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Walking through history in Binondo

June 13, 2008

MANILA, Philippines—Last Sunday, we visited a century-old house in Manila’s Binondo district, one of the few extant structures from the 19th and early 20th centuries in an area now filled with makeshift dwellings or high-rise commercial and residential buildings. Binondo may be crowded, it may be in an old part of town, but it is very expensive real estate. Like the Greenhills area in San Juan, the place is said to be lucky, hence the Chinese and Filipino-Chinese are very attached to the place.

The house we visited was in front of a small chapel dedicated to the Nuestra Señora de Soledad, an ancient icon fixed to the main chapel wall. Before we visited the house, we all met in the plaza in front of Binondo Church, which has old trees and two working fountains. If only the rest of the city had these tiny pocket parks, life and hot temperatures would be more bearable.

I walked around the area and read the text in the often overlooked monument erected to honor Tomas Pinpin, first Filipino printer, sometimes referred to as the “Prince of Filipino printers.” (I don’t know who invents these silly titles. To say that Pinpin was a “prince” means there must be a king, queen and princess of Filipino printers lurking around in the dustbin of history somewhere.)

Pinpin was born in 1580 and printed some of the earliest Philippine books. He is also the author of one of the earliest Tagalog books—“Librong pagaaralan nang manga Tagalog nang uicang Castila” (1610). Besides the monument to Pinpin, the city council of Manila renamed San Jacinto Street in Binondo T. Pinpin Street, where Smart Panciteria and Bookmark used to be.

One day I should join the walking and eating tours of Ivan Man Dy just to see how much different the Binondo of the 21st century is from the Binondo I know from history.

“Noli Me Tangere” opens with a party in the home of Don Santiago de los Santos. According to Jose Rizal, Kapitan Tiago’s house was located on Anloague Street so named for carpenters, (“anluwagi”) who specialized in wood, bamboo and nipa. Anloague, the carpenter street, is no more, having been renamed Juan Luna Street in 1913.

Both house and street are gone but we can still find the site, based on other details in the novel. Ibarra was staying in a hotel called the Fonda Francesca de Lala Ary, which used to be on 37 Calle de la Barraca. There are 19th-century engravings showing the hotel. Allied Bank now stands on its site. Ibarra had a room overlooking the river (actually the “estero,” or creek), and he could hear the sound of Kapitan Tiago’s party from his window and see his house.

The building across Allied Bank in Plaza del Conde (formerly Barraca) is the State Investment Building. On a muggy Sunday morning, I stood on a street by the stagnant, polluted estero in between Allied Bank (Fonda Francesca de Lala Ary) and State Investment (Kapitan Tiago’s house), wondering whether I should do a walking tour of Rizal’s Manila someday.

If you trace the route of Ibarra in the “Noli,” you will note the street names Sacristia, San Jacinto, Escolta, Plaza de San Gabriel, and even names of restaurants like La Campana. Looking for the Manila of Rizal or the 19th century can be quite a challenge because of so many renamed streets. For example, Nueva (New) was a street carved into the district in 1863. The Puente de España (Bridge of Spain) over the Pasig was damaged by an earthquake and repaired, thus a new street had to be built. What was “new” in 1863 happened to be old in our day, so this historical street has been renamed Yuchengco.

Perhaps the most popular street in Binondo, aside from Dasmariñas, is Ongpin. And people often ask who is Ongpin? It’s the same situation with Edsa. You may know that EDSA stands for Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, but you don’t know who Epifanio de los Santos was or what he did to deserve the longest street in Metro Manila.

Dasmariñas in Binondo, Dasmariñas town in Cavite province, and the gated subdivision, Dasmariñas Village in Makati City were all named after Luis Perez Damariñas, governor-general from 1590-1593, who donated the land for Binondo Church and was famous for expeditions to Mindanao and the Moluccas. He was murdered by Chinese rowers in an expedition in 1593.

Ongpin Street used to be Sacristia. It was named after Roman Ongpin (1847-1912), a businessman who had a hardware store called “El 82” (“el ochenta y dos”). One source says the name of the store was a commemoration of the deadly cholera epidemic of 1882. Not historically correct at all. Rafael ASG Ongpin, a grandson of Roman, has a better explanation: 82 was the phone number of the hardware store.

Roman Ongpin contributed financially to the Philippine Revolution and succeeding Filipino-American War and was thus imprisoned twice, first by the Spaniards in 1896, then the Americans in 1900. He is depicted in the monument holding an envelope, which we all presume contained money for philanthropic or revolutionary purposes. Ongpin’s statue used to have ribbons and rosaries attached to his legs—remnants of ancestor worship? The envelope in Ongpin’s hand was pried open by vandals hoping to find some treasure.

Next time you’re on Ongpin Street, drop by the monument first and read the newly installed historical marker before proceeding to the delights of Chinatown.

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Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

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