From Surat to San Francisco: How the Patels Caught Hospitality – Best Indian American Magazine | San Jose California

If there was ever a historical narrative promoting America as a land of opportunity that needed to be saved from marginalization, From Surat to San Francisco: How the Patels of Gujarat created the California hotel industry, 1942-1960 is this story.

Author Mahendra K. Doshi, a former journalist and historian, shares the untold account of how the Patels, a clan in Gujarat, India, sought to improve the economic status of their families by exploring opportunities in other country. Although the first Patels had no intention of settling in America, their travels surreptitiously brought them to the United States and they fell into the hospitality industry.

Unbeknownst to them at the time, this eventually led to the Patels becoming major players in the American hotel business and made their surname synonymous with their business.

The story begins in the 1920s

Surat in San Francisco opens with a brief history of some of the early Gujaratis and Patels who found their way to America for brief periods but eventually returned home to India. As early as 1907, Patels traveled America and other countries seeking financial opportunities to earn and send money to their families. Many came to attend American universities.

A group of thirteen Patels who knew no English, relying on the buddy system for support, traveled through seven countries from Panama to America in the 1920s, only to be kicked out or find no opportunity of success. All eventually returned to India, but three members of this Bhakta caravan returned more than twenty years later through a legal opportunity.

A large space is devoted to three Patels in particular, Naranji (Nanalal) Patel, Kanji Manchhu Desai and Bhikhu Bhakta (alias D. Lal), who accidentally discovered the hotel business in California in the 1940s during the period of internment Japanese following the attack. on Pearl Harbor. Kanji was in a position to acquire a hotel lease from a Japanese woman who had to leave everything to be buried. This fortuitous event eventually paved the way for many Patels to acquire leases and hotel properties in the Bay Area and throughout California.

Dangerous journeys

The stories of the three “founders” who were to change the course of Patels are told in detail. They set off for Panama or Trinidad, looking for ways to improve the situation of their families in India. Their journeys were fraught with difficulty, but their indomitable spirit kept them on track and they eventually found their way to America. Their illegal status, compounded by language barriers and racial discrimination, should have made them pack up. But these three men persevered and embarked on the rental of hotels in single rooms (SRO).

Naranji Patel was the first to arrive (1922), followed by Kanji Manchhu Desai (1937), whom scholars have dubbed the “Indian Columbus”. Kanji, like many before him, first found work on a fruit-picking farm for extremely low wages, the only type of work he could find due to his undocumented status.

Surah in San Francisco, by Mahendra K. Doshi.

When he became a tenant of his first SRO, he had the foresight to envision this as a viable source of income for any Patels who wanted to travel to America. He encouraged many to come, promising to help them establish their own SROs. He created a sort of formula for success: work on the farms to earn the $2,500 needed to hire an ORS. He created his first SRO as a place where his fellow Patels could stay and eat, often charging them no room or board, until they earned the deposit for a hotel of their own.

Four continents, eight countries

Bhikhu Bhakta’s journey in 1937 was considerably more arduous than any before him. “While Nana [Naranji Patel] reached America in fifteen hours and Kanjibhai in three days, Bhikhu’s search for salvation lasted five years. His journey spanned four continents, eight countries and over twenty cities and included steamships, small boats, trains, buses and cars. His long and perilous journey often ended in near starvation, misery, loneliness and deprivation. He also left India without his mother’s blessing and carried that burden for many years before he was able to successfully return home and gain his mother’s blessing.

These three founders offered other Patels the opportunity to travel from their home country to America, work as traveling farmers for a while, and earn the down payment needed to rent a hotel. Many came as undocumented or illegal aliens, including the Patels from Trinidad and Panama. Eventually, however, a legal route was made available through the Luce-Cellar Act in 1946. The Act authorized the issuance of 100 visas per year for Indians to immigrate. “More than thirty Patels, who emigrated from Surat and came to San Francisco from 1949 to 1953, called themselves ‘lucky lottery visa winners’; their descendants still call them that.

Hoteliers Kanji Manchhu Desai, Nanalal Patel and D. Lal. (Photo courtesy of Mahendra K. Doshi)

Kanji Manchu Desai

If one Patel was responsible for inducing many people into the hospitality industry, it was Kanji Manchhu Desai. He pushed frustrated Patels who couldn’t find jobs renting hotels, telling them: ‘There’s nothing better here for you. So rent a hotel. He was primarily responsible for establishing more than thirty Patel hoteliers in San Francisco from 1947 to 1955. The book details his moxie.

Also represented in Surat in San Francisco are the roles that women have played in the success of hoteliers Patel. Pioneer women, in most cases the wives of adventurous men, were essential contributors and partners in the rental of SRO hotels. Many provided domestic support such as meal preparation, babysitting and hotel chores. A few even jointly managed the hotels with their wives, taking on management and administrative duties. These female pioneers of Patel contributed immensely to the consolidation and expansion of the hotel industry.

Rare Pictures

The final pages provide biographical information on over thirty of Patel’s pioneer hoteliers, listed in alphabetical order, including details of their early lives in India, how they came to America, how they came to rent or own an SRO, and the legacy they left behind. Included are rare photos of as many Patel hoteliers and their families as Doshi could acquire, as well as quotes from the spouses and children of those pioneers who are still living. The acknowledgments fill seventeen pages and are representative of everyone who contributed to the facts and stories shared by Doshi.

This book is a tribute to the resolute and unwavering spirit of these individuals who fought against unimaginable odds to carve out a place for themselves in American society and history. Their story is a fascinating tale of the intertwined nature of the community, as these Patels shared resources, made NSF loans for repayment and built on the success of those who came before them. The story needed to be preserved and added to the other timeless stories of those who faced insurmountable odds to succeed in America. Doshi’s detailed and painstaking recreation of the challenges and triumphs they faced will keep their chronicles alive for generations to come.

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