‘I Hotel’ Is the Unheralded Document of a Decade of Asian American Activism

‘I Hotel’ Is the Unheralded Document of a Decade of Asian American Activism

In the Shadow of the I Hotel

Karen Tei Yamashita’s epic tale of San Francisco’s Asian American movement.


Karen Tei Yamashita had worked on her 2010 novel, I Hotel, for close to a decade before she finally figured out how to write the book.

She had long wanted to write a book set during the Asian American movement of the 1960s and ’70s. When she began researching the novel, 30 years had passed since the movement had rocked the San Francisco Bay. Fueled by anti-imperial political movements across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and influenced by assimilationist and exclusionary policies across the United States—not to mention the war in Vietnam—the movement led to a flourishing of art, community activism, and consciousness-raising in the country. In San Francisco, it intersected with the demands of other civil rights groups, from the Black Panthers in Oakland to the Indians of All Tribes movement to reclaim Alcatraz, the United Farmworkers in Salinas, and student activists at Berkeley and San Francisco State.

The Asian American movement had largely taken place in the shadow of the International Hotel along Kearney Street in San Francisco’s bustling Manilatown. For decades, the hotel played home to long-term low-income residents, many of whom were migrant laborers from the Philippines and China who had been brought overseas to build the city, work in its surrounding fields, and cook in its kitchens. A 1968 plan to evict the elderly bachelors who lived there to make room for the “urban renewal” then sweeping San Francisco had galvanized the hotel’s residents into action, and they were quickly joined by Asian American student activists. Together, they successfully staved off the evictions, and the hotel became a hub for the burgeoning movement. But on August 4, 1977, the police fought their way through thousands of protesters, invaded the building, and evicted everyone; the hotel was demolished four years later, and the lot where it had stood remained empty for decades.

Eight years into her project, Yamashita had spent countless hours trawling archives, going to exhibitions and shows, and interviewing more than 150 artists and political organizers. Faced with the abundance of her material, and unsure of where to begin or end the thing, she finally came to a realization: She was going to have to rebuild the hotel. The novel, she thought, had to become a physical as much as metaphorical repository for what had taken place. Yamashita’s husband, an architect, expressed some hesitation when she asked whether he’d show her how to use the design and drafting software AutoCAD; so instead she went home and cut out 10 pieces of cardboard, which she scored and folded into cubes: one for each year leading up to the hotel’s destruction. Each cube was inscribed with precise indicators, one per side—a year paired with a world-historical event, a location in the Bay Area paired with a location abroad, a theme, and three characters, composites from her interviews and her imagination.

She called the writer Micah Perks and announced that she’d finished the book. “I said, ‘Look! There it is! Can you defend my tenure with that?’” Yamashita laughed, recalling the look on her friend and colleague’s face once she came over and saw the boxes adorning Yamashita’s coffee table. “She was just appalled.”

“But I kept setting them up and turning them and looking at them, looking at walls and all of this stuff, and I thought well, if it were Oulipo, they would just turn it in randomly and just write,” she said, speaking to The Nation by telephone. But she soon recognized that she couldn’t do that. The voices of the people she’d interviewed kept coming back, reminding her that the book was not her story alone, but one she shared with an entire generation.

In the end, Yamashita “squished” the boxes, using the outline of a flattened cube to maintain a sense of architecture for the project, which she wrote as 10 linked novellas. The boxes line the inside covers of I Hotel, which has been reissued in a handsome 10th-anniversary edition by Coffee House Press. The book’s republication serves as an emboldening reminder of fiction’s ability to both transmit and embody transformational ideas. I Hotel is the extraordinary testimony of a revolutionary past, an archive whose flattened walls convey what is possible, both in politics and in art.

The novel opens in 1968 with a series of interruptions. A television broadcast of Walter Cronkite’s dispatch from Vietnam in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive is interrupted by a Lunar New Year parade in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which in turn is interrupted, for Paul Lin, one of the book’s many characters, by his father’s heart attack and sudden death: “his dad grabs his heart like it’s been antipersonnel-mined with a BLU-43, what you call dragontooth, like it was waiting there in one of those jungle paths, waiting for someone to put his toe on the de-toe-nator, and boom!” The fireworks and jubilant crowds make it difficult for Paul to hear his father’s last words, words he later replays over and over in his mind, each time hearing something different.

This quick, bold layering of near and far, war and peace, communal joy and personal tragedy, riven with a glimmering spike of uncertainty, sets the stage for the rest of the novel. Again and again, as she moves through the decade, Yamashita places the texture of the characters’ individual lives against a broader historical backdrop. Sometimes, that history is refracted into the jagged strips of day-to-day life; Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination is recorded by the sight of lowered flags, the news that classes at San Francisco State have been canceled, and a brief aside of dialogue: “Eat slowly. Think about your father. And Martin Luther King.” Yet often as not, I Hotel’s characters are witnesses to, and active participants in, momentous events of Bay Area activism, the fabric of fiction woven seamlessly into history.

As a college student and young playwright in Los Angeles, Yamashita had been inspired by the movement, but she left the United States in the mid-’70s and spent close to a decade in Brazil. There, she began to develop the quasi-ethnographic style she puts to such effective use in I Hotel, especially in her first novels, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990) and Brazil-Maru (1992). Nineteen ninety-seven’s The Tropic of Orange—a magical realist romp across Los Angeles and the US-Mexico borderlands—in turn, exhibits a similar scale of ambition in its wide cast of characters and locales.

I Hotel’s scope—not to mention its sheer size, at just over 600 pages—marks it as a project of epic proportions. But the book’s power is in large part derived from the way in which each of the 10 novellas feels self-contained while resonating with the larger story of the historical moment. Yamashita’s characters are not wooden stand-ins meant simply to hit their world-historical marks; they are bristling with life, constantly meeting, talking, striking, cooking, and falling in and out of love, of college, of prison. They discuss jazz, farm work, recipes, cooperatives and sweatshops, mural painting, poetry, folklore, Marxist praxis, bourgeois marriage rites, communist child care, and Imelda Marcos’s shoe collection. In Yamashita’s insistent focus on the (fictional) lives of her varied and polyvocal characters, I Hotel is crammed with detail, with real-life pamphlets, speeches, quotes, and news reports humming and crackling in the background. The whole thing makes for an astonishing, and carefully structured, collage of both local and global movement.

Yamashita matches this multiplicity of viewpoints, locales, and histories with a roving approach to literary style. The familiar third-person point of view of much contemporary fiction is often cast aside in favor of slangy dialogue, gonzo reportage, revolutionary aphorisms, experimental poetry, comic strips, and the not infrequent appearance of a first-person narrator who offers reflections on the unstable nature of storytelling itself.

In the sixth novella, “Int’l Hotel,” three Japanese-American characters armed with massive quantities of rice, Kikkoman shoyu, and Spam travel across the San Francisco bay to support the 1969–71 occupation of Alcatraz by Native activists. The young activists are ferried across the bay by Jack, a Vietnam veteran and a member of the Modoc nation, whose ancestral lands include Tule Lake in northwestern California—a site that the Army used as an internment camp during World War II. As they row toward “the Rock” in a leaky green rowboat named Turtle, Jack tells them the story of his namesake, a warrior who one hundred years earlier had led the Modoc’s doomed fight against the US Army.

It’s the kind of setup that might raise eyebrows in a memoir (or, for that matter, a “realist” novel) of the time period—too perfect, too laden with resonance. Yet I Hotel’s power is derived precisely from Yamashita’s deliberate embrace of everything all at once, the collapse of the fictional with the historical, her insistence on making visible the threads that tie these stories of American dispossession together.

Seven years later, the characters meet again, this time at Tule Lake, where they participate in the 1974 pilgrimage to the site by former detainees and their children. (Brandon Shimoda has written about how the activism of former Tule Lake detainees continues to this day.) At one point, they pile into a green truck named Turtle, a winking allusion to the Native folk tale of Turtle Island, in which the earth is created out of a plug of soil spread on a turtle’s back. Out of displacement and loss, out of the ghostly traces of barbed wire and guard towers—and, more than anything, out of telling new stories—a new world might be born.

Novelists, of course, have been shaping fiction out of history for as long as the novel form has existed. In some ways—not least in its physical heft—I Hotel resembles the ramshackle political novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its dazzling documentary style calls to mind John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy, whose “camera-eye” sought to bring cinematic innovation to the historical novel. Like Dos Passos—and, before him, Stendhal and Tolstoy and all the rest—Yamashita ultimately takes an ambivalent stance on the promises of a revolutionary moment, in the book’s final novella—as in real life—when the hotel is invaded and its residents evicted. Across the street, the movement unravels in “an alphabet soup of punching youth, kicking and pushing, beating out the long years, months, and days of our frustrations, strangling the deep disappointment of our failure.”

As she began her research for the novel, Yamashita quickly realized that for all the cross-cultural ferment taking place in and around the International Hotel, the participants in the movement had little idea of what the others were up to. “The artists were making fun of the activists, and the activists thought that the artists were bourgeois,” she said. Still, she said, despite this, and despite the bitter infighting that took place shortly after the hotel was emptied out, her research—and especially the interviews—came as a “revelation.” When she began the project, all she could see was the failure, the bitter end of the movement. She’d had no idea just how broad—and how deep—the movement’s traces ran. When we spoke, she noted that some of the original International Hotel evictees are still advocating around San Francisco’s notorious housing shortages.

Each chapter in the final novella relates the eviction from a different point of view: protesters and would-be revolutionaries, older Asian Americans who’d left the neighborhood for the suburbs, recently arrived immigrants fearful of arrest. The International Hotel meant something different to each group—and not all of them participated directly in protesting its destruction. Yet each of these chapters is narrated in the first-person-plural voice, an unfolding polyvocal “we” and “our.” The “we” of the novella’s final chapter is one stripped of individuality, spinning out to encompass “every little memory, all the bits and pieces” of what had taken place. After all, while the movement may have burned itself out, the art lives on. If in the end, the movement—just as Yamashita envisioned it in her living room—was the hotel, it is now the novel, a temporary home for those without.

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