A Walking Tour of Escolta (Manila)

I have been dying to do a walking tour of Escolta, Manila’s historic version of High Street. During the Spanish era, this short (less than a kilometer long) stretch was linedwith rows of camarines (1-storey Chinese shops). On his way to his office in Intramuros from Malacanang, the Spanish governor-general would usually pass here with his escolta (official escorts), hence the derivation of its name (from the Spanish word escortar meaning “to escort”).  Later, these camarines along Calle Escolta were replaced by bahay-na-bato  (stone houses) adorned with Neo-Classical elements such as Greek columns and caryatids and, towards the end of the Spanish regime, by European establishments, the only ones permitted to do business along the cobblestones (imported from Hong Kong) of this narrow, historic thoroughfare.

Escolta – A shadow of its former self
From the early 1900’s to the 1960s, Escolta was the country’s premier shopping mecca, with high-end stores such as La Estrella del Norte and Puerta del Sol, which marked the east and west entrances of Escolta.  It is also home to H.E. Heacocks and Oceanic (for fine household items);  Berg’s (for fashionable clothes);  Hamilton Brown and Walk-Over Shoe Store (for quality leather shoes); 2 high-class cinema theaters (Capitol and Lyric) which brought the glitz and glamour of Hollywood to Manila; restaurants (Henry’s Donuts, Max’s Fried Chicken, Dencia’s Pansit Malabon, Savory Restaurant, etc.); and Botica Boie (for mixed potent medicines).  Founded in 1830, the latter also served the best ice cream sodas, brewed coffee and clubhouse sandwiches in its glass-in mezzanine overlooking the street.  With the emergence of commercial and business districts of Makati and Quezon City, the prestige of Escolta gradually faded.
The First United and Regina Buildings

Needing to buy some lighting fixtures along nearby Soler St., I decided to include a visit to Escolta  in my itinerary.  From Gil Puyat Ave., I took the LRT and dropped off at Carriedo Station.  The first notable piece of architecture I encountered was the Neo-Classical-style Don Roman R. Santos Building, fronting Plaza Lacson (formerly Plaza Goiti).  When the Japanese bombed the city during World War II, only 3 of its 5 floors were finished.  Luckily, it survived and the building was finished in 1957.  The building once housed the headquarters of Monte de Piedad and Prudential Bank and, later, a shopping mall (South Super Mart).  When the mall closed, Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) took over the building. Its entrance has Ionic columns with a triangular pediment, within which is a big clock flanked by bas-relief sculptures.

Don Roman R. Santos Building

Both ends of Escolta open into impressive open spaces  (Plaza Sta. Cruz and Plaza Moraga).  Though no longer the premier shopping district it used to be, strolling along Escolta is still a rewarding experience as one could still find traces of its glorious past.  Uponcrossing the little Visita Bridge spanning Estero de la Reina, at the Sta. Cruz entrance of Escolta, I was attracted by 2 impressive, eye-catching (though marred by entangled electrical cables) buildings facing each other – the fancy, Art Deco-style First United Building and the elegant Beaux Arts-style Regina Building.

First United Building
The pink and white First United Building, formerly the Perez-Samanillo Building, is one of the few surviving examples of the Art Deco architectural style in Manila. Built in 1928 by Andres Luna de San Pedro (Juan Luna’s son), it’s awesome façade has a large amount of architectural and decorative elements.  Its central bay rises towards a crowning block rendered with a bas-relief of the Creation. Once described as Manila’s foremost business address, it prides itself with providing maximized space, abundant lighting and ventilation to its tenants.
Regina Building
The graceful, white Neo-Classical-style Regina Building, built in 1934, its design (with traces of Renaissance Revival) also attributed to Andres Luna de San Pedro, was originally designed as a 3-storey commercial building. A fourth floor was added by Arch. Fernando H. Ocampo (founder of the UST College of Architecture and designer of the UST Central Seminary and the 8th Manila Cathedral) when the de Leon family bought the building from the Roxases. The staff of the late Sen. Vicente Madrigal (grandfather of Sen. Jamby Madrigal) rented a suite in this building.  Also on the same floor, across the hall, was the office of Madrigal Shipping, then the world’s largest tramp steamship company.
Burke Building

Further out was the Burke Building, with its simple balance lines.  Built in 1919, it was named after the cardiologist William J. Burke who introduced and installed the first electrocardiograph in the country.  Also a philanthropist, he donated the land for the street (Calle David, renamed W. Burke St. in 1990).  The first Otis elevator in the Philippines was installed in this building.

Natividad Building

The charming, Beaux Arts-style Natividad Building, one of the most beautiful landmarks in the area, is one of the oldest buildings along Escolta.  It was burned during the 1945 Battle of Manila (leaving only its exterior shell) and was later restored.  In the 1950s, this building housed the office of the Insurance Commission.  Its alluring, ivory and white-colored facade, evocative of a French café in a Parisian neighborhood, has four levels alternately decorated with arched and square windows with cornices with tooth-like dentils underneath it.

Calvo Building

The stunning, Beaux Arts-style Calvo Building, built in 1938 by Mr. Edificio Calvo, was also designed by Arch. Fernando Ocampo.  The richly-decorated facade at the second level has arched windows (except at the truncated corner) flanked by Ionic pilasters, above which is a cornice embellished by garlands and gracefully broken, in alternating sections, by cartouches supported by corbels above the window’s arch.

The truncated corner

This 4-storey building once housed the Philippine Bank of Commerce, the popular MV Villar Records Store and the original radio station of Robert “Uncle Bob” Stewart’s Channel 7. On its roof deck was Luisa, a popular soda fountain. Today, Mercury Drug and Tropical Hut flank the entrance to the building, with Wah Yuen Hot Pot and Seafood Restaurant in its Calle Soda side. Its mezzanine  is home to the little-known Escolta Museum.

Cartouche above the arched window

Across the street from the Calvo Building is the decaying and dilapidated shell of the majestic, Mesopotanian-inspired Art Deco-style Capitol Theater. Built in the 1935, this theater, designed by National Artist Arch. Juan Nakpil, had a seating capacity of 800 and an unusual double balcony.  Its lobby once mounted a beautiful wall mural by the late Filipino modernist and National Artist Victorio C. Edades. Now abandoned, it ceased operations in the late 1980s.

Capitol Theater
On the face of its western tower were bas-reliefs, evocative of Art Deco lines and curves, showing Filipinas (one holding a mask and another holding a lyre) in traje de mestiza frame and set in a tropical landscape, attributed to the Italian atelier of Francesco Ricardo Monti. The bigger, 1600-pax Lyric Theater, another Art Deco masterpiece designed by Modernist Arch. Pablo S. Antonio, was demolished in the early 1980s.
Burke Building: 321 W. Burke St., cor, Escolta St., Binondo, Manila
Calvo Building: 266 Escolta St. cor. Calle Soda, Binondo, Manila.  Tel: (632) 241-4762.
First United Building: 413 Escolta cor. David St., Binondo, Manila.
Natividad Building: Escolta cor. Tomas Pinpin St., Binondo Manila
Regina Building: W. Burke St., cor, Escolta St., Binondo, Manila
Roman S. Santos Building: Escolta cor. Yuchengco St., Binondo, Manila

A Walk Through Manila’s Chinatown

After canvassing for lighting fixtures along Soler Street, I decided to explore Manila Chinatown via  the Arch of Goodwill Arch, a  Chinese archway (paifangwhich marks the east end of Ongpin Street, named after Don Ramon Ongpin, a Chinese businessman who supported the Katipunan movement in 1896. The Arch of Goodwill, one of several which acts as a spatial marker to welcome visitors into a different cultural sphere, commemorates the friendship between the Filipino people and Chinese immigrants.

The Arch of Goodwill

The Arch of Goodwill

Manila’s 66-hectare Chinatown, located just across the Pasig River, opposite  the walled city of Intramuros, was originally for  Chinese Catholic converts only. In 1790, non-Christian Chinese were allowed to move into Chinatown. Our first Filipino saint, San Lorenzo Ruiz, was born in Binondo.

Ongpin Street

The terribly congested but colorful Ongpin Street, home to many gold and silver jewelry stores, herb-scented Chinese medicine shops, spacious restaurants, little teahouses and well-stocked groceries, is flanked at each end by the Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo Ruiz (Binondo Church) in the west and the Baroque-style National Shrine of the Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (Sta. Cruz Church) in the east.

A Chinese drugstore

A Chinese drugstore

Manila’s Chinatown, the oldest in the world (established in 1594), is known to the Filipinos as Binondo (derived from the Tagalog word binundok meaning “mountainous”), to the Filipino-Chinese community as Chi Lai (市内), a Hokkien term for “inner city,” and by tourists simply as Chinatown, a common reference to an area where there are a lots of Chinese and Chinese businesses. Most of the people in this district are of Hokkien ancestry as most of their ancestors are from Fujian province. My ancestor, Sing Lok, also from Fujian, arrived in the country in 1750. He later changed his surname to Locsin and adopted the Christian name of Agustin.

An Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli branch

An Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli branch

Chinese heritage and traditional Chinese institutions are very evident in Manila’s Chinatown and, once I passed the Arch of Goodwill, I began to find icons, institutions and features typical of most Chinatowns. Unlike in other parts of the city, the horse-drawn calesa is still alive and well here.Unlike the Chinatowns I have visited in other Southeast Asian cities, this one in Manila is really very busy on Sundays.

A sidewalk fruit stall

A sidewalk fruit stall

The street signs in Chinatown, some decorated with dragons, are also often bilingual and sometimes trilingual. with Filipino, English and Traditional Chinese script.  Even signages are bilingual, as businesses here cater to the cultural and religious needs of the Filipino-Chinese population. Restaurants offer a wide range of Chinese food while other shops offer the latest CDs VCDs from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, religious goods and festive fruits that are in season.

A Chinese gift shop

A Chinese gift shop

A long time (since 1912) fixture in Chinatown is Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli, reputed to be the home of the best-tasting hopia (a popular Filipino bean filled pastry) in country.  It has a number of stores in Chinatown, selling 22 variants of hopia, including ube, nangka, buco pandan (my favorite) and cheese variations.  Some bakeshops even carry their hopia products. They also sell other traditional Chinese delicacies such as tikoy, glutinous balls and ube pao.

The calesa is alive and well here

The calesa is alive and well here

Chinatown is known for the having the best volunteer fire-fighting unit in the city, the residents’ response to the frequent fires that strike their community. Their fire engines, often sponsored by individuals or organizations, are highly visible all over the district. Eng Bee Tin has also set up Txtfire, the largest volunteer firefighting organization in the Philippines (with more than 4,500 affiliate firefighters nationwide), and have donated 10 ube (violet)-colored fire trucks, one of which I saw parked beside Binondo Church.

An ube-colored fire truck donated by Eng Bee Tin

An ube-colored fire truck donated by Eng Bee Tin

A street-side temple with an altar was also built along Tomas Pinpin Street. Here, people come to light at least 3 joss or incense sticks (hui), make offerings or donations, recite a prayer to the venerated image of Sto. Cristo de Longos (a miraculous crucifix found by a deaf and mute Chinese in an old well in Longos), make a prayer request, then take two crescent-shaped jiaobei blocks (or moon blocks) and throw it to answer a yes (identical faces) or no ((opposing figures) question.  Truly an intriguing fusion of Roman Catholicism and Buddhism.

A roadside shrine dedicated to Sto. Cristo de Longos

A roadside shrine dedicated to Sto. Cristo de Longos

As I strolled and enjoy the proverbial sights, sounds and smell of Chinatown, I knew that I have reached the district’s boundaries as I saw another Chinese archway at Ongpin North Bridge.

Ongin North Bridge Arch

Ongin North Bridge Arch