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History of world’s oldest Chinatown now on view

June 28, 2019

A museum in a modern establishment — housing arti­facts culled and collected from more than 500 years of history and a lot more located on the fourth floor of the new hotel of Lucky Chinatown Mall in Binondo, Manila — is the country’s newest point of general interest.

Launched and opened to the public on June 8, Chinatown Museum tells the story of the world’s oldest Chinatown that is Binondo. Its 18 galleries showcase how Chinese culture has been ingrained into the Filipino way of life.

Chinatown Museum’s 18 galleries tell the story of the world’s oldest Chinatown in Manila.

It is believed though that merchants mainly from Guangdong, Fujian and Quanzhou provinces had been coming to the archipelago as early as the 10th century to engage business with locals, not just in Luzon but in other islands as far as Sulu.

The new cultural landmark — recognized by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and supported by the National Geographic Channel — is envisioned as a community space and heritage project that lends a visual retelling of the rich history of the place, including the country’s former business and financial center in Escolta.

Asked by The Manila Times why Megaworld Corporation — owner and operator of Lucky Chinatown Mall and many other properties and townships around the country — put the museum in a modern location instead of a historic infrastructure, museum curator Janine Cabato explained that on the same site was actually the location of an iconic part of Chinatown.

NCCA Head of Museums Dannie Alvarez, Alliance Global Inc. Chief Executive Officer Kevin Tan, Megaworld Chief Operating Office Lourdes Gutierrez-Alfonso and Megaworld Lifestyle Malls Head Graham Coates during the ceremonial banging of the Gong.

“Going to the mall is the new notion of enjoying leisure time. And here on the same spot where Lucky Chinatown [Mall and Hotel] stands was where [part of] the Meisic Police Station used to be. If you know what Meisic is, it’s a play on the words ‘may Intsik,’ so it’s very fitting why Chinatown Museum is [built] here,” she said.

Vice President and Marketing and Business Development head Tefel Pesigan-Valentino, meanwhile, said that she sees this as an opportunity to bring more people into the cultural hub, not just to entertain visitors but also to be educated on a very important part of history.

“Museums are actually venues for conversation, for exchanges of story and culture. We want to bring this closer to the community, to the people. Incidentally, a lot of Filipinos are mallgoers, so that’s the best way to communicate to them,” the corporate executive said.

Interactive app

Presented in an “Instagrammable” milieu, the museum makes use of multimedia displays and a number of interactive tableaus where museum goers can take photos and tinker with the items on display. Nothing on display is of great value though, in terms of monetary cost, the curator added.

Guests may whiff through a drawer of medicinal herbs and flowers in the Botica de San Fernando gallery. PHOTOS BY JOHN ORVEN VERDOTE

For more immersive and interactive experience, the Chinatown Museum App is also available for visitors on Google Play for Android users and on the Apple Store for iOS users. The customized app makes it easy for visitors to have easy access to gallery information using bluetooth technology for smoother transition between topics while inside the museum.

“The museum is more edutainment [education and entertainment] because we understand that it’s not only about knowledge and about education, but it’s more what is Instagrammable [particularly for millennials]. We made sure that one can easily sit down, take a few photos and interact with the gallery itself,” Cabato explained.

Galleries and highlights

Designed like the Chinatown itself, the 18 galleries are Mission Settlement, Figures of Faith, Alcaiceria, Mestizo de Sangley, Shophouses, Industries, Esteros de Binondo, El 82, Origins of Revolution, Turn of the Century, Botican de San Fernando, Rosario Gallery, Flavors of Binondo, Tranvia, La Estrella del Norte, Escolta Gallery, Meisic Gallery and Unionpay Gallery.

Three of these galleries are considered central to the Chinese culture that got ingrained into the Filipino way of life — Alcaiceria, which was constructed in 1752 following a Royal Decree of King Ferdinand 6th designating the area as residence and trade center for transient Chinese with their wares, like textiles, housewares and various commodities; Esteros de Binondo, where the estuaries or esteros facilitated the transport of goods such as bananas, coconuts and building materials via cascos; and Panaderia, where the major offerings were goods made from flour such as hopia, siopao, mooncake and nian gao.

Realistically, the museum also shows a discreet display of an opium den, where men smoked from long pipes for relaxation after a day’s hard work.

‘Little Island’

Ateneo de Manila University anthropology professor Fernando Zialcita, who also serves as consultant for the museum, thinks of Binondo as “little island” where everything is. Escolta was the place where the Philippines’ first three banks opened — El Banco Español-Filipino de Isabel (forerunner of the Bank of the Philippine Islands), The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) and Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China (present-day Standard Chartered Bank) — all making sense why there was a Binondo Central Bank many years back.

“Binondo was where we were in contact with the Chinese, with the Indian, with Europeans. It has actually been our gateway to the world,” the Ateneo professor said. He also averred to The Manila Times that museums are places for conversations, so it doesn’t have to be located in archaic infrastructures.

Beyond historical representation

At the launch, Megaworld Corporation Chief Strategy Officer and Alliance Global Group CEO Kevin Tan shared that his father, Andrew Tan, who came to the country at the age of 16 and lived in a cramped apartment where several families were housed, said that Binondo inspired the now-tycoon’s dreams to be an entrepreneur.

He explained that their projects always integrate art, culture, history and heritage in their developments. Megaworld’s first museum is the Iloilo Musem of Contemporary Art inside its Iloilo Business Park township in Mandurriao. In the works is the museum of Kapampangan culture in the Capital Town development in San Fernando, Pampanga. Others being curated are those in Cebu and Pasig City.

“We conducted thorough research and consultations for this project, and we collaborated with members of the academe, respected historians and prominent figures in the community in order to provide an accurate and comprehensive representation of Binondo’s rich history. We went beyond a historical presentation of facts and we even developed the museum’s very own app to make it educational and the same time entertaining especially to the young audience,” Tan shared.

Chinatown Museum is connected directly to the main mall of Lucky Chinatown via a bridgeway at the fourth level and the newly opened Hotel Lucky Chinatown. Open from Tuesdays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., tickets are priced at P150 for regular visitors, P120 for senior citizens and P100 for students. Kids below four feet in height are free of charge.

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