It’s been two years since San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee died suddenly from a heart attack at 65, yet many are still feeling the impact of his loss.
“I still tear up when I think about Ed, because when you lose someone who made a difference, you can’t help but feel a sense of loss. Not only was he the mayor of San Francisco but he was a friend to the community who had opened his heart and door to us,” says Jane Chin, who got to know him as a board member of the Chinese Historical Society of America.
Chin wanted to do more than grieve, so she took on the role of executive producer for the Historical Society’s documentary titled “Mayor Ed Lee.” The hourlong film tells the story of Lee’s extraordinary life, from his humble beginnings to his years as a civil rights attorney to his election as the first Chinese American mayor of San Francisco.
Emmy-winning broadcaster Rick Quan, who wrote and directed the film, also was devastated by Lee’s death.
“Being Chinese American, I took it extra hard. Asian men have long suffered from negative stereotypes, so I enjoyed telling a story about a man who broke those negative images and became a leader,” says Quan. “Ed was not some tall, buff personality, but he was smart, compassionate, funny and humble. He did not seek office to gain fame or the spotlight, he did it to serve and help the community.”
The documentary features interviews with Lee’s family, friends and colleagues, as well as public figures including Hillary Clinton, former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown and Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry. “He was obviously a big fan but he was very genuine about being around for things that mattered, things that I was involved in, not just on the court but off the court too,” Curry says in the film.
Asian American activist Don Tamaki noted, “"[Lee] becomes mayor of the city of San Francisco, which in the 1800s and early 1900s was virulently anti-Chinese. That’s a great American story.”
Lee’s journey began in Seattle, where he grew up in public housing until his father could move their family of six children to a home in a working-class neighborhood on Beacon Hill. Lee’s parents had immigrated from China and struggled to support them. His father, who served in the U.S. Army during WWII, worked as a cook and his mother as a garment worker.
Lee’s eldest sibling, Manny Lee, shared how Lee was affected by his upbringing. When their father opened his own Chinese American restaurant, serving everything from roast beef to chop suey, the siblings helped out and also witnessed racist attitudes.
“Some of the most derogatory remarks were thrown at us simply because we were Chinese,” recalled Manny. “People would come in and cuss at our father. ... All of us felt bad, including Ed, that Dad had to endure this. But he needed the business.”
When he was a teenager, Ed Lee’s father died of a heart attack, but that made him more determined than ever to make something of himself and help out his family. Lee became senior class president and the first member of his family to graduate from college before earning a law degree from UC Berkeley in 1978.
“He could have gone for a very lucrative job at some big law firm. But instead, he worked at the Asian Law Caucus,” recalls that group’s former executive director, Tamaki. He served with Lee at the first public-interest law firm in the nation representing low-income Asian Pacific Americans, many of whom were immigrants. Lee spent three years there as a law clerk and 10 years as lead attorney litigating housing and employment discrimination cases.
San Francisco‘s Chinatown was a popular tourist destination, but it also was home to one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city. And the problems of the oldest Chinatown in the nation were largely ignored by the politicians. Now, Tamaki says, things are different because Lee helped pioneer “community lawyering.”
“Ed knew how much more effective he would be if he combined his legal advocacy with community organizing, so when the legal case is over, there is a tenants union, a labor union, community institutions in place that will continue fighting to level the playing field, not only in the courts but in every other arena that matters.” Tamaki said Lee “transformed singular legal complaints into social movements that ultimately changed hearts and minds and shifted the balance of power in San Francisco.”
Back then, the Asian Law Caucus, which used to be based only in Oakland, had just opened an office in Chinatown, and relied on Lee to work with the Ping Yuen housing project tenants while he was a law student. It helped that he was fluent in Cantonese, and the tenants trusted him. At the time, the immigrant tenants had been living with high rates of crime and poor services but didn’t want to complain for fear of losing their housing.
The turning point came when a young woman was forced to take the unlit stairs to reach her home because the elevators were broken. She was attacked by a gang, raped and murdered. That act of violence moved the tenants to take action in the form of the Ping Yuen housing strike. Lee organized them and led the first public tenant rent strike in Chinatown. Later he sued the city and won.
While about a third of San Francisco’s population is of Asian descent, for years their voices were largely underrepresented in city politics. But things began to change in the late ’80s, when then-Mayor Art Agnos hired Lee to run a whistleblower program; he went on to head several city departments.
Then in 2011, the Board of Supervisors appointed Lee to serve out the remaining term of Mayor Gavin Newsom, who left to become California’s lieutenant governor. Lee was elected mayor later in 2011 and reelected in 2015. He served as mayor for seven years until his death on Dec. 12, 2017.
There are some touching moments in the film with Lee and his wife and daughters.
The documentary also captures the fun side of Lee, when he helped turn San Francisco into Gotham City for a day to honor a young cancer survivor known as “Batkid.” The world cheered as a brave little boy got to fulfill his wish through Make-a-Wish Greater Bay Area and had the chance to forget about his illness for a day.
Among the speakers at a celebration of Lee’s life at City Hall a few days after his death was then-Lt. Gov. Newsom. In a recent interview, now Gov. Newsom spoke movingly about Lee.
“He broke the mold. He was just an extraordinary human being who wanted to do the right thing,” said Newsom. “Character. Decency. Honor. That’s his legacy. Even his critics, you can disagree with his policies, or his approach, but you can’t disagree with his motivation. There was a purity to his motivation.”
So how did Mayor Lee change the politics of the city and the state?
“He certainly had a profound impact substantively and symbolically, being the first Chinese elected mayor in a city whose history came out of the ashes of the Chinese Exclusion Act — that’s in and of itself remarkable,” reflected Newsom. The federal law, created in 1882, barred Chinese laborers from entering the United States.
Following Lee’s death, then-Board of Supervisors President London Breed became acting mayor, and also spoke at his tribute.
“I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. He did the work and did not always need to get credit for it. He was my go-to person when I needed help with a situation,” recalled Breed recently.
Looking back, she recalled what it was like when Lee became the first Asian American mayor of a major city.
“To see the appreciation from our Chinese community in San Francisco and the pride that they took in having the first Chinese American mayor was really amazing. That feeling was contagious,” Breed noted.
“It was an exciting time for our city and absolutely incredible that he had broken a barrier that had taken far too long to break,” she said, noting that she got the opportunity to do the same thing. Breed is the first African American woman elected mayor of San Francisco.
“Even today, his loss is felt in the city,” she added. “And people are finding new ways to honor him.”
(For more information about the “Mayor Ed Lee” documentary, contact the Chinese Historical Society of America by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (415) 391-1188.)