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Binondo Church » The Conflict Between Cultural Heritage and Commercialization

Photo of the facade of Binondo ChurchI was recently on a shopping spree to the famous bargain shopping paradise - the Divisoria. Going there, I took the China Town route and I couldn’t help but drop by at the century old Binondo Church for some snapshots, knowing that it will be an awesome addition to my Philippine-old-churches series on this blog – aside of course from my recently discovered personal attraction to historic religious sites, not for the sake of religion but as an opportunity for cultural and educational experience.

Unlike many old churches located in major Philippine cities, this church were somehow able to maintain its old touch of a plaza, a common feature of century old Catholic churches but now usually being converted into commercial establishments. Undoubtedly, Binondo Church, with its rich cultural heritage is currently fighting against the threat of commercialization.

A bit of history

Even before the arrival of the Spanish to the Philippines there was already a community of Chinese traders living in Manila. Population of Chinese traders increased which prompted the catholic missionaries to manage the conversion of the Chinese population to the Christian faith. 
Binondo Church also known as Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz.
In 1594, Binondo was created by Spanish Governor Luis Pérez Dasmariñas as a permanent settlement for Chinese immigrants (the Spanish called the Chinese "sangleys") who converted to Catholicism. In 1596, Dominican priests founded Binondo church to serve their Chinese converts to Christianity as well as to the native Filipinos.
Photo of the entrance of Binondo Church
San Lorenzo Ruiz, who was born of a Chinese father and a Filipino mother, trained in this church and afterwards went as a missionary to Japan and was executed there for refusing to renounce his religion. San Lorenzo Ruiz was to be the Philippines' first saint and he was canonized in 1987. A large statue of the martyr stands in front of the church. Currently, this church is also known as Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz. 

Current granite church and details of the facade of Binondo Church
The original structure has sustained damages during wars and various natural disasters. The current granite church was completed on the same site in 1852 and features an octagonal bell tower which suggests the Chinese culture of the parishioners. The church was burned during the British invasion of 1872. Another one was quickly built following the occupation. Improvements were made in the 18th century but the edifice was again destroyed in the 1863 earthquake.
Bell tower composed of five stories, octagonal in shape. At its top was a mirador (viewing window). This roof was destroyed during the 1863 earthquake.
It was rebuilt in the grandeur the remains on which we see today. Before the war, it was considered as one of the most beautiful churches in the country. Its bell tower was composed of five stories, octagonal in shape. At its top was a mirador or viewing window. This roof was destroyed during the 1863 earthquake.

American bombing on September 22, 1944 destroyed the structure. Everything including the archives of the parish were burned. Nothing was left behind except the stone walls of the church and the fire-tiered octagonal belltower. After the war, Binondo parishioners had to make do with a roofless church for several years until it was rebuilt in the 1950's.

The present church and convent was renovated between 1946 and 1971.

Ornate alter of Binondo Church showing rich cultural Filipino Chinese heritage
Between 1946 and 1971, the church and convent were renovated, according to the historical marker on site. Up until now, the Chinese community has been maintaining the church and funding its renovations, including the columns set in marble and the altar.
Antique beauty of the church’s interior, with the thick columns on each side and the colorful ceilings painted with important events from the Bible such as the stations of the cross and when Blessed Mary was enthroned the Queen of heaven.
When you enter the church, you will instantly see the antique beauty of the church’s interior, with the thick columns on each side and the colorful ceilings painted with important events from the Bible such as the stations of the cross and when Blessed Mary was enthroned the Queen of heaven. The detailed paintings make Binondo Church a famous stop among tourists in the area.

The threat of commercialization 

Aside from the Catholics’ Visita Iglesia tradition, most of the church visitors are seeking authentic experiences that are tied to a specific history, rather than architecture related travel or just plain leisure. Tourists often view visits to historic religious sites as opportunities for cultural and educational experiences 

Accordingly, it is very important that measures protecting the historical integrity and cultural significance of these structures are being implemented.

Original Plan of Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz, Binondo Manila
Plan of Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz, Binondo Manila. Shaded area used to be part of the area. (Source: Manila City Planning Office)
In front of Binondo Church is the Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz, now merely a few square meters which is in stark contrast to its original size of approximately 10,500 square meters. The plaza has been downsized due to the commercialization of the district and opened to both public and private transportation.

During my quick visit to Binondo Church, I noticed that commercialization of the surrounding area is continuously spreading at an alarming rate. Despite that, it has continued to be a place for employees, workers and other business people to take a short break and pray, amidst their busy schedule for the day.

However, with the growth of business activity around the area, the original plaza has lost its old ambiance. I no longer find the surrounding area a pleasant place to take a stroll because of pollution, noise and the beggars loitering in the area. A common sight at the plaza are young kids sniffing solvent, a very disappointing state of this once glorious plaza.        

Shops inside the church selling relisgious items to parishioners and tourists
Binondo Church has also joined forces with the powers of commercialization. Inside the Church, just beside the holy water font is a shop selling religious items, fans, trinkets and other curio items.  

Small shop inside the Binondo Church

While it may not be entirely a bad thing, I cannot help but notice some devastating consequences. When heritage religious sites, especially churches are commercialized and changed for easy tourist consumption, the site often looses its authenticity.  

Two devotees wearing veil praying and kneeling at the center isle of Binondo Church

Do you agree with the commercialization of historical churches?

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