The World's Oldest Chinatown

Course Specific
May 6
3 mins

When you hear the word Chinatown - where does your mind go?

Lima? San Francisco? Vancouver?

Known for their ornate ‘Paifang’ arches, bustling restaurants and specialist grocers, Chinatowns have popped up in almost every major city around the world, with many originating from the Chinese trade and labour expansion of the 19th century. As migrant workers started moving around the world they would congregate in certain areas of cities, putting down roots for more Chinese migrants to join them over time. 

However, the world’s oldest Chinatown in Manila has a different story entirely.

The main gate to Manila Chinatown in Binondo

The cultural heritage of the Philippines is known for its many waves of foreign influence, and one of the most notable groups were the Spanish who colonized the collection of islands in 1565.

After the islands (thriving with indigenous people) were ‘discovered’ by the globetrotting adventurer Magellan, Manila soon became the capital of the Spanish East Indies, and the colonizers began a process of westernising the indigenous culture. Over the next thirty years the Spanish would try to reinvent the Philippines (named after King Philip) in their own image - replacing local architecture, religion and even peoples names with Spanish versions.

But the Spanish colonizers were met with a conundrum. 

Given the proximity of the Philippines to the Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, Chinese merchants had been trading with the islands for centuries before they had arrived. Many had settled and intermingled with the indigenous people, and many continued to trade back and forth.

This growing Chinese presence caused the Spanish elite to become worried that a totally integrated population could become powerful enough to overthrow them, so, in a bid to keep them far enough away, but still close enough to keep an eye on them  - an area of land was set aside for the Chinese merchants to settle in.

Up until this point Manila was laid out as an ‘Intramuros’ or a sort of walled fortress city, where Chinese artisans and tradesmen weren’t allowed to go, that is, until a region called Binondo was set aside for them to live in.

Over the next few centuries, the Chinese immigrants that settled in the Philippines would start their journey from Binondo, and over time more and more people started to settle in what is now known as Manila Chinatown.

However, while many Chinatowns are known for their food and street markets, during the 19th century Binondo had become the financial centre of the Philippines. Banks, insurance companies and the stock exchange all sprung up in this area which had started out as a shanty town to house the new Chinese migrants.

Despite its nickname as the Filipino Wall street, this area still shows its heritage through the food that is served on every street corner. Lumpia (deep fried spring rolls) and Siapao (indigenized cha su bao) are found everywhere, but one of the best examples of the ‘Tsinoy’ (Chinese-Filipino) integration of cultures is in the Panciterias.

Pancit served with fresh Calamansi

Taking their name from the Chinese words ‘Pan’ (to make noodles) and ‘Sit’ (meal), these specialist noodle houses take Chinese cooking methods and infuse them with Filipino ingredients and flavours for a truly unique dish.

While many cultures have passed through the Philippines, the Chinese presence is one of the most keenly felt in the cuisine. Dishes like Pancit are a reminder of the long history of integration and collaboration between the two countries, even in spite of the tensions that can sometimes be felt between the two.

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