Friday, August 26, 2005

Manilatown comes home

Today I went to the grand opening of the new International Hotel Senior Housing. It's been a few years since I have visited the corner of Kearny and Jackson. The last time I was there was a few years ago when friends from UCSB were in town and we all decided to have dinner in Chinatown. At the time, we wanted to visit the site because the new I-Hotel was under construction and it was refreshing to see that what was left of Manilatown was more than just a hole in the ground.

Since it had been a while I wasn't quite sure how to get to the site from the Montgomery Street station. After receiving what I knew were bad directions to Chinatown, I decided to take a leap of fate and told myself to just walk in whatever direction I thought felt right. Within a few moments I reached Kearny Street and went from there. It didn't take too long to find the Hotel. The KRON news van and the congregation of beautiful brown people were enough to let me know that I made it to my destination.

The new International Hotel Senior Housing.

I was amazed at the amount of people that were there. The grand opening went from 1-5pm. The major festivities started at 1pm (the ribbon cutting, speeches by alleged dignitaries, etc.). Since I got there at about 3pm, I figured the crowd would have died down. I was wrong. The crowd was in full swing. People were pouring in to celebrate a magnificent victory in the longstanding struggle for affordable housing. There were so many generations of people there to be part of this historical event.

As I was walking up the sidewalk into the hotel, I was ambushed by a strange inexplicable energy. It was like something that had been dead for a long time had suddenly emerged and was screaming out loud. When I entered the main area, the first thing I saw was the legacy wall. Right then, it hit me. For the past six months, I've been trying to figure out the various reasons for running this marathon. All this time I thought it was because I was trying to prove something to myself. Now I know that there is so much more to the 26.2 miles in Maui that have absolutely nothing to do with running. I was here, standing at the crossroad between a silenced past and a present that was trying to be heard. At that moment, I realized that I am now a part of that present that is trying to be heard - as a runner, a scholar, an educator, an auntie, a daughter....

The legacy wall. The bricks you see are the remains of the original I-Hotel. The glass in front of the bricks features a list of donors. Bridging the past and the present, this part of the building also features an art exhibit of the I-Hotel struggle.

As I was looking at the photos of the old-timers who were forcibly evicted from the original I-Hotel, I saw reflections of my own father who would have been 78 years old. I don't think my father knew about the I-Hotel, and unfortunately, he didn't live long enough to see what kind of woman his youngest daughter turned out to be. Like my father and these old timers in the photos, I hope that past generations are looking at us from above with some sense of pride. I hope they know that we have not forgotten them and we are trying to break the silences of their pains, struggles, hopes and dreams.

Like most people, I always wonder why my life has taken on such a strange series of paths. I was never supposed to be a graduate student. In fact, I was supposed to be an engineer just like my father. But sometimes a daughter has to disappoint in order to stand on her own two feet. My life is not necessarily filled with wise choices. However, it is filled with choices that I do not regret. I can only hope that the man they call Fernando understands.

On the roof of the new I-Hotel. It has a lounge area for people to enjoy breathtaking views of the city.

In truth, I was not prepared for the amount of emotion that was running through me as I visited a site that has meant so much to so many generations. One thing that struck me was seeing a photograph of Wahat Tampao, a former resident and outspoken leader of the struggle. I clearly remember his face from Curtis Choy's film Fall of the I-Hotel, but as a college freshman, I had no idea who he was. Currently, the runbutans have four different teams, all named after an important person in Filipino American History. (Also, we're called the runbutans after the tropical fruit rambutan because early Filipino American sports leagues used to name themselves after tropical fruit from the homeland e.g. the mangoes.) The great thing is that the people we honor are not necessarily big-named heroes. Rather, they are the everyday people who make up the intricate details of the fabric of Filipino American history. The four teams are: Vicky Manalo, Wahat Tampao (the first team I ran with), Bullet X Marisigan (my current team) and Tung Yee.

Sadly, I don't know who everyone is. The people we honor are not in history books. They are everyday people who were brave enough to make an indent in history. Mostly, their legacies live in the hearts and minds of the people who were lucky enough to know them or hear about them. My teammate Tzel actually knew Bullet X, a fireball who was mostly known in activist circles in San Francisco. I wish I knew more about the woman whose legacy I honor each time my flat feet hits the pavement. All I do know is that she passed away a few years ago in a sudden car accident. Although I don't know much about Bullet X, I'm glad to know I run in honor of such a phenomenal woman.

If any of you know who these people are, please share their stories here. The most visible one is obviously Vicky Manalo because a park was recently named after her. For those of you who don't know about Vicky, she was a gold medal Olympic diver who had to use her mother's maiden name because she had to hide her Filipino-ness in order to compete. See? That silenced past and a present that is trying to be heard for future generations seems to be the re-occurring theme in Fil-Am history. This kind of pain is why I sit in front of the computer screen filled with tears. It's pride and rage meeting all at once.

Needless to say, the corner of Kearny and Jackson was filled with various degrees of emotion. Although no one has officially moved in yet, seeing the units and imagining the new I-Hotel community was so exciting. This grand opening is long overdue, and we should all be proud to be part of something so special.

There were a lot of senior citizens there experiencing the space, hoping that they would be lucky enough to have a mailbox in the main lobby. Some of the people looking at the units with me were already making plans for what the rooms would look like with their own belongings. Although I don't know specifics, I do know that assignments have not been granted yet. Amidst the chattering, I could hear hope and preparation for disappointment. The lottery list is long and although 104 units is a lot, it's not nearly enough to satisfy the demand for low income senior housing. This brought me back to reality. Although a wonderful victory, the struggle goes on.

A view of the city from one of the corner units.

I was able to take a self-guided tour of the building. The view from the rooftop is amazing. There's a comfy lounge area with benches and tables for residents to spend their days and nights over looking the city. As I was taking pictures of what residents of the new hotel would see everyday, I couldn't believe how much of Manilatown was obliterated. Can you believe that about ten blocks of what is now the financial district used to be a thriving Filipino community? It absolutely blows my mind.

The units are also very nice. There are 104 studio and one-bedroom units total. Each unit has its own bathroom, storage spaces and kitchen. I have to mention this because apparently, the original I-Hotel had communal bathrooms. To the handful of surviving residents who get to live in the new space, this should be a real treat:)

Of course, the location is fantastic. It's in the heart of Chinatown, a block away from the Financial District, and public transportation is nearby. That way, they have access to so much and it's easy for families to visit. I'm sure someone is city hall is bitching and moaning about all the high rent they cannot charge for such prime real estate. I'm also sure we all know what to say to those selfish jerks!

I stayed at the event for about an hour and a half. I went alone and there was only so much I could take. My head was spinning and I really couldn't wait to sort out my thoughts about the day. Also, I had plans with near and dear friends in Berkeley. All in all, it was a beautiful day that marked an awe-inspiring rebirth of something great.

Nikko the hockey player. Brendan the charmer.

The two beautiful children above are my nephews. I don't have kids and don't plan on having them anytime soon. Right now, renting my nephews is just fine because at the end of the day, I get to keep my sanity:) Nikko is an amazing hockey player who will be one of the first (and few) islanders to grace the sport with his coconutty presence. I predict that he is going to one day make islanders all over the world walk a little taller and hold their heads up a little higher (he already makes me do this). Brendan is cute, charming, incredibly funny and full of personality (just like his godmother). Although he hasn't figured out what his aspirations are just yet (except to be the greatest yu-gi-oh player ever lived), he at least knows where his talents lie. The world awaits him and I get front row tickets.

There are now millions of reasons why I run. For me, looking at the faces of these two amazing kids echoes the motto of the Manilatown Running Collective: "For our bayani (heroes), for our community, and for Manilatown and the I-Hotel, we runbutan."


Gladys said...

Thanks for this, J. I'm so glad you blogged about this beautiful experience. I felt like I was there, too (and wish I could have been).

Anonymous said...

Thanks Joanne. I read news articles about the opening. None of them did the event as much justice as your reflections of the day. You're awesome. As you run for heroes, please know that you are one too! Whether its your running, teaching, or writing, continue to rise!