By Warren Mar.
When I was asked to write up my memories of the International Hotel, I agreed before I really knew what I was getting into. I was not introduced to the I-Hotel as an activist who went there to do political work. That I happened to be around during the eviction night in August of 1977 was as much an accident of where I lived as well as my coming of age during the radical movements of the late ‘60’s and ‘70’s descending on San Francisco.
Warren Mar (front left) at anti-Vietnam War demonstration in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Unity Archives.
I grew up in Chinatown/North Beach less than four blocks from the I-Hotel. My father worked behind the hotel at 53-59 Columbus, which at one time was the largest garment factory in Chinatown. He was one of the last and oldest male garment workers. The industry did not become majority women until immigration laws allowed Chinese families to reunite in the mid 1960’s . Since 1882, Chinese working women were specifically barred. My father was the foreman of this factory and was tasked with training many of the newly-hired women seamstresses in the 1960’s. I started going down to his factory and by extension the I-hotel block when I was about five years old, in the late 1950’s. My brothers and sisters would work at the factory on Sundays to take apart the garments rejected, so the workers could resew them on Monday. It not only gave my siblings and me a chance to earn some pocket change but was one of the first bonding experiences we had with our dad who worked seven days a week. One of my uncles lived in the I-Hotel and other single room occupancy (SRO) hotels in Chinatown.
The International Hotel in 1977. Shot from Kearny St. at Jackson St.
Etta Moon, who would become a famous tenant organizer inside the hotel, worked in my father’s factory for a brief period because her father before her had worked there. Etta was American born, but unlike her more famous brother Him Mark Lai, who was an engineer and later a self-taught historian, Etta suffered from a crippling childhood disability, which meant that her options were limited. Although she spoke perfect English, it was rare for a Chinese American woman to get a job downtown in the 1950’s and 1960’s, especially with an open physical disability.
Etta Moon (lower right) as depicted on the I-Hotel Senior Housing/Manilatown Heritage Center mural with activist Bill Sorro. Mural by Johanna Poethig 2010.
It was also difficult for her family to do an arranged marriage for her, common in those days, so she was put in garment work as a means to fend for herself. Garment work was a terrible industry even during the best of times functioning on pay by piece rate. Due to her disability, Etta’s earnings were meager, and she was disrespected by the abled-bodied workers. She ended up in the I-Hotel. It was affordable and gave her a semblance of autonomy from her family. Her English gave her the ability to integrate with Pilipinos and other non-Chinese tenants. Some of the lonely seaman and retired cannery workers were even able to see past her disability and dated her. In her youth she loved music and to dance, even with a bum leg and crooked spine. This caused more scowls from her judgmental immigrant co-workers, but her work life had a very short span. The I-Hotel became her life.
My long reflections of Etta are not to take away from her heroism at the end of the eviction fight. What I want to convey is that she – like most workers and poor people – are often thrown into circumstances not of their own making. That they rise to fight injustice and work with others to better their lives is often an accident of time and place, but what I’ve learned is that when confronted with terrible obstacles regular people, like Etta, can become s/heroes.
San Francisco Chinatown garment workers in the late 1930s.
My uncle who lived in the hotel was number seven, my father was number three in the paternal hierarchy. His English was better, he worked mostly as a waiter and never married, which meant that financially he should have been better off than my father and some of his older siblings. However, he liked to gamble, drink and womanize. On Kearny Street near the I-Hotel, he got into a fight with some Pilipinos and his skull was cracked. Over a women or gambling debt is the rumor, but we’ll never know. He spent the next 30 years in and out of Napa State Hospital for the insane. When Napa State Hospital closed, he was released to fend for himself with a small disability check. The last few times I saw him, he was still drinking, walking around Chinatown talking gibberish and living in SRO’s.
So, back to me and the I-Hotel. I went into the I-Hotel daily when I was about ten years old. I had an San Francisco Examiner afternoon paper route. The SF Examiner in the early 1960’s was still a Hearst paper and competing with the SF Chronicle over which paper would become the dominant daily. They put out a joint Sunday edition. The I-Hotel and many SRO’s in Chinatown were on my route, as were the Bank of America Building, and some other high rises, which was a nice way for me to see how the other half lived.
The reason that I had quite a few deliveries in the I-Hotel is important because it was always one of the most integrated hotels in Chinatown. Besides Pilipinos, there were always some African American and white tenants. Most were merchant seaman or retired single guys living off meager pensions. There were lots of English speakers and readers at the I-Hotel, therefore I had quite a few deliveries for the SF Examiner. The only other paper delivered daily was Gum San Si Bao (Chinese Times) and although it was much thinner, easier to carry, the rate was much lower, so I learned real early not to work for a Chinese outfit. My friend had that route and those were the two papers that were delivered into the I-Hotel in 1963-64. Not one to hold down a job for long, I did this for about a year.
I would be back in the I-Hotel daily, in 1968-69, first as a participant in the summer youth program, later as the Chair of the Chinatown North Beach Youth Council and a founder of the Chinatown Youth Center. We were the first occupants of the old Hungry I nightclub after it closed. This space would later be occupied by the Chinese Progressive Association, (CPA), until the night of eviction. It was Chinatown youth who rebuilt the basement through the War on Poverty program started by President Johnson in 1967. This space would later become home to CPA. One of my brothers and I were original members of the “team” that worked on some of the old Hungry I nightclub’s remodel under the supervision of a Chinese American contractor. We laid the linoleum tile, hung the sheet rock and shot the foam in the popcorn ceiling. Later the Chinatown North Beach Youth Council rented the storefront, and the Kearny Street front room became the offices of the Chinatown Youth Center, founded by the Youth Council a year later.
The attached SF Chronicle article in 1969 showed the grand opening of the youth center when I was chair of the Youth Council. The year earlier, in October of 1968, the I-Hotel received our first eviction notice. A sheriff posted one on the Jackson St. door of the Youth Council. I remember hearing a commotion outside and came out just in time to rip off the notice, crumple it up and throw it at the guy who was scampering back to his car. I was 16 years old and most of the other guys around me jeering were not much older. We were not political enough to understand why we were resisting the eviction, but we had a healthy disdain for law enforcement and because we had spent all summer working on the basement of the hotel, we felt a kinship to that space. We were tenants of the I-Hotel. The Youth Center was ours. We had built it and felt as much a part of the I-Hotel as the residential tenants upstairs.
Returning to Organize at the I-Hotel:
By 1973-74, I was being drawn into the orbit of I Wor Kuen, (IWK) and the CPA was founded occupying the former offices of the CT/NB Youth Council and the Chinatown Youth Center. The Youth Council fell apart in 1971-72, due to the escalating gang wars in Chinatown. Some of this rivalry was between member groups of the council. The Youth Center moved out of Kearny Street and after the murder of Barry Fong-Torres, its second Director, it became more of a traditional social service non-profit provider, further distancing many street youths from political activism.
The above instability is one of the things that attracted me to IWK. Sadly, some of the community youth, like myself, just could not maintain a long-term commitment to political organizing. If gang feuds did not claim them, prison and drugs were not far off, and the political activism of some middle-class college students which first turned me off, became more of a stabilizing influence. Although I did not meet IWK in Chinatown work, I met them at the phone company, in union work, and by the mid-1970’s I was dating a member and would be recruited within a year.
I returned to Chinatown to work with them in the I-Hotel. For a period of time, I was a housing organizer through the housing committee located in the CPA. The I-Hotel was just one of a few of the SRO’s in which I was an organizer. I also worked on rent strikes at the Goodwill Hotel and the Clayton Hotel, which are now also non-profit hotels run by the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC). These hotels are another example of how, without the Left organizing of IWK/CPA, CCDC would never have had the opportunity to purchase and run these places as low-rent housing, thus building their non-profit organization.
Wahat Tompao, I-Hotel resident, on the street after the previous night’s eviction. Photo by Nancy Wong/Wikimedia Commons.
The Significance of the I-Hotel
The I-Hotel was not only a fight for residential housing but also for community space. Up and down Kearny St. and in the basement of the I-Hotel, there was at one time or another not only our youth center, but an art collective, called the Kearny St. Workshop, Everybody’s Bookstore, a left-wing bookstore, a women’s sewing co-op made up of Chinese garment workers, a legal-aid and draft counseling office, a Korean second-hand store, a Pilipino Restaurant, and more. By the late 1970’s into eviction night, two of the largest left- lead community-based organizations would become the key organizers for the massive blockades on eviction night of 1977: the Chinese Progressive Association which included members of IWK, and the Asian Community Center (ACC) with members from the(Wei Min She and the Revolutionary Union (RU), which later became the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP).
The Tenants Association also had members of Katipunan Ng Mga Demokratikong Pilipino, (KDP) – Union of Democratic Filipinos members an anti-Imperialist group with ties to revolutionaries in the Philippines. KDP was another key leftist organization which played an important role in the anti-eviction work.
There was one major Tenants Association, and but multiple support groups and factions within both the Tenants Association and Support Committee. This was partially due to the disagreements among the Left groups mentioned above, working with the tenants, but there were also real political differences, among the tenants. There were differing view on how to permanently secure the I-Hotel as permanent low-rent housing. The two positions simplified is that one group thought the tenants should buy the hotel with some government funding, and the other thought the government should just take it through eminent domain. We also wanted the government to be responsible for the upkeep and running it as permanent low-cost housing. Both the IWK/CPA and Wei Min She/RU were two of the new left groups that opposed the “Buy-Back” plan. The tenants were divided as well, because many thought the sum for a private buy-back was astronomical and also there had been a lot of deferred maintenance at the hotel and the thought of having the tenants responsible for its upkeep seemed insurmountable at the time. There had already been many volunteer efforts by community and student groups to do upkeep in the nine years during the looming eviction. Many activist did not want the government, especially the city government to have no direct responsibility for low-rent housing.
The I-Hotel Tenants Association. Photo from I-Hotel-sf.org.
The support-committees were all self-supporting with no outside funding. Grants from foundations and the government was unheard of at this time for organizing. Most money came from small pot-luck dinners or parties. It was challenging enough to pay for mimeographed flyers, calling for constant demonstrations, and paint and cloth supplies for the banners and signs. Not a single organizer in any group that I know of was paid. Even the legal work done by lawyers was mostly if not totally pro-bono to stave off the evictions.
I believe every community group, including many of the small businesses, resisted eviction and dislocation as best they could up to and including standing on the barricade on eviction night. Even if some of the small business owners could not stand in front of the barricade and face down the police horses, many went to the public hearings at City Hall to demand government intervention to stop the eviction. This is why the struggle resonated widely throughout the community and eventually city wide.
The barricades and fight for the I-Hotel stopped or at least slowed what we now commonly term gentrification. The Financial District was ready and more than willing to bulldoze Chinatown. Public policies such as the passage of Proposition M, limiting office heights in SF is often attributed to the fight to save the I-Hotel.
Mass demonstration at I-Hotel. Photo courtesy of Unity Archive.
The Role of the Left:
The I Wor Kuen (IWK), Wei Min She (WMS) and Revolutionary Union (RU), and Katipunan Ng Mga Demokratikong Pilipino (KDP) all participated and led various parts of the resistance to save the I-Hotel. Without the Left, I do not believe the I-Hotel could have staved off eviction for nine years. The residential tenants alone would not have had the organization to mobilize for the prolonged legal fight, lobbying at City Hall nor been able to mobilize the thousands of demonstrators to physically block the police from carrying out the eviction. This required that the struggle reach beyond the community, across racial lines and even political differences. It was not uncommon for unions, churches, Japanese American, African American, Latinx and Pilipino based community-organizations and student groups to regularly mobilize demonstrations for the I-Hotel. This breadth and depth of support would not have been possible without the Left’s participation.
August 7, 1977, the night of eviction when the human barricade was captured on film and made famous, was not the first or only barricade. There were in fact dozens of human barricades organized through-out the summer of 1977 when an eviction was threatened but repelled. The other reason I think IWK, WMS and KDP are important in the context of the I-Hotel struggle is that all three groups had a base and sustained work in the Chinese or Pilipino community beyond the I-Hotel and they were around most, if not the entirety, of the eviction period: 1969-1977.
Human barricade at I-Hotel. Photo courtesy of Unity Archives.
The Left not only made the I-Hotel a city-wide issue but also one of the first multi-national struggles for our community. It was on the barricades of the I-Hotel that I first saw white and Black unionist mobilize to support us in Chinatown. It was the first time I saw Black churches including the Nation of Islam come down and support Chinatown. It was the first time I saw gays as a distinct group come down to support us. This example of multi-national unity would have a lasting impact on my own political views and broaden my own acceptance and solidarity with other peoples and their struggles.
Some Reasons the Role of the Left has been erased from the I-Hotel Struggle
If I failed to mention other left groups especially smaller collectives involved in support work, it is because many groups were secretive based on the prevalence of police surveillance and had closed members, who participated in mass work such as the I-Hotel Support Committee incognito. A few activists who were leftist in the 1960’s went on to elected political office or government jobs in the 1980s and 1990s and did not want to be known as having taken positions plotting against police actions or opposing private property, both important stances taken during the I-Hotel struggle. For this reason, they downplayed their own roles, or limited the struggle itself as a fight for “affordable housing”, or only portrayed the tenants as “poor elderly people”. I want to reiterate that the Left was instrumental in the ability of the I-Hotel to resist eviction for nine years and allow for the eventual compromise of non-profit housing being built on the former site.
The original demand of many groups including IWK and WMS was not to have the I-Hotel bought by the tenants – called a “buy-back plan” – but to have the government use eminent domain and take the property and run it as public housing with the existing tenants remaining in place. While some today would decry this as socialism, it was not far-fetched. Many public projects including the building of freeways and major expressways in San Francisco during the early 1960’s was the result of eminent domain, including the beginning gentrification and destruction of the city’s first African American community, the Western Addition. Eminent domain and urban renewal were used to build the six-lane Geary St. Expressway through Japantown and the Western Addition resulting in the dislocation and removal of many Black businesses and residents.
Eviction Night: August 7, 1977
The phone trees were activated again at dusk, on the evening of August 7, 1977. For some reason, activist including members of IWK and CPA knew that this night was going to be real for the evictions. We had been notified by people working around the Hall of Justice that that some form of mobilization by the SF Police Department was taking place. Before nightfall, thousands had already started lining up in front of the I-Hotel in preparation for the human barricades. CPA members nailed two by fours in front of the main doors and started stacking every folding chair or piece of furniture in front of the doors. Other activist in the corresponding organizations entered their storefronts for the same purpose or huddled with the residential tenants upstairs to help keep them company and safe. Some had special assignments such as medical workers to ensure that the elderly tenants would not have medical episodes during the eviction. There were a few volunteers from the Lawyer’s Guild inside with the tenants and a few on the outskirts of the barricades, but when the police decided to march on the hotel, they pushed them aside.
Police charge the human barricade on Aug. 4, 1977. Photo from SF Chronicle.
The actual assault on the Hotel is recorded as 3 a.m. in official records. By then the barricades had been up for hours. It took four hundred SFPD and Sheriffs and an untold number of fire engines to carry out the eviction. The fire department’s ladder trucks were deployed to allow police to invade the hotel by walking right over the human barricades below on to the roof of the hotel. The fire department then helped cut through the roof and the sheriffs and police entered the hotel from above and began going from room to room to move the tenants down to the street level. At the same time the SF Tactical squad in riot gear led by police on horseback charged the human barricades forcing protesters from the front of the hotel to allow police to then break down the doors of the storefronts and the main entrance into the hotel. There were police snipers deployed in some financial district high rises, such as the Holiday Inn Hotel due to a rumor that some community activist would be armed in defense of the hotel. No firearms were ever found in the hotel during the evictions
What the sheriffs did do was break every single toilet in the hotel with sledgehammers, so that the I-Hotel could not be reoccupied, one of their main concerns.
SF Police Dept officers climb up a ladder on Jackson St. to break into the I-Hotel via the roof. Photo by Nancy Wong/Wikimedia Commons.
Post-Eviction and The Fight to Rebuild the International Hotel
After the eviction of the International Hotel, the last private owner moved to have it demolished as soon as possible, still fearing community reoccupation, although the Hotel had been boarded up and fenced off. It was torn down in 1979 and it would remain a one square block hole in the ground for over 20 years. With the community and now the city demanding that only residential housing be built on that block, local politicians finally started appealing for federal and state funding to help rebuild it as low-cost senior housing.
In the mid-90’s a federal HUD grant was given to the Chinatown Community Housing Corporation to build affordable senior housing on that block. But the footprint would never be as large as the former I-Hotel. The land was also parceled out to St. Mary’s Catholic School. Their old school building in Chinatown did not meet seismic safety codes and their partnering with CCDC on the site quieted the more liberal and conservative members of Chinatown for community space, as none of the more radical or progressive organizations or arts groups were ever consulted. With the exception of CPA most of the businesses and community groups did not survive past the eviction and by the time the new I-Hotel held its grand opening on August 26, 2005, twenty eight years after the eviction, CPA was the only community group still in existence. None of the elderly residential tenants lived long enough to be allotted an apartment in the new CCDC building.
I-Hotel Seniors Housing/Manilatown Heritage Center. Photo by D. Millard from Wikimedia Commons.
Author’s bio: Warren Mar was born in SF and raised in the North Beach Chinatown area. He was a member of IWK from 1975 until its dissolution, as the League of Revolutionary Struggle( (LRS), in 1990. During that time, he worked as a community and labor organizer. After the dissolution he remained a labor organizer for the Hotel Workers, the California Nurses and the AFL-CIO, Organizing Institute. He is currently retired and lives in Sonoma County.
One of many demonstrations in front of the I-Hotel. Photo courtesy of Unity Archives.