Peeling Back the Layers of Legacy

San Francisco's I-Hotel and Seattle's Wing Luke Asian Museum reincarnate historic sites for new generations.

May 1, 2008

IN THE EARLY 1900s at the intersection of Jackson and Kearny Streets in San Francisco, Filipino men regularly shot pool at Lucky M and got haircuts at Tino's barbershop. These immigrants were new to California, but they found camaraderie on this foreign terrain, which greeted them more often with hostility and prejudice than with open arms. Because of legislation that forbade them from owning land, many lived in single rooms at the International Hotel (or "!-Hotel"), located in the hub of Manilatown, a place they'd come to know as home for well over 50 years.

Around the same time, in Seattle another community was establishing a Chinatown on King Street. In 1910, a group of Chinese men funded construction for the Kong Yick Buildings-where they lived, opened storefronts, raised children and welcomed other Asian immigrants settling in the area. The International District, as it came to be called, is the only enclave in the United States where Americans of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian descent live in one neighborhood.

Made of brick, concrete or wood, these buildings in both cities were not aesthetically remarkable. Their cramped apartments and storefronts deteriorated with age, along with the rest of the neighborhoods. Younger residents departed for the suburbs, and developers replaced the older buildings with modern structuresskyscrapers and shiny boutiques that shadowed and displaced the few remaining residents. What remained was a gaping hole where the I-hotel once stood and deteriorating buildings spanning the length of two city blocks in the International District.

Asian American enclaves are becoming a relic of the past. As suburbia beckons younger generations and corporate encroachment dilutes the vitality of these neighborhoods, preserving these enclaves becomes challenging. Though gentrification can revitalize neighborhoods with physical renovations, increased property values and safer streets, low-income residents are often displaced by wealthier, mostly white residents and corporate businesses, creating dramatic changes in the culture and character of the neighborhood.

But in recent years historic structures like the I-hotel and the East Kong Yick Building have been transformed to suit the new needs of the communities they serve. The I-hotel-rebuilt in 2005-still provides affordable housing for elderly tenants, but now also includes a community center and art gallery space. Though a section of single-unit apartments in the East Kong Yick Building remains, the reconstructed space will function as the Wing Luke Asian Museum, the only national Asian Pacific American museum of its kind. The Manilatown Heritage Foundation (MHF) and the Wing Luke Asian Museum, the nonprofit organizations spearheading these rehabilitation efforts, have not only raised great sums of money to rebuild these spaces, but they're also working hand-in-hand with community members to provide a lasting legacy for future generations of Asian Americans.


Heading west on Kearny Street, the sun's reflection glints from the windows of chic beauty salons and skyscrapers sprouting like grass on cold concrete. Chinatown's throng of restaurants and bright red storefronts soon absorb the borders of the Financial District. At 15 stories tall, the newly rebuilt !-hotel is magnificent, with its large glass windows, a rooftop garden and balconies offering panoramic views of the city.

The luxurious high-rise conceals its violent, bittersweet history. By the late 1960s, the 10 blocks that formed San Francisco's Manilatown had been reduced to one building-the I-hotel. The elderly Filipino immigrant workers (affectionately called "Manongs" or big brothers) who moved into the I-hotel in the 1920s, along with a number of Chinese tenants, were forcibly evicted on August 4, 1977. Several were over 80 years old and had made the I-hotel their home for more than five decades.

Footage of the eviction in Curtis Choy's documentary, The Fall of the I-Hotel, shows police officers on horseback waving batons, pushing through the Manongs and several thousand demonstrators who formed a human barrier by linking arms. "Young people from universities, [those] involved in housing rights and a lot of community organizations banded together across ethnic backgrounds," says Ron Muriera, executive director of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation, who was 17 at the time.

Over nine years, community activists and I-hotel tenants waged battles against the building's owners, who wanted to build a large-scale parking lot on the site. The International hotel Citizens Advisory Committee, formed in 1978, was unable to facilitate an agreement between property owners and !-hotel tenants. The building was razed in the early 1980s, resulting in the eradication of all that was left of Manilatown. As its future was debated, the lot remained vacant for 17 years, until the Archdiocese of San Francisco acquired the lease in 1994 and partnered with the Manila Heritage Foundation, the Chinese Community Development Center and other community organizations to rebuild the I-hotel. Less than 10 years later, construction was completed in 2005.

Today, the Manilatown Heritage Foundation's community center is housed on the ground floor of the I-Hotel, and Muriera stresses that community engagement is integral to the foundation's programs, which consist of themed art exhibits, film nights, book readings and performances for I-Hotel seniors and the broader Asian American community. He said community members had wanted "a space to be able to display their [art] work, do spoken word, play music and make intergenerational collaborations."

Though the foundation's programming focuses on art, Rissa Duque, program coordinator at the Manilatown Heritage Foundation, says, "We didn't want [the center] to just be an art gallery that's inaccessible to working class people. How do you utilize 2,400 square feet to commemorate, preserve and promote the history of what used to be 10 blocks of historic Manilatown?"

The answer was to create a multi-use space that incorporates facets of I-Hotel history into its design. While upright, the moveable wall in the middle of the gallery space serves as a backdrop for a projector screen on film nights, but in one swift motion, the wall opens to reveal an office space with two computers for the seniors' use, and where the center maintains its digital archives. The innovative use of the space-from the performance area's bamboo flooring and the versatile moveable wall, to the wheeled partitions that both display art and act as room dividers-reflects the growing needs of the community. Mostly, Duque says, "We really wanted it to be a space where we could have a dialogue."

Muriera said the evicted Manongs were not only left homeless, but that the "community for them was destroyed. Many of them were heartbroken." The new community center provides a space for tenants to reestablish lost connections. Duque recalls the words of Al Robles, a San Francisco Poet Laureate and former tenant of the original I-Hotel: "If the community's not there, if the spirit's not there, then it's all in vain. I think that we need to be able to understand that being part of this legacy is so much more than putting up art shows."

Muriera points out their legacy wall-glass panels engraved with donors' names, and slabs of original I-Hotel bricks behind them. When MHF launched its capital campaign in 2002, the community invested in the cause. "I did notice that our base, our community, are the ones who give most frequently," Duque says. "They're working class folks who can't afford a drop in the bucket of $100. But they help us with basic programming, keeping the space open, and coming out of pocket to support whatever way they can."

Though the new I-Hotel has been built and the foundation is able to provide a community space for the senior tenants, a deep sadness still lingers. Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the I-Hotel eviction and MHF held festivities to "commemorate" the legacy. "We use the term commemoration to allow folks to know that something really horrendous and bloody happened here 30 years ago," Muriera says. "Our hope is to educate and pass on that history so that it never occurs again in the city, or anywhere else for that matter."


Seattle's International District is quiet in the morning, the air brisk and cool. Dust and grime coats the exteriors of old storefronts that are shut down, and the streets are empty. The neighborhood is struggling to retain its sense of identity as it responds to the pressures of urban development and new generations relocating to the suburbs.

"Our board was inspired by staying here even though they didn't live in the district anymore. It's your sense of history. It's your sense of place. [But] it's hard to sink your own money into something if you don't know how likely it is that the neighborhood is going to thrive," says Beth Takekawa, Wing Luke Asian Museum's executive director.

With construction underway at the historical East Kong Yick Building on King Street, the museum's future home, Takekawa hopes the neighborhood will be revitalized when it opens in fall 2008.

In its 40-year history, the museum grew from humble beginnings in 1967 as a grassroots nonprofit and is now regarded as a significant cultural institution in the Pacific Northwest. Named after Seattle's first Asian American city council member, the Wing Luke Asian Museum's commitment to social justice, civil rights, open housing and historic preservation has been at the core of the museum's vision to preserve and document Asian American history.

The museum faced challenges over the years, including financial hardships and negative perceptions from the museum industry. "There was a strong sentiment that Asian Americans did not have sufficient material to be the subject matter of a museum," says Takekawa. "To say that the focus of this museum is going to be the experience of Asians in this country-that was very controversial back then. But that's not a question anymore."

Wing Luke board and staff realized that they had outgrown their 1,600 square foot space on Seventh Avenue and longefd to expand. They decided on the East Kong Yick Building two blocks away because of the building's historical significance as a home to the first wave of Asian immigrants in Seattle. But as a community organization and a "not a deep pockets place," the museum faced a seemingly impossible undertaking. In order to preserve the building's historical integrity and rehabilitate the space to meet codes and ordinances-especially since it's in an earthquake zone-a significant sum was needed.

The Wing Luke capital campaign-a combined effort of the staff, board and community members-set a goal of $23.2 million to fund construction at the East Kong Yick building and ensure the success of the museum's future. Ending in early 2008, it was a triumph. "Now we have over 1,400 individual donors and we started the campaign with 16 donors-and they were our board at the time," Takekawa says.

Community members gave input on the site's design from the very beginning, which "was somewhat different from what architects are used to because usually they design and we do community outreach," says Takekawa. Sustainability, not only financially speaking, was a concept that community members hoped would be integrated into the design process.

For example, the museum's grand staircase is made from rough wood that came from the East Kong Yick Building's original framing. "We were going to save as much as we can and struggle through the variety of conditions and surprises," said Rick Sundberg, principal architect at Seattle-based Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects.

With natural light beaming in from the rafters, the staircase glows ethereally. "The spirit of the project is to preserve and honor the legacy of our forefathers who came before us, taking a resource they built and breathing life into it," said Wing Luke deputy director for program Cassie Chinn. "The emphasis on gathering places, to have a place to celebrate as well as to talk through issues that our community still faces ... that's very much about this place."

Upstairs, visitors can venture into one of the two light wells in the building, where rows of windows along the two walls of the shaft reflect a luminous burst of light. "This contemporary space [is] intermeshed with the historic fabric of the museum. And then you overlay another layer of all of the artists' installations infused throughout the space too," Chinn remarked.

Storytelling is an important element in the museum's design. There will be an oral history reporting lab and immersion galleries that recreate the stones of tenants. Wing Luke public relations and marketing manager Joann Natalia Aquino adds, "For all of us who believe in the project, we know that this building and the stories and exhibits will outlive most of us."

For more information on these historic spaces, visit and

Writer Patricia Justine Tumang

Patricia Justine Tumang, an editor at Hyphen, is a freelance writer and coeditor of Homelands: Women's Journeys Across Race. Place, and Time (Seal Press 2006).

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