Willie and Rose: How an alliance for the ages shaped SF

How the Mayor and Chinatown activist shaped San Francisco, then and now

In Willie Brown’s world, all things skew political. Even golf.

For years now, Da Mayor has worked diligently to promote Chinese Hospital’s annual golf tournament, coming up next week at San Francisco’s manicured Olympic Club. For the love of sport? The man doesn’t golf. But he did love to win … elections.

To do that in San Francisco, historically, you had to go through Rose Pak. The legendary Chinatown activist was a kingmaker in this town, delivering a cohesive block of Chinese voters that could sway the result in either direction. Willie Brown knew it and cultivated the relationship, for better and worse. Five years after her death, he still co-chairs the golf tournament she started with another former mayor, Ed Lee.

The Examiner sat down with Mayor Brown to discuss Pak’s legacy, the state of political activism in Chinatown and what lies next for the neighborhood’s ties with City Hall. It was a fitting and funny discussion with the ultimate San Francisco icon, just a few months before The City opens up the Central Subway’s Rose Pak station in Chinatown, a project she fought for bitterly after the old Embarcadero Freeway was torn down following the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Rose Pak wanted all roads to lead to Chinatown, benefiting her core constituency. Willie Brown helped her make it happen, leveraging that same constituency to consolidate political power. It was an alliance that shaped San Francisco in many ways, then and now.

Mr. Mayor, you’ve had close ties to Chinatown throughout your career. Rose was in the middle of that. Has there been a leadership vacuum since she passed? It’s been five years.

Nobody has surfaced as the single source, and I’m not sure anybody can ever again surface, because it’s the same way in the Black community. At one time you had probably a coalition of three or four Black leadership (groups). You had the head of the Black religious people, the head of the Black folk for the NAACP Urban League. And then you had those who were the labor people. We don’t have that anymore. You can’t identify a Black leadership group in San Francisco. They don’t exist, period.

Chinatown is currently suffering from the same non-central (structure). We still have the Chinese Chamber (of Commerce), which is good.We have the Chinese nonprofits, two or three of them. And I’m not sure they get along with each other, by the way. But under Rose, everybody was under one because Rose was helping to guide the community away from the divisions, politically, in Chinatown nationwide, or worldwide, into one single source.

What was it about Rose that enabled her to unite people like that? She was known as a pretty tough customer. You clashed with her on a couple different things.

Productivity. That was her strength. You need a job, you got it.

She grasped the understanding of all the rules and regulations, period. She was very careful never to put herself in a position where there would be any allegation that she was doing it for her financial benefit. Rose never, ever had one penny. Used to piss me off. She’d invite me to lunch, and I’d have to pay for it. (Laughs.)

Where’s that leadership now? You said you don’t think it’s going to come back centralized like that?

No, because I think that, as has been the case with ethnic communities, people are transitioning from the kinds of original things that drove decision-making in ethnic communities into a competitive world that makes decisions about everything, period. So you’re not going to get a Chinese majority, the Chinese communications community is fully challenged by the social media world, where are a lot of San Francisco’s Chinese getting their information. They no longer get it from Sing Tao. They no longer get it from those papers.

That’s a seismic shift for San Francisco politics.

Not just here, but all over the country.

Rose was able to deliver significant percentage of the city on election night.

She was always good for somewhere between 20 and 30% of voters. Of all voters.

It sounds like you thought very highly of her. You had a couple of clashes though, no? You two were able to get past that?

Oh, she was giving me more shit than… you kidding me? Oh my, God. Rose was not transactional, except as it relates to Chinese.

Rose helped orchestrate Ed Lee’s ascendancy to the mayorship. And it had to be done without Ed Lee’s consent.

That’s right. He didn’t want to run, right?

No. He didn’t want to do that work. And so Rose had orchestrated all of that, and it had to be on the basis that he wouldn’t run (for election). But Rose’s goal in life was to get a Chinese person elected mayor of San Francisco. She saw the opportunity, and she convinced many of us to help her, and we did. To get (Lee) to replace Newsom.

In a way, her biggest legacy is coming to pass right now. Wouldn’t you say the Central Subway was all Rose? What do you think?

Almost single-handedly Rose. And that was the answer to the disappearance of the freeway to Chinatown. You used to be able to get to Chinatown from all over San Francisco. You’d come off at Washington or Broadway, and you were dumped right into Chinatown. And the Chinese community benefited from being the first off-ramp for driving tourists. Freeway comes down as a result. That’s why Chinese the community split and supported (former Mayor) Frank Jordan. When (former Mayor Art) Agnos allowed that freeway to come down, he got punished for it and Rose led that.

But then, you suddenly had more Chinese in the Bayview then you had Blacks. You had more Chinese in the Richmond than you had white people. So suddenly you needed to figure out how to get Chinese to come back. The way to do that, obviously, was to go underground, hence the Central Subway. Nancy (Pelosi) agreed to do the money for the Central Subway. And that’s how we got it done. But that was Rose. Rose rolled that together.

Let’s bring the conversation to the present day. What’s London Breed’s relationship like with the Chinese community in The City?

She’s slowly but surely improving it. Her appointment of Malcolm Young to the airport commission was a very significant move, because Malcolm is the guy that moves the nonprofits in Chinatown.

But you see many different groups in Chinatown today?

Oh yeah. There’s the artistic group in Chinatown. There is a business group in Chinatown. We got about five different groups in Chinatown. And we no longer have a unified media world in Chinatown. It’s not unified yet.

Nope. It’s not like it was when Rose was alive.

This interview, conducted at John’s Grill in San Francisco, has been edited for brevity and clarity.


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