In another 41 days there will be another New Year to celebrate. Yes, the Chinese or Lunar New Year beginning Feb. 12. The Year of the Metal Ox, hopefully and grit-your-teeth-ly a better and kinder one than the last. Everyone’s second chance to do their spring cleaning, reaffirm goals and hopes, start again, as it were.
A good place to begin is where you revisit the past, right in Binondo, the heart of Chinatown before Chinatown sprawled out to the “new Chinatown” known as Greenhills and its neighbors with green names, Valle Verde, Green Meadows, Corinthian Gardens. Today’s Binondo, which begins as soon as you descend from Jones bridge coming from City Hall, feels as solid as it used to be, with splashes of color and electric lights to add to the vibrancy.
Starting with the Chinatown arch, all red and green and gold like a Christmas emblem, this flamboyant gate initiated by Bernie Ang says “Welcome” to the world’s oldest Chinatown. When Isko Moreno became mayor in 2019, the first to rejoice were the Chinese Filipino community. They responded with donations and contributions to help Yorme fulfil his mission to revive, refresh, rejuvenate a dying city (as a certain Rodrigo Duterte put it).
Juan Luna and Escolta are home to a few pre-war structures that continue to stand on their feet, holding their heads high against newer, taller buildings. One I visited during the holidays was the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank on Juan Luna, built in 1919 by two American architects. It has walls several inches thick, a ceiling as high as a cathedral’s, and an underground vault, where the bank kept its money. I didn’t go there to dig for treasure but to discover the Chinoy community’s talk-of-the-town coffee shop, named Grand Café 1919 by its owner, Samm Lu. The menu is Western — salads, pizza, roast meats, steak, and home-brewed Grand 1919 coffee, of which Mr. Lu is proud.
Prouder still is he of the building’s historical origins and how it has been preserved by its owner, a Mr. Yu. Wall-to-wall pictures of Manila in the ‘40s and ‘50s reveal a past pale as a ghost, but Binondo remains solidly, defiantly recognizable to ancients like me.