There was a time when colonial people lived in the idyllic, pastel-colored edifices of 18th and 19th century San Nicolas, Manila. But today, it is not easy to conjure up the grandeur of this lesser-known neighbor of Binondo. Alcaiceria de San Fernando, the oldest existing structure where early Chinese merchants hawked their wares, is now the site of a public school. Casa Tribunal de Naturales along Calle Asuncion, drawn up by Juan José Hervas of Hotel de Oriente fame, is now layered with decades’ worth of filth. A few areas of Jaboneros and Ilang-Ilang, streets connected to the export of soap and perfume to Paris in the 1870s, now smell of piss.
The year 2020 saw the historical Sunico Foundry bulldozed to the ground. Today, vertical mass housing projects, like the Binondominium, have begun rising in the area. In an era of rapid gentrification, can Filipinos protect intangible heritage?
Javier Galvan, Instituto Cervantes of Manila’s director, thinks so. Recently, he called out to “save San Nicolas,” which he referred to as a “forgotten treasure.” The panel included architect Michael Manalo, the Commissioner for Cultural Heritage and Head of the National Committee on Monuments and Sites; anthropologist and cultural historian Fernando Nakpil Zialcita; and architect and professor Lorelei De Viana.
Galvan proposed three steps to save San Nicolas:
1. Create awareness on the heritage value of San Nicolas.
That time hasn’t been kind to San Nicolas is a great tragedy considering its value.
“I was depressed when I saw what remains,” Galvan recalled about his first visit to San Nicolas. He said that the ancestral houses in San Nicolas are comparable to more expensive houses in Madrid. “Attractions like this are treasures,” he said.
For his part, Zialcita recalled how he would frequent San Nicolas in the 1960s “precisely to enjoy the houses,” which he enthused had “pastel shades of pink, lemon, apple green and fine details.”
Zialcita, who has written much about Manila’s architectural heritage, said that the district represents a period in history where the Chinese in the Philippines were finally allowed to stay without restrictions. San Nicolas reflects this economic boom through the “magnificence of the houses.”
"We often think that the Philippines was just a poor colonial outpost in the Spanish empire,” Zialcita said. "[But] Manila was very cosmopolitan compared to other cities in the Spanish [empire].” He quoted British historian David Irving, who declared Manila as the “world’s first global city,” owing to the confluence of commercial and musical practices from its encounters with various ethnicities.
“Unfortunately,” Zialcita said, “this is not appreciated much today.”
2. Prevent the disappearance of the last architectural vestiges of an era
Zialcita suggests to determine “the limit of what can be saved.” He cited Macau, where historical enclaves thrive alongside casino developments.
Manalo added that businesses subsidize heritage in Macau. “Casinos pay for the bills of conservation,” he said. For the Philippines, “There is a lot to gain from lobbying with the government.”
“One way to sell this to the city is tourism,” Zialcita added. “I think they should link up with the document for the city hall on tourism strategy for Manila.” De Viana mentioned that a heritage commission for Chinatown could be involved in revitalizing Manila’s Chinatown, which comprises Binondo and San Nicolas.
They also mentioned that politicians hailing from San Nicolas should leverage their authority to do for the district what has been done in Intramuros and Vigan.
3. Contribute to the rehabilitation of the district
Galvan proposed the creation of “Taller de San Nicolas,” a workshop where individuals and groups may ideate projects that will ultimately contribute to the rehabilitation of San Nicolas.
Volunteers could organize seminars on history, urban planning and architecture, economy, and commerce. A seminar on incentives and ways to preserve heritage, for example, may be particularly significant for landowners who may be tempted to sell their property.
He also called for help from educational institutions in documenting literature about San Nicolas: a compilation of books, essays, and articles; as well as an inventory of buildings above 50 years.
San Nicolas harks to a period of history that defined what would become a Filipino. The responsibility to keep this district alive rests on us.