The history of trade between the Philippines and China is long-standing, and the establishment of Manila’s Chinatown spans almost as long a period. The cusp of the 17th century, 1594 to be precise, is when the district was founded, making it the oldest Chinatown in the world, and it has continued flourishing ever since.
Located just across the Pasig River opposite the Spanish walled city of Intramuros, the area is known by a number of monikers reflecting its multiple functions and layers of meanings. To tourists, it is known simply as “Chinatown”, while to Filipinos the area is “Binondo”. However, when the Filipino Chinese communicate among themselves, they refer to the area as “Chi Lai”, meaning “inner city”.
The key landmark that signals your arrival at Manila’s Chinatown is the Chinese Goodwill Arch, beyond which you will soon encounter myriad icons, institutions and features that we all associate with Chinatowns the world over, all the way down to the bilingual street signs.
In traditional Chinese style, certain streets here are known for selling a particular item. For example, Ongpin Street is renowned for gold and jade jewellery, Nueva Street vendors sell mainly office supplies, Pinpin Street is the place to go for furniture, and tiny Carvajal Street to enjoy lunchtime dim sum with the locals.
TOP TIP: A highly prominent feature in Manila Chinatown are the fire engines managed by Chinese volunteer organisations and often sponsored by affluent individuals. Ask kindly, and you might even get a photo alongside one.