The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Twenty-Eight — The World’s Oldest Chinatown, Manila, Philippines, by Kristie P. Flannery

The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Twenty-Eight — The World’s Oldest Chinatown, Manila, Philippines, by Kristie P. Flannery

Manila, the capital of the Philippines, is home to the oldest Chinatown in the world. This urban Chinese enclave has existed at the same site along the Pasig River at Binondo since the late 16th century.

In the months before I made the long journey from mainland USA across the Pacific to the Manila, I spent a lot of time reading and writing about what Manila’s Chinatown was like during the time when the Philippines were a Spanish colony. I was very excited to finally have the chance to wander through the neighborhood I had read so much about.

When I first arrived in Manila’s Chinatown, I was struck by how it looked and smelled like Chinatown in Sydney, Australia, the city where I grew up.

First of all, visitors enter Chinatown through large and ornate Chinese gates, guarded by Chinese guardian lion statues.
Kristie 1

Manila’s Chinatown is a busy commercial center full of shop. Everywhere you look there are business names in Chinese characters emblazoned in brightly painted and neon signs. One road was crammed with jewelry stores selling gold and jade. Another street was home to many Chinese pharmacies that were selling modern cold and flu tablets and antibiotics alongside traditional Chinese medicines.

Greengrocers occupied almost every corner of the district, hawking an array of fresh fruits and vegetables, including one of my favorites – the hot-pink colored dragon fruit! (It tastes a bit like a Kiwi fruit). Kristie 11

Of course there were also lots of Chinese restaurants and street-food stalls serving up traditional foods from southeastern China, including Siopao (steamed buns), bowls of handmade noodles, and lots of fresh seafood. One of the most interesting snacks on offer was the Siopao Asado; a classic Chinese steamed bun filled with the Filipino favorite pork Asado. This is a great example of Manila fusion food.

The tall Spanish baroque-style churches are one feature of Manila’s Chinatown that you don’t see in Sydney. The San Lorenzo de Ruiz Church is one of the largest in Chinatown. It is named in honor of the first Filipino Saint, who had a Chinese father and a Filipino mother, and died a martyr in Japan in 1637 where he was working as a missionary. The granite church that was built on this site in 1852 suffered heavy damage during World War Two, when much of Manila was flattened by heavy bombing. This is a photo that I took of the San Lorenzo de Ruiz Church.
Kristie 111
For all of the North Star Project 2013-2014 Reports, see
For all of the North Star Project 2013 Summer Reports, see

The North Star Project 2013-2014 School Year Reports: The Middle Ground Journal’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We gratefully acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our K-12 outreach program. We also warmly welcome Duluth East High School and Dodge Middle School to the North Star Project.

Under the leadership of our North Star host teachers and student interns, The North Star Project has flourished for two years. For a brief summary, please see a recent article in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:

Having re-tooled and re-designed the collaborative program, we are drawing on the experience of our veteran student interns, ideas from our host teachers, and new projects provided by our incoming student interns. This school year The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. As of the time of this report we have confirmed student interns who will be reporting from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world.  We will post their brief dispatches here, and report on their interactions with the North Star students and teachers throughout the school year.

Hong-Ming Liang, Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA, 2013-2014 School Year

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.


Filed under North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

6 responses to “The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Twenty-Eight — The World’s Oldest Chinatown, Manila, Philippines, by Kristie P. Flannery

  1. Immigrants–in any nation–tend to settle with people of the same descent for a sense of familiarity and security. It would be interesting to see how the traditions and characteristics of original cultures change according to the new environment’s surroundings.

  2. daniela rojas

    really great article! It was interesting to read about the Chinatown in Manila since I didn’t know it existed. It was also nice the connections you made with the spanish church and the chinatown in Sydney.

  3. Hannah Kunde

    First off, your photos are amazing. Not only do your words paint a picture of what you are seeing, but the pictures top it off. In this quote, this China Town sounds very familiar to the China Towns in parts of the United States. “Manila’s Chinatown is a busy commercial center full of shop. Everywhere you look there are business names in Chinese characters emblazoned in brightly painted and neon signs.” However, you go on to describe this as a one of a kind place with the pictures to back it up. Thank you for your post!

  4. Sarah Plankers

    This is a very interesting and well written article. There is such a rich and diverse combination of culture in history that lies within this Chinatown in Manila. I am certainly curious to see it for myself one day. One particular part of the article that really let me know how diverse this city is was the example of the Siopao asado, a steamed bun filled with pork. As a Spanish speaker, I know that asado means “grilled” or “roasted” so to have a traditional Chinese word for steamed bun next to a spanish word truly showed me how cultures have come together in this tiny hub in Manila. Further, its an example of the remnants of colonization that still remain among countless parts of the world today, from ex-Spanish colonies with words like “asado” thrown into places, to all other sorts of crazy culture combos.

  5. Alexandra Erickson

    Wonderful article! My boyfriend is from the Philippines and I love talking with his family about the history of the country. It has such a diverse, and unique culture do to the numerous instances of colonialism it faced. They also told me that the Philippines was practically a Spanish Asia, so I appreciate your references to both cultures that illustrates that connection. The food and the language especially stand as testaments to the unique combination of different cultures, while still being uniquely their own. The siopao asado is in fact a wonderful snack, and I hope to be able to experience the Chinatown as well in the future. Thanks for sharing!

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