Proud to be a Tondo Boy
MANILA, February 22, 2005 (STAR)
By Wilson Lee Flores
What’s wrong with an ethnic Chinese boy spending his happy childhood in Manila’s biggest and poorest district – the ancient, vibrant, sprawling and proletarian Tondo?
A few days before the Chinese lunar new year, a researcher from the ABS-CBN TV show of Korina Sanchez called inquiring about the Chinese concept of suwerte, or luck. I said I believed real good luck comes from hard work. He asked whether I lived in Binondo. I said I had lived all my life in the middle-class suburbs of Quezon City, but grew up as a kid in the working-class Tondo district of Manila. He seemed disappointed. Perhaps there is still a perception that only Binondo residents can be real Chinese, not those who live in other places.
My paternal ancestors came from the rural barrio of Chio-Chun in Jinjiang county in south Fujian two centuries ago, but if there’s a Philippine hometown I can proudly claim as my own, that would be the Tondo of my childhood years. Paradise for a kid like me was that nearly one-hectare sawmill compound at the corner of Juan Luna and Pavia streets in Tondo, Manila, which is now a top garment-manufacturing compound. I didn’t know then that for my late dad, that place was like purgatory. We were well-off, but that place was small by the clan’s measure, since dad was ousted by his half-siblings and kin from control of other, much larger multi-hectare sawmills.
A person’s concept of heaven or hell is relative; a matter of perspective. One man’s purgatory and the public’s stereotype of urban hell was idyllic and unmitigated heaven for a child like me.
Unknown to most people, whose only idea of Tondo are its slums, the old Smokey Mountain dumpsite and tales of its gangsters, Tondo is more than all of that. It is the birthplace of the country’s greatest kings, poets, artists, and rebels. It is the cradle of Tagalog culture and of the Philippine resistance against colonial oppression. Of course, Tondo is the unforgettable Eden of my childhood memories.
Tondo’s Fearless Warriors, Rebels
Who still remembers that Tondo was where Rajah Lakandula’s fearless nephew Rajah Soliman (also Sulayman) fiercely resisted the haughty Spanish colonizers in the Battle of Bangkusay Channel on June 3, 1571? The warriors, with their spears and arrows, fought hard but lost to the Spaniards with their muskets and cannons. Soliman, the last Rajah of Manila, was killed. Soliman used to control the peaceful traffic of Chinese trading crafts plying the Pasig River into the settlements of Laguna de Bay. It was only after Soliman’s death that the Spaniards made Manila their colonial capital.
In the 1930s, my late dad was only in his 20s when he purchased five hectares of land from a prominent, university-owning clan whose family member lost money to gambling. Our family’s original sawmill compound, founded by our great-great-grandfather Dy Han Kia, was on T. Alonzo St. in Manila’s Binondo/Sta. Cruz area since the Spanish era, not far from that area called Trozo, which is the Spanish word for "logs." The new Tondo lot became our family’s new sawmill site for expansion in Gagalangin, Tondo, near Juan Luna St. and with Raxabago St. leading directly to the gates of the compound. At the back were the then still-cleaner waters of Estero de Vitas, which nowadays is sadly near the infamous Smokey Mountain. I’ve always been curious as to who that guy Raxabago was? Was he a heroic rajah, or the son or a kin of the rebellious Rajah Soliman? What is Raxabago’s relation to Manila’s ancient Rajah Matanda?
When the theater-loving Katipunan founder Andres Bonifacio was born in 1863 in a small wood and nipa hut, Tondo was still dotted with rice fields. He was born in Tondo’s swamp-like part called Tutuban, which meant in Tagalog "the place where they make tuba (an alcoholic drink made with coconuts)." There in Tutuban was the main terminal of the Luzon railway system. Later in 1875, Tondo was also the birthplace of the poor but brilliant Emilio Jacinto, who became known as the Brains of the Katipunan. Coincidentally, Tondo also gave birth to the Katipunan on July 7, 1892, when Bonifacio, with friends Ladislao Diwa and Teodoro Plata, founded this secret society on Calle Azcarraga (now Claro M. Recto Ave.).
Ironically, the Katipunan was forced to launch its violent revolution ahead of schedule due to a tragic incident that occurred in Tondo. On Aug. 19, 1896, Visayan Katipunero Teodoro Patiño was urged by his sister to confess about this secret society in the Tondo convent. He confessed to Fr. Mariano Gil, the Agustinian cura of Tondo, who was alarmed and broke the secrecy of the Catholic confessional by tipping off the Spanish colonial regime. A massive crackdown led the still ill-prepared Katipunan to start the revolution prematurely.
Tondo As Paradise Lost, Cradle Of Hope?
Why was Tondo a hotbed for revolutionary ferment and messianic dreams since the colonial era? Why did Tondo become home for the teeming masses of poor workers and their postwar slums? Was it due to the great railway station at Tutuban in Tondo or the North Harbor, where many provincianos disembark and make their first home in this district?
The late writer Andres Cristobal Cruz authored Ang Tundo man ay may Langit din. Can Tondo still be heaven here on earth, in this archipelago with rich natural resources contrasting with its masses of poor people?
Can we draw inspiration from the unique high concentration and combustible mix of arts, dissent, literature, romanticism, rugged entrepreneurship and hard-edged passions in Tondo from places like Gagalangin, Bangkusay, Moriones, the famed Divisoria marketplace, Juan Luna, Tayuman, Pritil and Balut?
Can the conscience of our many shameless corrupt politicians be disturbed and our society’s moral outrage be fired up by the smoldering slums in North Harbor, Dagat-Dagatan, Baseco, and Smokey Mountain with their iniquitous cesspools of poverty, vice, violence, illness, garbage and despair?
Tondo used to mirror the Philippines at its best, noble and most idealistic. Can we still salvage it from its worst? Can we alter the reality and image of ancient Tondo – as we refuse to be victims of cruel fate and strive to alter the destiny of the Philippines – from a paradise lost into a promised land of eternal hope?