Chinatown hosts first political power banquet without titan Rose Pak

A couple tells their parents they’re getting married over a well-done steak. A boss in a suit and tie tells his subordinate he’s getting a raise while he slices into a pot roast.

Sometimes, dinner is a stage. And sometimes, the stakes (steaks?) can be high.

So it was on Monday night at the New Asia restaurant in Chinatown, where hundreds gathered under glittering chandeliers to congratulate Ahsha Safai on his inauguration as supervisor of District 11.

Sitting at the tables were not only Chinatown neighbors but also power players from every sector of San Francisco’s political spectrum: Willie Brown, Mayor Ed Lee, activists, lobbyists, politicians and their ilk dined on roast duck and clinked glasses to the newly inducted Safai.

But a long shadow was cast over the dinner, as hosting political banquets in Chinatown was long the province of organizer and political heavyweight Rose Pak, who died last year.

This was the first banquet hosted by Pak’s proteges, David Ho and Malcolm Yeung, since her death.

Yeung is the deputy director for programs at the Chinatown Community Development Center, but Ho serves as an almost “freelance organizer” — and he helped organize Chinese votes to help get Safai elected in District 11. Monday night was his night.

On the outside, Ho’s stocky exterior shook with laughter throughout the banquet, much like his mentor, just a year ago in the same restaurant.

But to On Guard, he admitted some worry.

“Hopefully, I didn’t embarrass Ms. Pak today,” Ho told me at his table.

Chinatown community organizer David Ho sits at a banquet he organized for new Supervisor Ahsha Safai at New Asia restaurant in Chinatown on Monday night. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/S.F. Examiner

Though the dinner started a bit late, the true measure of the banquet’s success was not in the presentation or even the food (though it was delicious). The power players jockeying between tables is where the evening’s measure lies.

Pak enjoyed that game, of course — but only to the benefit of her community.

Political tugging, genuflecting and ardent dealmaking were on full display between sips of seafood egg flower soup, much to the night’s success.

New supervisors Jeff Sheehy and Sandra Fewer were in attendance, as were Assessor Recorder Carmen Chu, local Democratic Party Chair Cindy Wu, City Administrator Naomi Kelly, assemblymembers Phil Ting and David Chiu and a bevy of planning commissioners.

Tan Chow, a senior organizer at CCDC, slipped deftly between diners taking temperature of the room, while political players mingled.

Irishmen from the Residential Builders Association traded laughs with Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards. The Community Tenants Association’s mere presence radiated organizing power, and lobbyist David Noyola clutched his baby to his chest while speaking to all the right people.

The most obvious marking of territory came when District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin reminded Safai that Chinatown is in his district — and the true focus of power in San Francisco.

And, yes, “I stayed out of your race. My word was good,” he reminded Safai.

Perhaps this was a call-out to a future favor owed, as Safai belongs to a Democrat faction in opposition to Peskin’s progressives. Then again, it’s equally likely that by staying neutral in Safai’s race, Peskin was returning favors to Ho, who, along with Pak, helped Peskin win Chinatown’s vote in 2015.

If Peskin offered subtle challenge to Safai, slick Willie Brown hoisted him up.

On stage, Brown told the supervisors present they should make Safai the “housing cat” to tackle building affordable housing in San Francisco. He said he was “really impressed” by the number of elected officials who showed up for Safai’s banquet, perhaps a signal of his clout.

Ho agreed somewhat. “To be blunt, Ahsha is the swing vote on this board,” he told me.

But Ho said the bevy of officials and community organizers were there to hold Ahsha accountable, as well.

Ho first attended one of Rose Pak’s political banquets in 1998, at the long gone Four Seas Restaurant on Grant Avenue in Chinatown. It was through that dinner, and many others, that he learned her ways.

First off, invite everyone, even if you disagree with them.

“It doesn’t mean you have to treat them nicely — or politely!” Ho said, with a grin. And Pak knew “every nook and cranny” in the community, he said.

Bringing Safai to Chinatown, then, is also about educating him on every nook and cranny important to Chinese voters.

In that, Ho will no doubt mirror his mentor and hold Safai accountable.

Now, will someone pass the walnut prawns?

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Malcolm Yeung. Yeung is deputy director for programs at the Chinatown Community Development Center.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at Facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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