“Manileños come to Binondo for only two reasons,” says Ivan Man Dy. “To eat and to shop.” I have come to eat. Binondo is Manila’s Chinatown, possibly the world’s first and oldest. Unlike most other Chinatowns, or perhaps any other Chinatown, it’s centered on a massive Catholic church. I meet Ivan in front its stained, 411-year-old façade, the only part of the original church to survive the bombing. The unusual design of its bell tower exemplifies the East-meets-West fusion that characterizes not only Chinatown but Manila as a whole: It’s an eight-sided pagoda.
The Chinese arrived in Manila close on the heels of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, supplying the labor and the commercial muscle for Spain’s developing colony. Because there were few Chinese women, they intermarried with the indigenous Malay Tagalog people. Because they were considered heathens and thus prevented from integrating into Spanish Catholic society, the ever-pragmatic Chinese converted to Christianity and took Hispanic names. Binondo became the locus of this utterly unique Malay/Chinese/ Spanish/Christian (and later American) “chop suey” culture, as Ivan calls it. As a result, one finds curious syntheses, such as a sidewalk shrine with a crucifix flanked by sticks of burning incense, a brace of Chinese stone lions guarding the entry to a church, or street vendors hawking Buddhist good luck charms bearing images of the Virgin Mary rather than Kwan Yin.
Like the Chinatown of my native New York, Binondo is where you go for some of the best cheap eats in town. Ivan, a self-styled “streetwalker” (though he wasn’t aware of the double-entendre, he says, when he printed the word on his lapel button), leads an eating tour through the warren of Binondo’s narrow streets. At open-air stalls and in hole-in-the-wall eateries, we sample dim sum, siopao (the meat-filled bun known to Hawai‘i as manapua), a peasant rice soup from Fujian. At one stall, Ivan passes out eggs dyed a radioactively bright magenta. I fear that a long-dreaded moment has arrived: I’m to be peer-shamed into sampling balut, an infamous Filipino delicacy—pickled duck embryo, avec bones, feet, beak, feathers. A food so challenging (okay, I’ll say it: disgusting) that contestants on Fear Factor were forced to choke it down for money. Some couldn’t. Just as I feel a sudden bout of vegetarianism coming on, I discover that it’s a harmless tea egg—a hard-boiled chicken egg stewed in a broth of salty tea, a street food popular throughout China. Odd at first, but tasty.
We turn off the street at an unmarked doorway and walk down a long, dark hall. At the end, a surprise: an open-air courtyard done in art deco style, painted a hotter pink than the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Here, amid the garish influence of 1930s America, in the heart of a Catholic Chinatown with a Spanish cathedral, we eat lumpia—a traditional Filipino deep-fried meat and vegetable roll. “Everything is a mixture here,” Ivan says with what appears to be a little pride. “We look Malay, eat Chinese food, pray to Spanish saints and imitate Frank Sinatra so perfectly you’d think he’s still alive.”
Walking tours are an excellent introduction for a tourist and may get you safely through places like Binondo where tourists don’t usually venture alone. But one measure of a great city is, for me, what happens when you get lost in it. I pointed to an area that on my map was labeled simply “textile market.” The cabbie hesitated; he spoke little English, but his expression was easy to translate: You sure, Joe?
I got in the cab. I was sure. I was ready.
I wasn’t ready. As we neared the market area, the crowds swelled, traffic clogged the streets. An armada of dilapidated tricycles called “poor man’s taxis” and overstuffed Jeepneys (garishly decorated Jeep minivans that serve as public transportation) inched ever deeper toward some heart of shopping darkness. I stepped out of the cab and into the ongoing convulsion of hot and sticky commerce that is Baclaran market on Bonifacio Day, a national holiday many Filipinos spend shopping for Christmas.
Baclaran is one of three major street markets in metro Manila. The most unusual is the profusion of stalls congregated around Quiapo Church, where vendors sell a variety of religious icons and paraphernalia, some Christian—cherubic baby Jesus dolls and Virgin Mary statues—and some, well, not so Christian, like what the locals call “voodoo cures”: herbs and potions that claim to be everything from vegetable Viagra to abortion-inducers (and this on the doorstep of one of the city’s main Catholic churches). Then there’s the mother of all street markets, a place where even Manileños fear to tread, but for a bargain, they will: Divisoria, an utterly bewildering labyrinth where you can buy bulk items fresh off the boat from China, mostly. Christmas decorations, clothing, hectares of plastic gimcracks, mountains of pork rinds, which are to Filipinos what potato chips are to Americans. If you want something cheaper than what you’d pay at Divisoria, you’ll have to inherit it, steal it or make it yourself.
Baclaran is by comparison a little tamer but still respectably rambunctious, a good place for getting lost. As the only tourist I see—which I take as a promising sign—I draw steady attention, though all of it friendly. Almost everything here is packed in bale form: bales of rubber flip-flops, bales of ornamental fans, bales of women’s underwear stacked a storey high. “Hey Joe!” calls out a guy waving a white tank top he’s pulled from a bale, “You can be like Die Hard! Cheap!” Untempted, I move off the main drag and into the tight side streets, where everyone is pressed together in a sweaty human river. Passing what must be the food court, where feral cats stalk the underworld beneath stalls selling Asian vegetables, balut and chestnuts roasting in repurposed oil drums (it is Christmas, after all), I hear a cry of “Tahooooo!” I stop to buy a cup of taho, warm, soft tofu mixed with carmelized sugar, a delicious—and safe—treat so far as street food goes. So I tell myself.
For Ivan and Carlos, as for many Filipinos I’ve met, the ragged charm of old Manila and the combustible street markets like Baclaran are a counterweight to the antiseptic mall culture now sweeping Manila. While the malls offer air-conditioned respite from the hellacious Philippine heat and relief from the noise and grit, they’re homogenizing a city still in search of its own identity. There’s a concern that Manila may be Starbucked and Banana Republicked—First Worlded, if you will—to death before something authentically Filipino has a chance to develop after four centuries of colonialism. “The soul of Manila isn’t in the malls,” Ivan had said. “It’s in Intramuros, Quiapo, Binondo, the street markets.”
As frenzied as a market like Baclaran is—with the chaos, the noise, the brine of exhaust in the air—there’s a reassuring orderliness to it. As if by social contract, the shoppers jostle but never push, and everyone manages to keep out of everyone else’s way, even smiling with strangers. I shudder to picture what 5,000 New Yorkers jammed together in near-equatorial heat like this might do to each other. But these, you’ll remember, are the second-happiest people on Earth. A woman with a bundle on her head bumps me as we’re borne on the irresistible human current. She labors under her burden, and I’m hopelessly lost, but we exchange a laugh at our plight that reaches across our separate worlds.
She asks where I’m from; her perfect English surprises me.
“Oh, America!” she says with an unabashed admiration that’s becoming rare in the world these days. “I have family in Detroit!” She points to the bundle on her head. “This is for them.” We talk about our families, our jobs. She works in a call center doing customer service for an American company, a growing industry in the Philippines. This is the first year she’s been able to send gifts to her relatives abroad, and though she hates working nights, she says it’s worth it for the salary: $300 a month. “I’m rich!” she jokes.