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.
Lee, 59, came from humble beginnings. Both parents emigrated from southern China; his father was a cook and restaurant manager and his mother a waitress and seamstress. A law graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, he went to work for the San Francisco Asian Law Caucus to advocate for affordable housing and immigrant and tenant rights.
He would then go to City Hall, working for four mayors for 22 years. He was the city administrator when appointed interim mayor in January when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom became California's lieutenant governor.
He dropped his pledge not to run for the office in August, after a string of accomplishments and relentless encouragement from Chinatown powerbrokers and former Democratic mayors Newsom, Willie Brown and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein.
Those accomplishments in office include a balanced budget, a deal to keep tech giant Twitter in town while wooing the America's Cup yacht race to the bay; and a voter-approved public pension overhaul to save the city some $1.3 billion over the next decade.
San Franciscans have always loved their iconic mayors: Feinstein the first woman, Brown the first African-American, Newsom a handsome rock star with presidential ambitions — and now the first elected Asian.
But this time they've gone with a consensus builder who doesn't like the limelight. Lee only stayed a few minutes at his election night party to thank his volunteers, preferring to celebrate quietly with his wife, Anita, and their two college-age daughters.Comment on this story
Short, bespectacled and with a bushy mustache, Lee calls himself a reluctant politician. "The last time I ran for office was high school vice president," he quipped.
Still, he has ambitious plans to invest $9 billion over 10 years to improve infrastructure and create thousands of jobs and to attract more new media and clean energy jobs to an innovation corridor.
Gloria Chan, president and CEO of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, notes that Lee's election is incentive for civic-minded Asians nationwide.
"Victories like Mayor Lee's gives us that extra push — and expands our understanding of what's possible," she said.