Situated at the heart of Manila, Philippines is the humble yet progressively evolving district called Binondo – also known to many as the world’s oldest Chinatown.
It comes as no surprise that this quintessential town of culture and nostalgia is on the list of must-see places when visiting Manila. A trip to Binondo is a journey back in time; an opportunity for travellers to not only get a glimpse of Manila’s past, but also the long and enduring relationship between China and the Philippines.
Binondo used to be Manila’s center of business and finance. Today, remnants of its past still remain standing and thriving. The streets of Binondo are still lined with a plethora of Chinese family-owned businesses, ranging from hardware stores and electronic shops to restaurants and traditional apothecaries. Buildings sit tightly next to each other, frequently giving room only to small alleyways. But even so, bits and pieces of Chinese influence still have their place within its heavily crowded space.
Alongside modern businesses, one can also find temples and feng shui specialty shops. And yet, a popular Catholic Church also shares the same address. Binondo also has a good number of Chinese schools with a curriculum that includes Chinese language and calligraphy, but without forgetting to add Filipino language as a required subject as well.
It’s amazing how both cultures managed to keep their identities, while also harmoniously coexisting side by side throughout so many years. Binondo is more than 400 years old and it is more than just a tourist attraction or an ancestral heritage to many Filipinos. It is evidence of some Chinese roots in the Filipino culture but more importantly, it is a representation of two cultures coming together and learning from one another.
Chinese Influence On Filipino Culture
Binondo was founded in the year 1594 and it served as a settlement for Chinese immigrants also known as the sangleys at the time. But even before Spanish colonization, ties between China and the Philippines have long been established through trade. And with a history that started many centuries ago, it’s not surprising to discover bits of China in Philippine history and culture.
Interestingly, Chinese influence still remain engrained in Philippine modern culture, withstanding the 333-year long reign of Spanish power in the country. Take a peek at the everyday lives of Filipinos today and you are sure to find evidence of China’s cultural presence.
They say that one of the best ways to experience a country’s culture is through its local cuisine. Philippine cuisine is undoubtedly diverse and symbolic of the rich culture of the Filipinos. But believe it or not, evidence of Chinese influence on Filipino cuisine isn’t that hard to find.
The hopia, for example, is a delicious flaky puff pastry introduced by Chinese immigrants from Fujian. It won’t take long to realize its resemblance to the desserts and pastries of neighboring countries Hong Kong and Taiwan. The hopia is traditionally filled with a sweet Mung bean filling but Filipinos made it their own by creating their original choice of filling. There’s the ube hopia which has a native purple yam (ube) filling instead of the typical Mung bean (monggo). A quick research of traditional Filipino desserts and you’ll find that the ube is a local favorite.
Apart from the hopia, the tikoy is also another perfect example of Chinese influence not only on food, but also on Philippine tradition. The Philippines celebrates Chinese New Year every year with tikoy, also known as the Chinese Nian Gao. As its name suggests, this rice cake is the centerpiece during Chinese New Year.
Both Filipinos and Chinese believe that the tikoy will bring money and good luck. Just like the hopia, Filipinos have also made their original versions of the tikoy. During Chinese New Year, you can find purple yam flavored tikoy as well as pandan – both flavors being very Filipino.
Siopao and siomai
Filipinos love sweets which is probably the reason why the hopia and the tikoy were such a big hit. But that does not mean that Filipinos do not enjoy more savory foods. Siopao and siomai are your typical Chinese meat buns and dumplings. But ask any Filipino around and they will tell you that they are a Filipino staple and that they are totally different from the Chinese version. But judging from the names themselves, it’s undeniable that these local favorites were inspired by Chinese dimsum.
True to its name, Birthday Noodles are served during someone’s birthday. This dish is also called Longevity Noodles or Long Life Noodles. And according to Chinese superstition, the right way to eat this dish is to avoid cutting the longer strands as it symbolizes cutting off one’s luck. Despite the majority of Filipinos being very religious, many still follow the tradition of including Birthday Noodles in birthday party menus. And yes, they also try to eat it the “proper” way with hopes and wishes of good luck to the birthday celebrant.
The Chinese are known for their culture of filial piety. They take the hierarchical structure of their families very seriously by honoring ancestors and obeying the wishes of those older than them. This belief complements Filipino beliefs about family as well. Filipinos put their family above everything else and they have high respect for their elders.
The hierarchy in Chinese families may have influenced Filipinos to obey not only the wishes of their parents and grandparents but to also show equal amount of respect towards their older brothers and sisters. Until today, Filipinos have the habit of calling their brothers and sisters “ate” or “kuya” instead of calling them by name as proof of their respect and humility towards their siblings.
According to statistics, the Philippines is 82.9% Catholic so it is very interesting to discover their very superstitious culture. While most of their superstitious beliefs have unknown sources, quite a handful of them are actually a result of Chinese influence. As mentioned above, plenty of Filipinos practice Chinese superstitious beliefs through food such as eating Birthday Noodles or tikoy for good luck and prosperity.
Another interesting tradition inspired by Chinese superstitious belief is the Filipino’s preference for the color red. The Chinese believe that the color red symbolizes good fortune. With that in mind, Filipinos started to wear red on their birthday as well to reinforce their chances of good luck on their special day.
The number 8 is a lucky number according to many Chinese and Filipinos. This is the reason why most Filipinos would prefer to have their car plate numbers or mobile numbers with as many 8’s as possible – but that does not end there…
Plenty of Filipinos today also incorporate principles of Feng Shui in their home. They also regularly check their yearly horoscope during Chinese New Year. In relation to Feng Shui, they try to style their home or make changes according to the forecast of their yearly horoscope. Of course, following these superstitions does not represent of dictate the Catholic faith of Filipinos but rather, it is viewed as a fun and enjoyable way to celebrate culture and tradition.
Having said all this, the cultural history and relationship shared between the Philippines and China runs deep in the veins of Filipino culture. Despite the political riffs and tensions between both countries in recent years, their past is too much entangled with one another that it cannot be undone. Perhaps tracing back the Chinese roots in Filipino culture can ignite the ancestral brotherhood between both countries once again, hopefully proving to the world that cultural identity is not lost or given away, but shared. After all, there’s 400 years worth of evidence sitting in the heart of Manila and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.