Chinatown: incense, golds, and cats

It was a cloudy but dry afternoon. The air smells heavy while my little sister and I debated whether to ride a public jeep or hail a cab to go off to Chinatown.
My sister hasn’t been there yet and it’s one of the local places I have been wanting to revisit. I went once during a filming shoot but didn’t get a chance to walk around. I only remembered lots of China shoes made in cloth being sold, assorted rice cakes and moon cakes, mother and daughter manning a shop while listening to radio blaring in Chinese language, a lunch at a fancy Chinese restaurant while trying to bring myself back my senses after eating crackers dipped in oil.

In the end, hailing a cab overruled any ideas. During the ride, I keep pointing landmarks to her to help her remember places should she go back to that part of the city again. But it seems the instructions are flying off over her head. Like she always says, she remembers the routes more if she goes off alone.

We got down in front of a church, checked our directions and started on foot. At that time, I didn’t realize I got my directions reversed. The plan is to just walk along the Ong Pin street and see the old stores and bakeries. Passing under the imposing dragon arch that marked the area of Chinatown, we first dropped by a favorite tart bakery for a light bite. The heat outside clings to your skin and I’m a bit sensitive to the weather, so we enjoyed the air condition for a while, sipping soda and sharing a healthy sandwich.

After an hour, we snuck inside another open bakery that sells Chinese delicacy. It’s full of moon cakes and sweets but we didn’t buy any. As we walked along the afternoon sun, the street is teeming with people out on a weekend doing errands and business. It’s interesting to see lots of shops decorated in standard colors; red, gold and green. You hear also snippets of Chinese conversations around; from an old man talking on the phone, two middle-aged ladies carrying groceries and merchants manning their goods.

The smell of incense is prevalent on most shops we’ve passed.  Glimpses of the interior from the street made me feel like stepping inside would send me to another world. Bronzed buddhas, hanging gold strewn coins, gold cats with their arms waving, green marbles of figurines of frogs and other animals, and bracelets fill it all. I was hoping to find a shoe shop that sells Chinese shoes made of cloth, but I couldn’t. Perhaps, they were located on the side streets, but we don’t dare venture out of the map since we might find ourselves lost in the winding and criss crossing streets.

To my slight chagrin, we only pass the usual jewellery shops full of gold things and shoe and clothing shops that looked identical to some malls stalls around the city. My sister found a random comic and anime shop. Incense is sold everywhere and all the other trinkets needed for feng shui. We bought a pack of fuchsia incense to burn at home. Passing an old grand door way, I noticed two worn white marble sculptures of sitting lions on its either side. On top of one, a man crouched while holding a cigarette looking like a “nuno sa punso” while conversing with two other men. I can’t help but stare at the chipped figures with a little regret. The entrance must have looked elegant once, but it seems time haven’t been good to it.

One of our itinerary is to eat at the infamous Ma Mon Luk restaurant. Following the scrap of map I was able to save on my phone, we kept on walking until we arrived at the opposite end of the Ong Pin street to Binondo church. This is where I got confused and realized I got my mental map reversed. We retraced our steps and walked down the side streets, hoping that we won’t be passing off the rail streets (not mostly traveled by people). Finally, we found the eatery Ma Su Ki (under the Ma Mon Luk family) and I was struck at how indistinguishable it is, but once you rove your eyes around, you see that they retained the original look of the shop front since long ago. It was more telling when we stepped inside. Old wooden tables and wooden chairs, no air con and only ceiling fans and darkened-from-age wood counter decorated the one big room.

There were magazine cut outs and old pictures framed at the walls, including the history of Ma Mon Luk and the special ingredients they are known for. After ordering, we only got to do some small talk and arranging our stuff when suddenly a male waiter already stood beside our table with a tray of our food, ready to be served. My sister and I just sat there blinking in confusion for a few seconds before thanking him for the very fast service.

We were served dumplings, a bowl of ramen and another bowl filled with an unfamiliar dark caramel colored thick sauce. The sauce, we thought at first, must be for the dumplings but, we wonder why so large a bowl. Looking around, we watched other long time customers, by the looks of them, simply put spoonfuls of the sauce into their noodles and everything else. Apparently, we are looking at the special ingredient that this restaurant is known for. We laughed at our cluelessness and helped ourselves to it. There’s a distinguished Chinese flavor in the dishes and that special sauce makes it all quite yummy.

We had an enjoyable time. It seems time stops here, there’s no rush or haste. I chuck it to the old  setting. It reminds you of the time how people really enjoyed their meals and seem not pressed for time.

It seems to be getting late, so we walked to the nearest metro transit for the ride home. We passed the always bustling Avenida area. It is so chaotic and noisy. We passed lots of stalls selling all kinds of goodies on the street, a slew of cars honking and pedicabs winding in and out of traffic, walked under the metro’s station where it was so dark you can get mugged.

As the transit moved along towards our stop, a light rain pelted the windows. I feel like we’ll go back to Chinatown again soon.


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