Cover Detail, 1898 Spanish map of Manila, University of Texas, retrieved from John Tewell via Flickr

Instituto Cervantes de Manila recently organised a round table discussion to reflect on the value of San Nicolas, the neighbouring district of Binondo and Intramuros. The main question: is there still hope in saving its historical and heritage value?

In strolling the busy street of Escolta more than a century ago, one will not yet see the art deco theatres and commercial skyscrapers that would tower it at the dawn of the 20th century. Instead, one would stumble upon Puente de España and Binondo's major thoroughfare Calle Rosario abound with traders, tourists, diplomats, indios and principalias, and devotees of the Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary walking to and fro. Further west, passing through Estero de Binondo lies the district of San Nicolas.

Named after San Nicolas de Tolentino⁠—patron saint of sailors, boatmen, and mariners because the town used to be called Baybay (shore)⁠—the district teems with Filipino craftsmen and artisans making Manila known in the world since the 19th century. Aside from the piers of Manila Bay, at the heart of the district is the foundry of renowned bell caster and metalsmith Hilario Sunico and his family, while the streets of Jaboneros and Ilang-Ilang are known for their soap and perfume-making warehouses with products being shipped to France. Another worth mentioning is the frequented marketplace for quality silk, Alcaiceria de San Fernando, the first and largest commercial structure in the country circa 1756, designed in octagonal format by Fray Lucas de Jesus Maria and built by the Christian Chinese master builder Antonio Mago with piedra china (granite rocks).

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The Alcaiceria was burnt to the ground in 1850. Soon the great fire of Binondo in 1870 damaged many other structures as well. Though the historic fire paved way for the building of more opulent houses, earthquakes throughout the years shook their very foundations. Fortunately, the Liberation of Manila in 1945 spared the district and left most of the ancestral houses and commercial buildings intact.

But the real enemy of the district was time.

Soon, the structures were left in a decrepit state. Modern, high-rise buildings were built everywhere in replacement for some abandoned heritage houses. A part of the district was later known to be the port of Delpan, which intensely polluted the Pasig River. While Divisoria became the go-to place of shoppers and retailers for cheap knockoffs and wholesale stocks. Casa Vyzantina, a three-storey structure intact with opulent and ornate neo-Mudejar architectural details of the 19th century has been demolished and rebuilt at the Las Casas heritage resort in Bataan.

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Slowly fading through the memory of Filipinos, San Nicolas has both an intangible and tangible heritage that serves as the last vestiges of a previous era unbeknownst to many. Recently in 2020, San Nicolas made the news when the National Museum greenlighted the demolition of the Sunico foundry, leaving heritage advocates and the descendants of the maker of over a hundred church bells in the country completely devastated.

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A call to save San Nicolas from oblivion was raised by Instituto Cervantes de Manila's director Javier Galvan. A roundtable discussion was hosted at the Intramuros branch of the said cultural institution, attended onsite and online by historians, architects, urban planners, businessmen, and residents of the area. On the panel were architect Mico Manalo of the National Committee on Monuments and Sites, acclaimed anthropologist and cultural historian Fernando Zialcita of the Ateneo de Manila University, and architecture professor Lorelei De Viana of the University of the Philippines and the University of Santo Tomas.

The attendees backed the initial idea of Galvan that an atelier for San Nicolas needed to be institutionalised in order to promote the awareness of the district's history and heritage. Through this, cultural events, discussions and talks, and perhaps businesses may be started within the area to remind its residents of the rich story of San Nicolas.

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Knowing that there are councilmen and renowned personalities today who hail from San Nicolas, Manalo and Zialcita were optimistic that its residents would want to preserve the heritage of the area, similar to what has been done to Intramuros and Vigan.

Another point that was raised by De Viana is the participation of the Filipino-Chinese community which has been longtime residents of the San Nicolas and Binondo districts.

For Galvan, proper documentation of each heritage structure, cataloguing of more cultural treasures, and archiving of architectural plans and other significant documents must be made to lay down the foundation for the atelier and its function in the future. Fortunately, Zialcita and De Viana have both embarked on this endeavour separately before for their published books about San Nicolas.

"We often think that the Philippines was just a poor colonial outpost in the Spanish empire but not many people today remember how important Manila's role has played in the [flourishing] of the empire and across the Pacific," Zialcita said. "Manila was very cosmopolitan compared to other cities in the Spanish empire [colonies]. According to the British historian David Irving in his book Music in Early Modern Manila (2010), Manila was the world's first global city. Unfortunately, this is not appreciated much today. . .The boom of San Nicolas as seen in the remaining opulent houses correlates with the Chinese mestizos being allowed to permanently settle in Manila and the success of the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade. Unfortunately, this erstwhile grandeur of San Nicolas has been diminished because of the current state of these houses," he continued.

"It's an uphill battle in making any place declared as a national heritage site or important cultural treasure," Manalo said. "But we have to lobby this. You have a voice through the committees of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Each heritage and cultural organisation is represented there, including universities and the private sector across the archipelago. We could manage our expectations but we must do all that we can."

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