Special Feature

VICTORIA T. VIZCARRA, Special Features Assistant Editor

Binondo Back Story

Posted on January 24, 2012

Binondo’s heyday may have ended with the onslaught of World War II, but it’s gone down in history books as the first commerce hub in the country.

Entrance to Ongpin Street, Binondo
“Nothing can beat Binondo’s business heritage. It has pedigree,” said Ivan Man Dy, founder of Old Manila Walks, which offers historical cultural tours. “For the most part, businesses there still have a Chinese stamp on [them].”

Initially founded by Spanish Governor Luis Perez DasmariƱas for the Chinese Catholic population in 1594, the commercial district of Binondo was overseen by the ministry of Dominican friars. Lying just across the river from Intramuros, Binondo got its name from the word binundok, which means mountain.

Most Chinese settlers were from the Southern province of Fujian, while some hailed from Canton. The Philippines was a convenient destination for migrating Chinese, as Mr. Man Dy explained in an interview: “Fujian is a very outward-looking region, since it faced the South China Sea.” Today’s Chinese-Filipinos or Tsinoys are predominantly of Hokkien descent, he also said.

While it originally profited from the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade in the 1500s, Manila’s Chinatown became known not only for its merchants but for a diverse industrial sector that ranged from cigar production to bell making. Binondo had been a commercial district from its inception, but Mr. Man Dy noted, “The Chinese only got into business here because there weren’t other options available to them then.”

The country’s early Chinese immigrants had to contend with discrimination from the Spanish, who charged taxes double that of Filipinos. And they were encouraged to become agricultural laborers, according to Prof. Linda A. Newsonbut of King’s College London, because they were seen as better workers next to native Filipinos. Despite colonial authority’s distrust of the Chinese, the Spanish were also dependent on their goods and skilled services, especially to help Manila—then a new colony—find its footing.

As many settlers eventually intermarried with locals, the resulting generation of Chinese mestizos or mestizos de sangleyes helped shape Binondo into a bustling business community. “They had the best of both worlds,” shared Mr. Man Dy. “They became the bridge between the local social culture and the Chinese business culture, so they were the ones who profited when the market opened up.”

Using the dispensa de ley, Chinese mestizos were able to legally change their classification by transferring their families into the tax register of Malay Filipinos. As importers, retailers and wholesalers, the Chinese locals’ entrepreneurial savvy led them to become key players in the economy.

According to “Connecting & Distancing: Southeast Asia and China,” published in 2009 by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, small credit and retail establishments flourished under the Chinese mestizos. And for a time, Binondo was also known as the country’s financial center: Until the 1960s, it was the site of the Manila Stock Exchange.

Many of today’s local financial institutions, including China Banking Corp. (China Bank), Metropolitan Bank & Trust Co. (Metrobank), Allied Banking Corp. (Allied Bank), and Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) were originally based in Binondo.

Eventually, Binondo evolved into a melting pot of people and cultures; by the 1800s, many Hispanic-led companies were also headquartered there. Stewart Lone, an Associate Professor in the University of New South Wales, has noted that the city’s Chinese apothecaries stood alongside German and British drugstores.

In the 1880s and 1890s, Chinese-owned general stores or bazaars along Calle Nueva, Calle del Rosario, and Calle Escolta; these streets teemed with wares imported from Europe. This was a response to the elites’ preoccupation with all things Western, according to the University of London’s Dr. Raquel A. G. Reyes.

“A lot of the big businesses founded by the Chinese started from the 1850s onward,” said Mr. Man Dy. “The core of the wholesale and import industry is still in Bindondo [today].” Its strategic location also played a part in Binondo’s business boom; Manila served as a transshipment point where a lot of trading took place.

Binondo managed to survive the carpet-bombing of Manila during World War II and rebuilt some structures like the Binondo Church. But afterwards, many enterprises began to relocate from its crowded streets to Ayala-developed Makati City while leaving Binondo’s old look intact. “The architecture of Chinatown is still reflective of its origins,” said Mr. Man Dy.

Soon, Binondo will get with the times, starting with Escolta, its main thoroughfare. Last September, representatives from the City of Manila, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, and various Escolta property holders met for “BPO@Escolta: A Dialogue Among Stakeholders” in the Manila City Hall. This was part of a new movement to reinvent the street and its heritage structures into a leading business process outsourcing (BPO) hub.

“[It] aims to broker a marriage between two of the country’s strongest resources: our BPO industry, and our 20th century heritage architecture, the best examples of which are located in the Escolta neighborhood,” said Dominic Galicia of Dominic Galicia Architects. “[Its] unique architectural environment, as opposed to buildings of more recent vintage, is a strong selling point.”

Escolta is close to many universities and colleges from which BPO firms can find potential staff, but it’s the buildings’ historical facade that may help set the firms apart from their competitors abroad.

“It’s all about conserving the past, but making it relevant to the future,” Mr. Man Dy also said.