Everyone has a different story to tell about Chinatown.
Ivan Man Dy, co-founder of Old Manila Walks, a tour group made famous by its Binondo food tour, will tell you about the original Masuki mami house that still makes its own fresh noodles in the traditional kabayo style: with a long bamboo pole and two men riding on either end to knead the dough beneath.
Miguel Ongpin, who for years worked a pedicab ride’s distance from Chinatown, will mourn the remarketing of the corner restaurant that once served the best Soup No. 5. Or he’ll melt at the thought of a meal at Wai Ying, which is to him the “last word on dim sum.”
Dy will juxtapose the unremarkable experience of sitting in a Starbucks with watching the regular routine unfold outside one Binondo restaurant that’s been serving coffee since 1945. At 4 P.M., a procession of Hokkien-speaking old men will appear and take up their cups—which by now have their names written on them—to pair their coffee with afternoon gossip.
Even the geographical coordinates of Chinatown—which stretch far further than the borders of Binondo—will swell or constrict depending on the age of the person you ask.
As the oldest of its kind in the world, Chinatown’s roots run deep into the annals of Philippine history and have seeped into virtually every aspect of our culture and practice, from trade and nomenclature to social class and—perhaps most notably—food. “Eating is the act of ingesting the environment,” says Japanese anthropologist Naomichi Ishige, as quoted in “Culture Ingested” by respected food writer Doreen Fernandez. When Metro Manila was first conceived, well before the boom of its diverse foodie districts and its plethora of flash-in-the-pan restaurants, Chinatown already had centuries-worth of brewing time to its name, layers upon layers of heritage that continue to add to its flavor today.
A brief history lesson: Fernandez wrote that trade between China and the Philippines—at least that which was properly documented—began in the 11th century. Established eateries, on the other hand, were a much younger introduction. When the Chinese began to immigrate here, food was a personal necessity and a connection to home—not a commercial enterprise. “Take note, these were all men,” says Bahay Tsinoy Director Meah Ang See. “So they had minimal cooking skills. The food was just for themselves and was primarily home-cooked stews and soups.”
The first public eateries didn’t make their appearance until well into the Spanish occupation, in the form of street vendors outside the tobacco and cigar factories that went up in Binondo. This would then usher in the era of the panciteria, in which the mainland’s poor man’s fare was christened with flashy Spanish names—such as camaron rebozado or pancit guisado—in a phenomenon called Comida China. Later on, the American period brought with it an upwardly mobile clientele—from the Americans themselves to the Chinese merchants permitted restricted entry into the Philippines by the Chinese Exclusion Act—which in turn elevated the status of the restaurants themselves.
“The thing with Binondo is that the food and the character of the place are so intertwined,” reflects Dy. “Even if you have Chinese restaurants in Greenhills, there’s still a certain mystique in going to Binondo because the food is so associative with the history and the culture.”
While one should hesitate to use the word “mystique” when speaking of the Binondo area, Dy’s sentiment is not wrong. “In Chinatown, it’s not like [other commercial food locations] na, dito kape, diyan crepe, doon palabok. There’s no heritage in that, no heritage at all.” He remains suspicious even of Quezon City’s Banawe Street, a quickly growing Chinese cuisine destination: “It takes more than an arch to create a Chinatown.”
“Anytime you’re in a mall, unless the people are very good, you’re sacrificing a lot in terms of taste, in terms of the home-cooking spin. Here you have the home-cooking spin. You have the access to cheap ingredients right away, walking distance,” Ongpin says. “Plus, what you’re not going to find outside, or find very little of, is the family-run, mom-and-pop, one-room little groceries. Little foodie shops where you might have the sort of oats that are sold in Malaysia by the Chinese there.”
A visitor could look around Chinatown’s restaurants—many of them shabby and unkempt—and think that putting up a well-run enterprise could not possibly be as hard here as it is in the likes of Makati or the Fort, where the rent is astronomical and the clientele’s interest is short. But to compete in Chinatown’s culinary ring requires different strategies entirely. Apart from the sheer number of eateries you’d have to contend with, there is what Dy refers to as the Tsinoy mentality of siok ko kiok, a Hokkien phrase which he translates as “cheap and value-laden.” “You have these generations who grew up here with cheap food na masarap naman,” he explains. “If you sold me a 250-peso bowl of mami in Binondo, I would gasp.”
“Here, the food has to be good, or you’ll be closed. And it has to be cheap, or you’ll be closed too,” says Lea Co, a Tsinoy woman who grew up in Chinatown. “But people don’t care much about ambience.”
Even the staunchest of Chinatown advocates would be hard-pressed to deny this last point. Restaurants over a hundred years old are still standing today, serving largely the same food in the same buildings, in which redecorating and renovating are alien concepts. They have survived three foreign occupations, withstood the boom of other commercial districts, and will likely continue to survive for years more. Some may be inclined to consider this resilience, but the truth is that Chinatown’s longevity is both its greatest attraction and its deepest pitfall.
“Some of the really good restaurants, they look so dingy,” See says. Citing a particular panciteria that’s been around since the 1920s, she laments, “I love their food there, but if you look at their place . . . I always take out. I cannot eat there. I don’t feel that it’s clean.”
Today, there exist innumerable and deeply entrenched problems in Chinatown that date back at least three generations and thrice as many political administrations. “Manila has to wake up and realize that, if it keeps sleeping on the job, there won’t be any reason to come to Manila,” Ongpin says. “What happened was it became difficult for people to do business [there] because . . . postwar Manila faced then, as it does now, a lot of nagging problems that have yet to be solved: squatting, crime, poor sanitation. People who said ‘no’ to that went over to Makati—when that filled up and they ran out of space, they founded Ortigas. . . . It remains to be seen what happens to Manila.”
More significant is the fact that Chinatown’s sorry state is a deterrent not only to potential visitors, but to the local community as well. “We know [the food] is good. Definitely it’s good because the businesses will not thrive if it’s not good,” says See. But she clarifies, “For the Tsinoys, it’s nothing special . . . it’s not somewhere you go, except for nostalgic reasons or if you’re a turista. . . . Normally, for the Chinese actually in Binondo, we often do more take-out than eating there. Kasi it’s such a bad experience: you have such a good meal there tapos paglabas mo ang init ng araw, ang baho, ang traffic. Take-out mo na lang.”
Ramon Lee’s Panciteria, which has been around since 1929, is widely considered as the “pioneer of combo meals” in the Philippines and was a favourite of President Marcos during his days as a law student.
At the end of the day, however, you may say what you will about Chinatown, so long as you understand that it has far surpassed the ranks of passing culinary fads and the transient foodie streets of our younger cities. That there is a looming expiration date for the Fort’s trendiest new restaurant is as certain as Chinatown’s boundless staying power.
In the combination of time-honored establishments the likes of Ma Mon Luk and the entrance of new hopefuls like Wai Ying, what has emerged is an unassailable institution. In its entirety, Chinatown is a culinary powerhouse fueled by both its heritage and its stubborn resistance to change. Here, kinks are willingly overlooked in respect for provenance and ambience is foregone in the face of an unparalleled food experience. Everyone has a different story to tell about Chinatown—they may not all be positive, but all of them are lasting.
Originally published in Rogue’s 2015 Appetite Issue (May 2015), available digitally on Zinio.com/Rogue. Get immediate access to Rogue content every month for only $1.99 per issue by subscribing to Rogue Magazine for iPad, now available on Apple’s App Store.