There is a scene in Noli Me Tangere where Crisostomo Ibarra, fresh from Europe, returns home to Binondo. He laments at how the streets have yet to change. The pavement cracks are exactly where he left them. It is stagnant, devoid of change, a prison.
To me and my fellow Tsinoys, however, Binondo lives on within our minds in a way, as a signifier of freedom. It is fire: 1962 in Ongpin, 1968 in Divisoria, and 1603 when its residents destroyed their own city in revolt against the governor-general.
It is faith: a statue of St. Lorenzo Ruiz tall in the center of the city square. It is redemption. Binondo after all, is as much the town of Roman Ongpin — revolutionary candlestick maker-turned-labor unionist — as it is the old stomping grounds of Henry Sy and his gilded compadres.
For many of us, Binondo is reincarnation. It is rice sacks turned to gold, incense sticks recommissioned to altars of Jesus. It is angkong, taken from his sleepy Fujian home at the age of 13, standing busy outside the home-office stoop on San Nicolas.
It is my cousin married in front of a fire truck decked out in white balloons. It is my dad, 16, lanky with a love for the BeeGees, pushing kartilyas full of cups, dinner sets, and flasks to sell to our neighbors over on Sto. Cristo, greeting them politely in Hokkien.
And yes, it too, for all its hope, is ash. It is a city with a beautiful language passed on from generations down, the eternal smell of sewage, dumplings, and decaying concrete. It is eternities of formerly crowded space. It fades and it floats. The last I was seriously here was when I was eight. Much has long moved away.
Or well, everything, at least, except for this one pink building on the corner of Benvenidez and Piedad. Guides tell me it is a neighborhood association. My father says it is a place where my good grades, if good enough, turn to extra pocket money.
And well, as for my grandparents, they tell me that these walls keep the journey of our family name.