V is for the Vendors of Old Manila Who Sold You Just About Everything


Life in Old Manila would not be complete without the sound of street vendors selling their wares from the crack of dawn till night.  With baskets over their heads, or baskets hanging form a long piece of bamboo over one’s shoulders, V is for the street vendors of Old Manila, the ones who sold everything from bananas and fish to jugs of milk and fresh drinking water, and kerosene lamps of all sizes.

Jose Honorato Lozano. "Vista de la entrada de la Calzada de San Sebastian hasta la Yglesia de Nuestra Senora del Carmen" (View of the entrance from San Sebastian Street to the Our Lady of Carmen Church). 1867. Watercolor on paper. Approximately 36 cm. x 49 cm. Private Collection.
Jose Honorato Lozano. “Vista de la entrada de la Calzada de San Sebastian hasta la Yglesia de Nuestra Senora del Carmen” (View of the entrance from San Sebastian Street to the Our Lady of Carmen Church). 1867. Watercolor on paper. Approximately 36 cm. x 49 cm. Private Collection.

Women vendors sold tobacco leaves laid out on large woven trays called bilao, which the buyer would then cut up and roll for smoking.  I used to watch my grandmother’s servant Gertrudes do this with the tobacco leaves my grandmother would buy for her every time she went to the outdoor market.  After she’d tell Gertrudes that smoking was bad for one’s health (Gertrudes was probably already in her late 80’s by then), I’d watch the old woman smooth the leaf on her lap and roll it patiently.  Then when she had the perfectly rolled cigar in her fingers, she’d  light it up and then she shoo us out of the kitchen so she could enjoy her smoke.

Besides tobacco leaves or fresh fruit and vegetables, vendors also sold snakes, which would coil along the bamboo poles they carried, or safe in their baskets.

“Pythons or sawa were sold on the streets in an age that was environment-friendly. Rats were a common household pest but people did not use poison on them because if they died in some hidden nook they would stink up the house.

Mousetraps were not popular either because these, more often then not, broke the little fingers of curious children…

Cats were not a viable option either because they reproduced so quickly they later became a problem rather than a solution.

Foreigners describe how a live snake was chosen from an assortment coiled on a long bamboo pole carried by a vendor. The python was let loose in the ceiling where it needed no batteries.

Up in a ceiling the python fed on rats and slept most of the time. With a python one was rodent-free, though most foreigners who could hear it moving about often worried that it might come down for a snack while they were asleep in bed.”

via Street Vendors.

In Old Manila, Chinese were excellent not just at selling produce but they were the go-to persons in case you wanted a really good ear cleaning.   I know you’re not supposed to put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear but residents of Old Manila did not get that memo…and I bet they all probably had cleaner ears than you and me.

My grandmother used to line us grandkids up at night so she could clean our ears.  It was a strange experience to sit on her lap while she did whatever she needed to do to clean our ears with her little Chinese made tool, but it was also weirdly soothing.

Chinese ear cleaner
Chinese ear cleaner


Blogging A to Z Challenge

C is for the Chinese Settlers in Manila

So here we are – going on strong with Blogging from A to Z April challenge.  I’m organizing my research into 1890’s Philippines (when they were still under Spanish rule) and though I’ve been doing it now for the last ten years or so, it’s all just random notes on notepads and computer folders here and there – and never in one place.

So if you’ve stumbled upon this blog and wondering to yourself, what the heck…?  Well, it’s back in time for my challenge and for the letter C, I’m writing about the Chinese settlers who made their home in the Philippines, and their impact, or at least a glimpse of it because much of this stuff is too much to write in a blog post, to Manila.

CLong before the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines in 1521, the Chinese had already established trade between both China and Philippines.  Augustin Craig, who wrote  A Thousand Years of the Philippine History Before the coming of the Spaniards (Manila, 1914) states that according to Tome Pires, writing in 1512 – 1515, gold mining was a principal industry of the Filipinos long before the coming of Ferdinand Magellan (Magallanes to the rest of the world), and that Filipinos “exported gold to China.”

When the Spaniards colonized the archipelago and established Manila – and its walled city called Intramuros – as its capital, they segregated the ethnic Chinese population outside the walls of the city, called Parian.   It also happened to be within shooting range of the city’s canons, should an uprising occur – to which there were four such uprisings by ethnic unconverted Chinese residents.

Impressed by the craftsmanship and work of a group of Chinese merchants and artisans, Spanish Governor Luis Pérez Dasmariñas gave them the area of Binondo in 1594.  He also gave them tax-free and self-governing privileges for perpetuity.  When the Dominicans established their parish in Binondo in 1596, they converted many of the residents to Catholicism, and soon, it became a place where converted Chinese immigrants, their Filipino wives and their mixed-race children, could live in peace.

“Economic life … during the Spanish times depended largely on Chinese labor and industry.  The Chinese were merchants, agriculturists, masons, bankers, painters, shoemakers, metalworkers, and laborers….The country could not exist without Chinese services.”

– via The Philippines: A Unique Nation by Sonia M. Zaide with Gregorio F. Zaide’s History of the Republic of the Philippines

Binondo soon became the main center for business and finance in Manila for ethnic Chinese, Chinese mestizos (mixed-race) and Spanish Filipinos.  They also built esteros (canals) around Binondo which entered the Pasig River, serving as routes for cascos and boats to travel from one part of the area to another and was essential for trade and commerce.

One of the well-known streets in Binondo is called Escolta, known as “Broadway of Manila” during the American Occupation.  Running parallel to the Pasig River, during the Spanish period, it was known as calle del la Escolta and is considered one of the oldest streets in Manila.  Interestingly, the origin of its name came from the brief British occupation of Manila.

The name “Escolta,” which means escort, convoy, guard, was given during the British occupation of Manila (1762-1764), because the British Commander-in-chief would ride down the street daily with his escort.

– Via The Rise of Modern Manila, ArtInSite Magazine





Blogging A to Z Challenge