Saturday, February 1, 2014

8 Reasons Chinese New Year in Binondo Reminds Me of NYC

Kung Hey Fat Choi! Xin Nian Kuai Le! Gong Xi Fa Cai! Xing Ni Ju Yi! However you want to say it, Happy Chinese New Year!

I had a blast on Friday as Jericho and I headed to Binondo, both dressed in bright red, to ring in the Year of the Wooden Horse with the Filipino-Chinese community. This would be the first time I'd be celebrating Chinese New Year, and what's a better place to do it than at one of the oldest and biggest Chinatowns in the world. Roaming around Binondo, Ongpin, and the nearby side streets, I was pleasantly surprised to see how very like New York this small city-within-a-city actually is.

Here are eight reasons why I think celebrating Chinese New Year in Binondo reminds me of New York City:

1. Crowds of people - everywhere!
To say the place was packed that day is an understatement. Over in Ongpin, you couldn't take a step in any direction without accidentally having someone eat your elbow. Scenarios like this remind me of when I'd take the 6th train during rush hour - everybody's trying to cram themselves into a small space.And of course, there's always that one perv making the most it by trying to rub his crotch up against you. Yuck.

2. Street vendors on every corner.
While in NYC it's knock off Gucci bags, fake watches, food trucks and the occasional bagel, hot dog and shawarma stands, in Binondo it was full of people selling fishballs, yema, little colored chicks, ducklings, Chinese good luck charms, and fresh fruit. We saw this vendor selling fake Minnie Mouse ears. Doesn't he look adorbabol?

There were also manangs selling different kinds of kakanin, which is an auspicious food to eat in the new year as it it said to keep families together for the rest of the year. I don't know what charcoal-grilled dried squid means as far as Chinese superstitions are concerned, but it smelled really good.

I felt really bad for these chicks being sold on the streets and along the bridges in Ongpin. We found these little guys in front of Binondo church, barely moving and probably really thirsty and hungry. What a cruel thing to do to such dainty little creatures, to only have some kid beg their parents to get them one, eventually forget about them, and leave them to die from the cold or get eaten by a stray cat. Animals, no matter how small, are not toys!

3. It's better to walk
During Chinese New Year in Binondo it's better to park your car someplace else, wear comfortable footwear, and just walk everywhere. Taking your car into the heart of Ongpin is a waste of time and gas, and paying the padyak boys to take your around in their sidecar in the afternoon (when the place is packed) is pretty useless as you won't get very far. Even the kalesas that usually charge P60 per hour, charged an exorbitant P250 an hour for you to travel five blocks with the stench of horse poop filling your nostrils the entire way.

With the crowds spilling into the streets, and the dragon dancers taking over traffic, it's best to enjoy the festivities on foot.

4. Free entertainment
Dragon dancers, floats with wooden horses (very Trojan war-ish), and weird groups of what I could only describe as feral carnival troupes were scattered around Chinatown, treating people to festive dancing, photo ops, and disturbing fire breathing performances. We arrived a bit too late for the 100 dragon dances happening all at the same time all over Chinatown, but we did see one with kids performing, which was very cute, and another at Lucky Chinatown Mall that was disturbing. Dragons "French-kissing" on stage with two grown ass men inside isn't at all sexy. Or entertaining. It's just plain weird. But we'll get to that later.

5. Beautiful old buildings
I marveled at all the beautiful old building still standing in Chinatown. Binondo Church is one of those beauties, founded by Dominican priests in 1596 with it 's Spanish architecture and the altar's dome being the replica of St. Peter's own Basilica in Italy. It's ironic how in the middle of the Chinese community, a Catholic Church is one of the most dominant buildings in the area, no?

There's also that old, scary-looking building that advertisers love to use in commercials, cleaning it up and taking out the bulky telephone poles and wires that surround its façade.

I really wanted to visit a few Buddhist temples when I was there, but I couldn't find any! They were all hidden away in the corners of the city and I really didn't know where to look. I'll come back for temple visits on another day.

6. Lines in hole-in-the-wall restaurants
Jericho and I tried getting lost along the streets and alleyways in Ongpin and ended up at a street with holes-in-the-walls that sold everything from dumplings to Peking duck. We saw a long line outside this establishment whose name I can't even read who sold deep-fried bola-bola. The line almost wrapped around the block so their stuff must be good!

Speaking of wrapping lines, don't even get me started on Eng Bee Tin! I was hankering for some cold almond cake after having a spot of lunch at Tasty Dumplings, and can I just say - the lines were ridiculous! We passed by three Eng Bee Tin branches, each one only a couple of blocks away from the other, but the lines twisted and turned around the block with people wanting to buy tikoy, hopia, and other delicacies.I am saddened to report that I never got my almond cake that day.

7. There is magic in the air!
Chinatown during Chinese New Year feels a lot like New York - it's magical! There's no way for me to describe it. The place just comes alive and there's an energy in the air that makes you feel like a giddy little school girl, your eyes are wide open in awe of everything that's happening around you, and it takes a day or two to just take in everything in.

Another sort of magic is the crystal shop I stepped into. They sold special bracelets that helped you ward off bad luck or help with prosperity in the Year of the Horse, depending on what your Chinese zodiac sign was. I left the shop with a simple quartz crystal necklace that I was quite happy with.

8. Weirdos. Lots and lots of 'em.
Remember when I told you about the feral carnival troupes? Scary, huh? Gaunt-looking drag queens paraded around the city in neon tights and short skirts with these bakulaws, or some other horribly dressed creature, asking for donations in exchange for photo ops and tricks that involved gasoline. How the hell is this connected to celebrating Chinese New Year is what I want to know. I'm afraid to ask what their day jobs are.

All in all, I'd say celebrating Chinese New Year in Manila's Chinatown is quite an experience. I found out the day before that the celebration actually begins the day before. The place gets even more packed and there's a fireworks show when the clock strikes midnight. Kudos to Mayor Erap Estrada for putting together a celebration for the books!

When mucking around Manila during Chinese New Year, pay Chinatown a visit and join in the festivities! It's a lot more fun that you'd expect it to be, and like New York, you can't really take in the whole city in a short afternoon. This is a place you keep coming back to, discovering and re-discovering your new favorite hole-in-the-wall with each visit.

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