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The Fall of The I-Hotel

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Produced and directed by Curtis Choy

Cinematography by
Emiko Omori, Curtis Choy
& many others
Narrated by Al Robles

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Festival Awards
Atlanta, 1st Prize
Palo Alto, 1st Prize
Big Muddy, Best of Festival
National Housing, 1st Prize
San Francisco, Hon. Mention

The Fall of the I-Hotel brings to life the battle for housing in San Francisco. The brutal eviction of the International Hotel's tenants culminated a decade of  spirited resistance to the razing of Manilatown. The Fall of the I-Hotel works on several levels. It not  only documents the struggle to save the I-Hotel, but  also gives an overview of Filipino American history. Through personal interviews with elderly Filipinos (the "manongs"), we hear of hardships resulting from racial brutality and discriminatory legislation. We see the once-thriving Filipino community that centered around the International Hotel, a place which provided low-cost housing for seamen, farm and cannery workers, houseboys, and single working men--the Filipinos who came to America to find a better life during the 1920's. In the 1950's, the I-Hotel was the heart of Manilatown's 10,000 people. Business interests and the City  government planned the expansion of San Francisco's  "Wall Street of the West." By 1968, all that remained of Manilatown was the one block that housed the International hotel. The owner wanted to replace the hotel with a parking garage, catalyzing a movement of senior citizens, churches, labor groups and community activists to preserve the I-Hotel as low-cost housing for the elderly, and as an Asian community center. Despite political maneuvering at City Hall and popular support for the hotel residents, 300 baton-wielding and horse-mounted police broke through several thousand people (the "human barricade") surrounding the building, and forcibly evicted 50 elderly tenants in the pre-dawn hours of August 4, 1977.

This is not just a story about old men in an old  building, but of multiple tragedies: ethnic communities redeveloped out of existence, housing gobbled up by  realtors, the shabby treatment of the elderly, the  betrayal of American ideals learned in the Phillipines  by its American pioneers.

The Fall of the I-Hotel serves as witness to the community's fight to survive, and as tribute to the dignity and strength of the Manongs.


Report from the fall
Curtis Choy's Fall of the I Hotel: It's not
The Joy Luck Club.  by Alvin Lu

'My 1969 intention was to be a Propagandist for The Revolution," Curtis Choy once rather offhandedly wrote.  His 1991 essay "Suckcess above the Line: From Here to Obscurity" concluded, " I have only this two-bit advice to you would-be filmmakers.  Get your MBA , and sell real estate."

In the middle of that trajectory, from '69 to '91, Choy made S.F.-Chinatown-based, world-class film art with a vengeance, back when making independent film meant you were vengeful.  (As for whether or not The Revolution ever did happen, "It's been coopted by all the detergents," Choy pointed out in our interfview.)

Besides his best-known, and last, work, 1983's The Fall of the I Hotel - showing this week to commemorate the 20th anniversary of San Francisco's most controversial eviction - here's the essential Curtis Choy catalogue:  Dupont Guy: The Schiz of Grant Avenue (1976), which weaves sound-and-collage, entwined around sampled loops, into Black Power politics and profane Kearny Street poetry, anticipating the next generation's hip-hop media terrorism; the totally obscure Wendy...Uh...What's Her Name (1976), about Wendy Yoshimura, who was captured by the cops with SLA renegade Patty Hearst; and The Year of the Ox: The 1973 Chinatown Livestock Show, a terrible-looking, technologically doctored videowork using the first portable video camera (Sony AVC8400 Porta-pak) to document a salivating Victor Wong interviewing actual Miss Chinatown, USA Pageant contestants ("I'm going to do trampoline and jazz dance to 'Hawaii 5-0' and 'It's Not Unusual.'")

"I had the front half of a flat on Washington Street," Choy recalled.  "I slept in one room, had a screen in there, and projected out of the other room.  My editing and sound facilities were in the next room, so I slept on the floor next to the editing machine.  These were not funded works."

The calamitous International Hotel eviction of Aug. 4, 1977, punctuated the end of an era - and of a strain of American leftist politics and a West Coast Asian American radicalism set off at San Francisco State during the Third World student strike of the late '60s.  Viewed now, 20 years after the events it documents, Fall of the I Hotel still relays gut-wrenching impact, especially in the climactic San Francisco riot cops-versus-the people scene.  Here is a miraculous convergence of history, politics, and art - a peculiar, committed cinematic vision moving with a community base to record an era-defining disaster.  The political geography of '70s San Francisco prepared the conflict: Manilatown butting up agains the Financial District, a panracial activist community boiling along right before the coountercultural bubble burst.  The concrete result: a hole in the ground at the corner of Jackson and Kearny that has lasted 20 years.

I Hotel the film, running at a tightly wound 57 minutes, combines then-cutting-edge technology (use of the just-invented Steadicam), Al Robles's narration and tropical, surreal poetry, and contemplative slice-of-life moments with the elderly Filipino manong in the eye of the storm.  It fulfills Choy's Godardian avant-garde-meets-agitprop influence ("Godard's films of the late '60s and early '70s, they weren't entertainment") and should have put San Franacisco - and San Francisco's Asian American neihborhoods - on the international cinematic map.  Unfortunately, Fall of the I Hotel's documentary status has basically relegated it to distribution hell, while PBS has only broadcast it once, in 1994.  It was submitted to the prestigious documentary series P.O.V. but was rejected.

Choy said, "The feedback I got - from a Chinese person, interestingly enough - was that they were a hard-hitting documentary series and, since my thing had poetry, it didn't really qualify.  That's why I love PBS.  That's why I've never contributed a dime to KQED.  They're so fucking two-faced."

After I Hotel, Choy stopped making films and pursued a career as a production sound mixer for Asian, Hollywood, and independent films, including almost every Wayne Wang film (though "I'm working on all this low-budget crap right now").

"I basically threw away my chance to buy a house in order to finish [I Hotel], and that was to buy a house when they cost way less than half of what they cost today.  I just had to stop sinking all my money into film....  It was a 90 percent financial decision," he said.

The other 10 percent was "disillusionment." "A certain spirit had been destroyed....  There was a whole counterculture, the Asian American counterculture.  The Kearny Street Workshop [an Asian American writing workshop] hasn't been on Kearny Street since the [International Hotel] eviction.  I miss it.  You could always go down there and find somebody you knew and hang out.  There were little restaurants nearby.  There
was a circuit I would go.  If my friends weren't there, they would be over there.  That's all gone now.  It's destroyed.  There's not even a freeway to take you into Chinatown.  It's become a colossal pain in the ass.

"I blame everything on Reagan.  When he was governor, and then when he was president, he did everything to fuck us, and he succeeded."

Sound guy
Choy is a sound technician and, as in Dupont Guy, I Hotel portrays a richly textured sonic world.  In the film's opening act, we're introduced to the elderly Filipino first-generation-immigrant tenants of the International Hotel, their aspirations and the betrayal of those aspirations.  We hear period detail - Lon Simmons calling a Giants game, John Montefusco throwing high and inside to Steve Garvey - while the Lucky M Poolhall, Manilatown's information center, closes its doors, succumbing to exorbitant rent hikes.  Al Robles's narration winds throuigh Filipino fold and lounge music over barbershop scenes that look like, and are, artifacts from another time.  The poet, activist, and Manilatown fixture's diction, Choy recalls, was a source of concern, as far as getting the film shown, but the director "didn't want to get Walter Cronkite or one of those kind of voices to narrate.  I didn't want to turn it into a bullshit TV pseudo-objective thing."

Robles's voice stops "narrating" to editorialize about the earlier Fillmore evictions, after a shot of a"House of Twinkies" billboard:  "What's left... is those goddamned Victorian buildings, because it's kind of like a tourist thing, man.  They moved those goddamned houses on Fillmore and Sutter.  So you see that?  They see the value of those goddamned Victorian buildings, but they wiped out everything.  People were crying.  
They just wiped 'em out."

Talking heads make the necessary appearances.  The film relies mostly on its viewer's eyes and ears.  During the eviction-night scene, narration drops out in favor of sounds recorded at the front-line clash between demonstrators and the police.

Choy said, "A large part of [that scene's] strength comes from the track.  A lot of it was a guy named Glen Hayashi who had a cassette recorder and stood in the line....  The sound [from inside the hotel] came from the Third World News Bureau.  They did a live broadcast.  Their wire got pulled eventually.  They were doing a blow-by-blow and recording when the sheriff [Richard Hongisto] was breaking in."

Visually, the eviction night - 300 police officers arriving at 3 a.m. - plays out in an infernal world of shadows, strobe-light glimpses of bleeding heads and truncheons beating bodies.

"It's akin to radio drama," Choy said.  One imagines what else is going on in the dark.  Choy shot footage that was simply underexposed.  Cops climbing up the fire escapes and shit.  It's black.  You can't see anything....  Twenty years ago, film stock was not what it is today."

The scene effectively ends with Emil DeGuzman, then president of the I-Hotel Tenants Association, being dragged away by the cops.  The day after, we catch members of the Kearny Street Workshop, including a guy with a Fu Manchu mustache, trying to sort out their things.  We get a rooftop shot of an orderly line of riot police marching down a debris-strewn, decimated Kearny Street.

Blond hair
Besides Choy, the principal cinematographer on I Hotel was Emiko Omori, but, in all, nine cinematographers, eight sound recordists, and five interviewers are credited.  Michael Chin, the renowned documentary cinematographer whose work includes Chan Is Missing and Eyes on the Prize, was left off the credits by accident.  The activists and artists who contributed to the film eventually scattered to the winds.  "The guy who shot all that Steadicam of the night watch sequence, I lost track of  him," Choy said, referring to the middle of the film, a ghostly, pre-Shining trek through the innards of the I-Hotel.  "I don't even know where he is."

Some things, however, didn't change.  When KQED did finally broadcast the film, "They said, 'Well, we want to show it but it's too old,' because it had an '83 date on it.  So I updated it.  By showing the hole in the ground.  Again.  So there's two endings there.  One of them is the original ending, which shows the hole in the ground.  And then, it's the hole in the ground - with weeds."

As for the future of Asian American film, Choy reflected, "If you were to ask me this question last year, I would have said 'Asian American cinema is dead, long live Hong Kong cinema.'  If you go to the NAATA film festival, what do they ballyhoo the most?  Foreign stuff.  But, you know, with this recent crop, I don't know, maybe there is some hope....  These young people don't have any hangups about, like, having blond hair.  The last two movies I worked on, there was some Asian with blond hair.  In my generation, that's probably worse than marrying out white."

As for Hong Kong cinema, he pointed out how Chinese are different from American crews: "They bitch less and they smoke more."


    Reviewed by Nelson Nagai

The Fall of the I-Hotel is many things for many people.  It is a documentary on Pilipinos in America, an epic on political struggle with a cast of thousands, a tearjerker of a movie, and a work of art.  Curtis Choy worked on this film during the entire 10-year struggle to save the International Hotel in San Francisco from the wrecker's ball.  The result is a powerful visual record of the beginning and end of the I-Hotel Tenants Association.

From 1968 to 1977, the International Hotel on Kearny Street was the heart of the Asian Movement in San Francisco.  Those people who are unfamiliar with this part of Asian American history will be introduced to the sense of community that existed on the 800-block of Kearny Street in the 1970's.  They will be surprised by the determination of the old Pilipino manongs to keep the last remnant of Manilatown alive.  They will also be shocked by the brutality that finally destroyed Manilatown in San Francisco.
One strength of the film is that it lacks the polish of a sterile studio documentary.  The early footage of the International Hotel was shot in black and white, and has the quality of everyone's home movies.  As Curtis Choy developed his skill as a soundman and filmmaker, the images of Kearny St.  become sharper and more meaningful.  The final scene in which Jim Dong's mural on the struggle of Asians in America falls down is surreal.  By combining the black and white and color footage, stills, and newsreel videos, Choy weaves a drama that the audience can feel.

The main strength of The Fall of the I-Hotel is its soundtrack.  The audience hears the story of the International Hotel struggle through the actual voices of the heroes and villains.  The effect is stunning.  The sounds of the community, the pain of the tenants, and the coldness of the Redevlopment Agency are too clear.  A strumming banjo, a mournful viiolin build tension into a film that begins slowly and rapidly accelerates to a violent conclusion.  The tenants become more than flat images on a wall, and suddenly, halfway through the film, the audience is drawn
into the struggle.

People will cry after seeing The Fall of the I-Hotel.  The ability to affect this emotional response is a quality that comes when the filmmaker is also an active participant in the subject.  Curtis Choy did night watches in the I-Hotel.  He knew the tenants and had their trust.  He came back daily to watch the wreckers take apart the hotel brick by brick.  The feelings and emotions portrayed come to life because the filmmaker and subject feel the same thing.

Those people who lived and worked on Kearny St., in the 1970's may feel that The Fall of the I-Hotel should have made a broader statement.  The key role played by the many political groups and small business renting space in the International Hotel is not portrayed in Choy's film.  Nor does Choy make a strong political statement abouot racism and capitalist exploitatiion.  This is where the relationship between art and politics is least understood.  The impact of the film is so great that the audience can arrive at its own conslcusion.  But is this enough, or should the
artist make the conclusion for the audience?

Thirty years from now, when people will be studying the removal of ethnic communities and their replacement by tourist camps, The Fall of the I-Hotel will be an invaluable document.  We are fortunate to have such a living record today, and
this is why it should be seen.
    I-HOTEL film took six years
of dedication to produce

     Associate Editor

Sometimes capturing history just happens to be a matter of being in the right place at the right time.  For filmmaker Curtis Choy, that is only partially true.

"I was on two phone trees and the night of the eviction, nobody called me," he remembered.  "I was routinely cruising the (Kearny Street) block.  I was in Berkeley at the time and anytime I came into town, I would go past the I-Hotel just to check out the vibes.  That night, there was all this shit, all these people in the streets and nobody called me.   I go, 'Wow, what is all this?'  So I got off and just listened to what was happening."
Luckily for Choy, and the Filipino community concerned with the housing needs of elderly manongs, he had gotten into the practice of strapping his film camera to the back of his motorcycle.

But Choy's decision to record the events that centered around a city block dubbed Manilatown was made long before police and sheriff's deputies confronted a 5,000-member human chain around the International Hotel, climaxing years of struggle to maintain affordable housing in the midst of towering skyscrapers.

The result is a 50-minute documentary on "The Fall of the I-Hotel" which premiered Oct. 25 during the Asian American International Film Festival.  The work captures the emotion, spirit and hope of a coalition of community groups from throughout the city trying to save a home for Filipino bachelors.  Unlike most documentaries that present facts in a step-by-step manner.

"The Fall of the I-Hotel" relates a sense of the history of Filipino immigrants in the U.S. and of a Filipino American community in San Francisco.  

"I sort of come from a sensibility formed in the 70's that pushed Asian American culture.  One aspect of that was oral history so I was talking to other people and there were a lot of old people down there," Choy said.

As far back as 1972, Choy realized that the thriving community was changing in what was known as a Chinatown-Manilatown neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown development.  The struggle for the International Hotel had already begun.  Choy was shooting news footage for a Los Angeles television station, and some of that footage is included in the film.

But other shots were taken on "speculation."

"I shot it on speculation.  It was historical and it had historical value to it.  There was no conscious idea about what to do with it but since it was happening, it was important to get it then.  There was no recreating it."

Choy, a film graduate from San Francisco State University, went through more than 40 hours of film footage at his studio over a period of five to six years to make the film.  Depending primarily on private monies and volunteer community support, he worked on the film sporadically, taking time off now and then to earn money.  A film editor and sound technician by profession, Choy whittled the work down to a
five-and-a-half hour film by the end of 1979.

"In the earlier conception of the film, there was a much bigger chunk of Filipino History.  It turns out it was just good basic background.  We just couldn't use it in the film.

"Back then, we were young, we wanted to relate everything to the struggle," Choy said.  "While it is connected, in a film you have to focus it."

After seeing it for the first time at the film festival, Choy said he was satisfied with the final product.  "I like it pretty well on the whole.  The conception of it is basically fine.  I think the story and message is what I wanted to do."

Choy hopes to create another film from the unused footage, many of it containing interviews with manongs.  He also wants to make copies of the film for distribution in educatiional institutions and cities where "these same kind of awful office buildings are displacing older people and people who have no ther means of reasonable housing."

Working with Choy on the film were cinematographer Emiko Omori, Christopher Chow, Al Robles, Norman Jayo and scores of other community activists who worked to save the hotel.
Critic's Choice
If you had any doubts, this entry in the Bay Area Filmmakers Showcase will amply demonstrate that advocate documentary is still alive.  Director Curtis Choy stayed with his story for years, gathering celluloid evidence as San Francisco's Manilatown was ground into dust by real estate speculation, despite fierce community resistance.  The film is a chronicle not only of the I Hotel struggle, but of vanished neighborhoods and the victims of a city's officially-endorsed
gentrification program.    -Kelly Vance

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