San Francisco's Flipino Cultural District

Getting-To-Know SoMa Pilipinas # 1

The Philippines in SoMa Pilipinas

By MC Canlas (6/11/2017)


The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has unanimously approved a resolution establishing the SoMa Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District in the City and County of San Francisco, and adopted the resolution on April 12, 2016. But what about the name: SoMa Pilipinas?

The first part of the name, “SoMa”, refers to the established name of the neighborhood: SoMa is the accepted shorthand for a relatively large neighborhood in San Francisco located just south of Market Street. The second part of the name, “Pilipinas”, refers to The Philippines itself. The country was named Las Islas Felipinas after King Philip II of Spain, and is now known in English as The Philippines. Its inhabitants are Filipinos, and the official national language is Filipino (Tagalog is just one of the country’s numerous languages).

However, in all Philippine languages, the name and spelling of the country or nation is Pilipinas, with capital P and not F; indeed, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has PH for 2-digit ISO and PHL for 3-digit ISO for Philippines.  

The connection between The Philippines and SoMa Pilipinas is well established in the resolution adopted in April 2016: “Whereas. Filipino immigration patterns to San Francisco are rooted in the conquest and subsequent colonization of the Philippines by the United States in 1898, the American colonial regime in the Philippines from 1899-1946, and ongoing, often unequal and imperialist US-Philippines relations from 1946 to present”

As a cultural heritage district the connection of SoMa Pilipinas to the Philippines is and should be prominently presented in variety of forms and articulations in the boundaries of the district.  The SoMa Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District is bound by 2nd Street to the East, 11th Street to the West, Market Street to the North, and Brannan Street to the South.

The street names after Philippines’ celebrated national heroes and martyrs.

The uniqueness of South of Market and San Francisco relative to other cities with high concentrations of Filipino residents in the United States is the presence of streets named after Filipino national heroes, patriots, and martyrs.

San Francisco is world-famous for its beautiful streets and alleys, and the practice of naming and renaming of streets has a long history in the city. Indeed, the street’s names are prominent bookmarks of its people’s historical and cultural literacy.

  The streets Rizal, Mabini, Lapu-Lapu, Bonifacio, and Tandang Sora are located between 3rd and 4th streets, and between Folsom and Harrison streets.                      

These are the entries for said streets, presented in the book Streets of San Francisco: The Origins of Street and Place Names by Louis K. Louwenstein (2002)

Rizal Street. Jose Rizal y Mercado (1861-1896), “The father of the Philippines,” was a physician and a man of letters. His life and literary works were an inspiration to the Philippine nationalist movement.

Mabini Street. A Filipino theoretician and spokesman for the Philippine Revolution, Mabini wrote the constitution for the short-lived republic which existed in these islands in 1898-99. Prior to 1979 this street was called Alice Street. (Note: The book failed to mention his full name – Apolinario Mabini y Maranan)

Lapu-Lapu Street. In 1521, this Filipino hero’s army repulsed the invasion of the Spanish explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, who was killed when he and his conquistadores landed in the Philippines. The street name was changed in 1979 from Maloney Street to Lapu-lapu in recognition of the growing Filipino community, the area south of Market Street.

Bonifacio Street. Bonifacio was a hero of the Philippine struggle against the Spanish in 1890s. To honor him, the name of one of the three blocks of Shipley Street was changed to Bonifacio Street in 1979.  (Andres Bonifacio was the founder of the revolutionary Katipunan).

Tandang Sora.  Tandang Sora was a hero in the Philippines’ struggle against the Spanish in the 1890s. In 1979, the street name was changed from Lefty O’Doul Lane, which commemorated the San Francisco baseball player. (Tandang Sora was Melchora Aquino de Ramos also known as “Grand Woman of the Revolution.” )

 The memories of the Spanish American War of 1898 and the Philippine American War

Also stated in the April 12 Resolution: “Whereas. According to the 2013 San Francisco Filipino Heritage Addendum to the South of Market Historic Context Statement, the first wave of Filipino immigration to the United States can be traced directly to the Spanish-American War when San Francisco's Presidio served as the principal port of embarkation for soldiers headed to the Philippines.”

At the heart of downtown San Francisco is the Dewey Memorial Tower that commemorates the American victory in the Battle of Manila Bay. In 2002, there was a move to seek the input of the Filipino community in re-interpreting the texts on the Dewey Memorial Tower at the newly opened and redesigned Union Square in downtown San Francisco.              

According to Gray Brechin, author of Imperial San Francisco, the Battle of Manila Bay and the Philippine-American War brought prosperity to San Francisco: “The depression of 1890s had so crippled the city’s economy that many San Francisco merchants had been perilously near failure when Dewey’s ships saved them.”

The Battle of Manila Bay is said to be the cornerstone of US imperialism in the Pacific, heralding the birth of the US as a world power and the 20th century as the American century. Indeed, the war in the Philippines can be considered San Francisco’s second Gold Rush.

To further commemorate the spirit of the Spanish-American War represented by Dewey Memorial Tower, the street now called Maiden Lane -- home to high-end boutiques and art galleries – was called Manila Avenue from 1906 until 1921.

Another connection of SoMa Pilipinas to the Spanish-American War in the Philippines is the Ordonez Gun, a type of coastal artillery piece damaged at Subic Bay in the Philippines by shellfire from the U.S.S. Charleston in September of 1899. Publisher William Randolph Hearst brought the gun to San Francisco around the time of the 1906 earthquake and mounted it in the Columbia Square Park, in the area South of Market.  When the park was converted into Bessie Carmichael Elementary School in 1954, the gun was deemed unsafe for playing school children, and in 1973 the Army acquired it to exhibit at the Presidio.

The centennial marker of Dr. Jose P. Rizal at the Palace Hotel

Another historical landmark in South of Market is the Palace Hotel. During Jose Rizal’s time, the Palace Hotel was newly built and was considered one of the most modern and luxurious hotels in the nation. Rizal stayed at the Palace Hotel, located at 2 New Montgomery at the corner of Market Street, where the marker was installed on December 30, 1996 in commemoration of the first centennial of Rizal’s martyrdom. The marker reads: 

“Dr. Jose Rizal, Philippine National Hero and Martyr, stayed at the Palace Hotel from May 4 to May 6, 1888, in the course of his only visit to the United States.

“Imbued with a superior intellect and an intense love for his country, Dr. Jose Rizal sought to gain freedom for the Filipino people from centuries of Spanish domination through peaceful means. His writings, foremost of which were the novels, “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo”, dared to expose the cancer of colonial rule and agitated for reforms. For this he was arrested, triad and executed by a firing squad on December 30, 1896. With his martyrdom the man of peace fanned the flames of the Revolution of 1896, the first successful uprising in Asia against a western colonial power.”

Caballero de Dimasalang (Dimasalang House /San Lorenzo Center)

Another Rizal-inspired facility is the HUD-funded housing at 50 Rizal Street (between 4th and 3rd Streets, and Harrison and Folsom Streets), originally named Dimasalang House -- Dimas-Alang being the Dr. Jose Rizal’s Masonic name. It was only in the 1990s when the apartment building populated by mostly Filipino seniors was renamed San Lorenzo Ruiz Center.

The Caballero de Dimas-Alang was incorporated as a California non-profit organization on January 22, 1921, and is considered one of the oldest Filipino organization in the United States. Other formations that had roots in the Philippines, particularly inspired by Rizal and Bonifacio, were the Gran Oriente Filipino and the Legionnarios del Trabajo. These three formations were all started in San Francisco.

June is now celebrated as Philippine Independence Month in San Francisco because of two historically significant events in the Philippine nationhood; June 12, 1898, the declaration of Philippine Independence, and June 19, 1861, the birth of the national hero Dr. Jose Rizal.   

The proud history, heritage, and culture of The Philippines is well-embedded in SoMa Pilipinas -- the first and only Filipino Cultural Heritage District in America.