Binondo’s tiny tidy secret

Every sound Rambo’s shoe made as it clapped with the rugged road of Chinatown was sheer joy. It was like listening to bamboo sticks in a folk dance called Subli. Five-year-old Rambo did not like standing by the side streets but wanted to walk around. It was only noontime when one tourist found him. He toured him into the town’s busiest and quietest streets and told its secrets. Each of his graceful strides was a fulfillment but sounded weak.

Coaching the youngster was a 47-year-old man whose job he inherited from his father for almost 25 years made his two children finish schooling. In his pocket was a veterinarian’s prescription with messy scribbles of medicines and schedules of check-ups. Rambo was never a healthy pony after all.


Rambo had to keep pace with the vehicles speeding across Ongpin Street, one of the busiest in Chinatown. On it were hopia stores, acupuncture clinics, tea shops, a Mandarin school, spa havens, and a creek with an island of garbage, not to mention drugstores almost next to each other. There was at least five in one street.

Binondo is a new world that sets itself apart from Metro Manila. It gave a feeling of being in Hong Kong or along the alleys of China. Though the Chinese brand of neon lights did not glare, there were crowds of Chinese – those who preferred walking on a Sunday afternoon from a lunch in a tea house, to getting a spa, buying slimming tea, and then back to a restaurant for dinner.

 

The coachman said most businesses in Binondo are owned by Chinese, only a few or almost nothing are by Filipinos. Stories of the coachman’s dad said it was the migrant Chinese who did the dirty jobs ages back, but since they were a thrifty lot with high regard for money, they climbed up the ladder roughly in a snap.

 

Rambo made a full stop in front of Xiang Jin Chinese Drugstore along Benavidez Street. It was a dissimilar world inside. The welcome was the aroma of fresh herbs and leaves. It was like entering into an ancient potions shop. Glass shelves housed the boxed herbal medicines. At the center of the store was a booth containing jars of leaves, whole or pounded, used as raw ingredient.

Chinese herbal medicines also treat common colds, stomach aches, arthritis, and cough among others, said Tedmond Tiu, the 25-year-old drugstore owner.

 

Managing a Chinese drugstore ran through his family’s blood. It was started by his grandfather several years back when they worked in a drugstore in Ongpin. It was only in 2004 when they started opening their own.

 

The herbal ingredients such as sea coconut, cornu (velvet of young deer horn) for the liver and kidneys, and huang lian su (berberine) for stomach aches, varied depending on the ailment.

 

The elderly Chinese were luck to most Chinese drugstores as they were the ones giving them the rich, thriving market in Binondo. Tiu said most of the elderly Chinese still preferred herbal medicine over Western medicine.

 

“Herbal medicines have no side effects unlike Western ones. They stick with them because of this issue,” he said, “Herbal medicines would not in fact continue if they are not effective. They have been there for a long time.”

 

One testimony was by his aunt who grew tired of the insulin’s side-effects to some of her organs before she turned to herbal medication. It taught her to let go of the insulin injections.

Probably the tiniest street in Binondo is Escolta. It gave a sense of freedom from the narrow streets and even narrower alleyways. The Pasig River had shown up with ferry boat rides offered for a fee. An old building often used as shooting spots for TV commercials and soap operas stood on the other side. Escolta was the former Makati City.

Rambo drove back to the inside streets and the afternoon aura received more people, perhaps those who came from the mass and from siesta. It was even getting dirtier. Rambo was back in Ongpin Street and landed in front of a spa shop.

No Filipinos were found inside the spa except for the lady masseurs who offered herbal dry massage and foot massage to the Chinese. In a Chinese foot massage, feet are never scrubbed but soaked in a hot water mixed with powdered ginseng and other herbal leaves. The substance is said to enliven the nerves, and promote blood circulation.

A unique herbal experience in Binondo is the dry massage. Pure oriental element oils, along with a mixture of goji fruit, coconut milk, and milled red rice, were used.

Just across the steaming spa was Fu Yuan Tea House, a restaurant frequented by Chinese and Filipino tea-lovers alike. And so, the commonality was tea. Twenty-two-year-old Maria Liquido, the Filipina supervisor of the store whose delicate skin was noticeable, said she has become a tea-lover herself when dining with their Chinese chief cook. She has been drinking tea as she believed it made her slimmer, helped her digest food better, and took away excess oil in

her body.  She said she couldn’t help herself not to take in tea at least once a day.

 

What made the Binondo tea different is that it uses poly tea leaves, larger and stronger than ordinary tea leaves. Liquido said the Chinese find it helpful in cleansing their body after a meal.

A Chinese man would have never lived without a tinge of acupuncture needles popped into the skin targeting the essential nodes and stay there for as long as the blockage erupts.

Dr. Samuel Sison, M.D., C.M.A, an acupuncturist himself, said his sessions are still based from traditional acupuncture which uses moxa (mugwort herb) in warming the needle. They figure out the disease and prescribe points where they apply acupuncture. Herbal medicines are also prescribed after the sessions, however he made a warning.

“Taking herbs has to be appropriate for one person. Not all herbs can be applicable to all types,” he said, “It can possibly aggravate your condition. Herbs must be tailor-made for a person.”

One thing to love in Binondo is the value of healthy living. Sison explained the herbal life of the people the Binondo in four categories: people either take acupuncture, herbal medicine, taichi, or tui na (Chinese massage), or a combination of any.

“Patients start to realize that not everything can be cured or healed by Western medicines. They get sick of taking a whole cocktail of medicines,” Sison said.

The exceptional herbal life is one of Binondo’s dirtiest – or cleanest – secrets. Despite the messy side streets and the foul-smelling creeks of Binondo, some of its people kept high body maintenance – physically and spiritually. An even-narrower invisible string of purity flowed in every street.

Almost four o’ clock. Rambo seemed happy taking another walk that Sunday. But he was back at the side streets waiting for another rider. If only he could take acupuncture – or probably, an hour with the lady masseurs.

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