The real political fight in Chinatown

The showdown over the naming of Chinatown Rose Pak Station put Chinatown’s politics on full display at a time when no one, not even the SFMTA, knows when the Central Subway is even going to open.

But the tidal wave of tension and anger that swelled at Tuesday’s SFMTA board meeting is just one manifestation of deeper undercurrents, and a political fight that has been brewing in Chinatown for a long time.

That fight reflects the fundamental identity crisis at the heart of Chinatown, and it is the reason why Rose Pak was and still is, three years after her death, one of the community’s most polarizing figures. It is the push and pull of generations of overseas politics in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan versus the local politics of San Francisco. Pak, who was fluent in Chinese and English, born in China, educated in Hong Kong, Macau and the United States, understood and maneuvered well amidst those conflicts between overseas and local Chinese politics. She was also cunning and strategic. She definitely delivered.

You see, the debate over the naming of the station reflects the division between those in the Chinese community who see Chinatown as a tourist attraction and those see Chinatown as a community hub for all Chinese Americans. The former see Chinatown as they would a fortune cookie: it looks Chinese, but it only exists in the United States and it is mostly a way to either profit by and sell to non-Chinese or grab their attention to showcase political propaganda — sometimes both.

The latter see Chinatown as the place where they live, work and build their community.

The people who live and work in Chinatown saw that Rose Pak worked hard on things that were fundamentally critical to the growth and survival of the local community, and she was able to move people beyond the sometimes unproductive and divisive overseas politics that could derail and tear down progress. The fruits of her labor are evident in the development and improvement of Chinese Hospital, in Ping Yuen and Portsmouth Square, and of course in the Central Subway and even the Chinese New Year Parade; all important infrastructure to the people living and working in Chinatown.

But for the people who use Chinatown as an opportunity for profit or political gains, Rose Pak was a gatekeeper, an obstacle; in fact, probably one of the toughest obstacles they have ever experienced in their lives because she was a fierce fighter.

The week of the station naming showdown was also the same week that, once again, political disputes among the members of the Chinese Six Companies erupted. The debates center over which flag to hang, China or Taiwan, on the walls of Chinese Six Companies’ Hall, or whether to invite the General Counsel of China or Taipei Economic and Cultural Office to their events, or even the interpretation of bylaws and elections that determine the next chairs.

Then there are the worries over city funding to provide programming for the Willie Woo Woo Playground and Clubhouse serving seniors, youth and families living in Chinatown, once it is open again in 2020 after its $13 million renovation. And where is the renovation funding to come from for Portsmouth Square, which is known as the living room for the families crammed into nearby Single Room Occupancy (SRO) buildings? What about permanent affordable housing and resources for those families too? Besides security cameras, will there be, once again, beat cops walking and biking on the streets of Chinatown like when Officer Leon Sorhondo (a.k.a. Gao Low, the Tall Guy) did? And how is the Chinese Hospital operating since its reopening in 2016? Oh and yeah, so when is the Central Subway going to open?

Did I mention that the real political fight in Chinatown continues?

Connie Chan has worked for more than a decade as a communications and policy advisor. In that time she has held positions with the District Attorney’s Office, Recreation and Parks and City College of San Francisco, and has served as a legislative aide to two city supervisors. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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