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The rebirth of I-Hotel

Erin Pangilinan, Aug 17, 2005
SAN FRANCISCO -- A SEA of people filled the streets of Jackson and Kearny Streets to toast the rebirth of International Hotel, the last piece of Manilatown to crumble as a result of gentrification.

Manilatown was a Filipino American enclave, home to the manongs, or the seasonal agricultural laborers who worked in the Central Valley and canneries, and retired war veterans, during the 1910s to the 1970s. It covers a stretch of 10 blocks off Kearny Street from California Street to Columbus Avenue, and borders the South of Market financial district.

Many small Filipino-owned businesses, such as pool halls, barbershops, nightclubs, small groceries, and restaurants had flourished in Manilatown before high-rise condos, parking lots and swank coffee shops barreled their way into the area and elbowed out the small FilAm enterprises. I-Hotel, fought – and eventually lost – the steadfast struggle to stay open. Many Filipinos lost their jobs, and elders the roof over their heads. I-Hotel became a symbol of Asian immigrants struggle for a place in the American landscape.

The International Hotel Senior Housing Complex is set to open at 848 Kearny Street on August 26th. Like its predecessor, it will provide senior housing – all of 104 units -- to low-income tenants 65 and older. The facilities are larger and offer more convenience than the old building.

Last week, in honor of the spirit of the manongs and former tenants of the I-Hotel, artists and activists from across the Bay Area gave stirring performances as the wind blew on luminous candles.

“We’ve come a long way,” said former tenant Emil DeGuzman cautiously. He is also former leader of the International Hotel Citizens Advisory Committee and current president of Manilatown Heritage Foundation (MHF).

But the struggle is not over yet, he adds: “Look around you (pointing across the streets of Chinatown). People still live in substandardized, deplorable housing.”

The week-long event drew together younger artists and activists who vow not to forget a time when elderly and ailing Filipinos were driven out of their homes. The battlecry of the struggle -- “I’m old, I’m tired, I’m poor, I don’t want to move” -- was memorialized in banners, shirts, and leaflets.

Angelica Cabande, representing the South of Market Community Action Network, read a poem with drum and guitar accompaniment in the background.

“We don’t need your thousand-dollar condos!” she recited from her poem, a response to the previous owners decision to demolish the hotel and replace it with a more profitable business.

Jeremy Bautista and Jason Mateo of 8th Wonder also delivered poetry inspired by the time Bautista’s grandfather was a resident of the hotel.

He said, “I wrote the poem that I performed from the perspective of an I-Hotel resident during the time my grandfather lived here, from my family’s experience.”

The San Francisco State University’s Asian American 363 class performed a skit reenacting the eviction of elderly tenants, holding each other together as a human barricade as they cried, “We Won’t Move!”

“I-Hotel was not an ordinary building,” said Nancy Hom, director of Kearny Street Workshop, “It houses all our dreams and ancestors’ dreams.”

That same week, the film “The Rise of the I-Hotel” was premiered at the San Francisco Public Library, which has the only Filipino American Center containing an exhibit commemorating the I-Hotel and volumes of Filipino and Filipino American literature since 1996. The short documentary chronicled the struggle to rebuild the New International Senior Housing complex.

“Rise” focuses on profiles of individual tenants interwoven with interviews with some of the directors of Manilatown Heritage Foundation, such as Emil DeGuzman, Estella Habal, Rex DeGuia, Bill Sorro, and Desu Sorro. The narratives of outspoken Wahat Tampao, beloved Felix Ayson, and motherly Luisa de la Cruz, who cooked meals for FilAm tenants, were particularly poignant.

“Rise” added significant information that is missing from history textbooks. It puts into context the period of the Great Depression when the manongs arrived in America in droves. In addition, it gave an excellent overview of the history and context of colonial mentality in the Philippines and the implementation of the English language in Philippine schools in relation to the rise of the Filipino Diaspora in America.

“There is a community after the eviction that people don’t realize kept fighting,” said Caroline Cabiding advisory board member of MHF said.

Executive producer Chester Canlas said that he learned about the I-Hotel in college, and wanted to make sure that the I-Hotel struggle was not ignored in San Francisco and American history as it has been overlooked in some Asian American events around the Bay Area.

Elders of the I-Hotel remind us that it was a struggle fought by coalitions and not divisions.

Michel Laguerre, author of The Global Ethnopolis: Chinatown, Japantown, and Manilatown in American Society, focuses on the divisions between ethnic enclaves, specifically those who view Manilatown as less exotic and a minor tourist attraction compared with Chinatown and Japantown.

But what some fail to see was the cross-cultural alliances that were forming in the 1960s. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers and the Third World Strike of University of California Berkeley and San Francisco State University’s fight for Ethnic Studies, were among the community activists who rallied around the I-Hotel struggle and capitalized on it to further the cause of the Asian American Movement. Theirs was a classic defense: rights of the elderly and fair housing. The fight for fair housing and space was, especially, resonant among Asian American communities.

There were fundraising tables that hoped to support the cause of Manilatown’s survival. Runbutans, a Manilatown Running Collective, sold red and black apparel and bags. Runbutans trains runners from Bay Area in Emeryville Marina, Crissy Field, Ocean Beach, and Golden Gate Park on a 30-week program. They have traveled to Hawaii for the Honolulu and Maui marathons annually since 2003. Each runner pledges money for Manilatown. Rex de Guia, a director of MHF, said he came up with idea because he saw that things like the Aids Walk worked. Runbutans continues to promote health, wellness, community building, and commemoration of the I-Hotel Struggle among its runners.

In February 2005, Diosdado and Maria Banatao pledged to donate $500,000 to MHF and said that they would match funds dollar-for-dollar. The project is set to cost around $30 million. (Donations can be sent to MHF. For more information: www.manilatown.org.)


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