How about this for a trivia question. Where’s the oldest Chinatown in the world? San Francisco? Tokyo? Singapore? Nope, but you’d be excused for thinking so.
The answer is Manila.
Binondo — the district of the Philippine capital where you’ll find Chinatown — doesn’t tend to make it onto tour itineraries as much as say Rizal Park, Intramuros or even Tagaytay, the popular mountain-side retreat Manilenos throng to enmasse at weekends to escape Manila’s oppressive heat and smog.
But it should.
Binondo was established in 1594 by the Spanish who ruled the 7,000-plus islands that make up the Philippines for 333 years.
The area not only has cultural and historical significance but — like all good Chinatowns — has some great eating and some fascinating things to see, all best experienced on foot.
Binondo is located just across the Pasig River and close to what’s left of what was once the walled epicentre of Spanish rule — Intramuros.
It was positioned close enough for the colonial rulers to keep an eye on their migrant subjects, but just far enough at arm’s length so they couldn’t mix.
At least that was the plan.
Today, the narrow streets of Binondo are as vibrant and jam-packed as ever.
On both sides of the streets you’ll see crammed shops selling food and wares customary of Chinatowns the world over.
There are bargains to be had and sales to be made.
But that doesn’t mean this is just another Chinatown in just another city.
This one has a feel of its own and is decidedly different from the other districts and cities that make up what is called Metro Manila, the world’s most densely populated city and with a population estimated to be pushing towards 25 million people.
While so much of Manila is about moving humanity from one place to the next in all manner of people movers, including the ubiquitous diesel guzzling, fume spewing jeepneys that have their history rooted in the turmoil of the Pacific Ocean theatre of war during World War 2, things in Chinatown are a little less hectic.
Yet, the neighbourhood is dense, with things feeling like they’re closing in around you.
It’s a challenge fighting off feelings of paranoia brought on by a foreboding sense that you’re being watched at every turn.
Nevertheless, this just adds to the experience.
This Chinatown isn’t something fake conjured up by city officials to draw tourists to the area. It’s not a fabrication, rather it’s a living, breathing cultural precinct that people call home.
No question, a highlight of Binondo is the food.
Head to Ongpin Street for a cheap bite to eat on the run.
At Shanghai Fried Siopao — a small hole in the wall type joint — grab yourself a little bag of porky goodness in the form of a siopao for 20 pesos (approx. 40 cents).
Siopao are similar to what you find in Vietnam (known as banh bao) or in Japan (known as nikuman). They are tasty, fluffy and an ideal snack to tide you over until lunch.
For lunch, hit Sincerity Cafe & Restaurant on Yuchengco Street.
Sincerity is famous for its fried chicken and has been serving it up for decades.
Ask the locals and they will point you in the right direction.
It’s very popular, so expect to wait outside before being seated and don’t be surprised if you have to share tables with strangers. But it’s well worth it.
The menu is large (not just chicken) so there should be something to satisfy most tastes.
Binondo can easily be done in a few hours.
Arrive mid-morning, walk around and sample some of the street food, take in the atmosphere, see some of the sights — Binondo Church founded in 1596 with a fascinating history is located in Plaza L. Ruiz — and have lunch before heading home in a jeepney.
Words & Photos by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon