Binondo may be home to Manila’s (and the country’s for that matter) historic and sprawling Chinatown areas, but it is also home to one of the city’s vast and historic public open spaces that has kept its significance for centuries, the one we know today as Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz.
Manila’s second oldest plaza?
In fact, there is reason to believe it is the second oldest plaza built in Manila after Plaza Roma, as it was developed around the same time as the construction of the nearby church in 1594 in the wake of then Governor-General Luis Perez de Dasmariñas‘ order to relocate the Christianized Chinese immigrants in what is now Binondo.
It was first known as Plaza de Binondo but sometime in the 1700s or 1800s, the plaza was renamed as Plaza Carlos IV, after the Spanish king Charles IV who incidentally also has a monument which now stands in the aforementioned Plaza Roma. Later in the 19th century, it was renamed anew to Plaza Calderon de la Barca, named after the famed Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca, considered as one of the pillars of Spain’s Golden Age in the arts alongside the likes of painters Diego Velasquez and El Greco and novelist Miguel de Cervantes, among others.
Around the same time, the plaza flourished as an important address in Binondo. Aside from the Binondo Church, surrounding the plaza were important buildings like the Hotel de Oriente, considered as the first hotel in the Philippines which opened in 1889. There was also the hotel’s neighbor the La Insular Cigar and Cigarette Factory, which was built around the same time and has rose to become one of the premier cigar manufacturers in the country.
Decline and revival
With Binondo effectively becoming the center of commerce of Manila, and the country as a whole, by the turn of the 20th century, Plaza Calderon de la Barca became one of the busiest plazas in the city, especially with regards to pedestrian and vehicle traffic. The thoroughfares surrounding it, Calle Anloague (which would be renamed Juan Luna Street) and Rosario (now known as Quintin Paredes Street) was beginning to choke with vehicles, not to mention a tranvia line running alongside it during the prewar years.
World War II saw the plaza’s surrounding skyline altered, with the destruction of Hotel de Oriente and La Insular factory and Binondo Church suffered from heavy bombings. It was the beginning of a lengthy decline, a process that was somewhat halted when renovation of the church was completed by 1984 and eventually elevated as the Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo Ruiz in 1992, named after the first Filipino saint who grew up in the area. The renaming would also extend to the plaza, with it being renamed as Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz around the time as well.
The plaza would be given a makeover in the 2000s, giving new life to historic space. Since then, it has been the center of activity in the area, especially during the lunar new year celebrations.
A unique plaza
Apart from its rich history, Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz stands out in terms of layout and design as an open space. For one, it is laid out in an oval shape instead of the usual rectangular and circular plazas found in most of the country. The only like it that comes to mind is the Plaza Felipe Calderon in Santa Ana, Manila.
While most plazas would be content with having just one fountain in the middle, Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz has two of them located on each end of the plaza, looking almost identical and may have been constructed around the same time during the Spanish era.
Between the fountains are not just one nor two nor three, but four (!) monuments, That is a record for a plaza as usually one can find only one or two of these. The oldest of these is a small, unassuming and sadly not well-maintained, one dedicated to Joaquin Santa Marina, the founder of the La Insular Cigar and Cigarette Factory which is said to have been built in the late 19th century.
Then there is a taller obelisk erected in 1916 which was dedicated to the first documented Filipino printer Tomas Pinpin whose printing shop was located somewhere in Binondo. It must be noted that where this monument stands is not where it originally stood but rather in Plaza Cervantes which is south of the Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz. Apparently, road works in the area in the 1970s merited its relocation by 1979 where it stood ever since.
Two other monuments were built way later. The most prominent would be the monument of St. Lorenzo Ruiz by sculptor Eduardo Castrillo which was done in 1989, two years after he was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church. Interestingly, the monument had a different orientation but it was reoriented in 2005 so that he would be “looking” towards the church where he was baptized and now bears his name.
Then there is the memorial to the Filipino-Chinese victims of World War II, erected in 1995, which was the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, through the efforts of the Confederation of Filipino Chinese Veterans.
Significance in contemporary times
Despite no longer being the center of commerce in the country, commerce in Binondo is busier than ever, though it has hit a snag at the time of writing thanks to the pandemic. Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz remains the center of a bustling district while serving as a link as well between the traditional commercial activity of Binondo proper and neighboring areas in the south to that of the more busy areas up north, especially in Divisoria and old Meisic where Lucky Chinatown and those numbered shopping malls are located.
Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz is an indelible part of the Binondo identity, having withstood centuries of change and still plays the role of being the heart of a district as historic and vibrant as itself.
Note: the photos in this article were taken on different occasions years ago and are presented here for visual cues and education purposes. The Urban Roamer shall not be responsible for visual inconsistencies of the places represented nor of inaccuracies that may be noted based on the past 2 years