These Vintage Photos of Binondo, Escolta, and Divisoria Will Remind You of Manila's Glory Days
The beat and the bustle of Philippine business began here!
A view of the heart of Manila, bisected by the great Pasig River. In the foreground is the MacArthur Bridge; in the center is Jones Bridge.
(SPOT.ph) You think of the present-day Pasig River and its surrounding areas as a not-so pleasant sight when you happen to be sitting in traffic along EDSA (which is probably every day). But there was once a time when the river was filled with barges carrying oil, timber, and agricultural produce for locals. Goods would come and go along the river, which were then unloaded in designated ports and dropped off at places like Escolta, Manila’s “Bond Street,” once the city’s premier shopping and business center. A few steps to the right was another mecca of budget shopping—Divisoria.
While some of these places are still around, and with Escolta gaining more attention thanks to its thriving art community, here are some other snippets from the past that will remind you of the more glorious days of this once-exciting commercial center in Manila.
Jones Bridge (William Atkinson Jones Memorial Bridge)
Manila’s Jones Bridge—which spans Pasig River and links Binondo with the Ermita district—was built in 1919 to replace the old Puente Grande (Grand Bridge), then considered as the oldest bridge in the country. Jones Bridge was named after William A. Jones, Chairman of the House Committee on Insular Affairs (1911 to 1918), and sponsor of the Jones Act, which provided for more autonomy and ultimately, independence for the Philippines.
The original bridge, which had three arches on two piers, was inaugurated in 1921 by the Bureau of Public Works and designed by local architect Juan Arellano, who gave it a neoclassical look, complete with decorative trim in cast-concrete. The memorial bridge was heavily damaged during World War II, and was restored in 1945. The bridge’s design was simplified and was outfitted with metal pole railings, which, until recently, were subsequently replaced with stone railings that were truer to the original.
For years, Santa Cruz Bridge at Plaza Goiti (now Plaza Lacson) provided a pivotal link to the southern bank of Pasig leading to Arroceros Street (now Padre Burgos). When the bridge was destroyed during the Manila bombings in World War II, a concrete replacement bridge was built after the war and was named after Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The modern MacArthur Bridge was inaugurated in 1952, and has since been one of Manila’s busiest bridges—especially during the annual January celebration of the feast of the Black Nazarene. The procession of the Nazarene used to pass through this bridge, with millions of devotees crossing it. Declared unfit to carry the weight of the massive crowd, authorities have since rerouted the religious procession to Jones Bridge. A MacArthur monument stands at the foot of the bridge, a tableau that was once located before the main gate of the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila.
Plaza de Binondo (now Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz)
Binondo’s main public square was known at various times as Plaza Carlos IV and Plaza Calderon (after the Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderon de la Barca). It is one of four plazas in the district—the other three are Plaza Vivac, Plaza San Gabriel, and Plaza del Conde. The Plaza was known for its wide, open spaces that were landscaped and tree-lined, and two fountains that were installed at both ends. By the 1950s, it was the only square in Manila shaded by palm trees. It is directly in front of the Binondo Church, a minor basilica, and in its historied past, it also faced two 19th-century Manila landmarks: La Insular Cigarette plant and the country’s first hotel, Hotel del Oriente. On September 12, 1981, the plaza was renamed yet again, this time after the first saint of the Philippines, San Lorenzo Ruiz, a Chinese-Filipino from Binondo.
Calle Rosario (now Quintin Paredes Street)
The principal Chinese business street in Binondo is so named because it ends right in front of the Binondo Church, which is dedicated to Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary. From the time of the Spanish conquest to the American regime, it was considered as Manila’s main commercial hub, with many prominent Sangley businessmen and mestizo traders setting up their establishments there. Among these were comerciantes Roman Ongpin, who had an art supply and hardware store called El 82, along with the Chinese gobernadorcillo, Carlos Palanca.
Aside from the Chong-Tiangcos, Tan-Chianas, and the Tuasons who peddled liquor, provisions, European novelties, watches, and jewelry, the annex of the exclusive Manila Club—the Tiffin Club—was set up at the corner of Calle Rosario and Callejon de San Gabriel, just upstairs from the Chartered Bank (which was in operation until 1957). In 1952, Calle Rosario was renamed Quintin Paredes Street to honor Senate President Quintín Paredes y Babila (1884 to 1973), also a Filipino lawyer and statesman.
Binondo Church (Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz and Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish)
The first church of Binondo was built circa 1594 for the Christian Chinese, under the titular patronage of San Gabriel. Two years later, it was accepted in the Dominican Chapter. It was rebuilt in stone in 1606, and after escaping a planned demolition in 1608, the church flourished to become a majestic work of art by 1640. In January 1740, a new project to rebuild the church was begun, with materials from different parts of the country—wooden posts and boards from Bolinao, wood pieces from Orion, stone from San Juan and Meycauayan—put together by indios and Sangley laborers. Completed in 1749, it was dedicated to the Virgin of the Most Holy Rosary.
During the sack of Manila by the British in 1762, the church was heavily damaged but restored to full splendor with a six-tiered tower of masonry. An earthquake leveled the bell tower and damaged the church in 1863. World War II, however, dealt it with the most severe blow, damaged by fire caused by bombings in September 1944. Rebuilt in the 1950s, it was again renovated in 1971. San Lorenzo Ruiz underwent religious training in this church before going to his missionary work in Japan, where he suffered martyrdom. Today, Binondo Church is known as Minor Basilica of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz and Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish.
The Drawbridges of Binondo
Of the many bridges in Manila, no other structure looks as quaint as the city’s drawbridge—a lift bridge which in the days of heavy river traffic was raised to allow “cascos” or boats to pass. In fact, there were still two drawbridges in operation in Manila in the late 1960s. One such movable bridge spans the Binondo estuary at Dasmariñas Street. The other drawbridge, also stretching over a Binondo canal is located at Azcarraga Street (now Recto Street), but it is for the exclusive use of the Manila Railroad, whose tracks runs through the Azcarraga and Del Pan Streets to a wharf where interisland vessels dock.
The World's Oldest Chinatown
Manila's Chinatown in Binondo, touted as the oldest in the world, had its predecessor in the Parian of the 16th century. As the Chinese were increasing in number and becoming prosperous, the Spaniards confined them to a settlement in San Fernando along the Pasig, opposite of Intramuros to prevent a possible uprising, sometime in 1594. In 1853, it was expanded across the river to the site which now marks the periphery of Binondo. From this point, Chinatown sprawled out to include parts of Tondo, Sta. Cruz, and San Nicolas, with generations after generations of Chinese families filling the quarters that would become Calle Rosario, San Fernando, Juan Luna, Nueva, San Jacinto San Vicente, Reina Regente, Ongpin, T. Pinpin, and Sto. Cristo. Today, Manila Chinatown is marked with four Chinese arches: The newest one, which was erected in 2015 at the foot of Jones Bridge and is almost 64 feet high and 74 feet wide, is reputed to be the largest Chinatown arch in the world.
Escolta was once the most sophisticated and most sought-after address for high-end businesses and offices because it had the best-designed buildings equipped with the most modern amenities of its time. Multi-national companies established their shops here; the first elevator (Burke Building), the first luxury ice cream parlor (Clarke’s), the country’s first air-conditioned mall (Crystal Arcade), and some of Manila's tallest buildings—including the Manila Stock Exchange—were once seen here. By 1875, the 393-meter cobblestone strip was hemmed with upscale boutiques, bazaars, and stores, with many selling imported European goods, Chinese ware, and American merchandise. There were also leisure shops selling refreshments, tobaccos, photo supplies, books and postcards, and grand movie theaters (like Lyric and Capitol).
Escolta holds the reputation as one of the country’s oldest streets (it was founded in 1594). Named after the governor’s escort guards, Escolta is aptly called as it served as a promenade place for fashionable ladies and their companion escorts. The street was made accessible with an electric tranvia line (electric cars) that ran through it. Other commercial centers were developed elsewhere in Manila beginning in the mid-1950s, dispersing its once-loyal crowd to Pasay, Quezon City, and Makati, which eventually took over Escolta as Metro Manila's cosmopolitan shopping centers.
Clarke's Ice Cream
Clarke's Ice Cream was dubbed “the best-known corner in Manila.” Located on No. 2 Escolta, Clarke’s was founded in 1898 by entrepreneur Metcalfe “Met” Clarke of Chicago, who was also the president of the American Merchants Association. By the turn of the next century, Clarke’s was a popular refreshment parlor that served the best ice cream—as well as stick candy, chocolates, bread, and cakes served with his famous Café Mayon coffee brand. It was once said that to become famous, you had to have your photograph taken at Clarke’s. Local and international tourists frequented the place. Allegedly, it was in Clarke’s that a cable was composed during a visit of William H. Taft’s party, announcing the engagement of presidential daughter Alice Roosevelt and Nicholas Longworth. Clarke’s flourished until 1911, when the proprietor, bogged down by bad business investments in mining, closed the soda and ice cream parlor and returned to the U.S.
La Puerta del Sol
La Puerta del Sol, “The Gate of the Sun,” was one of the leading high-end emporiums located at Escolta, established in the last quarter of the 19th century. Together with La Estrella del Norte (Star of the North), the two department stores book-ended the shopping strip. Located at 49 Escolta 60, the giant La Puerta del Sol also accepted mail orders, personally attended to by the manager, listed as J.F. Ramirez as the store’s proprietor in a 1910 business directory.
La Puerta del Sol carried a wide inventory of items that included dry goods, boots and shoes, chinaware, enamelware, silverware, table cutlery, postcards, stationery, perfumery and toilet articles, rubber goods, toys, pianos and musical instruments, trunks, leather, iron safes—even guns and pistols! No wonder it was also called “the big store that sells everything!”
Aguinaldo's Department Store
The biggest department store chain that started in Escolta was the Aguinaldo Department Store, founded by business maverick Leopoldo R. Aguinaldo on July 4, 1921. The building stood on Juan Luna Street, and in a matter of years, it had set up a buying office in New York in 1925. Aguinaldo’s practically had everything for the entire Filipino family and their home—from imported fashions, footwear, house and kitchenware, personal accessories and jewelry, home furnishings to American-made toys, dolls, and electric trains.
The enterprising Mrs. Aguinaldo pitched in by opening the Aguinaldo Institute of Hair Science, which offered cosmetology and beauty culture in 1931. In 1933, an annex to its original building was added, and the six-storey edifice dwarfed all other stores in Escolta. At its prime, Aguinaldo’s had branches in Echague, Ermita, Iloilo, Dagupan, and Baguio. It closed down in the 1960s, and the remains of the old building can still be seen in Escolta today—along with its trademark Bonifacio and Lady Liberty gracing its façade.
Escolta was home to the most beautiful Art Deco buildings designed by the country’s best architects. One such example was the stately Capitol Theater—one of just two cinema houses in the area, owned and operated by the Rufinos, who owned a string of other movie theaters. Built in 1934, Capitol Theater was the creation of National Artist, Arch. Juan Nakpil. Strong Art Deco geometric patterns characterize the building—from its metal grilles, the streamlined façade, and the relief figures of Filipina muses sculpted by Italian Francesco Monti. A mural painted by Victorio Edades, Botong Francisco, and Galo Ocampo graced the lobby. With a 1,100 seating capacity, the air-conditioned theater led the way in pre-war showbiz entertainment; screening Hollywood films, then shifting to local films with the coming of the Japanese.
The theater sustained damage during the war, but not as serious as its neighboring buildings. It continued to operate after it was restored, but the rise of malls with their own cinemas and the LRT construction changed people’s habits and movie-going preferences. In September 2017, it was reported that three national cultural groups have given their clearance to a property developer to demolish Capitol Theater while preserving the façade and its tower.
Back then and until today, Divisoria is the go-to place for Filipinos who want the best value for their money. The bustling market center has a long history that began when the Chinese were banned by the Spaniards from doing business inside Intramuros. Thus, Chinese vendors set up shops in the peripheries of Pasig, and one area that was settled became Mercado de la Divisoria—literally, a dividing line to separate their turf from those in the walled city. In reality, Divisoria’s borders straddle portions of Binondo, Tondo, and San Nicolas districts, with Azcarraga (now Recto Avenue) cutting through it.
The highly commercialized “Divi” teems with all sorts of stores—from retail to wholesale shops, midnight bazaars, dry goods, ambulant vendors, and food outlets. Anything and everything can be found and bought here, all at bargain prices—but often, of dubious make and quality. In the 1990s, malls like the Tutuban Center—remodelled from the old heritage train station building—found a new following from the middle- to upper-class.