Longtime Chinatown community leader Rose Pak, whose influence shaped San Francisco politics for decades, died of natural causes Sunday morning at her home. She was 68.
Stretching back to the first days of San Francisco, few activists have been as impactful as Pak, said several politicians after her death.
Though she never held political office, her legacy is one of numerous wins for the community at large, they said, and especially for the nation’s oldest Chinatown — and the tens of thousands who call it home.
On Sunday morning, Supervisor Aaron Peskin and community organizer David Ho — both longtime friends of Pak — were among the first to arrive at her apartment at Stockton and Jackson streets.
Former Mayor Willie Brown arrived in jeans and a vest, uncharacteristically out of his myriad Wilkes Bashford suits. Peskin put an arm around him and led him upstairs to Pak’s home. By early afternoon, San Francisco Police Department officers stood guard outside her home near a San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office truck.
“It’s no secret Rose has not been well over the last couple of years,” Gordon Chin, a longtime friend of Pak’s and a founder of the Chinatown Community Development Center, told the San Francisco Examiner standing in front of her stoop. “We’re all shocked and heartbroken.”
Pak was born in the Henan Province of China and later fled to Hong Kong, where she grew up. She earned a Master’s in journalism at Columbia University, according to China Daily, and worked as a San Francisco Chronicle reporter in the 1970s.
Later, Pak grew into a community organizer for Chinatown. In that role, news reports have referred to her as a “power broker,” but Pak hated the title, and said it stemmed from racism.
Her numerous accomplishments include raising money to rebuild the San Francisco Chinese Hospital in Chinatown, which was established in 1925, and brokering a deal after the teardown of the Embarcadero Freeway for The City to build Muni’s Central Subway in Chinatown, which is now under construction and slated to open in 2019.
Pak’s way was to “champion for everyone,” said Malcolm Yeung, deputy director of CCDC, for which Pak also consulted.
“Her wisdom guided everyone,” he said, “from senators and mayors to the most blue [collar] of workers.”
Pak was famous as a political kingmaker, and notably kick-started the “Run, Ed, Run” campaign to urge now-Mayor Ed Lee to first jump into the political fray, a historic first.
“It took us 160 years for Chinese-Americans to elect the first Chinese-American mayor,” Pak told the Examiner months ago. She described it as one of her proudest accomplishments.
“Rose and I have been friends for more than 40 years, and I am among a great many people whose lives were touched in a profound, positive way by this extraordinary woman,” Lee said in a statement. “This is a great loss to The City as a whole, and the Chinese community in particular — a community that Rose served, supported and fought for, often fiercely, her entire adult life.”
Pak was known for her biting wit and searing takedowns of her political enemies, often delivered with a strong sense of fun.
As Lee put it, she swore like a sailor, and was tough as nails.
“She took more joy then I think she was actually entitled to,” said former mayor Brown, a longtime friend of Pak.
Pak struggled with an ailing kidney in her final years, and returned in May from a monthslong trip to China where she received a kidney transplant.
In true bombastic Pak style, her first public words upon landing were a warning to her political enemies:
“I dedicate the next five years to taking care of each one of you!” she said.
She recently poked fun at herself on the cover of San Francisco Magazine by posing with a cigar in hand. Before her death, she explained to the Examiner that she smoked a stogie in the Board of Supervisors chambers decades ago to protest the tobacco industry.
Somehow, she said, the image of Pak with a cigar in hand stuck as a local urban legend — despite the fact that she didn’t smoke, nor did she drink alcohol.
One of her favorite places to roast politicians in San Francisco was the annual Chinese New Year Parade, which she organized. She would sit in the bleachers and anyone within earshot would hear her opinions — positive or not — loud and clear.
Longtime media impresario and political watcher Lee Houskeeper said Pak’s power was unique in San Francisco, and never stemmed from personal gain. No one, Houskeeper said, could rally as many people in San Francisco for a political cause as Pak.
She was also a ton of fun, he said.
“Boy, the way she’d rule the roost over the Chinese New Year Parade. If she didn’t like you you’d be the last car and you’d be sharing it with somebody. If she liked you, you’d be walking in front.”
Brown recalled her barbs toward him fondly.
“In the process of being the auctioneer at the golf tournament done every year to raise money for the Chinese Hospital,” he said, “Rose would not hesitate to interrupt me and to tell me how inept I was about trying to get $25,000 out of someone I knew who didn’t have 25 cents!”
Brown spoke to the Examiner while standing outside that same hospital which Pak raised funding to save. He said Pak’s death is “a great, great loss.”
“She cared about people. She cared about the whole city,” he said. “I don’t think I know of anyone else that we’ve lost in this city who was as singly important as Rose.”
And true to that sentiment, up until the end she had a hand on the till of city politics.
The night before her death, she dined at 5A5 Steak Lounge on Jackson Street with Board of Education commissioner Sandra Lee Fewer, who is also a District 1 supervisor candidate, and a close circle of friends.
“Rose was very lively, she was telling a lot of stories about her life. It was a lovely evening,” Fewer said.
Pak ate a ribeye steak, and Fewer said Pak had packed up the leftovers for breakfast.
According to Fewer, at dinner Pak told the tale of her push to build a parking lot on Vallejo Street years ago, which led to a clash with Peskin. Eventually, Pak and Peskin mended fences to ally against Peskin’s opponent, candidate Julie Christensen, in last November’s election.
It was one of many tales she shared of a storied life filled with friends who became foes, foes who became friends, pitched political fights and more, all in the name of defending her community.
Pak’s last night was spent laughing, Fewer said, reflecting on a life well lived.
City Hall will fly its flags at half-staff and be lit in white light in Pak’s honor. Pak’s funeral will tentatively be held Saturday morning at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral on California Street.