Manila Chinatown is located just across the Pasig River opposite the Spanish walled city Intramuros. The area was originally for Catholic Chinese only. Non Christian Chinese were allowed to move into Chinatown much later in 1790.
The Spanish mission to Catholicize continues to leave its mark on the physical landscape of Manila Chinatown. The main street in Chinatown, Ongpin Street, is still flanked by Cathedrals at each end. The Santa Cruz Church was built in 1608 and Binondo Church built in 1596. Both are functioning Churches and continue to serve the populations in the area and both have very long and rich history.
Manila Chinatown is known by various names reflecting its multiple functions and layers of meanings. To the tourists, it is known as Chinatown, a common reference to an area where there are a lot of Chinese or Chinese businesses. To the Filipinos, the area is known as Binondo. When the Filipino Chinese communicate among themselves, they refer to the area as “Chi Lai”, 市内, Hokkien term for inner city.
Although Manila and Philippines are associated with Catholicism, you will find much evidence of Chinese heritage and traditional Chinese institutions in Manila Chinatown.
The key structure that signals your arrival towards Chinatown is the Chinese Goodwill Arch. In fact, there are several arches and they act as a spatial marker to welcome visitors into a different cultural sphere. Once you pass the aches, you can find icons, institutions and features typical of Chinatowns.
An immediate distinction is the street signs. They are often bilingual and sometimes trilingual (Filipino, English and Traditional Chinese script) and sometimes decorated with dragons. Even the world’s local bank, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank’s (HSBC) signage is bilingual. Elsewhere in Philippines, the HSBC signage is in English only.
Businesses in Chinatown cater to the dietary, cultural and religious needs of the Chinese population. Restaurants line the street offering a wide range of Chinese food while other shops offer the latest CD from Hong Kong and Taiwan, religious goods and festive goods that are in season.
There are also various traditional Chinese institutions such as the Clan associations, Taoist temples and Buddhist monasteries in Chinatown. Some of them are housed in modern buildings while others have the traditional Chinese architecture elements. One such temple is the Philippines Chinese Buddhist Temple, 王彬古迹关圣夫子庙. Also present are various martial arts schools for example the Lau Family Hung Kuen Association in Manila, 菲律宾刘家洪拳会.
A highly prominent feature in Manila Chinatown are the fire engines managed by Chinese volunteer organizations. Their fire engines are often sponsored by individuals or organizations and are highly visible all over Chinatown. There is even an Association of Philippine Volunteer Fire Brigades.
As you stroll and enjoy the sights and signs of Chinatown, you know you have reached the boundaries when you see another Chinese Arch. At the southeastern end of Ongpin street, a fountain and the Santa Cruz Church faced the Chinese archway presenting an interesting contrast.