This epic saga, 626 pages, ten novellas, ten consecutive years, twelve voices, explodes and combines the genres of the political novel, the postmodern historical novel, and the testimonio to imagine San Francisco's I-Hotel as a great, global hub of Asian American culture, art and politics during the decade of the 1970's.
Of all the novellas, I-Migrant is perhaps the most hopeful and heartbreaking, and the narrator, Felix, a Pilipino chef, one of Yamashita's most charming creations. Felix, a teller of tall tales and a character of great wit, describes a utopian world in which the workers unite around his excellent pan-Asian cuisine. "What's the story of the world?" he asks. "Food." (469). Here, a hilarious pig roasting contest begins with Samoans hunting wild boar in Salinas and ends in a huge party under a freeway pass in San Francisco attracting every leftist political faction. All is not pretty, in the world of migrants, however, and Felix himself insists that he was John Steinbeck's cook and the model for the racistly imagined character Lee in East of Eden. Felix also narrates Cesar Chavez's betrayal of Pilipino labor organizers when Chavez accepts a personal invitation from Marcos. Despite betrayals, all the fractured and fractious political organizations band together to save the I-Hotel in a two thousand-person protest; yet, wealth and institutional power win over pan-Asian cooking in the end. The novella closes with Felix, an old man, evicted from the hotel. In the brilliant last scene, he throws up in the gutter outside of the hotel, and imagines losing all the delicious food he has cooked to bring people together until he is only an "empty sack". (511). Watching the dissolution of the dream of the I-Hotel he says, "I never think it can hurt like this." (511)
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice presides over Yamashita's ninth novella, Ai Hotel, which contains seven chapters, each named for a couple, each detailing, in some way, a tragic love. This novella classically links sex with death: there are several female suicides, Hades-like basements and pantries, a death in a hospital and a death in Vietnam. With this novella, Yamashita adds a new dimension to her oeuvre; although the novella contains her signature sensual descriptions of eating and reading, it also contains her most sexually explicit prose to date. The rhythm of the piece is Jazz inspired, and although no love affair ends happily, there is a lot of "Uun uun, ahh ahh ahh" (581) before death intervenes.
Yamashita's final novella, 1977: I-Hotel, her coda, written completely in first person plural, begins with the last radio transmission from the I-Hotel during the conflict between the police and protesters. This chapter honors those who recorded, through sound and video, the brutal eviction of the elderly tenants and the beating of protesters by police. It is perhaps also a celebration of the larger project of giving voice to the people as well as a re-assertion of the I-Hotel as a center for art and culture of the Asian American protest movement. As the collective narrator asserts, "The center of our great uproar was a gigantic organic voice box of our own making; it was our I-Hotel." (603). The second chapter of the last novella is a theorizing of the idea of hotel in the context of urban spaces as a temporary home for those participating in global migrations. The third chapter is a bitter postscript to the politics of the movement. Whereas earlier in the novel, we have seen the way in which the final protest brought the many political factions together; in this chapter we are told that after the protesters are defeated by the police, they turn on each other. While the police watch and laugh, the protesters "ridiculously" and "in frustration" (618) beat each other bloody. The fourth and final chapter is narrated by the "waves of yellow people splashed against American shores." (624) Here, we see the traditional image of Asian American immigrants--passive, hard working, watching the I-Hotel struggle but not wanting to get involved. Ironically, these passive watchers go out to a restaurant to eat rather than protest, and end up in the crossfire of "The Joe boys," a gang on "tong business" (626). The last image of the book is of these passive bystanders running away, invisible to the rest of the world, finally falling into "restless slumber". (626).
The I-Hotel is Professor Yamashita's opus. This 626 page book builds on and coalesces many of her previous obsessions, multiple perspectives, the intercessions of politics, art and culture, global flows, yet as playful as it often is, it is also finally an angry, brilliant call to action, to wake us from our "restless slumber."