The Lost Chinatown

“Welcome! Please come in!” piped the recorded voice as we went in a store.

Those were the first few words I heard when I went to Chinatown, (Manila) a few days ago with my friends. As we strolled along the streets of the bustling little Chinese town, I was filled with

mixed emotions. On one hand, I was feeling a bit nostalgic. The sight of the old buildings and restaurants, the distinct smell of incense and Chinese medicine, the old and revered Binondo church, the noisy street vendors and the colorful calesas, brought back memories of my first home. On the other hand, I was feeling uneasy seeing all the changes that had taken place in the past ten years. I felt that the addition of foreign shops, construction of new and modern buildings, the commercialization of restaurants and stores have changed more than just the appearance of Chinatown. Something was missing in today’s Chinatown.

In the past, Chinatown was the core of the Chinese business enterprises. It used to be a landmark, the main source of China’s best goods. Anyone strolling around the streets of Chinatown would undoubtedly have a genuine Chinese experience. Everything was practically Chinese—the people, the food, the traditions, the architecture, the music, and the festivities. The Chinese have long strove to keep the richness of their culture intact.

Since then, Chinatown has constantly changed. Through the years, it has continually kept pace with the waves of technology. In fact, the Chinatown I lived in was already a far cry from what it used to be. Yet, visiting my hometown ten years later, well—indeed a lot has changed.

Perhaps if you would compare a sketch of Chinatown ten years ago and one of today, you would notice that the main difference would be the addition of electronic stores, beauty shops, spas, foreign restaurants and cafes. In fact, my friends and I agreed to meet in Starbucks for this trip! I tell you, years before; there was little chance of finding a restaurant serving a different cuisine other than Chinese in Chinatown, much less a foreign café!

The additions of the foreign stores are not the only things that have changed the solely Chinese territory at Chinatown, but also several structural and technological improvements. A day’s activities in Chinatown ten years ago would be characterized by a ride in a calesa, a trip to the wet Aranque Market, a visit to the Chinese medicine stores and a taste of their exotic medicines, lunch in a quaint Chinese restaurant with the owner’s family themselves serving you, a stroll along the bridges across the dirty Pasig River, a stop to buy fruits from the street vendors, a sip of the yummy sugarcane juice, a friendly chat with familiar faces you would meet along the road, and perhaps for a young lass like me, a day full of games that would include the jump rope and the jackstones with my neighbors in the wide hallways of our buildings.
A day in today’s Chinatown could start with coffee at Starbucks, a stroll along the newly renovated Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz, a stop at the Eng Bee Tin store which sells the uniquely flavored hopias in nice, printed packages for pasalubong (gifts) for your workmates, perhaps lunch with your friends at a well-known, commercialized restaurant with Filipino waitresses dressed with traditional Chinese outfits serving you, a sip of one of those modern Chinese energy drinks, a ride in your BMW to the nearby supermarket to buy fruits and food for your family who live in a fancy new condominium with narrow hallways and unknown neighbors, a stop in the Globe Business Center, and perhaps, for the youth of today, a day full of computer games in the internet stations scattered throughout Chinatown.

I have also noticed that because of modernization movement, some things are becoming obsolete—or should I say, “antique”. Such as, the calesa. I vividly remember my childhood years when my only means of transportation to school was the calesa: thewooden, colorful and sometimes rickety, carriage-pulled-by-the-horse. My yaya (Nanny)would bargain with the kutsero (driver)for the fare to be lowered. She would shout, “Bente nalang po (Could we pay twenty pesos instead?)” Some kutseros would stubbornly refuse the twenty peso fare. My yaya would persist. He would refuse. My yaya would persist. He would refuse. And the cycle would go on and on, every day of my school life. And I just smiled when I saw my friend Sheena persisting for a ride in a calesa. Today, only the wowed tourists ride them. With fares set at a very high price, and designated roads where the calesas cannot pass, people have opted to use cars and other “practical” means of transportation. Even so, calesas have contributed to the unique identity of Chinatown and therefore should not be simply put aside.

Globalization has also brought a revolution in this part of the Manila. I remember years ago people from all over Metro Manila and perhaps other parts of the country would go and visit Chinatown to buy Chinese goods. Chinatown used to be the best source for Chinese goods —the best hopia, the best dimsum, the best congee—you name it, they have it, and they have the best in town. Also, Chinatown was the only source for authentic Chinese paraphernalia: costumes, luck charms, medicine, etc. But today, due to the increase in demand for Chinese goods, shops had to open branches in different parts of the city and the country. In short, there was. But, as a result of this expansion, Chinese shops are no longer unique to Chinatown. Those delectable goods can be bought anywhere now, and sometimes, even at a cheaper price. I recall the “dragonfruit expedition” that my friends and I had in our visit to Chinatown.

It was the first time for some of my friends to see that fruit, and everybody wanted to taste something “unique” to Chinatown. But after bargaining with several fruit vendors, we still found it expensive, and concluded that it can be bought nowadays in supermarkets, so why bother? My friend Sheena asked me a while later, “So what else is here? What’s the specialty of Chinatown? Something that’s really different that we could experience?” I found that question difficult to answer. Practically nothing is completely unique to Chinatown anymore, including food. Chinese restaurants are scattered all around the city and I cannot deny that I have appreciated a lot of them. Authentic Chinese furniture, clothes and other imported products can be found everywhere. I could point out some distinct characteristics that Chinatown possess, but I cannot really name a unique quality anymore.

I cannot deny that the commercialization, modernization and globalization of Chinatown have brought good. The improvements have been and are serving their purposes. In fact, the enhancements in this town have increased its charm to lure more tourists, and perhaps, have made the lives of the people living there easier. Chinese goods are now easily accessed by people living outside Chinatown. However, I sincerely regret that, for the sake of keeping up with the times, the changes have led to the dilution of the authenticity and the uniqueness of Chinatown. The essence of Chinatown, that special C-factor which keeps Chinatown authentic and unique, is now lost.

What has kept the Chinatown authentic and unique throughout the years is its constant and strict following of its traditions. In today’s Chinatown, a great deal of these traditions have either been disregarded or compromised to give way to modern technology. It has long been the practice of the Chinese to keep themselves exclusively Chinese. With the influx of foreign restaurants and cafés, the essence of keeping Chinatown solely Chinese as its name suggests, is slowly diminished. The commercialization of buildings and other structures in Chinatown has changed the atmosphere in the relationships of the people living there. The narrow hallways and stiff, condo-type designs give an air of professionalism and discourage familiarity among neighbors. Thus the Chinese ideology of close ties has been disregarded. Chinese businessmen nowadays have adopted Western ways of doing business; thus, losing the traditional, personal way of the Chinese. It has long been a tradition among the Chinese that the whole family would contribute in the family business. In a restaurant, the father cooks, the mother serves the customers, the children wash the dishes, etc. Nowadays, children are exposed to several Western ideas and do not see the significance of this anymore. And, in the age of expansion and commercialization, hired help replace the family in service.

“Thank you! Please come again!” piped the electronic recorded voice as we left Eng Bee Tin store, after buying some pasalubongs (gifts)for our families.

Again, these technological improvements are not wrong. They serve their purpose and make people’s lives easier. But, let us not disregard the values of the past generations because they are essential in keeping the identity of Chinatown unique from any other place in the country. Instead, let us use technology to our advantage. That way, we could have both, technology and the preservation of the culture. Let’s keep that special C-Factor, so Chinatown would stay authentic and unique, the way it was before, the way it was known to be. So that anyone in the future, strolling along the streets of the little Chinese town, would have the benefit of a true Chinese experience.