Chinese American mayors overcoming Bay Area’s history of discrimination

When City Administrator Edwin M. Lee became interim mayor of the City by the Bay, San Francisco got much more than just a low-key replacement for Gavin Newsom, who has taken his gelled hair and actress wife to Sacramento.

Lee is the first Asian American mayor of this dense and diverse city, where Asians account for nearly a third of the population and the scars of history run deep. Lee’s ascendance, activists say, is a milestone a long time coming.

And he’s not alone in the Bay Area. Although its Asian American population is half as dense as San Francisco’s — 15% compared with 31% — Oakland beat its flashier counterpart to the punch.

Jean Quan, elected in November and inaugurated eight days before Lee, teasingly says she’s the real thing while her longtime friend is a “placeholder.”


“We’ve been giving San Francisco a bad time,” Quan explained.

Still, when Lee texted Quan that he was saving her a place at his swearing-in ceremony, her response was swift. She would never, she said, miss such a “moment of history.”

History united Lee and Quan long before they became the country’s most prominent Chinese American mayors. Decades ago, they fought together against poverty, discrimination and fear, demons that have long plagued California’s Chinese immigrants.


A happy crowd packed City Hall’s graceful beaux-arts rotunda, elderly Chinese men and women with bright green “Ed Lee” stickers on worn lapels, young attorneys, activists, municipal workers hanging over railings two, three and four stories up.

Cheers rang out and cameras flashed as the frugal, funny and unassuming 58-year-old descended the grand staircase to take the oath of office last week. In the crowd was a proud who’s who of Asian American accomplishment, Northern California style:

A record four members of the Board of Supervisors, all recently elected — President David Chiu, Carmen Chu, Eric Mar, Jane Kim. Assessor-recorder Phil Ting. Public Defender Jeff Adachi. State Sen. Leland Yee. Chinatown power broker Rose Pak.

In the sea of dark suits, Quan, the first Asian American woman to lead a major U.S. city, stood out, resplendent in bright red.


But threaded through the celebration was a deep vein of painful remembrance.

Newsom, now lieutenant governor, reminded the crowd of a sober ceremony in the same spot 17 months earlier, when he announced that the city would apologize officially for its “very shameful past.”

The Gold Rush and hopes for economic opportunity drew thousands of Chinese immigrants to California in the mid 1800s, with most landing in and around San Francisco. Home to the oldest Chinatown in the United States, the city became an incubator for a national wave of anti-Chinese sentiment.

Mayor Andrew Jackson Bryant demanded in 1876 that the Board of Supervisors appoint a commission on the “Chinese problem.” The city appealed to Congress and the president to restrict Chinese immigration. The supervisors imposed fees on Chinese laundries and passed laws prohibiting overcrowding that were enforced only in Chinatown. There were anti-Chinese riots and attacks on Chinese-owned businesses.


Then came the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed by President Arthur in 1882, which effectively halted Chinese immigration for a decade and denied citizenship to Chinese immigrants.

By the turn of the century, the San Francisco Department of Public Health had shuttered all Chinese-owned businesses and quarantined and barricaded Chinatown.

That ugly history is a major reason that it has taken so long for Asian Americans to blossom here politically, said San Francisco State political scientist David Lee, who is not related to the new mayor. Cultural hurdles, low voter registration rates and candidates who ran purely ethnic campaigns also kept Asian representation from growing.

“There were institutional barriers put in place by government to prevent the very thing we’re seeing now, the true political empowerment of this community,” he said.



In 1977, Ed Lee was a young law clerk with the Asian Law Caucus, studying at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall and helping organize tenants at Ping Yuen, a sprawling public housing project in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Ping Yuen’s elevators and hot water heaters regularly broke down. Burned-out light bulbs were not replaced. Security was lax. Complaints to the city housing authority fell on deaf ears. Then a young woman returning home from her garment district job was attacked.

The elevators weren’t working the night someone tried to rape Julia Wong, 17, on an upper floor of the complex whose name means “tranquil garden.” Her assailant threw her over the balcony, but she lived. So he dragged her back upstairs and threw her off again, which killed her, Lee said.


With Lee’s help, tenants waged the first-ever rent strike against the San Francisco Housing Authority. San Francisco’s new mayor remembers draping a banner that announced the action over an upper balcony. After several months, the city agreed to upgrade the facilities.

The residents “came from China and Hong Kong, where the landlord was the ultimate law,” Lee said. “If you cross-eyed them, you were evicted.... We tried to teach them to demand their rights.”

When Lee and Quan met as young activists, tenants’ rights were his forte, labor actions hers. In 1976, San Francisco’s International Hotel was targeted for demolition and both stepped up to organize for the low-income Filipinos who lived there.

“Jean was a firebrand, much more out there than I was,” Lee recalled. “I did legal observing. She was in the street, protesting the evictions.”


Lee became a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, where he helped integrate the San Francisco Fire Department. In 1989, Mayor Art Agnos tapped him as chief investigator to enforce the city’s new whistleblower ordinance.

He has worked for the city of San Francisco ever since — as executive director of the Human Rights Commission, director of city purchasing, head of the Department of Public Works and, most recently, city administrator. He has never aspired to elected office and does not plan to run for mayor in November.

Agnos describes Lee as “charming, self-deprecating and competitive.” Power-broker Pak, who reached Lee when he was on vacation in Hong Kong to try to convince him to take the interim job, says he is both honorable and dedicated.

About nine years ago, Pak and Lee were part of a city delegation to Beijing. The group had toured the Summer Palace and was scheduled to meet with President Jiang Zemin. But Lee, then head of the public works department, was nowhere to be found.


“His wife started to cry....” Pak recounted. “And so we had to look for him.”

He had gone, Pak said, “to study garbage cans.”


Jean Quan was the first member of her extended family to be born in America, but it wasn’t until she got to UC Berkeley that she knew “why I had a sister who I had never seen.”


Like many Chinese immigrants in the Bay Area, Quan’s family had been split apart by the Chinese Exclusion Act. Her great-grandfathers had moved to California in the 1870s to build wine caves in Sonoma County and work on the railroads.

But because of the federal legislation, “they weren’t allowed to bring their families, weren’t allowed to naturalize,” Quan said recently.

When the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed all they had, her paternal great-grandfather and his three Chinese-born sons petitioned to remain in America. Because all records had been destroyed, they claimed citizenship, joining thousands of so-called “paper sons.”

Yet each generation of the early Quan family was forced by the exclusion act to return to China to marry. That’s what her father, George Quan, did in 1920, when he wed May Wong. He returned to California and earned his citizenship after fighting in World War II.


But he was able to bring only his wife to America. Because of the tight immigration restrictions, daughter Lai Oy and son Tai Jue were left behind.

“Thousands and thousands of Chinese American families were split and suffered,” Quan said. The pain of that separation — along with the family’s sacrifices to support her older sister in China — helped turn her into an activist.

Quan, 61, was born a year after her mother arrived in the East Bay suburb of Livermore. She was taunted growing up: “Chung chung Chinaman” and “You’re a Jap!” Her father, who ran a Chinese restaurant, had died of lung cancer by the time she was 5. Her mother worked long restaurant hours and took in piecework from a garment factory.

At Berkeley, Quan marched with Latino and Filipino farmworkers. It was her future husband, Floyd Huen, who introduced her to the Asian American Political Alliance and trained her focus on her own community.


In 1969, the alliance joined with other minority groups to successfully demand ethnic studies programs on campus. Quan was the first to teach a Berkeley class on Asian women.

In the late 1980s, Quan was working as the Service Employees International Union’s first Asian labor organizer. Lee sat on San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission. The friends joined forces to try to improve working conditions for janitors.

These days, “now that we’re both mayors,” Quan said, they can laugh together about their shared history.

And on some issues, she thinks, they’ll probably work together again. She’ll just “pick up the phone and say, ‘Ed, how do we fix this?’”


For now, though, Quan said, she is preparing for the feasts, including Wednesday’s White House dinner for China’s president, to which both Quan and Lee are invited.

“I suspect we will be invited to a lot of joint banquets, because the Chinese community is beside itself with pride,” she said. “I’m learning to be like the queen of England. I hear she only takes one bite of each dish.”