Sunday, January 29, 2012

Enter the Dragon: Chinese New Year at Manila Chinatown

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Red lanterns with  yellow-gold tassels hang
on the streets of Binondo during Chinese New Year.
Binondo, located in the city of Manila, is considered as the oldest Chinatown in the world. This district, which got its name from binundok or mountain, is also one of the extraordinary places to eat around the globe according to National Geographic.  Thus, my friends and I decided to celebrate the eve of Chinese New Year or Spring Festival in Binondo. 

Our plan was simple: To enjoy a good Chinese brunch and observe the festivities.  Like all plans, of course, there were unexpected changes. The party of five became two and the brunch became late lunch. As such, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands and searched for something to do.

Walking through history
Coming from the LRT Carriedo Station, I decided to revisit some of the historical spots in Santa Cruz before heading to Binondo. Santa Cruz, like Binondo, is a place rich in history. In addition,  most of the country's big banks and businesses started in these districts.

My first stop was Plaza Lacson. The plaza was named after the "self-styled Don Quixote" and arguably the greatest mayor of the City of Manila, Arsenio H. Lacson. It was originally named Plaza de Goiti, after Spanish conquistador Martin de Goiti who led the conquest of the kingdoms of pre-colonial Manila.

 The Arsenio H. Lacson monument
 was made by renowned sculptor
Eduardo Castrillo.
Facing Plaza Lacson is the old Don Ramon Santos building. Taking my cue from the movie 500 Days of Summer, I ignored the activity on the street and looked up to appreciate the building's decorative details.  Named after the founder of Prudential Bank, the once white-washed edifice stands out for its neo-classical, Greco-Roman architecture.

A local bank occupies the ground floor of  Don Roman Santos Building. 
A short distance from Plaza Lacson is the Santa Cruz Church, one of the area's well-known landmarks. This baroque church was established by the Jesuits in 1608 and served the communities that lived outside the walled city of Intramuros, particularly the Chinese immigrants who converted to the Catholic faith.
A mix of Christian and Buddhist elements
at Santa Cruz Church.
Across the church and at the center of the plaza (Plaza Santa Cruz) is the European-style Carriedo fountain. This water fountain was built in honor of General Francisco Carriedo who is considered as Manila's greatest benefactor. He was responsible for bequeathing money for the construction of a water system in Manila for the benefit of the poor. It took many years before his vision was realized and thanks to the efforts of Franciscan friar Father Felix de Huerta, Manila's first water system was inaugurated in 1882.

The Carriedo Fountain needs a fresh coat of paint.
A few steps away from the Carriedo fountain is the Arch of Goodwill which symbolizes centuries of friendship between Filipinos and Chinese. The arch serves as entrance to Binondo's  Ongpin Street. Formerly called Calle Sacrista, it was renamed to honor nationalist merchant Roman Ongpin who supported the Filipino freedom fighters during the revolution against Spain and also during the Philippine-American war. A statue of Roman Ongpin stands near Binondo Church.

Green tiled roof and dragons on top means welcome to Chinatown.
Feast for the senses
There was a sizable crowd at Ongpin Street as it was the center of activities for the Chinese New Year celebration. I made my way slowly so I could enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells. My eyes  feasted on the  round red lanterns, lucky charms of different colors and sizes, various round fruits and colorful boxes of treats. There were also large tents on the street that showcased elements of Chinese-Filipino culture such as feng shui, Chinese calligraphy and paper folding, among others.  These were part of the First Pedestrian Day in Chinatown and added to the festive nature of the occasion. In some street corners, there were stages being decorated for the cultural presentations scheduled in the afternoon.

People from different walks of life exploring Binondo.
Water Dragons for luck.
I was tempted to buy some Chinese dim sum and pastries when I passed by the popular stores and restaurants along Ongpin.  Luckily, a group of Chinese Dragon Dance performers kept me from yielding to temptation. They were carrying a long, serpent-like dragon with a vivid red color and humongous head. I managed to snap a photo of the dragon's head before the crowd and DSLR-toting folks blocked my view.

The dragon 's head and the pearl. 
Afterwards, I went to the intersection of Ongpin and Quintin Paredes Streets, where the  Binondo Church's located. Established in 1596, Binondo Church was built during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines to serve the growing number of Chinese converts. It was damaged and rebuilt several times that  only the bell tower remained from its original structure. It's said that the first Filipino saint, Lorenzo Ruiz, served in this church as a sacristan or altar boy.  Hence, it's also known as the Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz. The plaza outside Binondo Church was also named after him.

It's difficult to appreciate Binondo Church's facade with all those large banners
bearing greetings from politicians. 
After picking up my friend near Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz,  we both headed to Calle Nueva. The street  was once popular for stores that sold stationery and office products.  Nueva, which means "new",  was renamed E.T. Yuchengco Street in 2005 after the late Don Enrique T. Yuchengco, one of the contractors of the Manila Post Office building and founder of one of the oldest insurance companies in the Philippines. At the heart of Yuchengco Street is Sincerity Cafe and Restaurant, the venue of our lunch. Typical of the restaurants in the area, it has a simple, no-frills ambiance. It's claim to fame is its fried chicken which is considered as the best chicken in Chinatown. I'll tell you more about Sincerity and other treats at Binondo in my next post.

Sincerity Chicken: Simple yet delightful.
Later, we made our way back to Ongpin for coffee and dessert. We decided to hang out at Lord Stow's Bakery to watch the festivities while taking a break from the 3 p.m. heat. Aside from the dragon dance parade, we saw some young men walking around, offering a lion dance for a fee. There were also a daring few who were dressed to the nines while queuing for tikoy (nian gao) and  hopia (bean-filled Chinese pastry)Interestingly, there was a good number of tourists wandering with their cameras.  Some of them had a twinkle in their eyes that seemed to say, "We're ready for anything!"  and there were those with eyebrows crossed, sweating and perhaps thinking, "WTF did I get myself into?!"

The crowd parts to make way for a lion and a dragon. 
I guess the best way to explore Manila's Chinatown, especially during a festival, is to do a little research beforehand and bring a map or a street guide to help you make your way to the busy streets or locate the best places to eat  dim sum. Otherwise, the cultural mishmash, the seemingly worn-down establishments, and the overwhelming smell of murky canals and burning incense may keep you from enjoying its rich heritage, colorful festivities, and gastronomic delights.

Have you been to Manila's Chinatown? Have you celebrated the Chinese Spring Festival outside your country?  Share your thoughts below! 

Sources: Busines World Online,  Manila HubNational Historical Institute, and senorenrique.


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