If ever there was a historical narrative promoting America as the land of opportunity that needed to be rescued from marginalization, Surat to San Francisco: How the Patels from Gujarat Established the Hotel Business in California, 1942–1960 is that story.
Author Mahendra K. Doshi, former journalist and historian, shares the untold account of how the Patels, a clan from Gujarat, India, sought to improve their families’ economic circumstances by exploring opportunities in other countries. Though the early Patels had no plans to settle in America, their travels surreptitiously led them to the U.S., and they stumbled into the hospitality industry.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, this eventually led the Patels to become major players in the American hospitality enterprise and made their last name synonymous with their business.
The Story Begins In The 1920s
Surat to San Francisco opens with a short history of some early Gujaratis and Patels who found their way to America for brief periods but ultimately returned to their homes in India. As early as 1907, Patels traveled to America and other countries seeking financial opportunities to earn and send money home 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 either be deported or find no opportunities for success. All eventually returned to India, but three members of that Bhakta caravan returned more than twenty years later through a legal opportunity.
Much space is devoted to three Patels in particular, Naranji (Nanalal) Patel, Kanji Manchhu Desai, and Bhikhu Bhakta (aka D. Lal), who accidentally discovered the hotel business in California in the 1940s during the period of Japanese internment following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Kanji was positioned to acquire a hotel lease from a Japanese woman who had to leave everything to be interred. This one serendipitous event ultimately paved the way for numerous Patels to acquire hotel leases and ownership in the Bay Area and throughout California.
Journeys Frought With Danger
The narratives of the three “founders” who were to change the tide for Patels is told in great detail. They set out to reach Panama or Trinidad, looking for ways to improve their families’ situations in India. Their journeys were fraught with danger, but their indomitable spirits kept them on course, and they ultimately found their way to America. Their illegal status compounded with language barriers and racial discrimination should have sent them packing. But these three men persevered and stumbled into leasing single room occupancy (SRO) hotels.
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, initially found work on a farm picking fruit for extremely low wages, the only type of work he could find due to his undocumented status.
When he became the lessee of his first SRO, he had the foresight to envision this as a viable income source for any Patels who desired to travel to America. He encouraged many to come, promising to help them establish their own SROs. He created a formula of sorts for success: work in the farms to earn the necessary $2500 to lease an SRO. He set up his first SRO as a place his fellow Patels could stay and eat, often charging them no room and board, until they had earned the downpayment for a hotel of their own.
Four Continents, Eight Countries
Bhikhu Bhakta’s trip 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 took five years. His journey covered four continents, eight countries, and more than twenty cities and included steamers, small boats, trains, buses, and cars. His long and perilous journey often resulted in near starvation, destitution, loneliness, and deprivation.” He also left India without the blessing of his mother, and carried that burden for many years before he was able to return home successful and obtain his mother’s blessing.
These three founders opened opportunities for other Patels to travel from their homeland to America, work as itinerant farmers for a time, and earn the necessary downpayment to lease a hotel. Many came as undocumented or illegal aliens, including the Patels from Trinidad and Panama. Eventually, however, a legal path was made available through the Luce-Cellar Act in 1946. The Act allowed 100 visas to be issued per year to Indians to immigrate. “Over 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 such.”
Kanji Manchhu Desai
If one Patel was responsible for inducing many into the hotel business, it was Kanji Manchhu Desai. He prodded frustrated Patels who could not get jobs to lease hotels by telling them, “There is nothing better here for you. So lease a hotel.” He was chiefly responsible for creating over thirty Patel hoteliers in San Francisco from 1947 to 1955. The book details his moxie.
Also depicted in Surat to San Francisco are the roles women played in the success of the Patel hoteliers. Pioneering women, in most cases wives of the adventuring men, were vital contributors and partners in SRO hotel leasing. Many provided domestic support such as cooking meals, taking care of small children, and performing hotel chores. A few even jointly ran the hotels along with their spouses, taking on management and administrative tasks. These pioneering Patel women contributed immensely to the consolidation and expansion of the hotel business.
The final pages provide biographical information for over thirty pioneering Patel hoteliers, arranged alphabetically, including details on their early lives in India, how they came to America, how they came to lease 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, along with quotes from the spouses and children of these pioneers who are still living. The acknowledgments fill seventeen pages and are representative of all who contributed to the facts and stories Doshi shares.
This book is a tribute to the resolute, unwavering spirits of these individuals who fought against unimaginable odds to create for themselves a place in American society—and history. Their story is a fascinating account of the interwoven nature of community, as these Patels shared resources, gave handshake loans with no provision for payback, and built upon the success of the ones before them. The history needed to be preserved and added to the other timeless stories of those who faced insurmountable odds to achieve success in America. Doshi’s detailed and painstaking recreation of the challenges and triumphs they faced will keep their chronicles alive for generations to come.