Binondo at the Heart of Commerce


How the world’s oldest Chinatown helped turn Manila into boomtown


Entrepreneurs—the good ones at least—try to learn everything they can about how to successfully start and grow their own businesses. And there is a wealth of knowledge and information out there: books, articles, magazines, blogs, videos, films about how to run a business. But how many entrepreneurs turn to the streets to be their teacher?


It would depend on the street. But when that teacherly street turns out to be the famous Escolta in the Binondo District of Manila, a clever entrepreneur would then turn to all the streets surrounding it in Chinatown and find themselves in attendance of a veritable university.



The Binondo District was founded on the banks of the Pasig River a little over 400 years ago by Spanish Governor-General Luis Perez Dasmarinas, making it the oldest Chinatown in the world. After it was established, the Dominican order moved into Binondo and set up the Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in order to convert as many of the Chinese to Catholicism.


Binondo was originally meant to be a residential district. But seeing as nearly all the residents came from a rich cultural background of business, they turned this town into a commercial district, too. More than just trade and commerce, Binondo also turned into one of the biggest and most widely varied industrial districts in the Philippines. And its superior location along Pasig River allowed for much faster importing and exporting of goods.


Ironically, the Spaniards only placed Binondo in such a commerce-friendly location because it also happened to be within range of the cannons of Intramuros. It was an overriding Spanish fear, that the Chinese community would rise up and overthrow them. While the Chinese never did, little did the Spaniards know, that they had given the Chinese community almost everything they needed to establish themselves and thrive in the Philippines.



Having carved out a place for itself, Chinese culture and business turned Binondo into the heart of trade and commerce in not just Manila but the entire Philippines for the next 400 years.


That is not to say that trade and commerce in Binondo was exclusively conducted by the Chinese. Businesses run by Filipinos, British, Spanish and Germans all operated in Binondo throughout the years. But it was the Chinese who set the precedent for multi-cultural trade in Binondo. And it was through savvy and hard work that turned it into such an appealing place to run a business.


As trade and commerce have developed, so has Binondo. What started out as a simple trading post along the route of merchant ships eventually turned into the home of several notable financial institutions such as Metrobank, Allied Bank, China Bank and BPI. And because Binondo was home to numerous financial institutions—like the Manila Stock Exchange until the 1960s—Binondo was dubbed “The Wall Street of the Philippines.”



It’s been a little over 400 years since Binondo started in any official capacity. And most of the financial institutions and industrial zones have moved to different parts of Metro Manila and beyond. But this charming town is still the heart of the wholesale and import industry in the Philippines. Besides, it was in Binondo that the country received its business pedigree. By playing by the rules, taking its time and making the most out of what it had on-hand, Binondo has largely shaped our current economy.


Today, the former business district has become more of a cultural destination. Thousands of people come to Chinatown everyday on photo walks and food trips because Binondo has woven a rich, multi-cultural and diverse historical tapestry. Everything, from its food to the architecture, is a reminder of the past and a nod to a bright future.


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