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The History and Architectural Heritage of Binondo Manila - World's Oldest Chinatown

Binondo, north of the Pasig River and across Puente de España, is home to the Binondo heritage area, which stretches from Ongpin Street in the south to Divisoria in the north. Divisoria, a wide street that originally served as a firebreak between the two pueblos of Binondo and Tondo, separates Binondo from Tondo.

Binondo canal, circa 1920
Binondo canal, circa 1920 (Leo Cloma Collection)

Binondo emerged as a segregated enclave for Chinese Catholics and their mestizo descendants. To control the sangleyes, or Chinese traders, the Spaniards segregated them from the rest of the population, just as they had done with the Jews in Spain. They established a ghetto outside of Manila called the Parian, where the sangleyes could live and trade. However, Governor-General Luis Dasmarinas (1593-96) wanted to reduce the colony's reliance on non-Catholic sangleyes. In March 1594, he acquired the rights to the Binondo encomienda, which had been awarded to Antonio de Velada by Legazpi. He then donated the land to the Dominicans for a church, hospital, and mission for converted sangleyes. Those who converted were allowed to move to Binondo and enjoy greater physical and social mobility. As early as 1594, the Dominicans began ministering to Binondo at a church dedicated to Nuestra Señora del Rosario (later renamed Basilica Minore de San Lorenzo Ruiz de Manila).

The Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario (Binondo Church)

Binondo's vibrant past is reflected in the diverse architectural styles found in the district. The Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario (Binondo Church), the district's oldest structure, was built in 1594 of wood and thatch. It embodied Spain's dual motivations for coming to Asia: to convert Asians to Catholicism and to trade with them for goods such as silk and spices. A stone church replaced the original structure in 1614. In the 18th century, a well-built church designed by Domingo de la Cruz Gonzalez was constructed. This church followed the typical colonial plan, with a central vertical section flanked by lateral towers and capped with a trapezoidal pediment topped by a small vaulted niche. The octagonal windows were small, and twin columns adorned the facade.

Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, circa 1920
Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, circa 1920 (Nicanor G. Tiongson Collection)

Despite being destroyed by bombardment during the British occupation in 1762, rebuilt in 1862, and destroyed again by the earthquake of 1863, the Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario (Binondo Church) has risen from the ashes three times. In 1945, the church suffered massive destruction during the Battle of Manila, leaving only its facade, nave walls, and bell tower standing. Reconstruction began in the 1950s and continued intermittently until 1984. The postwar reconstruction included a new and higher roof structure, reinforced and repaired walls and bell tower, and the removal of a curious short wing that jutted out to the left of the nave and behind the facade. This wing, which appears in early 20th century photographs, may have been a connecting wing to the Dominican convalescent home, which was converted to Fabrica de Puros, a cigar factory in the 19th century.

The present facade of the Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario (Binondo Church) is divided into three vertical sections and two horizontal sections, capped by a triangular pediment ornamented with balustrades. The balustrade disappeared with the post-World War II reconstruction. The central section, where the portal is, is wider than the two sides. The facade is flanked by quadrilateral towers that reach to the base of the pediment. The whole front section is decorated with niches. Even the pediment has a niche.

Binondo Church facade, post-World War II reconstruction
Binondo Church facade, post-World War II reconstruction

To the right of the facade is a five-story bell tower, whose upper four octagonal stories rest on a quadrilateral base. Each story is of diminishing dimensions, making the bell tower look like a pagoda. Earlier engravings show that the bell tower had an octagonal pointed roof that soared like a spire, but by the early 20th century this roof had been replaced by a dome, as seen in the present church.

Binondo Church Bell Tower
Binondo Church Bell Tower / Source: Rick Saint John via Flickr

Other Structures

In addition to the church, other major religious structures were built in Binondo during this period, including the Hospital de San Gabriel at the site of present-day Plaza Cervantes and the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Purificacion in Baybay (now San Nicolas). However, this church was abandoned when the residents of San Nicolas were placed under Binondo's jurisdiction.

Initially, most of these structures were built from bamboo and grass. However, the Spaniards wanted more durable structures that would symbolize the importance of their mission. They therefore introduced stronger construction materials from Spain and Mexico, such as lime concrete, mortar, stone, clay bricks, and tiles. More durable building materials could also be sourced locally, such as native hardwoods, adobe (earthen bricks), and volcanic tuff. Clay bricks and tiles could be fired locally, sometimes even at the construction site.

Although there is no concrete evidence that the Chinese built houses and temples in the Philippines before the Spaniards arrived, it is widely believed that they passed on their construction knowledge to their mestizo descendants. These master builders introduced the post-and-beam construction method common in China, which resulted in low, wide, and ground-hugging structures. When building vertically, they stacked layers rather than constructing a single straight structure.

The post-and-beam construction method used in the bell tower of Binondo Church is evident in its flaring corners, which are similar to those found in Chinese temples. This method was also used for the roof framework, which supported the weight of the clay tiles.

Early friar and missionary chronicles record the crucial role played by the Chinese in construction. The Augustinians and Jesuits employed Chinese as master carpenters, masons, and artisans, and even taught some of them to paint and sculpt religious images in the Spanish tradition.

Bahay na Bato

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, trading and hacienda agriculture were the main economic activities in the country. This led to the rise of a new economic class of Chinese merchant traders and Filipino professionals. As a status symbol, the newly rich built two-story homes known as bahay na bato, which appropriated the materials and technology used to build churches and convents.

These houses were distinguished from their less wealthy neighbors by their intricate ornamentation, such as carved transoms, elaborately carved doors and furniture. The love for ornamentation can be considered another influence of Chinese architecture, which is often characterized by its heavy use of ornamentation.

In addition to providing shelter, bahay na bato houses were also centers of economic activity for sangley merchants. The ground floor of many houses was used as a retail shop or workshop, giving rise to the shop houses that are still common in Binondo today.

Another feature of bahay na bato houses was the entresuelo, or mezzanine. Originally designed for servants, some sangley merchants converted this space into home offices. If the owners did not use it as an office, it could be rented out as a private room.

By the 19th century, some bahay na bato houses began to feature overhanging balconies. These were popular with pedestrians because they provided shelter from the sun and rain. As more shop houses incorporated this architectural feature, it became possible to walk the entire length of a street and be protected from the elements. This protection was further enhanced by the installation of toldas, or awnings, which were typically made of cloth but could also be made of metal or wood.

Binondo's Economy

Until the 1750s, trade between the Chinese and the Spaniards was conducted mainly on board Chinese junks docked along the Pasig River or near Intramuros. The Spaniards decided to build a permanent market on land where local and Chinese traders could meet and conduct business, and where Chinese goods could be inspected and taxed. The Spaniards also designed the market to keep permanent and transient Chinese residents separate, for security reasons.

In 1752, construction began on a two-story octagonal market building across the Pasig River, designed by Fray Lucas de Jesus Maria. The lower floors were for shops, and the upper floors were for residential use. The market was called the Alcaiceria de San Fernando, or Silk Market of San Fernando. Traces of the Alcaiceria can still be seen in the lot and layout of the Pedro Guevarra School on San Fernando Street.

The 18th century brought dynastic change in Europe, with the Hapsburg dynasty replaced by the Bourbons, who prided themselves on being enlightened rulers. The Bourbons' economic and political policies were modernizing, and they wanted to free the Philippines from its dependence on the galleon trade. To do this, the government encouraged the development of large-scale cash crop agriculture for export. The Real Sociedad Economica de los Amigos del Pais, a group of entrepreneurs and other private sector members, supported the government's efforts to reform the economy.

In 1781, the colony's economy changed with the introduction of tobacco as a cash crop and the government's monopoly on its production, sale, and export. This monopoly needed a place to manufacture and store cigars, so the Dominican friars donated their convalescent home next to Binondo Church. The factory that was built there became known as the Fabrica de Puros.

As Binondo's economy grew, it became the commercial hub of not only Manila but the entire colony. This new status brought new needs, such as the need for storage space for raw materials and finished goods. Warehouses known as camarines, bodegas, or almacenes were built to meet this need. They were typically made of stone or brick because they needed to be strong and sturdy. Their size varied depending on the owner, from small sheds measuring five by eight feet to two-story buildings. They were distinguished by their plain facades, numerous grilled windows, and lack of ornamentation.

Another need that emerged during this period was housing for the large number of migrant workers and their families who came to work in Binondo. This led to the development of a new type of dwelling known as the accesoria. Accesorias were one- or two-story buildings with several enclosed spaces that were rented out to separate occupants. Each accesoria had a ground-floor entrance, a sala, and a spare room. Kitchen and bathroom facilities were shared by the occupants.

La Insular Cigar Factory

In the 19th century, Binondo was a thriving town. Even after the tobacco monopoly ended in 1880, economic activity continued to grow. New commercial and industrial buildings were being built, such as the La Insular cigar factory, which was constructed on the site of the old Fabrica de Puros in 1884.

La Insular was a business venture owned by Joaquin Santamaria, Luis Elizalde, and associates. Designed by Juan Jose Hervas y Arizmendi, the building was neoclassical in style. It featured semicircular arched windows and a balustraded parapet with finials. The structure had a neo-Mudejar colonnade with twin columns rising to two floors to support a balustraded balcony on the third floor. The balustrade was interrupted at regular intervals by plinths supporting three-branched iron lampposts with glass globes. The 11 arches of the colonnade alternated between narrow and wide, with the central arch being the widest. This created a rhythmic pattern and broke up the monotony of equal-width arches. The arches also featured filigree-like latticework in the Mudejar style.

La Insular Cigar Factory, circa 1920
La Insular Cigar Factory, circa 1920 (Edward Delos Santos/Pinoy Kollektor)

La Insular became one of Binondo's most iconic landmarks until it burned down in 1944. As disposable income rose in the late 19th century and foreign businesses came to Binondo, a market for leisure activities emerged. People could now afford to spend more on hotels, restaurants, and theaters.

Hotel de Oriente

The most famous hotel in Binondo was the Hotel de Oriente, which was built in 1889 and quickly acquired a reputation as the best hotel in the Philippines. It was located in a prime spot, in front of Plaza Calderon de la Barca (now Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz) and next to the La Insular cigar factory. 

Shop houses with overhanging balconies and toldas on Calle Rosario, now Quintin Paredes, in Manila’s Chinatown
Shop houses with overhanging balconies and toldas on Calle Rosario, now Quintin Paredes, in Manila’s Chinatown (Leo Cloma Collection)

It was one block north of Binondo Church, near Calle Rosario, and a few blocks from the Pasig River docks and the Puente de España bridge.

The hotel was built by Don Manuel Perez Marqueti, the father of Luis Perez Samanillo, who owned the art deco Perez Samanillo building on Escolta. It was designed by Juan Jose Hervas y Arizmendi, who also designed the La Insular. Hervas was known for his neoclassical design for the Ayuntamiento (city hall). He was commissioned to design a hotel with a budget of $100,000.

The three-story hotel had 83 rooms, stables for 25 horses, an attic, and in-suite toilet and bath facilities. It also had running water, electricity, and telephone service.

Hotel de Oriente
Hotel de Oriente (Colorized by Eduardo S. Sison, John Tewell Collection)

The Hotel de Oriente was a luxurious hotel for its time. The entrance and roof were tiled, and the upper floor was made of wood covered with hooked rugs. The facade was divided into seven bays, with a narrow arcade of Mudejar arches. The central arch, above the entrance, rose to the top of the third floor, while the flanking arches rose to the top of the second floor.

To adapt to the humid tropical climate, the windows were tall and wide, with smaller windows beneath them for ventilation. For security, these smaller windows were protected by iron grilles. The rooms were furnished with hardwood furniture and rattan solihiya, which is well-suited to the tropics.

The hotel was popular with Americans who arrived in the Philippines in 1899. Its facade overlooked Plaza Calderon, with its manicured lawns and cast iron fountains. The hotel also had a view of the Estero de la Reina and the San Fernando Bridge, which connected Binondo to San Nicolas.

The hotel's cuisine was also famous. Its menu included international dishes, such as French, Spanish, and Mexican cuisine. Its curry was particularly well-known and was favorably compared to the best in Bombay and Calcutta. The hotel also served large prawns, Bombay duck, fried breadfruit, and grated coconut.

When the owner Don Manuel Perez Marqueti passed away, his widow sold the hotel in 1899 for $160,000. An Australian Walter Fitton bought it in 1900 for $350,000 and then sold it to Sellner’s Manila Investment Co. Sellner’s leased it to Ah Gong, a Chinese food and wine distributor, restaurateur, and food purveyor, who run a large store on Calle Echague. Under Ah Gong, the hotel’s services took a down turn. The Philippine Commission assigned architect Edgar Bourne in 1903 to look into the purchase of the hotel for $675,000 because it was the only well-appointed hotel of sufficient size that could entice tourists. But seeing the limitations of the Oriente, the Commission instead started planning for a bigger hotel along the scenic Manila Bay, which was to be known as Manila Hotel, inaugurated on 4 Jul 1912.

Binondo as a Thriving Economic Hub

Binondo canal, Manila, circa 1920
Binondo canal, Manila, circa 1920 (Leo Cloma Collection)

Government policies were also a factor in shaping architecture in Binondo. In an effort to reduce traffic accidents as well as create space for loading and unloading, an ordinance was enacted in 1869 that buildings located on corners had to have a chaflan (beveled or chamfered corner). This resulted in the creation of plazaletas or little eight-sided open spaces at every street corner. The closing decades of the 19th century were also the period when the Philippine-Chinese community began campaigning for the opening of a Chinese consulate in Manila. This was the community’s reaction to what they felt was discriminatory and exploitative practices of the local Spanish authorities. Their effort succeeded in 1898 when the consulate was finally allowed to open. With the consulate’s help, the local Chinese community succeeded in setting up the first local Chinese school, the Anglo-Chinese School or Tiong Se Academy. They also helped set up the community’s own cemetery, hospital, and temple. The temple known as Chong Hok Tong is notable, as it was the first structure to be built in the traditional Chinese style locally.

With the arrival of the Americans in 1898, Binondo remained the economic hub of the colony. Aside from trading and manufacturing, financial institutions such as banks, underwriters, and insurance companies began opening offices in Binondo making it a financial center as well. By the end of the 19th century, Escolta, which was a farm for horse fodder, was already developing as a business district with the opening of the Philippines to world trade during the mid-century. It developed even more as American and European companies set up shop in Manila.

As business flourished, businessmen adopted to the changes by using architectural design to convey their image as modern and open to new ideas. They were able to do this with the introduction of new building techniques and materials such as the Kahn system of concrete reinforcement. A good example of this is Don Antonio Melian’s El Hogar. Built in 1914, this Beaux-Arts style building broke the height barrier by being taller than two stories and conveyed modernity by using concrete as a building material.

El Hogar building by the Pasig River
El Hogar building by the Pasig River (A Philippine Album: American Era Photographs 1900-1930 by Jonathan Best. The Bookmark, Inc., 1998.)

Within the local Chinese community, the main economic activity shifted from manufacturing and hacienda agriculture to distribution. One of the more successful figures in this field was Mariano Uy Chaco and his son Uy Vet. Their company headquarter, the Uy Chaco Building, was the grandest and tallest building of its time. Built in 1914, the six-story building was designed by American architect, Samuel Rowell. Like El Hogar it was also made of concrete, but it conveyed its modernity through an art nouveau motif instead. With its location near Jones Bridge it was a gateway landmark into the district.

Construction activity continued unabated between the 1920s to the early 1940s. Companies tried to stand out from each by trying to build structures with the most distinctive architectural styles. Architects such as Andres Luna De San Pedro and Fernando Ocampo were commissioned to design these buildings.

Binondo After World War II

After World War II, Binondo emerged heavily damaged. During the reconstruction period, new construction methods and materials were introduced such as reinforced concrete, steel, and glass. Unlike the buildings before the war, the newer structures were characterized by the use of cubic form and geometric shapes and the absence of ornamentation. Aside from the challenges of reconstruction, Binondo now faced competition from other newly opened business districts such as the Ayala Center in Makati. But there were still businessmen who were willing to place their confidence in Binondo such as George Ty. When he started the Metropolitan Bank and Trust Company in 1962, he chose Binondo as the site of the first branch. It was located in the most modern building in Binondo at that time, the Wellington Building. Built on the site of the Insular Cigar Factory, the building is distinctive for its use of the International Style as indicated by its facade that is made up of brise-soleil (sunbreaker). At that time the design of the building was considered cutting-edge, and the style was copied by other buildings in the area,

As the population of Binondo grew in the postwar years, so did the demand for housing. But as Binondo’s land prices soared, developers and builders began to update the accesoria by building apartments four to seven stories high. Unlike the accesorias during the Spanish era, these apartments had their own separate bathroom and kitchen facilities. Elevators were now installed to assist the residents living on the higher floor. A prime example of this type of building would be the Ligaya Building on Alvarado Street.

There were attempts in the postwar years to emphasize Binondo’s Chinese heritage through architecture. The most visible evidence of these are the five friendship arches around the district that are built in the traditional Chinese style. Other structures that help define Binondo’s ethnicity include the Chinese Buddhist temples such as the Seng Guan temple on Narra Street as well as family ancestral halls such as the Kim Siu Ching Foundation on Santo Cristo Street. There are also a number of commercial and residential structures that have used some Chinese architectural design elements, such as the pagoda-style roof of the Imperial Sky Garden on Ongpin Street.

Between the 1980s and 1990s, it was evident that Binondo was no longer Manila’s main business center. Even so, it still had an active business community and some of the city’s highest real estate prices. This convinced some developers that there was still a market for office spaces. Among those built during this time were the Tytanna Plaza on Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz and the State Investment Center on Juan Luna Street. It was also in this period that the tallest structure in Binondo was built, which is the 33-story postmodern inspired World Trade Center designed by American architect Michael Graves. Developers also began to build taller structures for housing leading to introduction of condominiums such as the Numancia Residences at Numancia Street and Binondo Terrace on Alvarado Street.

The neighboring district of San Nicolas, where the Dominicans established a church in the 16th century which was eventually absorbed by Binondo, was also experiencing redevelopment. Spanned by the Puente de San Fernando, which crossed the Estero de Binondo and connected with San Fernando Street, this district was spared the destruction of World War II . A good number of turn-of-the-19th-century and early-20th-century bahay na bato escaped destruction. These were typical of the Spanish-era shophouses where the ground floor was for shops and the upper floor for dwellings. Whatever houses survived the war are now being torn down and replaced by high rises as the area redevelops and real estate prices rise.

In the 2000s two trends have emerged. First, developers are building taller and taller structures. Although Binondo does not have the highest land prices in the metropolitan area, it is still expensive due to land shortage. So developers have no choice but to build upward. Even warehouses are now being built as multistory buildings rather than as low and wide structures. This is to accommodate the growing need of traders from mainland China for storage space, equipped with freight elevators, back-up generators, and close circuit TV for security. Second, the newer structures under construction are residential rather than commercial. In fact, no new office buildings are being built and some of the office buildings from the 1960s and 1970s are now being demolished to give way to new condominiums. This is also a response to the growing number of mainland Chinese traders that want to reside in Binondo.

The architectural heritage of Binondo is seriously under threat.


Binondo, located north of the Pasig River, is a historically rich district in Manila. It developed as a separate enclave for Chinese Catholics and their mestizo descendants during Spanish colonization. The area's architecture reflects its vibrant past.

  • The Binondo heritage area spans from Ongpin Street to Divisoria, separated from Tondo by Divisoria, originally created as a firebreak.
  • The Spaniards segregated Chinese traders (sangleyes) to control them, leading to the establishment of a separate area called the Parian. Governor-General Luis Dasmarinas acquired Binondo's rights, donating land to Dominicans for a church and mission.
  • The Binondo Church, dating back to 1594, underwent various constructions due to destruction during wars and earthquakes.
  • Binondo's architectural styles evolved, influenced by Chinese construction knowledge passed to their mestizo descendants.
  • In the 17th and 18th centuries, Chinese merchant traders and Filipino professionals built bahay na bato, distinctive stone houses with ornate details.
  • The district's growth led to the construction of shop houses, overhanging balconies, and awnings for protection from the elements.
  • The Alcaiceria de San Fernando, a two-story octagonal structure, facilitated trade and interactions between locals and Chinese traders.
  • The 18th-century shift in European dynasties led to modernizing economic and political policies, promoting large-scale agriculture, and introducing tobacco as a cash crop.
  • The Fabrica de Puros, a cigar factory, played a significant role in the local economy.
  • Warehouses, known as camarines, were introduced for storage purposes.
  • Accesorias, one- or two-story buildings with enclosed spaces, provided housing and workspace for migrant workers.
  • In the late 19th century, Binondo's businesses expanded into theaters, restaurants, and hotels, catering to a growing middle class.
  • The Hotel de Oriente, built in 1889, was renowned for its international cuisine and became a symbol of luxury.
  • American arrival in 1898 reinforced Binondo's role as the colony's economic and financial hub.
  • Architects like Andres Luna De San Pedro and Fernando Ocampo contributed to the district's architectural diversity.
  • Post-World War II reconstruction introduced new building materials and techniques, leading to a more modern architectural style.
  • Binondo faced competition from other business districts like Makati.
  • The district continued to evolve, with new developments like the Metropolitan Bank building and taller apartments.
  • Efforts to emphasize Binondo's Chinese heritage led to the construction of friendship arches and Chinese temples.
  • In the 1980s and 1990s, Binondo saw the construction of modern office buildings, but it no longer served as the city's primary business center.
  • Developers shifted to constructing taller residential buildings to meet housing demands.
  • San Nicolas, a neighboring district, also experienced redevelopment, replacing historic houses with high-rises.
  • Recent trends include building taller structures due to land shortage and constructing more residential than commercial buildings.

Despite its rich architectural heritage, Binondo's historical buildings are under threat due to ongoing development and modernization.


  • Alarcon, Norma. 1991. Philippine Architecture during the Pre-Spanish and Spanish Periods. Manila: Santo Tomas University Press.
  • Chu, Richard T. 2009. Chinese and Chinese Mestizos of Manila: Family, Identity, and Culture, 1860s-1930s. Mandaluyong: Anvil Publishing, Inc.
  • ———. 2010. Chinese Merchants of Binondo in the Nineteenth Century. Manila: Santo Tomas University Publishing House.
  • De Viana, Lorelei D. C. 2001. Three Centuries of Binondo Architecture 1594-1898: A Socio-Historical Perspective. Manila: University of Santo Tomas Publishing House.
  • ———. 2011. Manila: Selected Papers of 19th Annual Manila Studies Conference. Manila: National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

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