"I didn't know much about him before I saw your film.
I really felt afterwards that while your Frank Chin film was about the mind of Asian America,
your Al Robles film was about the SOUL of Asian America."
---Aram Siu Wai Collier
"Curtis Choy's Manilatown Is In The Heart is a lyrical jaunt through the rise
and fall of San Francisco's once-thriving Manilatown. With great
affection, Al Robles serves as our folkloric ferryman, navigating through
the spirits of forgotten manongs. This documentary excavates Filipino
American History in a mosaic of imagery, poetry, and music.
In this precious link to the past, Al explores the single room occupancy
hotels that existed in 1970s San Francisco, and tours Agbayani Village in
central California, home of the grapeworkers' strike. This journey offers
glimpses into the bachelor existence of Filipinos who came in the early
20th century in search of the American Dream, and their contributions in
shaping U.S. history. Although the interviews reveal bitter hardships of
being an immigrant, the Manongs temper that existence with humor and
The demise of the Manong culture culminates in the destruction of the
International Hotel. But through his poetry, Al resurrects the voices,
sounds, and smells of those cast aside by society at the new I-Hotel. And
through his encouragement of young poets, he passes on a legacy of
grace and humility."
I know the things of the Manongs. I know the lives in deep melancholy dreams.
- from "The Struggle of the Manongs" by Al Robles
AL ROBLES, POET LAUREATE OF THE FILIPINO COMMUNITY, chronicler of the history of the Manongs, activist, urban saint and, in Curtis Choy's documentary, a sort of archeologist, sifting through the remains of a slowly fading generation of Filipino elders. The manongs of Manilatown were mostly single men who emigrated to the United States pre-Depression Era seeking riches, but were eventually faced with harsh struggles and humiliation in their new country. Many of these men were bachelors or were forced to leave their loved ones back home. Their story is filled with loneliness and heartache, but at the same time replete with camaraderie, unity and joy. Robles, a dynamic and incomparable oral
historian, guides us through San Francisco's Manilatown, past and present, along the way meeting the manongs that at one time inhabited the long shut down single roomed dwellings of the International Hotel. A restless and idiosyncratic spirit, Robles is a friend and inspiration to many. Firmly entrenched in the
city's rich literary culture, Robles, nevertheless has dedicated his life to the preservation of the history of the manongs as well as starting the Manilatown Senior Center and providing help and support to the elders in the area.
Choy has constructed a lyrical and engaging film, piecing together recent and archival footage. We see priceless footage of Agbayani Village in the 70's where we get a glimpse of Philip Vera Cruz, labor leader and former vice president of the United Farm Workers. There are also archival interviews of the men,
living in the cramped quarters of the International Hotel. Although filled with historical footage, MANILATOWN IS IN THE HEART is not merely a historical document but something of a love poem to a man who has given his heart to a community and it is in his words, Robles' poetry, that the film truly beats
a rhythm to. Much like his presence in the community, his words weave through and envelops the entire film with warmth and generosity.
---Joel Quizon, Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival