I’m sitting in a meeting room of the InterContinental Hotel, waiting for a press conference to start. As the minutes pass, it becomes clear that I’m the only member of the press who’s coming, so the row of panelists sitting behind the front table go down the line and introduce themselves. The moderator then asks for questions. The room grows silent as everyone looks at me.
I mutter something about not having any questions for the group, and everyone starts to shuffle out as they realize the conference is over. They’re wearing evening gowns and suits (I’m looking slightly less glamorous), as we’re at the annual fundraiser for the Manilatown Heritage Foundation, an organization that seeks to honor Filipino culture and preserve the memory of Manilatown, a 10-block strip of Kearny Street that was San Francisco’s teeming downtown Filipino enclave for much of the 20th century. Their goal tonight is to raise money and honor the work of community leaders, the folks sitting behind the table at the press conference.
It’s a grand event for a place that wasn’t very grand itself; Manilatown in its day was the dense urban landing spot for Filipino men who came to the US to work as laborers, the place where they could get cheap adobo and rooms in residency hotels. But unlike Chinatown on its western border, it never morphed into a tourist attraction, and now it’s long gone. At events like this one, a committed crew of activists and historians keeps Manilatown’s memory alive and tries to translate the story of Manilatown into one that inspires and drives a new generation of leaders.
But my goal here is a little different. I’m on a search, looking for what traces remain when a neighborhood entirely disappears. San Francisco may be a city defined by its neighborhoods, but they are rather amorphous entities, not recognized by the postal service, with ever-shifting borders. They spring up and disappear as circumstances change, like when a new ethnic group enters a city or an economic booms spurs gentrification. When Manilatown vanished, it was because something in the city shifted. I wanted to find out how it was that San Francisco all of a sudden found it could do without Manilatown.
In my hand is a photo of 848 Kearny Street. There’s Tino’s Barber Shop, where Tino, the so-called mayor of Manilatown, reportedly reigned as both stylist and bookie. Next door is Bataan Pool Hall, where a manong (Filipino man) could go for some socializing, and if he wanted some cheap eats he could continue further down the block to the establishment advertising “Bataan Lunch, American Food, Beer & Wine.” I look up from my computer printout and across the street to a neat beige brick building that sits at the same address today.
It’s a sunny day, and I’m standing in what’s now Chinatown, less than a block from Portsmouth Square and surrounded by small Chinese grocery stores and restaurants. But there’s a clue hanging from a signpost that the neighborhood didn’t always look like this. It’s one of those flags that cities often use to define or revitalize business districts, like the Jazz District signs along Fillmore Street. In this case, rather than seeing them over and over again as you walk down the block, there’s only one, hanging at the corner of Kearny and Jackson. The lettering says “Historic Manilatown.”
Right next to that clue is the building I’m looking at, 848 Kearny. It is still the International Hotel, one of several large residency hotels where Filipino workers lived (Tino’s occupied the street level commercial space). Nowadays it functions as low-income senior housing, and a gallery on the ground floor houses an exhibit space and archives of Manilatown history. But for more than 20 years it was a hole in the ground.
At its peak in the 1920s and 1930s, 20,000 Filipino immigrants lived in Manilatown—mostly single men, who couldn’t bring families or own property because of racist immigration laws. They labored in farms outside of the city or found domestic jobs during the off-season, but Manilatown was where they socialized and went to bed every night. By the 1960s, the remaining Manilatown residents were aging, and in 1968, the owner of the International Hotel tried to evict the tenants in order to develop the property for commercial use, sparking a nine-year legal battle. On August 4, 1977, police forcibly evicted 50 residents who refused to leave while thousands of activists of all ages protested outside. The building was razed, but the planned redevelopment never happened, and the lot sat vacant until a few years ago, when the city bought and repurposed the building.
This event scarred on the Filipino community, and it defines the way many think of Manilatown. Evelyn Luluquisen, a Manilatown archivist who I met at the fundraiser told me that in 1977, she was a high school student spending her summer working for a Filipino immigrant services organization in Oakland, and she got a personal account the morning after the raid. “One of the activists who’d stayed all night dramatically swung open the door to the agency and said, ‘It happened.’”
Walking down Kearny Street toward Market, the view changes from Chinese businesses to Financial District staples like bank branches, sandwich shops and a Ralph Lauren store. It’s clear that when Manilatown left this street, stretching from Columbus to Market, the surrounding neighborhoods simply expanded, filling a vacuum. I cross Market Street, leaving old Manilatown but entering what may be its modern-day equivalent. As I stroll along Mission Street in the South of Market neighborhood, I pass Manila Market & Produce, Intra-Manila Restaurant, the Bayanihan Community Center, Arkipelago Philippine Books and Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, and grab a free copy of Philippine News outside of a convenience store.
South of Market has been a landing place for many groups of new immigrants over the years, and the storefronts reflect the modern-day mix of affordable ethnic businesses and service non-profits that dot today’s immigrant enclaves. I head toward New Filipinas for lunch, noting the poster suggesting that I ship a package to Manila for a mere $38.
I was the only customer there on a Saturday at noon, and I had the chicken adobo, a tasty if greasy meal. As I ate, I read about the disastrous floods in the Philippines. South of Market’s gritty streets and single room occupancy hotels make me feel some connection to the old photos I’ve seen of Manilatown.
SOMA is the rare Filipino neighborhood that’s inside city limits; most Filipino enclaves are in suburbs in the South and East Bay. A Yelp reviewer and Manila native who posts frequently about Filipino establishments under the name Aspasia S, told me that Filipino neighborhoods in Daly City, South San Francisco and Vallejo tend to be made up of upper middle class Filipinos who left the Philippines for political reasons after Marcos declared martial law in 1972. If you ask someone for a Filipino restaurant recommendation in the Bay Area, that’s where they’ll usually send you.
But there are a few fresh places to get Filipino food in San Francisco that hit both the low and high ends of the market. Poleng Lounge in NOPA serves Filipino/Asian/California fusion cuisine; Aspasia S. gave it a five-star review. For my part, I headed over to Precita Park as the shadows started to grow long on a Thursday evening, following the tweets of AdoboHobo, a food cart that serves up that most popular of saucy Filipino dishes. For five dollars, I got a paper taco tray filled with rice, adobo sauce and two chicken drumsticks.
As I sat on a wall eating my dinner (delicious, and it went down much more easily than New Filipinas), I could not have been presented with a more idyllic scene in front of me: the sun was setting over the park, dogs and their owners ran up and down the grass, and a Spanish tortilla vendor and vegan baker were setting up their wares next to the AdoboHobo cart. I fended off the advances of dogs of all sizes interested in my meal, and thought about how, even though the setting couldn’t have been more different, what I was eating was probably pretty similar to what the manongs of Manilatown got. I asked Jason Rotairo, AdoboHobo owner, if he’d ever heard of the missing neighborhood.
“No, what’s that?” he said.
Photographs courtesy of Manilatown Heritage Foundation