I wonder what makes old Manila always so fascinating. Is it the rich art and history embedded in every street, every pebble? Or maybe it’s the glaring contradictions – Starbucks, with its air-conditioned coffee haughtiness, is just a hop and skip away from San Agustin Church, the oldest church in Manila (whose cobblestoned parking lot, incidentally, was recently covered over with a layer of cement, ruining its appeal).
From Intramuros, where San Agustin Church is, take the Jones bridge and you’ll soon find yourself looking up at Binondo Church’s beautiful facade, with its octagonal bell tower. You are in Manila’s Chinatown. On a regular day, Ongpin Street, where the Binondo Church stands, is congested with passenger jeepneys, pedestrians – jaywalking and otherwise – and vendors. But because yesterday was Good Friday, the congestion was down sixty percent and we could actually see the street. Parking was easy. A bummed-looking guy, dripping generously with a mustache and a beard, and with his board shorts hooked precariously over his hips, waved us over to the space in front of a building that was closed for the day. (The Entrepreneurial Pinoy finds employment opportunities even in a six-foot wide sidewalk that reeks of urine. Kudos to our parking-attendant bum.) The Hub, The Hooligan, The T-Rex, and I went to Binondo Church to pay respects and retreat deep in prayer – at least, as deep as we could get while keeping The T-Rex’s teeth out of the skin of any passing repentant.
Outside the church was one of Binondo’s purple firetrucks. Curiously, it was parked right by the church’s exit, as if reminding the penitents of the fire they just avoided by murmuring prayers inside the church. There were several small piles of garbage in discreet areas outside the church – under a parked kariton, in the middle of the shrubbery in front. Someone left a Starbucks cup on an ivy-covered post beside a church window – it was still good for some three sips of Frapuccino.
Inside the church, maybe as a nod to Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece, murals of Jesus’ resurrection covered the ceiling. Lower, on the walls, were murals of the stations of the cross. There were more than a hundred people inside – kneeling on the pews, doing the stations of the cross with their little prayer booklets, lighting candles, texting. It was nothing new, really – just people doing their Good Friday deeds. It felt comforting to know that people who had the same faith as I did were doing the same thing my family and I was in churches all over the world on relatively the same day.
And then the inevitable came. It was time for lunch. We ignored Jollibee and Chow King and walked up Ongpin, looking for an authentic Chinese restaurant that was open. What we saw on our way to lunch was a conglomeration of the Manila culture. Vendors selling apples, oranges, dragon fruit on carts, SUVs cruising up and down Ongpin, storefront signs in two languages – English and Mandarin. In the midst of it all, on a bridge over a stagnant river of gray water and garbage, was a little boy sitting on the hot ground. His bare feet were dirty up to the ankles, his hands were smudged, and his head was shaved smooth. He wasn’t begging for alms, though. Just sat there waiting for nothing, it looked like. I wanted to bring him with us to lunch, but how?
We found our authentic Chinese restaurant – at least by Binondo standards – as we were just about to get hungry. We knew it was genuine because the name was something I couldn’t pronounce correctly, the TV was on the Chinese channel, there was an announcement or something in Chinese on a blackboard on the back wall, and standing by the entrance was a gangly and disheveled Chinese guy in a white sando (with armholes reaching down to his waist) tucked into dirty dark blue slacks, watching the diners silently. We bet that was the owner – he had a proprietorship air about him. And when I asked for a spoon for The T-Rex, the waitress looked as if I’d asked for a milking cow.
Because it was a real Chinese restaurant, they didn’t offer fried chicken, which meant that The Hooligan was about to go hungry. The closest fried thing we could find on the menu was fried spare ribs, which was really good, cooked with a potful of garlic, it tasted like. (It was far from good for The Hooligan, however, who contented herself with a few martyr-like spoonfuls of plain rice.) I loved the fried rice with peanuts and mushrooms – Chow King’s yang chow fried rice couldn’t hold a can’t to that.
After our Asian immersion, The Hub and I needed a Western fix. So we went two doors down to the most Western find in Binondo – a coffee shop. It was one of Seattle’s Best Coffee’s original coffeehouses in Manila – consistent with Binondo’s old-world appeal. Even inside, there was a fusion of cultures. At one table, there was a guy taking advantage of the free wi-fi on his laptop. Beside his table were three old Chinese guys playing checkers with ceramic pieces on a portable board. And on our table was The Hooligan with her papier mache horses from Laguna.
Really, in the midst of all there is to despair about Manila, there are also many, many things to love about it.