I Hotel Paperback – 1 Jun 2010
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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."
I grew up in Northern California and attended SF State from the fall of 67 until my graduation in January 1970 (B.A., Music). I now live in South Carolina and just returned from my 45th high school reunion (my first) in Cloverdale, CA. During my visit to Northern CA I visited San Francisco, twice; once with my four sisters and a brother-in-law, and again with a cousin and his son.
This book, which I was reading while traveling, and the visits to SF brought back many memories of challenging, life-changing experiences. I have always valued the impact attending SF State, in the 60s, had on my life. I was present at some of the events aptly described in this book, and while reading I was reminded of what is of value in life.
Ms. Yamashita, thank you for this book and for touching me, profoundly.
Dear Reader, this book is a great gift for yourself.
The residents of the hotel and community activists fought the developer and the city for years to prevent its demise. However, in 1977 the city's police department physically overpowered dozens of protesters and forcibly evicted its remaining residents, who were mostly elderly men who had lived there for decades, and the building was torn down immediately afterward. Ironically, the planned commercial development never took place, and a reincarnation of the I-Hotel for low- and middle-income residents was built on this site in 2005.
Karen Tei Yamashita, a professor of Literature and Creative Writing at UC Santa Cruz, uses the I-Hotel as the basis for this ambitious, sprawling, unique and successful novel about the Asian American civil rights movement, or Yellow Power movement, in San Francisco, Berkeley and other Bay Area cities in the 1960s and 1970s. The book is divided into 10 novellas, and each revolves around mostly fictional characters who are deeply involved in the burgeoning movement, including student protests at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley, the Native American takeover of Alcatraz Island, the efforts of farm workers to earn a decent wage and working conditions, and, of course, the unsuccessful efforts to save the I-Hotel. Yamashita uses a variety of tools to tell these stories, including poetry, portraits, graphic art, and government manuscripts.
Most of these novellas were very well done, and the book's ending was superb. Throughout the book I felt as if I was an observer being pulled along, sometimes breathlessly, from one story and one locale to another, in a whirlwind series of historical and personal narratives by a persistent and passionate guide. At the book's end I was somewhat fatigued, a bit overwhelmed, but ultimately grateful for the journey and what I learned along the way.
The first major idea seen resurfacing throughout the novel is that of rebirth. In "1968" Yamashita uses the voice of a young female narrator. She seems apathetic about the student protests and is having sex in the I-Hotel. While having sex in the hotel she is screaming, "It's time now, baby! Oh yes. The Chinese people have stood up! The Chinese people have stood up" (57). The voice of the narrator seems to be undermining the seriousness of the protests by making a crude sexual joke. However, Yamashita injects a bit of importance in here. The act of having sex is the means through which new life is produced. Thus, by connecting the sexual act with the protests, Yamashita is suggesting that new life is being produced by these protests. In addition, at the end of "1971," the characters Gerald and Sen throw out a bathroom tub called the "iron ox" outside of the window of a building. They decide to restructure the building, which was an old political hub, and make a garden. Yamashita revisits the notion of rebirth here. Gerald and Sen are no longer angry and mad but rather carefree. They are high in this scene, and letting go of the old "iron ox," a symbol of the old establishment, demonstrating how they are throwing out the old and bringing in the new.
The second theme that is very powerful in I Hotel is the differences in staging vs. experiencing. In other words, there is a disjuncture between the "map" and the "territory," where the map is what is publicly staged and the territory is reality. For example, Paul's reality is shoved in his face when finds out that his mother and Chen had had a relationship before she met his father. Paul thought that his story was different. Little did he know that what he thought to be his reality was only a staged reality. His true story and true territory is falling apart. In another instance, Paul tries to stage an Asian American writer, Okada, as the forefather of Asian American literature. However, once he begins to explore Okada's experiences before death, he discovers that what he is portraying Okada as excludes the truth of his struggles. Lastly, Yamashita effectively highlights this disjuncture when she illustrates Edmund's death. The whole chapter with that scene is seen from of a camera lense. This narrative approach immediately distances the reader from the emotional space. The emotional scene is only described as "Edmund's broken glasses can be seen through the viewer... (sound) of gasping and labored breathing" (90). There is no emotional connection with Edmund's death in his death scene. This only highlights that what is publicly staged or portrayed can be so distant from the truth.
Yamashita's novel can be quite intimidating to approach. The chapters seem endless and the voices of the narrator never seem to stop changing. The 600 page novel, however, can become quite engaging. Yamashita's techniques just become gripping. I am very much a fan of a strong storyline. I Hotel challenged my patience, but I ended up enjoying the novel. Although there are several plots and the thread that connects all the chapters is very thin, this book is one of the most memorable novels I've read. When one completes this novel, there is just a lot to think about, and ultimately, that's Yamashita's purpose in this novel: to give the reader the tools to find fragments and pieces of one's history and to have him think about it.