“Nibbling our way through Chinatown: Four hundred years of history and up to four hours of decadence!” says the promotional material for Ivan Man Dy’s “Binondo Food Wok.” Indeed, Binondo has such a long and rich history that its story is inextricably tied with that of the country.
Binondo, according to Nick Joaquin in his book Manila, My Manila, was “a process to absorb the Chinese into Philippine culture.” It was formally established in the mid-1650’s through a land grant given to the Christianized Chinese. Before Binondo, Manila’s Chinese community was confined to ghettoes locally known as the “Parian.” The Parian was vital because it supplied the city with silks, porcelains, lacquered furniture, food products, as well as every kind of artist or craftsman. The Chinese, however, were persecuted at various points of history, as authorities get alarmed over their swelling numbers. With the creation of Binondo, a new Chinese community arose – the Chinese mestizaje – that was distinct from the Parian, with its residents increasingly identifying themselves with the native indios.
Or, as Ivan put it, Binondo was where they put the Chinese who were “well-behaved.” Still, Ivan continued, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Binondo was established just across the river from the walled city of Intramuros, “just within range of the city’s cannons.”
With such tongue-in-cheek quips Ivan peppered his spiels as we wove through the streets of Binondo. He made history sound as palatable as the Chinese dishes that the walk featured. Arrayed in a Chinese red silk blouse and traditional Chinese hat, he also carried a small Philippine flag that he used to wave at passing traffic to get us across the streets. He looked the very picture of the Chinese-Filipino integration that is Binondo.
As if to further drive home the point, the first food stop of the tour was a sampling of hot chocolate drink made from cacao tablets (tablea), which sounded more of a Mexican thing rather than Chinese (think Aztec emperor Montezuma sipping on hot chocolate to the envy of the Spanish king). By the Spanish colonial time, however, sipping hot chocolate was very much an everyday thing. (Look up your high school copy of Noli Me Tangere for the story of the “tsokolate e” and “tsokolate a.”) After having a sample of the thick, hot, bittersweet drink, most of us shelled out fifty bucks and took home a tube of tablea.
Ivan’s food stops tended to be at small, unassuming kind of places, a food stall here, a school canteen-looking dim sum restaurant there, places where you wouldn’t think you’d find tasty and genuine Chinese delicacies. At Ongpin St., my friend Nini pointed out the huge President Restaurant, and Ivan said, “Well, of course we’re not going there, because everybody knows that.” Instead he shepherded us to a stall where he made quite a to-do over a mysterious egg (I promised not too reveal too much detail or to publish certain photos, but let’s just say it was quite an experience).
Because every stop, of course, would have its own story, or character, or experience. One of my favorites was the story of the Café Mezzanine, owned by the family of the Eng Bee Tin ube hopia fame. The café is dubbed “The Volunteer Fireman’s Coffee Shop,” because the owner is a major supporter of the Binondo Volunteer Fire Brigade (some of the brigade’s fire trucks, in fact, look very much ube-licious). The café’s earnings go in part to the fire brigade. Its walls are lined with old fireman’s hats and black and white photos of some of the great conflagrations that had hit the city at various eras, seriously debilitating businesses, lives and property and prompting the establishment of the volunteer fire brigade.
Manila is like Troy, as Nick Joaquin said in his book. It has been leveled and rebuilt so many times by fires, earthquakes, wars and what-have-you, and what emerges after each catastrophe is not necessarily the same as the one that was destroyed. Given that, the “Old Manila” that we know now is actually not that old.
In terms of the food itself, my favorite stop was at the dim sum place. Seriously, egg surprises and all, what’s a Chinese food tour without dim sum? The dim sum served to us were boiled, not steamed, which gives them a rather juicier appeal. They were served alongside what Ivan called Chinese pancakes, for which I would willingly go back to Binondo again and again.
Another highlight was the rediscovery of the sio pao and the bicho-bicho, Chinese foods on which I wasn’t really fond of (I didn’t even know the bicho-bicho was Chinese). The twist: the sio pao was pan-fried, and the bicho-bicho hot and soft and coated with cinnamon sugar. At this point my tummy was starting to feel seriously heavy, but of course it was no time to stop.
Mercifully Ivan intersperses the food stops with the “curio” stops – a Chinese wedding shop packed to the gills with gold and red thingamajigs for fertility and good luck, a Buddhist shrine, a traditional Chinese drug store. By the time we got to the last stop, we were full and heavy with food and information, but I felt that Binondo still has enough to offer to make up a couple more tour packages.
Ivan has been doing this for about three years now. Right now he’s the only guide, or “street walker,” of the Old Manila Walks, but he said the group is planning to expand things. There certainly is interest, or even a need for it. Our group, for example, was composed of a mixture of foreign tourists from as far as New Zealand, Australia, and Spain, three ladies who traveled all the way from Bicol, and city-dwellers like us wanting to dig a little deeper into our roots. What Ivan offers is not just food and a friendly history lesson, but a sense of appreciation for a wonderful heritage. He doesn’t know exactly how many tours he has given and how many people he has steered through the streets of Manila, but there surely will be more.
(More photos here)
For tour schedules and bookings: http://www.oldmanilawalks.com/