The Chinese of Spanish-era Manila | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

The Chinese of Spanish-era Manila

/ 05:22 AM February 01, 2019

Walking aimlessly around Salcedo Village in Makati sometime ago, I noticed many small Chinese groceries and restaurants sprouting in the area like mushrooms. Enter some of these establishments and you are transported to a foreign land, because staff speak no English or Filipino. Around RCBC tower, you will hear young Chinese speaking loudly in Mandarin rather than the familiar language spoken in Binondo. They are mainlanders, not Tsinoys.

Racist comments abound against the Chinese in our midst and how they allegedly rob Pinoys of employment in the Philippines. Even the often sunny disposition of Fernando C. Amorsolo gave way to such envy in a drawing he made over a century ago, which depicted a Pinoy and a Chinese starting out as water carriers in 1905; by 1912, the Chinese is minding a store, while the Pinoy still carries water; by 1917, the Chinese fans himself aboard a chauffeur-driven limousine, while the Pinoy is old, bent, and remains a water peddler.

Chinese settlements in the Philippines are not new, and were documented as early as the 16th century in Spanish accounts. Textbook history taught me that the Chinese were restricted to the Parian, an area outside Intramuros where the Manila Post Office and the Metropolitan Theater now stand, to keep them within range of the cannons pointed in their direction. The uneasy relationship between the Spanish and the Chinese was born from differences in culture and a number of Chinese revolts that turned deadly. Most people do not realize that one of the major commercial streets in Binondo is named after the seventh Spanish governor-general of the Philippines, Gomez Perez Dasmariñas, who was murdered by mutinous Chinese rowers during an ill-fated expedition he led to take the Moluccas.

One of the most detailed descriptions of the Parian, the Chinese settlement in Manila, was written by the first bishop of Manila, Domingo de Salazar, on June 24, 1590—incidentally the 19th anniversary of the founding of Spanish Manila by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. From this chatty report, Philip II, seated in his office in the Escorial, could imagine daily life in Manila, the distant, distinguished and ever-loyal city.


Misinformed by the Portuguese regarding the reception of foreigners in China, Salazar saw the promise of many conversions and recommended opening China for evangelization, by force if necessary. He talked about Tondo as a hive for commerce through many establishments that grew out of a silk market. Salazar ratted on abusive Spaniards who mistreated Chinese, and his efforts to understand and minister to them, later entrusting them to the care of the Dominicans. He admired how the Chinese made the best of a bad situation through their persistence and hard work, turning marshland, for instance, into one of the best parts of the city:

“At first it seemed absurd to think that human habitations were to be built on that marsh, but the Sangleys, who are very industrious, and a most ingenious people, managed it so well that, in a place seemingly uninhabitable, they have built a Parian resembling the other, although much larger and higher.” Four rows of quadrangle-shaped buildings were erected, and on the roads and passages toward them many houses were built. When the Parian of wood and thatch burned down, it was quickly rebuilt and improved with tiles.

“This Parian,” added Salazar, “has so adorned the city that I do not hesitate to affirm to your Majesty that no other known city in España or in these regions posses anything so well worth seeing as this; for in it can be found the whole trade of China with all kinds of goods and curious things which come from that country. These articles have already begun to be manufactured here, as quickly and with better finish than in China; and this is due to the intercourse between Chinese and Spaniards, which has enabled the former to perfect themselves in things which they were not wont to produce in China. In this Parian are to be found workmen of all trades and handicrafts of a nation, and many of them in each occupation. They make much prettier articles than are made in España, and sometimes, so cheap that I am ashamed to mention it.”

From the 16th century to our times, the pattern remains unchanged: The Chinese continue to copy things, improve on them, and sell cheaper.

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