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Chinatown’s historic panciterias

Sometime before Chinese New Year, before the coronavirus scare set in, I reconnected with Chinatown by walking aimlessly on its narrow streets, encouraged by the example of Ivan Man Dy who turned a pastime into professional walking and eating tours of Binondo. It was quite festive then, with some alleys lined with mandarin orange trees whose tempting fruit was probably more ornamental than edible. Some shops sold New Year good luck supplies and amulets while street vendors peddled auspicious fruits, and in many places crowds swarmed around tikoy stalls that sold them in plain white, special brown, and even new flavors like ube (purple yam). The sizes were not restricted to large, medium, and small, because the smallest was called “mini.” All throughout, I could feel the frenzy of spending; it was as if money would expire or go out of style the day after Chinese New Year.

Having explored every nook and cranny of Chinatown on Saturdays with two adventurous classmates when we were in Grades 6 and 7, I know the area quite well. Later on, I held office in the old Philippine National Bank Building on Escolta corner T. Pinpin, from 1996-1998 when it was the newly created City College of Manila. On one end of Escolta, nearest the approach to Jones Bridge, was Savory, famous for fried chicken; on the other end was Sta. Cruz Church, fronting a number of eateries I remember from my childhood. My father told me about a Panciteria Moderna competing with the Panciteria Antigua. When I found this place in the 1980s, Antigua had long been gone, but Moderna had a competitor called “New Moderna.”

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In my 2020 visit, all three panciterias have been replaced by fast-food chains: KFC, Jollibee, and Chow King. The last man standing in Sta. Cruz is Ramon Lee’s Fried Chicken on Ronquillo Street, which is nine years short of its centennial, having been founded in 1929. I was not disappointed by the tasty chicken that had crispy skin on the outside and juicy meat on the inside. Ramon Lee is not a generic, air-conditioned place like the nearby Jollibee, and one ate from rather dingy cushioned stalls. But all this contributed to the ambience that included an old painted menu board, with dated items in Spanish like morisqueta tostada (fried rice), platano (banana), and bihon guisado (sautéed thin rice noodles).

After eating at Ramon Lee, I decided on my next trip to find the original Ling Nam Noodle and Wonton Factory on T. Alonso to sample its much-recommended beef noodle soup. It did not disappoint—the meat was fresh and tender, the broth was excellent, the noodles on the soft side, prompting me to remind myself not to compare it unfairly with Ippudo. However, the little old lady at the cashier said I could specify noodle consistency upon ordering.

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One panciteria that is now history is the Panciteria Macanista del Buen Gusto (Macau Panciteria of Good Taste), whose sign is legible on archival photos of the San Fernando Bridge going toward Binondo church. Referenced in Rizal’s “El Filibusterismo,” it was still in operation in prewar times. Smart Panciteria, on the other hand, was the panciteria of my childhood, now long gone, from where the adults always ordered fish ball soup, fried frog legs, ham duck rice, steamed lapu-lapu, black gulaman, and scallops with kutsay tips. They had “bomba” soup that popped and crackled when the fried burnt rice from the bottom of a pot was dropped in the steaming broth. Now all that remains are happy memories of meals shared and tastes that can never be matched or replicated.

Old Chinatown establishments should rightfully be honored as intangible heritage with National Historical Commission bronze markers, or at least be recognized and granted incentives by City Hall on the recommendation of the Manila Historical and Heritage Commission. Eng Bee Tin, Salazar Bakery, Ho-Land and Po-Land Hopia and many more are still around. I’m sure I will find the old places where I used to buy tea, black chicken, sweet preserved plums (champoy or kiamoy), and haw flakes that were in the shape and size of playing cards. The place where I would buy a bottle or a glass of chilled freshly pressed sugar cane juice still exists, but I have yet to rediscover the stall that served hot peanut soup from my youth.

All this is well worth braving the fear of the coronavirus; life must go on in Chinatown.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Chinatown, Chinese new year, coronavirus scare, food business
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