Eva Lee with the Chinatown Merchants Association spoke Tuesday at a rally at City Hall for opponents of plans to name the Central Subway’s Chinatown station after Rose Pak. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

New Chinatown station to be named for Rose Pak, but opponents vow to keep fighting

Debate over power broker’s legacy exposes deep rifts in Chinese community

Chinatown’s new subway station will be named for Rose Pak. But it ain’t over yet.

An electoral challenge may yet strip the name from San Francisco’s newest Muni Metro station shortly after it opens, opponents told the San Francisco Examiner.

A representative of the Chinatown Merchants Association, Eva Lee, and retired Judge Quentin Kopp pledged to strip Pak’s name from the station by placing a ballot measure before San Francisco voters, potentially in 2020. Pak’s opponents called her a spy, a fraud, and a “bully.”

But City College Board of Trustees member Ivy Lee also pushed back on the narrative that because Pak made enemies, she did not deserve recognition.

“We need more Rose Paks. We need women who are not afraid to say, ‘I’m not going to smile more, I’m not going to be nice, I’m going to fight like hell to protect my community,’” Lee said.

In the meantime, a 4-3 vote by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors enshrined Pak’s name in city history.

The board had voted on this matter once before in June, but came to a 3-3 stalemate. Those votes were replicated today, save for one difference — the board has a new board member, Steve Heminger, who broke the tie in favor of Pak.

“In her day Rose Pak was a divisive figure, and she remains so today even after he death,” Heminger said, explaining his vote. “If that were the standard, we’d have to tear down half the street signs in San Francisco.”

Ultimately, he said, he wished future generations to “remember who Rose Pak was,” as we do who John Geary was, or Henry Haight. His vote sealed the deal.

SFMTA directors Gwyneth Borden, Art Torres and Malcolm Heinicke joined Heminger in voting aye, lauding Pak and calling for more city recognition for women of color. Directors Cheryl Brinkman, Cristina Rubke and Amanda Eaken voted nay, citing a divided community.

It wasn’t a decision made easily.

Even three years after her death, Pak remains a divisive figure.

She’s either a community organizer or “power broker” for Chinatown, depending on who you ask. Pak famously had the ear of San Francisco’s elite, from mayors to senators to supervisors, and held them to account for her community.

The vote came after more than 300 people spoke in roughly six hours of heated public testimony — both figuratively and literally — as the room’s air conditioning malfunctioned, causing commenters and commissioners alike to visibly sweat as they debated honoring Pak’s legacy.

Not a single person who spoke publicly expressed mild feelings about Pak. Tuesday evening she was lionized as a hero and derided as a villain.

Reverend Norman Fong, the director of the Chinatown Community Development Center nonprofit, a San Francisco native and Galileo High School-alum, told the SFMTA board “my family has been part of Chinatown for more than a hundred years.”

With that in mind, he said, “Rose loved Chinatown and San Francisco.”

But others with their own Chinatown bonafides tore down Pak.

“About 80 percent of people living in Chinatown are my people,” Steve Ball, president of the Chinese Six Companies told the SFMTA board. His organization has protected immigrants locally since San Francisco’s earliest recorded history.

“Rose Pak was not a respectful person in Chinatown,” Ball said. “She’s just a lying piece of garbage.”

Construction on the $1.6 billion Central Subway project that will one day terminate in Chinatown itself has irked residents and merchants. Still, some argued Tuesday it would not exist without Pak, who famously flew to Washington D.C. to help secure $500 million in federal funding for the project.

That project is running two years late, according to a federal monitor, and will likely debut in 2020. That delayed construction has mostly impacted Chinatown itself, angering merchants who recognize they might benefit when it opens, but fear they may see their own shops close before then.

Eva Lee, a Pak opponent representing Chinatown merchants who said she’d float a ballot measure to reverse the SFMTA’s decision around Pak’s name, told the directors, “We want a name that’s easy for our tourists to see.”

Lee and her allies brought a petition with 16,000 signatures, which they say was signed only by San Franciscans, against naming the station for Pak.

Pius Lee, chair of the Chinatown Neighborhood Association, reminded the SFMTA directors that they previously voted to approve a policy saying subway stations and other transportation facilities should be named for places, for clarity’s sake.

Pak’s opponents, who ranged from Chinatown merchants to religious Falun Dafa followers, painted her history as one of service to the People’s Republic of China, which highly placed FBI officials have told Politico was long suspected, but never proven.

Members of Falun Dafa have long faced persecution in China, and they carried much of that ill will over to Pak.

Perhaps most salaciously, opponents of naming the station for Pak also circulated photocopies of social media chats allegedly showing some pro-Pak organizers were offered $25 an hour to get people to show up in support at the SFMTA meeting.

Opponents were unable to confirm who offered the money, and how many people said yes to the offer, if any.

“These tactics for support are not only deplorable but are deceiving the MTA and the public,” said Chun Lee, an opponent of naming the station for Pak.

Those critiques didn’t faze Pak’s many supporters, many of whom publicly stated they were from Chinatown.

They included officials and community leaders from every stripe: From long-time Chinatown advocate Gordon Chin and former San Francisco Police Department Deputy Chief Garret Tom, to former supervisors Jane Kim, David Campos and Christina Olague, to past and present city officials like former planning commissioner Cindy Wu, Port Commissioner Gail Gilman, Rec and Park Commissioner Allan Low and former library commissioner Lonnie Chin.

Anni Chung, executive director of Self Help for the Elderly, said Chineses Hospital, the API Council representing thousands of Asian San Franciscans, and other local institutions owe their existence to Pak.

“Name it the Chinatown Rose Pak Station to remember a Chinese immigrant who has done wonderful work for Chinatown, and dedicated her whole life to fighting for our causes,” Chung said.

Others said it was time for San Francisco to name a city structure for a Chinese woman.

“I guess white men like (George) Moscone or corporations like Chase Bank are OK,” but women of color are ignored, said Queena Chen, from the transportation organization Chinatown TRIP. “Why do corporations get a pass?”

Rev. Arnold Townsend from the San Francisco chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, shook off Pak’s detractors, who described her Tuesday as a “bully.”

“The only people I’ve found that get everyone to agree with them are people who never do anything, or never accomplish anything,” he said.

David Lei, who ran the Chinese New Year Parade from 1977 until about twelve years ago, was one of the few who openly asked for healing between those who loved and hated Pak.

Looking behind him at a room filled with Chinese Americans, Lei told the SFMTA board, “I know most of the people in this room on both sides. I hope we stay friends after this.”

“We need to work together,” he said.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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