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Chowing down in Chinatown
Source: Manila Bulletin
Author: Blooey Singson
Date: 2007-09-02
400 years of history and four hours of decadence. No one goes home with an empty stomach after this Binondo wok...errr...walk!

You can go to the Chinatowns of Paris, London, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Sydney, Singapore, or Bangkok, but there is no other Chinatown steeped in as much history, culture and tradition than Manila’s very own Binondo.

With its 16th-century baroque cathedral, Buddhist temples, wet markets and traditional Chinese shops and restaurants, Binondo packs an adventure for any leisurely wanderer.

But lest you get lost in Binondo’s labyrinth of time-worn streets and back alleys, Old Manila Walks, a group that dubs itself as "a bunch of street walkers, cultural trippers and urban adventurers," takes tourists on the Big Binondo Food Wok, a one-of-a-kind experience of this Chinatown’s centuries-old heritage.


Old Manila Walks operates on the simple principle of experiencing the best of historic Manila – one step at a time.

"I’ve joined walking tours in cities all over the world," says street walker and urban story teller Ivan Dy. "It’s always a different feeling when the tour guides are natives who have pride in their city. I thought to myself, why don’t we have that in Manila?"

Thus, Old Manila Walks was born, with Dy putting together a series of walks that covered areas he knew like the back of his hand.

"I was born and raised in Binondo until I was eight years old, then my family moved to Sta. Cruz," Dy explains. "I studied in the San Miguel area, and I’m a volunteer tour guide for Intramuros."

Old Manila Walks offers walking tours such as "Walls of THIS Content," featuring the cobblestone streets and museums of Intramuros; "Power, Palace, and a Shot of Beer," featuring Malacañang and its environs as well as a finedine merienda spread and a history of the Filipino’s favorite drink; "Mounds, Magnates and Mausoleums," a Chinese Cemetery walk; and "A FEU Good Men," a tour of the Far Eastern University, the single largest art deco complex in the city.

The Big Binondo Food Wok, however, takes walking tours one step further by giving its tourists a large helping of history and culture as they nibble their way through Manila’s Chinese quarters.

While culinary tours are a novelty in the Philippines, the Big Binondo Food Wok is a step in the right direction, as culinary tourism is an emerging phenomenon that has recently been touted as the baby boomer of the travel industry.

In a survey conducted by the Travel Industry Association of America, two in five (40 percent) of leisure travelers go out of their way to incorporate unique and memorable eating and drinking experiences into their travel plans. Travelers express a strong desire to explore local cultures while participating in activities such as cooking classes, sampling local cuisine, shopping for produce and gourmet food, and attending food and wine festivals.


"No one goes home with an empty stomach," promises Dy at the start of the tour. On a cloudy Saturday afternoon that threatened of rainfall, Dy takes our group underneath the familiar red paifang (Chinese arch) proclaiming "Welcome to Binondo," through a maze of streets, behind storefronts and inside curiosities, for 400 years of history and four hours of decadence.

After saying a prayer for good weather at the lobby of the Binondo Church, the tour started out at the Plaza de Calderon de la Barca, where Dy reveals more of Binondo’s history, its unique Spanish influence, and fusion of Catholic and Chinese beliefs.

"Binondo was already a hub of Chinese commerce even before the Spaniards came in 1571. The colonizers, realizing the contribution the Chinese made to the economy, confined them into local ghettos called the parian," Dy narrates. "With the growing Chinese population, the Spaniards were fearful of rebellion, and so they converted as many Chinese as they can into Catholics, giving rise to a community of Chinese mestizos. These Catholic Chinese were granted the enclave that came to be known as Binondo."

Dy candidly adds, "The Spaniards adhered to the principle ‘Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.’ Binondo was, quite conveniently, right within firing range of the cannons in the walled city of Intramuros."

Much of the Spanish colonization’s influence of Binondo lives to this day, with the hand-drawn kalesas that prance down its streets and distinct Period architecture of the older buildings in the area, such as the Binondo Church.

Dating back to 1596, the Binondo Church was later renamed as the Basilica de San Lorenzo Ruiz, after the Filipino saint who once served as a sacristan there. With its sprawling gables and vaulted niches, it appears as a typical baroque cathedral, save for an octagonal bell tower whose shape, according to Chinese superstition, prevents evil spirits from lurking around the corners.


We were given a real taste of this fusion of cultures at our first stop, a sampling of rich, old-fashioned cocoa at La Resurreccion Chocolate, a traditional chocolate tablea factory. While the flavor evokes the chocolate e immortalized in the pages of Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, the signage and the tablea’s red and gold packaging makes it right at home in Binondo.

Fueled by this bittersweet brew, the Tsinoy chop suey began, with a sampling of Chinese peasant fare (fishball soup and salted rice flavored with strips of pork and roasted peanuts) and iced brewed coffee at a café adorned with a Chinese volunteer firefighter theme; a variety of Northern-style dumplings in chives and pork and cabbage, a platter of Chinese pancakes made of mixed vegetables and ground meat, all of which we downed with a steaming cup of tea at a dimsum shop; creamy, meaty fried siopao (unlike the common fastfood asado and bola-bola siopao) and crisp, light, freshly made bicho-bicho rolled in cinnamon sugar at an open-air bakery; and hand-wrapped fresh Hokkien lumpia flavored with mixed chopped vegetables, crispy noodles, crushed peanuts, and seaweed, then topped with a sweet peanutty sauce at a hidden eatery.

In between food stops, we burned calories immersing ourselves in Chinese culture in the intimate alleys of Binondo.

At a traditional drug store, we learned about Chinese medicine and the concepts of yin and yang and feng shui. The store has 101 apothecary shelves and hearty whiffs of strange herbs and poultices, and infusions.

We stopped by a street altar, another example of the fusion of faiths, with its gold crucifix, where the locals stopped by momentarily to pray and burn incense offerings for their deceased ancestors, as they celebrated the Chinese Ghost Month.

We got to know Chinese marriage rituals at a curio shop that sold engagement gifts for Chinese couples "booked for life," selling everything from lanterns to buddhas of different shapes and sizes, china dolls, figurines and giant vases, and even pincushions surrounded by little Chinese babies, all marked with the Chinese marriage symbol for double happiness.

We wove through a fruit and vegetable market, selling luscious a luscious selection not commonly found at your local supermarket – earthy mushrooms and giant shiny red and green peppers, juicy plums, fleshy peaches, and spiky dragonfruit.

Just as we returned to the Binondo Church with worn-out feet and sated appetites, signaling the end of the tour, the rain came pelting down in sheets. The gods of good fortune had smiled down at us.

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