High hopes for first Chinese-American mayor in SF

By Beth Duff-brown

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Nov. 12 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

In this photo taken Thursday Nov. 10, 2011, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and his wife Anita Lee greet a lunch crowd during a merchant walk in San Francisco. Bowing deeply and shaking hands with shopkeepers along the streets of Chinatown, San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor understood the significance: These were the people who put him in office, the people for whom he fought when he was a tenants’ rights attorney, and the people who expect more from him than any other mayor before him.

San Francisco Chronicle, Liz Hafalia) MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Bowing deeply and shaking hands with shopkeepers along the streets of Chinatown, San Francisco's newly elected mayor understands the significance: These are the people who put him in office, the people for whom he fought when he was an activist attorney, and the people who expect more of him than any other mayor who came before.

"The community has been waiting for this kind of historic opportunity for many, many decades," Mayor Ed Lee said Thursday as he performed his first duty as the city's first elected Chinese-American head of City Hall. "There have been a lot of sacrifices."

Those sacrifices are steeped in San Francisco history. Chinese- and Japanese-American families have reared generations of assimilated and successful children, but many of their grandparents and great grandparents were once outcast or interned.

Though Asians comprise a third of the city's population, they have traditionally been underrepresented in politics and economics. Beyond the kitsch and chaos of touristy Chinatown, look deeper down the alleys of one of the nation's mostly densely populated neighborhoods and you'll find tenement housing, elderly poor and struggling family businesses.

Lee, who as interim mayor closed a $380 million deficit to balance the city budget this year, pledged during his campaign to invest $5 million in the coming year to help small businesses like those scattered across Chinatown and other distressed neighborhoods. He's also vowed to keep on track the first subway line through the heart of congested Chinatown.

Sandy Tan, owner of An An Hair Salon on Stockton Street, is one of those counting on Lee to keep his promises.

"We think he's the one to revitalize the entire city," she said. "Business is very slow; we are putting all our hopes on him."

She was thrilled when Lee ducked into her beauty salon to wave at astonished women in their curlers and concoctions. "We're so very proud," said Tan. "It's like he's part of the family; one of our own."

Lee is part of the family. He is a member of the politically powerful Lee Family Association, the largest benevolent society in Chinatown, established in the mid-1800s to help other immigrant Lees from China's southern Guangdong province.

And that family helped to seal Lee's victory with high voter turnout last Tuesday.

"It's a milestone; as significant as Obama's election was for African-Americans," said David Lee, director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee. "The only difference is that Chinese-Americans in San Francisco put Ed Lee into office with their votes and their money."

He noted that just over half of Tuesday's vote was by mail-in ballot. Though voter turnout citywide was low, at about 39 percent, nearly 80 percent of the mail-in ballots requested from Chinatown residents were returned.

"So his victory is the community's victory," David Lee said. "You have to realize that Chinatown and the Chinese community have been among the most ostracized and marginalized in the nation. All the Chinese-Americans really want is somebody in City Hall that listens to the community."

Californians welcomed the first Chinese during the Gold Rush, as they stayed to help build railroads and bridges. But when gold became scarce and wages began to fall after the Civil War, many Chinese were forced to take up low-income jobs in the city.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act forced thousands of Chinese to flee to the northeast corner of the city for protection. Half a century later, Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor led to some 120,000 Japanese being sent to internment camps.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere