An Epicenter for Filipino Culture in San Francisco
San Francisco has been the historic port of entry for immigrants from Asia. North of Market Street and next to Chinatown was a community that came to be known as Manilatown, and it was made up mostly of single men often working as migrant laborers and residing in low cost hotels. Urban renewal in the 1950′s and 60′s moved these residents, many of them WWII veterans, to the South of Market area, or SOMA. Manilatown was devastated: Ten full blocks of low-cost housing, restaurants, barber shops, markets, clubs and other businesses that benefited a Filipino community that numbered around 10,000 people were destroyed.
More recent development, including the Moscone Convention Complex and Yerba Buena Center in the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s, once again displaced these older Filipinos as well as younger immigrant families. Even so, there is still a considerable Filipino presence in SOMA. Murals depicting Philippine history and community decorate the SOMA neighborhood walls. Also, nearby streets are named after Filipino heroes – including a street I have walked by many times, called Lapu Lapu, named after a Pilipino warrior that killed Portuguese colonialist Ferdinand Magellan in 1521.
A few blocks away from StoryCorps’ home in San Francisco’s South of Market Neighborhood is the Bayanihan Community Center. Bayanihan is a valued element in Filipino culture that means mutual assistance and mutual caring. The Center exists to strengthen the social, physical, and economic well being of the Filipino American community and the South of Market community with special attention to the underserved segments of the community.
The Bayanihan Center put us in contact with Bindlestiff Studio, and organization that provides the often under-served Filipino American community access to diverse offerings in theatrical productions, music and film festivals, workshops in directing, production, acting, stand-up comedy and writing, as well as a children and youth theater program. The Studio cultivates artists, who reflect and celebrate the diverse values, traditions, and histories of Pilipino and Filipino American cultures, through artistic expression and community engagement.
Last month, I had the pleasure of facilitating a conversation with two representatives from the Studio. In addition to hearing their story I found out about their work in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Filipino community.
According to Allan Manalo and his wife and partner, Joyce Juan-Manalo, it is a part of their Filipino culture for children to be called upon to entertain their families. As youngsters, Joyce recalls hula dancing to Don Ho singing “Tiny Bubbles”. Allan lip-synched the romantic ballads of Lou Rawls.
Allan’s parents wanted him to pursue a professional career as an engineer or computer scientist, but his heart was elsewhere. He claims that he never got over being a ‘ham’ as a child. After a frustrating time of trying to learn computer language, Allan began trying out stand up comedy in San Francisco’s comedy clubs. His family only found out much later about his career change when an article about him appeared in a local Filipino newspaper. The tough audiences and the inevitable and necessary bombing on stage were steps to be endured in developing his standup routine.
A few years later, on his first visit to the Philippines, Allan met Joyce through a mutual friend. She shared his interests in theater and the coffeehouse scene and Allan soon felt Cupid’s arrow. A wedding in Las Vegas followed. They then left on a grueling road trip of performances through 48 states staying in numerous fleabag hotels.
Now together for 16 years Joyce and Allan are still finding magic in the theater and joy in performing. Allan is the artistic director for the community-based performing arts venue in San Francisco, The Bindlestiff Studio, providing a public space to strengthen community ties.