Lee’s Legacy: San Francisco’s first Chinese-American mayor paved the way for future generations

English speakers in San Francisco knew him as Edwin Mah Lee. But to San Francisco’s 144,000 Cantonese speakers he was 李孟賢.

Lee, 65, died early Tuesday morning. While San Francisco at large mourns his passing, the fortunes for The City’s Chinese community, which comprises 35 percent of its 860,000 residents, may shift drastically.

The mayor’s death signifies the loss of the most prominent Chinese-American leader in The City, who was appointed in 2011 as Gavin Newsom left the Mayor’s Office to become lieutenant governor. Lee was then elected mayor in November 2011.

The most likely Chinese mayoral candidate to succeed Lee, Assemblymember David Chiu, will face a starkly more difficult race with the election date shifting from November 2019 to June 2018 in the wake of Lee’s death. Separately, three other local leaders — supervisors Katy Tang, Norman Yee and Sandra Fewer — are Chinese.

Lee’s death has spurred fears both large and small among Chinese community leadership, from a potential loss of The City’s budget for neighborhood services to the loss of permits for traditional New Year shopping.

At the same time, the Chinatown, Visitacion Valley, Sunset, Richmond and Bayview neighborhoods — home to San Francisco’s largest Chinese communities — mourn a historic mayor who lent his ear to their needs, and inspired new Chinese leaders.

Mayor Ed Lee and Rose Pak tour a Central Subway construction site in North Beach in June 2014. (Jessica Christian/2014 S.F. Examiner)


The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s greatly inspired young Ed Lee, according to his former college roommate and colleague, Don Tamaki. Tamaki led the Asian Law Caucus from 1980 to 1983 as executive director, while Lee served as an attorney.

“There was a lot of interest and idealism to change society,” Tamaki told the San Francisco Examiner on Thursday. “We were convinced a few competent people, in the right time and right place, could make a difference.”

Together, Tamaki and Lee attended UC Berkeley School of Law, formerly Boalt Hall, when they started offering legal aid to San Francisco’s Chinatown and Oakland’s Asian communities.

“He was so competent,” since he spoke Cantonese, Tamaki said.

Lee’s personal experience also aided his efforts, according to Tamaki, because, as the “son of a seamstress, he knew how to talk to women living in sweatshop conditions.”

Growing up in public housing prepared Lee to help organize a 1978 rent strike at the Ping Yuen housing project, Tamaki recalled, to fight for better housing conditions. This was one of his first battles alongside Chinatown Community Development Center co-founder Gordon Chin and famous Chinatown community organizer Rose Pak, who died last year.

That friendship would eventually lead Pak to launch the “Run, Ed, Run” campaign that propelled him into The City’s 2011 mayoral election.

“I don’t think he viewed himself as a ‘leader,’” Chin said Thursday, noting that Lee preferred to let the community take point on issues instead.

Still, Chin added, Lee becoming mayor spurred “great pride” in the community.

Ed Lee, second from left, shares a meal with his friends at a Chinatown restaurant in the 1990s. (Courtesy Dorothy Yee)


Chinese immigrants built San Francisco, but the City by the Bay has long nurtured a fraught relationship with its Chinese co-founders. The Chinese Exclusion Act restricted San Francisco immigration in the 1800s, and famous San Francisco politicians, like Mayor James Phelan, historically stoked fears and biases against Chinese San Franciscans.

Even today, historical racist laws reverberate in the Chinese community, Chin said. Though Lee’s ascension to mayor did not mean “all our problems are gone,” he added, it was viewed by the Chinese community as an “historical occasion.”

San Francisco native Cally Wong agreed. Growing up in a Chinese household, she said she was taught to go “the same routes” as a doctor or attorney, and public service wasn’t seen as a desirable job. “No one talked about that around the dinner table,” Wong said.

The first Chinese-American mayor of San Francisco changed that.

“Mayor Lee was a symbol,” Wong said.

Wong is now the director of the API Council, a coalition of some 40 nonprofits serving the nearly 250,000 Asian Pacific Islanders in The City. Chin described Wong as part of the new generation of local Asian leaders rising in the wake of Pak, Lee and himself.

Pius Lee, chair of the Chinatown Neighborhood Association, said Mayor Lee’s prominence stretched internationally, noting his frequent trips to China to establish economic ties.

Local Chinese-language newspapers World Journal and Sing Tao Daily would frequently run photos and details of his China trips for their Chinese-speaking readers.

“San Francisco, USA, is the famous city in eyes of overseas Chinese,” Pius Lee said. “They call it Gam Saan, which means ‘Gold Mountain.’”

Ed Lee, left, and his friends after a game of touch football. Lee was a quarterback known for his strong arm. (Courtesy Dorothy Yee)


Though Mayor Lee was widely known for controversial efforts — like a tax break for the technology sector and and a push to bring the Golden State Warriors’ arena to San Francisco — the beginning of his term in 2011 saw him offer street-level fixes to Chinatown, according to Pius Lee.

For decades, Pius Lee lobbied then-mayors Newsom, Frank Jordan, and Willie Brown for permits to allow merchants to create a “traditional” open-air market on Stockton Street two weeks before Lunar New Year. The mayors said no.

“But Ed Lee granted that permit” for the last six years, Pius Lee said. “He honored and respected Chinese culture.”

The mayor attended banquets hosted by Pius Lee and the Chinese Six Companies, an influential organization representing much of Chinatown’s population. The mayor also recently secured more than $250,000 for merchant assistance after Central Subway construction on Stockton Street faced delays, endangering businesses along the corridor, and offered free graffiti cleanup as well.

The nonprofits represented by the API Council also saw budget increases under Mayor Lee, Wong said. The 40-some organizations in the council provide food, housing, vocational training, after school programs, financial literacy and more, to The City’s vast API community.

Yet Lee did not enjoy uniform support from diverse San Francisco Chinese residents.

“I give him credit for creating public housing, but I’ve criticized him the last [seven] years for not doing enough to preserve housing,” said Chin, who counted Lee as a friend for decades.

Lee also encountered scorn from Chinese neighbors in the Sunset District for crafting legislation for cannabis pot shops in San Francisco.

David Ho, a political consultant who considered Pak a mentor, recalled Pak’s feuds with Mayor Lee toward the end of her life. In particular, Ho said, Pak was disappointed Lee did not appoint more Chinese San Franciscans to influential city commissions.

“We’re wholly unrepresented” in government, Ho said, especially considering 35 percent of San Francisco is Chinese. Ho noted that Mayor Lee did appoint Lee Hsu to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors this year, but made no new Chinese appointments recently to the Planning Commission or Police Commission.

Lee also famously appointed former Supervisor Julie Christensen to represent District 3 when the seat became vacant. District 3 includes Chinatown, though Pak had lobbied him to appoint Cindy Wu, a former planning commissioner who is Chinese.

The mayor’s choice to appoint Christensen “was a dismal failure,” Pak told SF Weekly in 2015. “We were hankering and banking that we get representatives that will represent our interests.”

Pak ultimately backed Supervisor Aaron Peskin in defiance of Mayor Lee, helping Peskin to defeat Christensen at the ballot later that year.

“I think Rose’s disagreements [with Mayor Lee] were magnified” by the media, Ho said. Though they sparred politically, “she adored Ed. She really treated him as her younger brother.”

Phil Chin, chair of the Chinatown Community Development Center Board of Directors, who first met Lee in the 1970s and later worked with him at the Department of Public Works, said Lee often tried to “please everyone” out of an innate sense of duty.

“He always felt indebted,” Chin said. “That’s the way he was hardwired. It’s a very old Chinese style.”

But Ho felt the Chinese community’s expectations may have been unfairly high. “Being the first of anything is hard,” he noted.

Ed Lee and Gordon Chin in Chinatown in November 1994. (Courtesy Dorothy Yee)


Mayor Lee will be missed for his “dad jokes,” his composure and great love of San Francisco, which his supporters reaffirmed this week. However, the Chinese and API community, in particular, fear possible new mayors may not hear their needs as keenly.

“Ed Lee was always there for the community in terms of funding and resources,” Ho said.

It’s an open question whether the rumored candidates for mayor, including Acting Mayor London Breed, will maintain that level of commitment, Wong said.

“Even [Wednesday],” Wong said, members of the API nonprofit community approached her with fears their future funding levels may drop.

“It’s not that we’ve got everything we wanted,” she clarified, but Mayor Lee did listen. Now, she said, “It’s a territory unknown.”

Pius Lee also fears new mayors may not keep an eye on the Chinese community. “We hope our acting mayor will come out and listen to our problems,” he said.

Gordon Chin, however, doesn’t fear this uncertain future. Chinatown and San Francisco’s Chinese communities “survived” more than 150 years without a Chinese-American mayor, he said.

“We should not view the tremendous loss of Ed Lee or Rose Pak as a symbol that those needs … aren’t going to be served anymore,” Chin said. “I would hope The City has learned a lot, perhaps through the high-profile leadership of Rose Pak and Ed Lee.”

Perhaps, he added, Lee’s legacy will be the “empowerment” of the community. “We, as Chinese-Americans, need to be inspired by those examples.”

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