Almost every country in the world has a Chinatown, and in the Philippines, Chinatown is simply referred to as Ongpin, which is the street that runs through Chinatown located in Binondo, Manila. Ongpin is not very clean, rather hot, fairly smelly, and not nearly as convenient as modern malls, yet people can’t resist coming here. To every Metro Manila resident, Chinatown in Ongpin, Binondo means busy bazaars, cheap shops, crowded streets, authentic Chinese foods, and exotic herbal medicines.
Ongpin is famous for the winding rows of cheap jewelry shops that sell real Chinese gold, hardware shops, and Chinese drugstores that sell herbal medicines regularly shipped from mainland China. Filipinos man the herbal shops but only the elderly Chinese merchant can prepare concoctions of rare and strange-looking herbs, which sometimes include exotic concoctions like freshly-squeezed cobra bile.
Inside the row of old apartment buildings you will find there are medicinal and herbal clinics run by Chinese medicine men who prescribe Chinese brews available only at the herbal stores downstairs. There are also bakeries, medium-rise hotels, shops that sell CDs of Chinese movies and Chinese fireworks, and restaurants that serve Chinese foods that are not served elsewhere in the country. The most popular Chinese snack is the siopao, a steamed fluffy, pillow-like bun stuffed with pork bits. A number of siopao varieties are sold all over Metro Manila but only the ones in Ongpin really matter as far as aficionados are concerned. The most popular restaurant is the President Restaurant (known for its Peking duck dishes). As for bakeries, the front runners for popularity are the Eng Bee Tin (known for its array of hopia varieties) and the Lord Stow’s Bakery (known for its Portuguese egg tart).
Ongpin Street is popular not only for the bustling Chinese shops and food kiosks but also for its historical significance. The street was named after Don Roman Ongpin, a Chinese businessman who is a national hero in his own right. In the 1890s, Ongpin financed the group of Filipino nationalists who fought against the Spanish tyrannical rule. Because of his success in business and popularity among Chinese-Filipinos, he was appointed by Spanish authorities as the “Lieutenant in charge of the Half-Breeds of Binondo”. The Spanish did not know that he was secretly supporting the band of nationalist rebels called the “katipuneros.” His contributions were used by no less than General Emilio Aguinaldo to buy guns, ammunition and supplies. Today, a statue of this patriotic Chinese businessman stands beside Binondo Church.
Popular landmarks in Ongpin are the Binondo Church, Ongpin Goodwill Arch and the Lorenzo Ruiz Statue. The best way to get to Ongpin is on the Light Rail Transit (LRT) which runs from Monumento in Caloocan City to Baclaran in Pasay City. Chinatown is a stone’s throw away from the LRT Carriedo Station. Jeepneys from a number of predetermined routes pass by Ongpin, but the traffic is turtle-paced in this part of town. Driving your own car is also a bad idea.
Visit Chinatown Ongpin, Binondo for a different kind of shopping experience, and as you do, remember the brave Chinese businessman after whom the street was named.