FEBRUARY is a busy month for Chinatown in Binondo, Manila. People who buy delicacies and lucky charms start to clog the busy streets of Binondo as the Chinese New Year was fast approaching. Just three days before the awaited occasion, I witnessed how people endure the heat and the excruciating traffic situation of the town. Everyone was busy. Most of them were carrying bags Tikoy, a famous Chinese delicacy made of glutinous rice, while some were busy asking discounts for lucky charms and other stuff sold along the sidewalks.
Prosperity. Food. Money. These are the things that could be related to Chinatown. Truly, majority of the people who visit this place look for the Chinese “feel” in the Metro. Even non-Chinese individuals visit Binondo to experience a bit of China: the tradition, food, and the like.
Among the famous streets in Binondo is Ongpin. A day would not be enough to browse and go through bakeshops and jewelry stores in the area. Fascinated, I walked along the narrow but endless pavements to see what’s in Ongpin that could amuse me more.
But my search for something different led me to a reality that I never thought of seeing in Chinatown. There were some children wearing dirty and worn-out clothes asking for coins or food. Beggars, so to speak.
Just a few steps from the President Grand Palace Restaurant, around seven street children were busy asking for alms. Some of them were even dyeing their hair brown. I had a chance to talk to four of these kids. They were Randyboy, JC, Bernadette, and ‘Manok’. Both Randyboy and JC were quiet while Manok tried to be the source of distraction while I was talking to them. Bernadette, an eleven-year-old girl, was the most serious among the kids. Though they were not related by blood, they meet everyday and look for food and money as a group.
Bernadette’s parents work in front of the San Lorenzo Ruiz Minor Basilica. Every morning, they sweep the street in front of the church. At night, Bernadette goes back to the chapel where her family spends the rest of the night.
“Pangkain tsaka may sakit ‘yung kapatid ko. (For food. And because my sibling is sick),” was her answer when I asked her why she was out begging for alms. It was the usual answer of most street children even those who did not come from Binondo. But Bernadette was different. Her words might be little but her eyes seem to tell a lot of stories. She was just eleven but she thinks as if she was an adult who has to work hard in the world full of inequality.
For these kids, life is unfair. So much more that they are in a place where people go to shop and dine and experience a life of Chinese luxury. Side to side, restaurants and bakeshops along Ongpin would make first-time and frequent visitors crave for Chinese cuisines. But as for these street children, craving for some sympathy from people who are well-off is the only thing they can do.
After talking to them, I left Bernadette and her friends in the bridge connecting stores from Anson Emporium to Salazar Bakery. As I turned my back and walk away from them, JC, who was just quiet during the conversation, said “Ganun lang ‘yon kuya? Walang pagkain? (That’s it? No food?)” I was about three steps away from the kids but I can still hear his friends stopping him from talking, reminding him that what he did was rude.
I went on as if I did not hear them. But even before I was reminded by JC, I knew I should give them something. Not because they granted me an interview, but because we must share our blessings with those who are unfortunate especially that the Chinese New Year was just around.
After five minutes, I was back with a plastic bag from Salazar Bakery. Manok immediately took the bread I was holding and ran away quickly while some tried to catch him. Bernadette stayed and showed her appreciation repeatedly. “Kuya, thank you po talaga.”
As soon as Manok got back, the kids shared the bread with each other. It was as if they were celebrating a feast as their innocent eyes came to a celebrative mood. For a moment, the kids were not sitting along pavements and bridges asking for some mercy. It was almost picture perfect: the smiles, the eyes, their friendship. But if there is something that should be changed in the picture, it is the unjust inequality where these kids are the victims.
If lucky charms could remedy this situation of street children along Ongpin, Bernadette and her friends would have not been there when I went to Binondo. But this is the reality. Chinatown is not always picture perfect.