By Christopher Chow
(Editor note: Journalist-filmmaker Christopher Chow is an eyewitness to the brutal pre-dawn eviction of mostly 55 remaining elderly Filipino and Chinese tenants from their affordable and longtime single-room homes in the International Hotel. It is said to be “the last bastion of the Filipino community” adjacent to San Francisco’s Chinatown, the historic cultural capital of Chinese America, August 4, 1977. In total, some 197 tenants lost their homes. Following is Chow’s remembrance of that fateful time and the making of the iconic film Fall of the I Hotel.)
On the occasion of commemorating the eviction of the International Hotel tenants in 1977, I offer this perspective.
Folks had gotten word the eviction was coming down that August night. Fellow fillmmaker Curtis Choy called me on the KCET lot, where I worked full-time as a producer-reporter at the Los Angeles’ PBS station. The dreaded time was upon us, the moment of truth that the old and courageous and feisty tenants of the International Hotel, “the last bastion of Manilatown,” the original Filipino American community of formerly 10,000 residents and shopkeepers stretching along Kearny Street from Market to Broadway, bordering Chinatown and San Francisco’s North Beach districts – had fought off for nearly ten years.
I caught a flight out of Burbank that evening and got to the scene before midnight.
Curtis with his camera was ensconced temporarily on a fire escape of an apartment building directly across Kearny Street from the I Hotel.
The weather was chilly and there were people all over the place. The street and sidewalks. A bank of supporters, three, four, five rows deep lined up in front of the IH. We were bundled up in down parkas and leather jackets. We Won’t Move chants were already underway. “I Hotel, fight back! Long live the I Hotel.”
I went down on the street and got onto a flatbed truck that was filled with other photographers, journalists, and TV camerapersons and other people. It was parked on the street, in front of the I Hotel, with a view of the supporters JAMMED cheek-by-jowl, shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, standing, everyone struggling to keep their balance, stay upright, keeping their hands high and free as best they could under the circumstances.
The I-Hotel leaders and supporters spoke to the crowd, and the world, through the loudspeaker system. assuring us that the tenants were locked and secure in their rooms, with volunteer aides or medics. Poet and multi-media artist Norman Jayo was broadcasting live from the I Hotel over KPFA, the flagship of the Pacifica Radio Network. He would deliver a play-by-play account of the eviction as it happened, as long as it happened.
Genesis of Manongs, the film project
It was a heady time, a viscerally inspiring time to make a film about a titanic community struggle for justice and survival, fufilling the goals of the fight for low-income housing for elderly people and particularly Asian American working people in San Francisco.
When I proposed in 1975 to Curtis Choy that we make a film about the I Hotel, to document the lives and fight of the tenants of the International Hotel to gain a new lease and keep their long-time home, it was with the intention to show their lives, their community, and their humanity are worth something, worth fighting for, worth respecting and worth honoring, worth saving.
We were emerging filmmakers in the emerging Asian American movement. We were cultural workers who had chosen to be community-based and militant, if not revolutionary, towards expressing our views and creating our art to convey the depth, importance, relevance, richness and strength of Asian American folks.
We had come to this crossroads by different paths yet from a common experience of growing up Chinese American in California, specifically, the Chinatowns of Oakland and San Francisco. Our parents were immigrants or children of immigrants. They believed in the American Dream and had high hopes for our success in life. They believed in hard work, study, and not-rocking-the-boat to get ahead.
Curtis had studied cinema at San Francisco State University and upon graduation found opportunities to practice his craft and earn a living in Hollywood mainstream media meager, at best.
I broke local media’s color line against yellows as the first Asian American hired to be on-air TV news reporter in the Bay Area at KPIX CBS 5 in San Francisco (1970).
We felt it was our duty as Asian American filmmakers to record the changes and growth occurring all around us, to document history as we saw it, and to leave materials for future telling of our people’s stories and legacies.
Back to the eviction
By the pre-dawn hours of August 4, 1977, the International Hotel had gone from yellow to red alert. The tenants had locked themselves into their rooms. Their younger supporters buttressed the front door and windows with heavy timbers. Others filled the hallways and main staircase with their bodies.
At approximately 3 a.m. some 300 San Francisco sheriff’s deputies and police officers formed skirmish lines on Kearny Street. The demonstrators locked arms and stepped back against the hotel, forming a human barricade five, six rows deep.
A fire truck moved into an adjoining parking lot and placed its ladder against the building. Policemen took over the roof.
In a pincer-like movement, helmeted police officers charged the human barricade from both flanks and up the center, jamming their nightsticks into bodies, attempting to press the demonstrators into each other so that the crush would force people to break away from the pressure and vacate the sidewalk.
The crush was literally breathtaking. The surge of bodies swept a few people off their feet. On the truck I could feel the whole truck lunging towards the embattled supporters below, on the sidewalk, guarding the front of the I Hotel. I could hardly breathe. I felt this great weight on my back, elbows on my shoulders, one or two pokes by zoom lenses, I thought from whatever cameras or photographers behind me, around me.
My chest and arms squashing into backs of people in front of me, then right up against the wooden rails of the flatbed truck, almost jarring loose my camera from my hands. I saw faces floating on a tossing sea of black-clad people. I saw the poet George Leong with his glasses on, struggling to keep his arms linked to others, struggling to keep afloat, upright or on his feet, so strong was the surge sweeping through the crowd, pushed by the phalanxes of police.
The body of people was pushed, jammed, pressured, pounded from all sides – pushed by the police against each other and against the walls of the I Hotel fortified, covered with planks of lumber. George and nearby old man Nelson, a leftist who invested in the stock market, both bobbed up and down in this eviction storm, like they were treading turbulent water, with their feet scarcely touching ground. Is this deliberate torture? I thought.
When that failed to dislodge the demonstrators, a team of mounted police on horses waded into the center of the barricade, officers swinging batons, attempting to cut through the people and occupy the front entrance. The police encountered resistance and withdrew to give the people time to reconsider their situation.
But the onslaught continued. In one scene a White woman falls to the ground from all the jamming and after she tries to get back on her feet, she appears to be pushed upright by a baton jabbing her in the back.
On the film’s soundtrack, as you see the horses and the police, and a bloodied supporter, someone yells “You savages!”
Meanwhile, officers get on the front fire escapes and clamber up and down metal steps and break windows to get inside the hotel. Officers from the roof descended into the hotel interiors to begin removing supporters and any tenants who had clogged the hallways, locked arm-in-arm outside the rooms.
Inside, some tenants wanted the human barricade to move aside, avoid violence, and let the evictions begin. Others wanted the demonstrators to hold out — at least until sunrise so that the evictions would have to occur during the morning rush hour when people going to work in the adjacent Financial District could not avoid seeing or hearing the commotion, the action of this eviction of old men and old women.
There were concerns about escalating force being used. Some said there were snipers a block away on the Holiday Inn (now Hilton Hotel) to Portsmouth Square bridge over Kearny Street. And there was fear of tear gas being used to disperse the crowd. Supporters were willing to take getting clubbed, beaten and dragged but use of gas would endanger the tenants inside. But there were fears that force could escalate to guns.
The tenants wanted to avoid violence and asked the demonstrators to withdraw. Supporters in the lines saw the danger and risk to people’s safety was very real if the City’s law enforcement forces were to continue their violent assaults on people defending the I Hotel.
Reluctantly the human barricade moved aside to Jackson Street.
The authorities began hacking down doors and wooden planks in front of windows to gain entry into the hotel. They began grabbing at hands, breaking the holds that supporters had on railings; pulling on limbs and pulling on clothing to move bodies that had then gone limp in the hallways.
In a climactic scene IHTA President Emil DeGuzman is being violently pulled away from the huddled supporters on the floor, next to the banister by the main stairway of the hotel, locked arm-in-arm to each other.
Police are yanking and tugging on his collar and jacket, lifting him by his belt over the supporters, and when he’s still stuck among them, police grab his ankles and his legs to try and get him over the railing. When they finally get him away from the people and take him downstairs, the police drag him on the waste-littered floor like a dog, his body limp, offering no resistance, twisting on his butt when they turn him around a corner.
Someone who looks like Norman Jayo can be seen in the film, on the floor. His voice is heard on the soundtrack broadcasting over KPFA an immortal description of the eviction:
“The resistance is really strong here. The only person they’re trying to carry out here is Emil DeGuzman. Emil is holding out with all of his might…and they’re hurting him, they’re hurting him! The fact that they’re hurting people, that they just hurt Emil DeGuzman, chairperson of the IHTA, they’re going to be attempting to remove the seniors who are now in their rooms with medics … it’s the last stop of the low-income housing struggle here at the International Hotel….”
When the corridors were cleared, Sheriff Richard Hongisto personally used a sledge hammer to pound out the locks on the doors of the tenants. One by one the tenants were escorted out of the hotel.
At about 5:30 a.m., Felix Ayson, 79 years old, a leading spokesman of the tenants, walked out with the aid of two supporters. He told reporters, “I lose my voice. I am totally deaf. I can no longer take care of myself.” No one knows where he can go. But he leaves with people loudly chanting “Long live the I Hotel, Long live the I Hotel, Long live the I Hotel.”
One man is cursing as he is led away from the hotel. “I want to go back to my home,” yells Mr. Yip. He is 72 years old and has a “Yippie Power” button on his coat. Like most of the tenants, he has left virtually everything he owns inside. The sheriff says the city is not responsible for them.
The bulk of the footage of the eviction’s physical action in the final film was TV news film shot by the major commercial and public television station crews. Some were copies, some original, but I couldn’t tell you which was which or from where exactly. The cameras were shooting the same scenes and in many cases, similar angles.
We obtained them from friends who wanted to contribute to the telling of this important part of history. And some shared their materials as fellow documentarians of history. These friends were line workers and management types in the TV stations and network news bureaus. Their reward for sharing is the wide and long-lasting dissemination of a history that will not be forgotten through a documentary film.
After all the tenants had been cleared out and sheriff’s deputies roamed through building; Curtis and I got in with our little cameras and began filming the carnage, the detritus left by the eviction. We saw doors sledge-hammered; we saw the tenants’s belongings left abandoned in a hurry; we saw various keepsakes, framed photos of young men, a table lamp with a grass-hut base that reminded you of islands, lampshades of hula dancers, bed blankets disheveled, disturbed. From inside the tenants’ rooms we peered out through windows onto Kearny Street and the buildings of Chinatown across it.
We saw and filmed onlookers, Asians and non-Asians staring silently, grimly, glumly ,almost with vacant fixed gazes on the battered, torn-up face of the International Hotel, the physical signs of the destruction of people’s homes, and lives, working people’s lives like their own, before them.
We didn’t interview them. We too were still in shock. And in awe of the people’s livelihoods and peace and security lost, trashed and likely never to be recovered again. Curtis and I were too drained, too beaten (and we still had homes and beds of our own to go back to) to do much more filming.
When we left the I Hotel and got back on Kearny Street it was morning rush hour. People were going to work or going home from work through downtown, Chinatown, North Beach, men in suits, others in work clothes, many pausing to gape at the dilapidated, violated I Hotel. Pondering what happened. Pondering why there couldn’t be a better solution. Pondering where do people go from here?
You could the horror and disgust in their eyes, some squinting some upturned in anger some just staring in stupefaction some quizzical trying to make sense of this inhuman upheaval.
You can see the sadness in their faces. The distress shows in how they stand, some bystanders huddled side by side. What now? What next? Where do these people go? They look like us , they were our neighbors they used to work alongside us, they walked the same streets as us, ate in the same restaurants, drank in the same bars, shopped in the stores hung out in the same parks and playgrounds rode the same buses and trolleys walked the same sidewalks. Where can they live? Will they be safe after this insanity?
By 7 a.m. the hotel had been turned over to the private security force of the landlord, Four Seas Investment Corporation. Four Seas posted a squad of private security at the hotel. Ostensibly to prevent trespassers or looters from going in or protect the remaining property.
The morning after the eviction
In the year leading up to the eviction Curtis and I spent parts of our nights roaming the halls of I Hotel by ourselves and sometimes with poet Al Robles. I remembered what a powerful reading Al gave of his poem International Hotel Nightwatch at the 1975 Asian American Writers Conference, which I co-produced with Frank Chin.
As we walked through the I-Hotel’s dark corridors I could hear Al’s poem in my head and I told Curtis we should film Al doing his night patrol of the hotel, going downstairs, climbing fire escapes, checking doors, peering into vacant rooms and on the soundtrack would be Al’s voicing his poem. I was sure his words would mirror his thoughts and reflect the feeling of meditation, and communion with the spirits of the people who had lived in and roamed through the house we call the I Hotel.
Night watch, International Hotel
where old and young Pilipinos live,
hang, and roam around all-day
like carabaos in the mud
bagoong imprint of brown bodies on the wall…
manong, i listen to your long, long tales
the Kearny Street Manilatown wind
cuts thru your thin blanket
chilled Ifugao bones crack the Manilatown cue stick
Pilipinos scattered all over
brown faces piled high
moving like shadows on trees
concrete doorways, poolhalls, barbershops
dahil sa ‘yo, nais kong mabuhay
down Kearny Street
As we hear his last words, we see Al at the end of the hall, opening the fire escape window, turning his head to his left toward Kearny and Jackson, and we go from night to day, segueing to people chanting and marching.
We came back the day when tenants were allowed back in, one by one or maybe in small clumps, escorted by Four Seas’ hired security to retrieve what belongings were left. It was horrible. Rooms were trashed, and belongings were lost or stolen. It was an agonizing wait for many to get in.
IHTA vice president Calvin (Robbie) Roberts lays out a litany of violations of tenants’ personal property and rights. One man fainted and as volunteer medics rushed in others found a We won’t move banner to cover him, to give him warmth, while Mr Yip (the man with Yippie Power button) is shouting “Old man, old man!” We don’t know. Probably a heart attack or blood pressure attack. The stress from the distress and calamity befallen him and his fellow tenants. It’s in the film.
The days after the eviction we struggled not to give up. We just kept on filming because the story and the tenants and their supporters kept on going – there was no choice, no alternative but to keep on going, to keep on fighting for dignity, rights, safety and home. Amidst the rubble of the eviction we reached for answers, hope, for recourse. We sought solace in a vision of the future, a vision of some kind of victory in the midst of apparent defeat. I found it voiced by the exhausted, traumatized yet resilient president of the IHTA, young Emil DeGuzman.
“This struggle hasn’t lost, by any means; and if we’ve contributed anything, we’ve contributed, the issue, the issue toward propagating low-income housing; and we’ve succeeded at some point to bring together many other housing groups around the stand that there no way should ever be any I Hotel evictions ever again, in this city. And we should really work together for the purpose of building some kind of a housing movement.”
All the tenants never returned there…except for two: the then-young tenants Jeannette Lazam and Norman Jayo.
28 years later in 2005 the I Hotel rose again as the new International Hotel Senior Residences tower. On the ground floor is the Manilatown Heritage Foundation.
All hail the manongs and tenants of the International Hotel! Long live the I Hotel!
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