Chinatown Manila: Oldest in the world | All about China | Radio86

Chinatown Manila: Oldest in the world

Chinatown Manila: Oldest in the world

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The Filipino-Chinese Friendship Arch stands in the middle of downtown Manila. Step through here and you are transported to another world -- Chinese music blaring from shops, the smell of incense permeating the air, offers and counter-offers being made in Fookienese dialect -- Welcome to Chinatown!

Chinatown Manila was established in 1594, making it the oldest in the world. The Spaniards gave a parcel of land tax-free to Catholic Chinese and granted them self-governing privileges. Paul So, Chairman of the Committee on Tourism of the Chinatown Development Authority, explains, "Chinatown was established not because the Chinese wanted to stay together. They were put together in one place, outside the walls of Manila, across the river, so they would not disturb or do much harm to the Spanish enclave."

In those days, the Chinese were "mostly from Fujian province. On one street, you would probably find that all came from the same town in Fujian. When one goes to a foreign country, he tries to get his brother, his whole family into that place and then, his town mates. That's how this little Chinatown became a big Chinatown," recounts Paul So. The Chinese today make up 2% of the Philippines' 85 million population.

For the businessman and the gourmet

Chinatown occupies an area of about 1 square kilometer, which according to Paul So is, "not huge but the whole area is bustling with business. People might say that Makati City is the Philippines' financial capital, but the turnover of business in Chinatown is a lot more than anywhere else in the Philippines." Indeed, Chinatown is known for its wholesale stores, a place to test if goods are salable. A popular belief is that if it sells in Chinatown, it will sell everywhere else; and if it doesn't sell in Chinatown, well...

Food is another attraction that draws people to Chinatown. "Nowadays, when people think let's go to Chinatown, they mean, let's have a good meal. They come here for traditional Chinese meals. From the ordinary roast suckling pig to century eggs, freshwater turtles, exotic fishes and fruits, food that you'll never find anywhere else in the Philippines; you name it, you'll find it here," Paul enthuses. He talks of how, with the advent of VCD's and DVD's, people have stopped going to movie theaters. The Chinese, as enterprising as always, have turned the almost empty cinemas in Chinatown into huge restaurants serving top-rate dishes.

The changes within Chinatown go far beyond the turning of cinemas into restaurants. The city government, under the leadership of Mayor Jose Atienza Jr., is undertaking projects to improve the area through the Chinatown Development Authority (CDA). Current projects include the repaving of the sidewalks to make Chinatown more pedestrian-friendly and upgrading the streetlights. Collaborating in these programs are the more than 400 benevolent associations that are in Chinatown -- family-, town-, athletic- and business associations that help one another through problems or common concerns. The three main associations directly involved in the re-development of Chinatown are the Federation of Filipino Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Chinese Filipino Business Club and the Chinese Charitable Association.

Contrasts and fusion

One of the most famous sites in Chinatown is a Catholic church. Binondo Church is one of the oldest places of worship in the Philippines and is in the middle of Chinatown! The first Filipino saint, Lorenzo Ruiz, a Chinese mestizo (his father was Chinese, his mother Filipina), served there as an altar boy. Paul So also mentions the "side chapels that are Catholic in nature but has Chinese incense being burned right in front of the cross. There are also temples everywhere in Chinatown."

It is also a place where the past and the present converge. According to Paul So, the latest hotspot is the "128 Mall, where anything and everything can be bought at bargain basement prices." And to get there? People, especially the older generations prefer, Paul So says, "the kalesa (a horse-drawn carriage) to air conditioned cars. It's much more Old China that way."

Adding to this atmosphere is the music you hear while walking along Chinatown, recordings that remind the old folks of their hometown in China, makes them long to go back home there. And looking around you, at the shop signs written in Chinese after being outlawed during the 1970's and 1980's, you'll realize that Chinatown is really a world of its own in the middle of Manila.

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