“I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand. Why thunder lasts longer than that which causes it, and why immediately on its creation the lightning becomes visible to the eye while thunder requires time to travel. How”- Leonardo da Vinci
I was fourteen when I first visited Chinatown in Manila as a stopover when I attended the National Schools’ Press Conference in Dagupan, Pangasinan. We were accompanied by two friends of my coach in Copyreading and Headline writing. Almost a decade later, yesterday, I went back to the place without any recollection of the Ongpin we went to and the things we did there, which served me well because I spared the place from an unfair comparison and contrast with the past that I often subject the places I visited when I was younger.
And going around with somebody made the experience even more unforgettable.
Unlike other Chinatowns in Southeast Asia, this one in Manila lacks the haggling and wrangling and the market and carnival-like atmosphere of similar Chinese hamlets in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, or Saigon. But what it lacks in vivacity and activity is compensated by its history and the beauty of its hybrid architecture – a sundry of Catholic and Spanish baroque and the ubiquitous wooden pagoda structures with dragon designs admixed creating a unique Filipino interpretation of a Chinatown.
From Plaza Miranda just outside Quiapo Church or the Basilica of the Black Nazarene, we walked our way to Sta. Cruz Church which faces the entrance of Manila Chinatown. It is only in the Philippines where big churches are located side by side each other. Parishioners crowd these two churches almost 500 meters away from each other in an almost endless plethora. Outside the entrance of Sta. Cruz Church near the Romanesque water fountain are for-rent horse carriages that added color to the place that is already saturated with varicolored shop signages.
Dotting the lanes that vein through Ongpin are specialty shops selling traditional Chinese medicines, restaurants, and gold shops. Tourists are welcomed by “Ano po, Kuya?” (What is it, brother?), the staple spiel of salesladies waiting for their customers in gold shops. Their managers or owners, who are either pure-blooded Chinese or Filipino-Chinese, I noticed, remain indifferent to the presence of curious customers inquiring about the price of gold necklaces and wedding rings.
Near Ongpin North Bridge there are Chinese restaurants and fast food stores selling siomai, siopao, noodles, and other traditional Chinese specialties. It was quite odd to find a line of food stores located beside a bad smelling, reeking, stenching estero or creek, but what is odder is that the place proudly calls itself Kainan sa tabi ng Estero (Restaurant by the Creek). Not wanting to overextend our budget, a friend and I went to a buffet restaurant near the ‘restaurant by the creek’ minus the odor coming from the putrid stream.
The Manila Chinatown may not be as alive and busy with business as other Chinatowns I’ve already been to, but places, I realized, only become significant when we walked their streets with somebody who is beyond the word significant. The experience of revisiting Ongpin would have been ordinary without that extraordinary somebody.