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Remembering Our Tsinoy Heritage at The Chinatown Museum

I’m one of those “fake,” card-carrying 4th generation Chinese-Filipinos. “Fake” because thanks to 2nd and 3rd generation marriages to women outside the Chinese community, and my Dad having been one for assimilation and not having sent me to a Chinese school, I may have a surname that elicits Chinese greetings—but sadly, I can never respond in kind. So from one angle, the Chinatown Museum that the Megaworld Group set up right beside their Lucky Chinatown Mall is heaven-sent, a picture story of my heritage and family’s provenance.



As such, it’s a vital snapshot of our culture, our world of commerce, and the successful integration of the Chinese immigrants into Philippine society. But of course, this did not happen overnight, nor did it come without a cost. One of the first rooms you’ll enter when touring the museum is devoted to Binondo Church. And here, arrayed on one wall, you’ll find the patron saints that are part of the Binondo Church story which dates back centuries. You’ll appreciate the depiction of the church in 1847, as it pretty much resembles how it stands today. 


A view of the section devoted to the Binondo Church

Conversion to Christianity was the price these Chinese immigrants “paid” to be able to ply their business; and in time, intermarry with Filipina women. That this was without its economic benefits cannot be disputed; as quite often it was the Filipina woman who brought ownership of land into the marriage. That trade, business, and commerce would be entwined with these marriages, there can be no doubt.  


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And Binondo did flourish. Up to the middle of the 20th century, before districts like Makati would usurp it’s role, Binondo was the financial and commercial center of Manila. The museum wonderfully displays this with exhibits of the Old Manila alcaicería, something akin to a dry goods store; and the traditional panaderia, where we’d buy our daily bread and baked treats. How this evolved into the Binondo institution of the Pollard Hopia Factory is delightfully recaptured.


The Pollard Hopia Factory exhibit


An actual Tranvía, which would ply the streets of Manila, has been recreated and dominates one interactive section of the museum. And there’s a display devoted to La Estrella Del Norte, which was the must-go when one was looking for that expensive, quality, jewelry or timepiece gift. And I loved the tribute to Eduardo Ahtay, the master furniture maker, represented here by his four-poster bed. These beds go for millions now in auctions.


An actual Tranvía brought back to life as an exhibit


Eduardo Ahtay, the master furniture maker of his time


So that the museum becomes more than just a slip-hole into the past; there are changing exhibits that are devoted to contemporary art created by Chinese-Filipinos, and even a room which for now stands as a tribute to the first modern Chinese School here in Manila. It’s a wonderful reminder that Tsinoy is about today, and will remain so. We may refer to the space as the Chinatown Museum, but it’s a living, breathing phenomenon, and well worth the visit.


Photos courtesy of Philip Cu-Unjieng