the streets were still lined with various CNY paraphernalia and food stuff. The overall layout reminded me of Hong Kong (never been to China *gasp* so I couldn’t tell you) – tall, narrow buildings fitted very closely together, narrow walkways, a jumble of signages.

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We asked around for the temple and was directed to one on the third floor of a building. This was peculiar to me because our Chinese temples in Malaysia are always a solitary building. The inside didn’t look much different though. The temple caretakers looked Chinese and spoke in a dialect I didn’t understand (possibly Hokkien).

The Chinoys (Chinese Filipinos) are well integrated into Filipino society, adopting the names, cultures and customs of the locals – even those with pure ancestry. This is quite different from Malaysia. When Malaysia declared independence, the Chinese and Indians (two other major race groups in our country) were allowed to have their own schools, systems and to keep our languages/names. It has resulted in a unique blend of cultures which still retains most of their respective customs/languages without being assimilated. There are pros and cons to this, but more on that in another post.


The main street in Binondo is a long one, so expect to do some legwork. There was a bridge from the North to South part of Chinatown.

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The river running through town was filthy. ._.

We didn’t get to go to many places other than the church because of the infernal rain, but there are historical buildings around that you can visit, such as the First United Building, Regina Building, Burke Building and Natividad Building. Mostly, come to Chinatown to experience the Chinoy culture and load up on food, street snacks and souvenirs (talisman, charms) to take home. You can even find exotic items like ginseng and shark’s fin in Chinese herbal shops here.

Getting There 

Take the LRT from Baclaran station to Carriedo (we stopped at Rekto and walked from Quiapo to Santa Cruz to Chinatown, which was quite a long walk lol).

Church Hopping in Manila – Quiapo, Sta Cruz & Binondo

IF there’s one thing you’ll come across a lot in Manila (other than malls), it’s churches. Not surprising, seeing that 83% of the Philippines (about 84mil people) are Catholics.

The Filipino love for religion isn’t just about praying – it’s a way of life. I mean, when the Pope turned up, a whopping 6mil people came to attend Mass at Rizal Park. That’s like the entire population of Selangor (an entire state) in Malaysia! Mass is a big thing and religious symbols are everywhere – I’ve never seen that many figures/pictures/paintings of Jesus and the saints anywhere else on the planet. Even the Jeepneys have names like ‘God Bless the Philippines’ or  ‘Santa Maria’.

So it would be poor form as a traveler if I didn’t at least drop by to visit a couple of churches – to understand more about how this religion pervades the life of the average Filipino. Also, I had the perfect guide for explaining stuff to me, since E is Catholic


Our first church for the day was Quaipo Church, or the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene. It is famous as the home of the Black Nazarene, a black statue of Jesus carrying a cross over his shoulder. The church site has been there since the 1500s, even though earlier structures were destroyed in fires/earthquakes. The current building was reconstructed in 1899. It is done in the Baroque style.


Only got one picture in. I think they were having mass so we were told not to take pix.


Exterior of church.


There were a few Black Nazarene statues; some are copies while the original is enshrined in a glass case at the back of the church. Believed to have been carved by a Mexican artist from black wood, it is reputed to be miraculous and was brought to the Phils in a Spanish galleon in the 17th century. Every year, there is a procession to honour the Black Nazarene and thousands of people turn up for the devotion. Some men carry the statue as a way of purging their sins for the year.


The statue’s detailing was exquisite, and it wore a rich dark red gown embroidered with gold stitches, and wore a golden, three-pronged crown. The artist did well with the face – Christ wore a sad yet compassionate expression. I followed what E did : wiped the statue with a cloth and then kissed the feet. It was surprisingly fragrant and smelled like sandalwood, with a velvety, oiled texture.


Devotees lining up in the rain to touch the statue.

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Other side of the church, which had figures of saints lining the walls.


Behind the church was a small chamber with more religious figures.


The original Black Nazarene. The statue’s foot was outside the case and devotees touched, wiped and kissed it for blessing.


At the marketplace outside the church, prayer candles and other paraphernalia were on sale. Rosary beads, figures of Jesus on the cross, Santo Nino (child Jesus), Mother Mary and etc.

But there is a dark side to Quaipo. The streets surrounding the church are a popular spot to find abortion elixirs. Abortions are illegal in the Phils, and people resort to unsafe practices to get rid of their unwanted foetuses. This despite teachings that discourage pre-marital sex; and abortion is definitely a no-no that would earn you a free pass to the fires of hell.

Idk, I find that ironic.

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Our next church was the Santa Cruz church, also done in a Baroque style and built by Jesuits in the 1600s. It was completely destroyed in the Battle of Manila, then rebuilt in 1957. The interior had a Chinese flavour – red lanterns hung at the entrance. Maybe because Chinatown is just nearby.

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Outside Santa Cruz.

Exiting the church, we were assailed by small children selling flower garlands. They were dressed in old, worn out clothes, slippers worn down to thin rubber soles, and looked at us with huge puppy eyes. This was a common sight throughout Manila. It was really sad. Here there were churches and everyday people attending mass, and outside were poor children running around, sniffing glue (we saw a row of them by the streets) and scraping by for a living when they should be in school and getting an education. The contrast is jarring. The tranquil interior of the holy place vs the sweat and tears of poverty stricken people outside.

Sometimes, I wonder.


Our last church for the day was in Binondo, or Chinatown. This looked the grandest among all of the churches we had visited, and it was decked out for a wedding ceremony with white drapes and flowers lining a red carpeted aisle. Founded in 1596 for Chinese converts in Manila, it was destroyed by British bombardment, and then the second world war, before being restored. Once upon a time, it was considered to be the most beautiful church in the Philippines.


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Peddlers selling everlasting flowers,

20160206_133318-tileRed and gray granite facade of Binondo Church.

My church hopping experience in Manila was an interesting one, to say the least. It was an insight into not only a religion, but a way of life for the Filipinos.