Political Winds Shift in S.F.'s Chinatown

Times Staff Writer

Not so long ago, said Taiwanese official Paul Chang, the view of Chinatown from his fifth-floor office window was a comforting sight -- a sea of “blue sky, white sun” Nationalist flags fluttering in the bay breeze.

Today, what Chang sees is mostly red.

Flapping from more than a dozen spires and flagpoles atop the ornate old buildings here, the bold red banner of the People’s Republic of China now dominates the Chinatown skyline alongside the American Stars and Stripes.

The proliferation of red flags does not mean the famous 150-year-old enclave has suddenly embraced communism. But local leaders say the banners do mark a major break with the Taiwan-based Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, which has been an important power broker here for nearly a century.


David Lee, director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee, said the shift is a major victory for the Beijing government in its attempt to win the hearts and minds of the important overseas Chinese community.

“This is the mother charter. This is where all the cultural societies and associations have their headquarters,” Lee said. “Foreign governments see San Francisco Chinatown as a key battleground for overseas Chinese in North America. They recognize that what San Francisco does could set the tone elsewhere.”

At stake in the battle is not only goodwill but also a good deal of money. Overseas Chinese have been major investors in Taiwan and China. Older Chinese honor their ancestors by building schools and restoring old homes in their ancestral villages.

The most recent example of the conversion in San Francisco came when two leaders of the Chinese Six Companies -- the most powerful and important Chinese benevolent society -- broke with tradition and refused to take their oath of office before the Nationalist flag or sing its anthem at the association’s elegant meeting hall, a Qing Dynasty-era building guarded by six stone lions.


When die-hard Nationalists went to court to block the July 3 installation of one of the rebel leaders -- incoming Six Companies President Tony Lok Kwan -- a state judge ruled against them.

The emboldened Kwan then defiantly staged his own inauguration in a local restaurant, where the People’s Republic flag was displayed and Chinese Consul General Peng Keyu was an honored guest. The Taiwanese envoy who traditionally presided over such events was left out in the cold.

“It was like George Bush suddenly deciding he didn’t want to be sworn into office by the Supreme Court chief justice in Washington but preferred to go to Texas instead,” fumed Pak C. Law, 67, a Six Companies board member who was one of those who sued unsuccessfully to keep Kwan from office unless he abided by the old rules.

“Time moves on,” said Kwan, a 64-year-old UC Berkeley-educated engineer who is one of the main instigators of the political shift. Along with fellow Chinatown leader Daniel Hom, Kwan urged the San Francisco cultural institutions to show their support by flying the mainland flag.

By Kwan’s estimate, well over half of the important groups in San Francisco now are on the side of the mainland.

Like most of the older Chinese families here, Kwan hails from the Cantonese-speaking Pearl River delta surrounding modern-day Guangzhou. To him and others, the long association with the Taiwanese nationalists no longer makes as much sense as it did when China was a repressive, closed society.

China, Kwan says, has changed. With a booming economy, it no longer practices orthodox communism. “The government is communist, but only in name,” Kwan said.

But Taiwan has changed too, and that might be even more important to the political shift here.


In 2000, nearly half a century of Nationalist Party rule in Taiwan ended with its defeat in presidential elections by the pro-Taiwan independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headed by President Chen Shui-bian.

Instead of aggressively courting the overseas Chinese population as the Nationalists had before, the DPP concentrated on building a separate Taiwanese identity.

The island government continued to maintain its large Taipei Economic and Cultural Office here, staffed mostly by former Nationalist Party veterans such as Paul Chang.

But the emphasis of the new government had changed.

Almost immediately after taking office, Chen appointed fervent Taiwanese independence supporter Chang Fu-mei as his minister for overseas Chinese affairs.

Chang, a former research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, quickly alienated overseas Chinese leaders by saying that older immigrants from the mainland, such as the majority in San Francisco, were not as important to her policies as overseas Taiwanese were.

Although she later offered an apology to the Chinese Six Companies, whose leaders took offense, the damage had been done.

“The Chen Shui-bian elections,” Chinatown community leader Rose Pak said, “were a deadly blow to the loyalty of overseas Chinese for Taiwan. Before that election, what had galvanized [people] here was the idea of the reunification of Taiwan with China. Then Chen and these people began saying that Taiwanese are not Chinese.”


Other, more subtle, changes began to surface in the community. Several Chinese-language schools stopped using the old Nationalist textbooks that continued to refer to the Chinese communists as “bandits.” Courses were taught with the simplified Chinese characters used on the mainland.

The Chinese consul general and his staff of four overseas Chinese specialists started receiving invitations to benevolent society functions.

The last institutions to convert, Chinatown historian Him Mark Lai said, were the old benevolent associations such as Six Companies. Beginning in the mid-19th century, these regional and clan associations functioned as the Chinese immigrants’ main protectors.

Skillfully courted over the years by the Nationalists, they were also one of the party’s last strongholds.

After the powerful associations are won over, said Lai, it will represent one of the first serious breaks with the Nationalists since modern China’s founding father Dr. Sun Yat-sen made this city one of his bases in the early 20th century.

Sun founded a newspaper here and recruited men from San Francisco’s secret societies, or tongs, as foot soldiers in his revolutionary war against the ruling Manchus.

Even after the Nationalists fled to Taiwan following World War II, the party worked successfully for decades to maintain a political stronghold in San Francisco, the historic headquarters for nearly all of the important Chinese clan and ancestral cultural societies in the United States.

During the Korean War, ties with the Nationalists became even stronger as the community took a strong anti-communist position to distance itself from China’s Red Army soldiers who were fighting against American troops.

Prominent members of the Chinatown community were regularly flown to Taiwan and entertained lavishly by the Nationalist government.

Borrowing a page from the Nationalists, the mainland government has become much more sophisticated and aggressive in its dealings with overseas populations.

The Beijing government launched a program to attract overseas Chinese for visits. Many cities in China opened hotels and other facilities to welcome the foreign visitors. Because the overwhelming majority of Chinese in San Francisco have ancestral villages on the mainland, this gives Beijing a huge advantage.

“We are here to provide assistance when they want to visit China,” said Chinese consulate diplomat Tong Xuejun. Tong, like his other colleagues in the consulate’s overseas office, has learned to speak in the same Cantonese dialect used by most of the San Francisco community.

Rose Pak, the community activist who works as a consultant to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, watches all this with a degree of wariness.

Pak and others here say the squabbling over international alliances distracts the population from more urgent needs here. As the many empty storefronts attest, San Francisco’s Chinatown has suffered economically in recent years. Although Chinese Americans account for more than 20% of the city population, their influence over local politics is not as strong as it might be.

“Over the years, all of us held our noses and did not like what the KMT [Kuomintang] was doing here,” Pak said. “But the new China is doing exactly the same thing. It is all a screwball comedy of errors that doesn’t do a damn thing in advancing our community.”