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Electric Man: Cultural navigator Hanson Lee charged by people power

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Electrical contractor Hanson Lee works on a circuit breaker box at a home in the Haight on Tuesday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“I just read ‘Season of the Witch,’ said Shanghai-born electrical contractor Hanson Lee, of the history of divergent cultures and politics of The City by author David Talbot.

“I was so moved by the story of the community in the Haight and their job bank,” he said. Lee was referencing the Good Earth Family Commune who took matters of development, police brutality and entrepreneurial small enterprise into their own hands. “Labor banks, exchange of services — they are what makes San Francisco different from other places. It’s so empowering. I wish this kind of thing could happen again.”

Arriving here as a student in 1980, Lee missed the Summer of Love by about 13 years. But having enjoyed a successful career, acquiring a home, a business and raising a family, he’s intent on bringing back the countercultural tradition of pooling resources and exchanging goods and services. I asked Talbot, who lives locally and has written extensively on our unique alternative communities, if he thinks communal services are ripe for reinvention.

“We certainly have the conditions again for these experiments in living and work,” wrote Talbot in an email. “With housing prices soaring in The City and more and more young people frustrated by their robotic work in tech companies, San Francisco is due again for another cultural revolution.”

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Coming of age in China in the 1970s, Lee grew up with a wage and other services guaranteed by his employer. “I worked for the Number 13 Handkerchief Factory,” he said. “The factory would take care of housing, nursery care. The whole city had a set salary.”

Later, he found out there was five years’ worth of products stockpiled and no place to sell them. “Because of the country’s policies, it was mandatory to hire,” Lee said, “so there was none of this, ‘If you stop making money, then you don’t deserve anything.’ That’s a ridiculous concept to me.”

He had indeed learned his electrical trade, but in China’s period of the Cultural Revolution, the possibility of higher education had fallen by the wayside. His father, though an avowed Communist, thought Lee and his brother would benefit from further education.

“My father had 13 brothers and sisters among his father’s three wives, and some of them were here,” he said. “My aunt very generously sponsored us and we lived with her and my grandmother.

“I came here in 1980, quite early for my generation, right after Nixon opened it up,” Lee added. Though Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China in 1972, it took the rest of the decade for diplomatic relations to be fully restored. “When I was young, I never thought about coming to America. Ideologically, America was the No. 1 enemy of Chinese.”

Upon arrival, Lee spoke Shanghai Mandarin dialect. Seeking work in Oakland’s Chinatown, “They told me if I don’t speak Cantonese, they can’t hire me. I convinced the grocer my grandmother spoke Cantonese,” as he picked up the language working at the meat counter.

At night, he took English classes offered at Eastmont Mall.

“That’s where I learned firsthand of urban decay, another foreign concept to me,” Lee said. “In China, the cities only get bigger and bigger. There was no area that could decay. Now, of course, you have shanty towns there, but then, it wasn’t that way.”

Falling in with other international students studying English, Lee eventually earned enough as a butcher to travel to Europe and see places he’d read about as a schoolboy in China. In West Germany, his fellow travelers introduced him to the squatting scene: occupation of abandoned buildings for the purpose of housing people in need.

“I’d never heard the word squatting. I was shocked,” he said. “It showed me that like-minded people could do things. The squatters there got a judge to rule that the electricity couldn’t be turned off. It made me appreciate people getting together, explaining why they do what they do, and it fundamentally changed me quite a bit.”

Returning to the Bay Area to attend City College of San Francisco, he gravitated to the student movement to divest from South Africa: “Again, it demonstrated to me that people working together could make things happen. It’s a very powerful way to think.”

“By the time I got to The City, everyone was saying, ‘You’ve got to get to New York, it’s the place to be.’ So in the late ’80s, I went to NY Technical Institute and stayed there for three years,” he said.

Hanson Lee is collaborating with local leaders to establish an apprenticeship program that helps young adults in San Francisco learn a trade and pursue their calling. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

He found work renovating houses in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for a Chinese contractor: “I remember those times, when Times Square was the worst slum. No one wanted to go there, it was so dangerous. But I sensed injustice,” Lee said. “Because we were electricians all over the city. I literally worked on Walter Cronkite’s apartment and those places on the Upper East Side have separate entrances for the workers … such extremes so close together.”

Lee lived in Spanish Harlem, where his apartment was adjacent to a black church and he could hear a gospel group practicing three or four times a week. “I grew to love the music,” he said. He became a listener of Pacifica radio station WBAI and became better acquainted with jazz.

“New York is jazz mecca, the music is everywhere.” He’d also met the woman he would marry and, after a long tour of China, it was decided San Francisco was a more affordable place than New York for the couple to start their family.

“When I had my first kid, I had this calling to visit a church for the children, maybe bring them to the choir. So I joined Glide,” Lee said, even though then, as now, he identified as an atheist.

“I told the pastor, Douglas Fitch, ‘The singing is great, but the words, I cannot swallow,” he said. “He gave me permission to sing something else and said I could insert self or spirit as needed.”

“After the kids grew out of it, I left it behind, too,” Lee said, though he maintained an interest in black culture and politics, particularly those of the Black Panther Party, which he researched at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library. “I looked at all the film of the Black Panther newspaper. I got interested in their Bay Area history, plus Huey Newton had visited China and met Zhou Enlai and Mao’s wife.

“They were quite in line with Mao’s struggle, and I remember Mao talking of solidarity with the black movement,” he added.

During the height of the foreclosure crisis, Lee worked with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) on housing justice and corporate accountability and became acquainted with Archbishop Franzo Wayne King of the Coltrane Church.

“Hanson has a certain brilliance in terms of the way he’s able to blend in with the black and brown community,” King said.

“I was a product of the Human Rights Commission’s feasibility study on city contract dollars and how to lift up small minority companies,” Lee said. “Because of political togetherness, I was financially rewarded, able to buy my house and warehouse,” as were Lee’s fellow contractors. Building up his business, he went on to lead the Asian American Contractors Association, subcontracted, taught and assisted contractors with their language skills.

When the economy nose-dived, the alliance of workers dissolved, but Lee remained an advocate for the pool of non-union Asian workers and others whom he believed were being discriminated against.

“He is a selfless individual and understands intersections of cultures and the importance of raising consciousness,” King said.

Lee and Archbishop King are in process of collaborating on the creation of the Sustainability School, an apprenticeship program encouraging young adults who wish to remain in The City to learn a trade and to pursue their calling, whether that be contracting, music or another job from an evolving bank of skilled workers willing to train San Franciscans of the future.

Lee’s daughter is among his apprentices and part of the organized ACCE membership taking direct action against unaffordable San Francisco. Their tactics have included showing up at the homes of public officials.

“At five in the morning, banging pots and pans to say, ‘Look, we’ve graduated from university and we can’t even live here. This is ridiculous. What kind of city is this?’” said Lee, who after four decades here says he barely recognizes The City where he put down his roots.

“I remember in the ’90s-2000, we were proud of ourselves for being different from Los Angeles,” he said. “You wouldn’t see so many high rises. It kept our charm and kept everyone happy. You didn’t hear so much about gentrification, or of people who are 100-years-old being kicked out of their apartments. It’s just crazy.

“Mao and Marx always called out to serve the poor, regardless of race,” Lee said. “The Declaration of Independence isn’t too far from that, saying everyone should be equal. We all deserve the right to be happy in life.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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