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Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

Manila is rich with cultural heritage at risk of destruction amid a push to develop.

By Ian Morley for
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

The Plaza Mexico. Approximately 55 meters in length, it is situated close to where galleons from overseas once docked. Laden with goods that included silver, silks, jewels, spices, and porcelain, their arrival provoked intense trading activity and arguably made Manila the world’s first globalized city.

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

A view of the monuments in Plaza Mexico commemorating the history of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade. Now surrounded on its riverside border by a fence advertising China Aid and the China Road and Bridge Corporation, the shoreline in proximity to the public space is being transformed into a down-ramp for the Binondo-Intramuros Bridge. The formerly picturesque view of the plaza with river backdrop, evidently, has been detrimentally altered by the commencement of the bridge’s construction in mid-2018.

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

The view east from Fort Santiago in the Intramuros. On the north bank, to the left of the river, is the district of Binondo. In this area, commencing in the late-1500s, Christian Chinese persons were given permission to live. Within this view can be seen the construction of the Binondo-Intramuros Bridge and, in the background, the monumental pale-colored American colonial era Post Office Building.

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

The derelict Aduana (custom house) as seen from the junction of Magallanes Drive and Soriano Avenue. The Binondo-Intramuros Bridge up-ramp will soon be built in proximity to the edifice. Architectural conservators are concerned that the bridge’s construction, and the vibrations from traffic, could detrimentally compromise the Aduana’s dilapidated structure (originally built in the 1820s).

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

A recent view of the Binondo-Intramuros Bridge while under construction. Despite serious concerns by heritage organizations about the design, location, and impact of the 700-plus meter-long bridge, political elites have argued that when completed, the structure will help to decongest traffic in downtown Manila. Heritage advocates have shown though that in order to access the bridge traffic will have to first pass through the narrow streets of the Intramuros. As a result, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Philippines has stated that the bridge will have “massive negative impacts” upon the historic district.

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

A fiesta held in the Intramuros before the COVID-19 lockdown. From where this photograph is taken, at the junction of San Francisco and Solana Street, traffic will travel to the up-ramp of the Binondo-Intramuros Bridge. How the bridge impacts local intangible heritage has yet to be explained by public authorities such as the Department of Public Works and Highways.

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

The view to Manila Bay and the mouth of the Pasig River from an unfinished pier of the Binondo-Intramuros Bridge. At the ground-breaking ceremony in July 2018 President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the fast-tracking of the $90 million bridge’s construction. China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jianhua, remarked: “I am fully convinced that the Chinese contractor will complete the project with efficiency and quality.” The bridge, he added, will “celebrate the ever growing amity and friendship between our two peoples.”

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

On the northern bank of the Pasig River, the ramp of the Binondo-Intramuros Bridge will pass through the historic area known as San Nicolas. Founded in 1594, this district is said to have the third highest number of colonial era buildings in all of the Philippines yet, owing to property development in recent years, large numbers of long-standing buildings have been removed. Even though heritage law exists to preserve aged buildings it is ignored given the political desire for “progress” and the vast sums of money to be potentially earned from speculative development.

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

A safety notice at the entrance to the Binondo-Intramuros Bridge site. The notice warns people entering the construction site to avoid taking risks and to prevent accidents. However, as the workers on the project are Filipinos, i.e. Tagalog-speaking/non-Chinese language readers, thus only the construction officers, Chinese nationals, can comprehend the poster’s message.

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

Examples of the integration of Chinese and Filipino heritage are pervasive in downtown Manila. Here stone fu-dogs can be seen guarding the main entrance to the San Agustin Church in Intramuros. As the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Manila, and the oldest Catholic church in the city, it is a favorite place for the local elites to get married. But the construction of the Binondo-Intramuros Bridge threatens the existence of the San Agustin Church as a world heritage site owing to the bridge’s ramps infringing the church’s buffer zone.

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

74 feet wide and 63 feet high, the Chinese Friendship Arch was erected in June 2015. Sited approximately 300 meters from the Binondo-Intramuros Bridge, the arch has been subject to criticism from the local Filipino-Chinese population given its calligraphy referring to Binondo as 中國城 (China town, i.e. an outpost of China) rather than 華人區 (Chinese people district).

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

The vista from the rooftop of the National Museum of the Philippines northwards toward Binondo exposes the district’s ever-growing vertical cityscape. Ironically, the influx of Chinese money into Binondo in recent years has sped up the destruction of built heritage associated with Chinese and Chinese-Filipino families who played a vital role in the city’s historical mercantile activities.

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

The view of Manila Bay from the Baseco Compound. Where cargo boats are presently sailing, a 407-hectare land reclamation project has been proposed. When completed the New Manila Bay City of Pearl will be the largest Belt and Road Initiative project in the Philippines and, it is said, the biggest smart city in the world. The estimated valuation of the project upon completion is, according to China’s CGTN, about $100 billion.

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

The Baseco Compound, an informal settlement community located between the Intramuros and the proposed City of Pearl site. The environmental and social impacts of the land reclamation scheme are yet to be fully determined while, in concurrence, how heritage projects in Manila can contribute to the identity and contentment of persons in this and similar areas are not fully understood by the political elites. Consequently, heritage advocates have basically no sway upon the present-day Philippine definition of governance.

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

The Rizal Monument. Situated a few hundred meters from the Intramuros and dedicated to national hero José Rizal (1861-96), a Filipino of Chinese ancestry who played a key role in the bringing to an end of Spanish colonial rule, in 2012 the view of the monument was forever changed by the construction of the Torre de Manila to its rear/east. The Philippine Supreme Court in 2017 upheld the decision to construct the high-rise apartment building, dubbed “the national photobomber” by its critics, even though it contravened regulations to preserve the sightline of the national monument and its floor-to-area ratio greatly exceeded the limits set for the district.

Credit: Ian Morley
Manila: From Galleons to the Belt and Road

The Central Post Office with Plaza Lawton at its front. Located close to the Intramuros’ walls, the space is now where the Parián, i.e. Manila’s original Chinese quarter and first commercial center, used to be. Here more than anywhere else in Manila, as part of the Philippines’ embracing of China’s Belt and Road, a joint cultural heritage project should transpire.

Credit: Ian Morley

Manila may be said to be the world’s first global city. As the site from where Spanish colonizers facilitated cultural and religious change in the Philippine Islands, Manila also existed as a mercantile emporium connected to different regions of Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Europe.

From the beginning, China was fundamental to Manila’s rise as a transcontinental hub. As an outcome of the Ming Dynasty’s conversion to silver currency, galleons sailed annually from Mexico to Manila, laden with vast quantities of the metal. In return, the Chinese exchanged precious merchandise. Sailing across the Pacific Ocean until 1815, the galleon trade operated as the mainstay of Manila’s economy and led to the establishment of a substantial Chinese community within the city. 

Today, Manila has an urban and peri-urban population of more than 25 million people. Being the locale where more than one-third of the Philippine national economy is grounded, the investment, commerce, and business happenings that transpire within its bounds have national corollaries. Significantly, just as in the past, the present-day Chinese role is weighty.

As part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s goal of malasakit (enhancement of the social fabric), pagbabago (reducing social inequality), and kaunlaran (increasing growth potential), robust ties between Manila and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have been forged. With the scheme corresponding to the Duterte government’s infrastructure development plan known as “Build, Build, Build,” an apparent “spring time” of bilateral economic cooperation has resulted.

As a symbol of this collaboration the Binondo-Intramuros Bridge is being built. Paid for by the Chinese government it will link Manila’s Chinatown to the historic Spanish walled city (known as Intramuros) and so, it is claimed, revive the glory of the galleon trade. 

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Yet for those concerned about built cultural heritage, the bridge’s construction into Asia’s best surviving example of a medieval walled settlement has provoked indignation. Given contemporary Philippine governance emphasizing property and infrastructure development as staples of economic growth, built heritage has become a casualty rather than a facet of present-day Manila culture and modernization. In view of this, efforts to preserve the historic urban fabric have been perceived by the elites as obstacles to societal advancement.

Ian Morley is an associate professor in urban history at the Department of History, Chinese University of Hong Kong.