Binondo remains the authentic Chinese enclave of Manila and Ongpin Street, running centrally through it, is the showcase for all things Chinese and traditional.
Winding along for ten jam-packed city blocks, Ongpin is glitz and glitter, traditional and exotic and an assault on the eardrums.
This happy Chinaman’s mishmash offers up everything you never thought you needed but could not find in shopping malls: jewelry shops selling nothing but high-carat gold, Chinese fast food cheek-by-jowl with restaurants that consider a twelve-course “lauriat” lunch frugal, aquaria of live fish and crustaceans you can dig your chopsticks into a scant quarter-hour later, modern hardware shops alongside traditional apothecaries (it’s wrong to call them herbal drug stores as the freshly-squeezed cobra bile served over the counter quickly tells you), Chinese fireworks (alright, they’re made in Taiwan), CD’s of Chinese movies, bakeries, medium rise short-time hotels where the room rate includes a girl, and on and on. And don’t ask what those live iguanas are doing tethered on the sidewalks, they will be gone by dinnertime.
The history of Ongpin Street dates back in the 1890’s. It is named after Don Roman Ongpin, a Chinese businessman who gained fame for his financial support of the “katipunero” rebels during the successful uprising of 1896 against Spain.
Perhaps he used his position of influence as the colonial government’s “Teniente de Mestizos de Binondo” (literally, Lieutenant in charge of the Half-Breeds of Binondo”, perhaps not.
What is clear is that he ostensibly funded artistic endeavors that somehow kept getting postponed even as the money secretly went to buy rifles, ammunition and supplies for the Filipino independence movement. When his store burned down, he donated the insurance proceeds to General Emilio Aguinaldo to aid the revolution against the Spaniards. This showed where his sympathies truly lay.
Even during the American occupation, Ongpin continued to patriotically support the revolt. This led to his imprisonment from December 6, 1900 to March 23, 1901. In his honor, a statue was erected beside Binondo Church at one end of the street named after him.
To Filipinos from anywhere in the metropolis, a Chinese feast is enough reason to return to Ongpin Street despite the turtle-paced traffic and scarce parking downtown.
There may be a handful of Chinese restaurants scattered around the city that are faithful to regional cooking back on the mainland but the best and most authentic remain those in Ongpin.
Every eatery is an excellent choice for whatever budget you may have.
At the top end, “President’s Restaurant” is arguably the most famous. When patronizing this restaurant, you must try the hakao (shrimp dumplings), “asado siopao” (pillowy-soft steamed buns with braised meat filling) and an eye-opening variety of prawn dishes.
The dumpling wrappers have just the right translucent thickness when cooked, the fillings delicious and every hakao has a good-sized shrimp embellishing it.
The steamed buns (local term: “siopao”) are superb. The buttered prawns with lemon are uniformly large and succulent, filled with cheese in the thermidor style and set off nicely by that universal local favorite, sweet and sour sauce.
And for those not really celebrating but just indulging a “foodie” trip, there are many like Villa Mañosa. The Spanish name has absolutely nothing to do with the menu of filling Chinese snacks. Like many of the traditional favorites, the place is ancient, the creaking wooden slats underfoot might collapse any day now and don’t bother inspecting the table for cleanliness. But Chinese and Filipino alike come around for the jumbo-size oyster omelet and the “machang”, a peculiar concoction of braised pork wrapped in a pyramid of sauce-soaked rice, the whole thing wrapped in dark leaf and best eaten with generous sprinkles of Tabasco.
For women (and errant husbands), however, the food temptations of Ongpin Street rate a far second to dozens, a whole building even, of jewelry shops purveying nothing but the best-quality gold in the country.
Men come for gifts guaranteed to provoke a smile from their loved ones and women wander Ongpin for the sheer vanity of being surrounded by gold.
In fact, the jewelry shops here are so abundant they seem to cast a hypnotically rich radiance at all who walk by, even in the evening.
To the first-time visitor, it must be something of a puzzle that there are no less than 10 fire stations for just 10 short city clocks.
The Chinese are very big on volunteer fire companies because arson-for-insurance fraud is a constant menace in the cramped alleys that surround Ongpin Street.
The local Chinese have come a long way from the ghetto of underprivileged outcasts that Binondo used to be in Spanish times.
In fact, most of them no longer live there. Today, many of the wealthiest live in high-walled mansions out in the suburbs. Nonetheless, not a few still take pride in trading and dealing from their fire-prone warehouses around Ongpin Street.
Certainly, the “mutual benefit associations” and oldest Chinese temples are to be found mainly in Ongpin. The place is quite simply a living reminder of a minority, well and truly assimilated, that can come around any day and savor the authentic threads of heritage left behind on the mainland long ago.