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Chinese American mayors overcoming Bay Area's history of discrimination

San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan have long battled poverty, discrimination and fear in the Bay Area. Now, they have opened doors to new political influence.

January 19, 2011|By Maria L. La Ganga and Lee Romney

Reporting from San Francisco — 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.

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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.

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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.

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