Subscribe to San Francisco Magazine

Mod Lux Feeds

Now Playing

Rose Pak is Winning

For the first time in San Francisco history, the halls of power are dominated by Asian-American leaders, and many of them have one brilliant, tireless, and, according to her enemies, unscrupulous woman to thank.

IT'S 3 P.M. ON A FALL afternoon, and San Francisco's political class has descended on an ornate Chinatown banquet hall to toast the impending nuptials of District 4 supervisor Carmen Chu. The 34-year-old politico navigates the crowd, making small talk and blushing a little from all the attention. But, apologies to the bride-to-be—most of the action centers on the event’s host, Rose Pak, a rotund 64-year-old with a smoker’s cough and a grasp of city politics four decades deep. The Chinatown grande dame is seated at the head table receiving a steady stream of well-wishers: city department heads, business magnates, politicians. Some are allies, some enemies. Some love her, some fear her. But they all come.

Mayor Ed Lee is here, of course. He and Pak have been best friends since the 1970s. There’s Jane Kim, the District 6 supervisor Pak helped elect in 2010, and George Gascón, the district attorney whose office recently dropped its investigation into Mayor Lee’s campaign operation, with which Pak was closely involved. Pak’s old buddy Willie Brown is here, too. A fastidious man in a bespoke suit, the former mayor glides through the crowd, his wingtips not quite touching the ground.

Pak takes the podium. There’s a rich tradition of “Rose Pak on the microphone” stories, tales to be savored over happy-hour drinks and retold during off-the-record talks. This appearance will soon join the canon. Pak starts by saying this about Chu: “Every parent wishes she were their daughter.” But there’s an edge to her voice when she introduces District 3 supervisor David Chiu, who once had a working relationship with Pak but has been in her doghouse since last year’s mayoral race, when he went up against Lee. “It pains me to get the guy up,” she tells the crowd, only half playfully. “But it’s Carmen’s wedding, so I have to. David Chiu, it’s your turn to speak.”

Uneasy laughter from the crowd. How will the supervisor respond?

“Thank you, Rose, for that warm introduction,” Chiu says wryly, and the audience roars with delight. Awkwardness averted.

When Pak returns to the table, she scolds me good-naturedly. “You didn’t eat,” she says, pointing to the plates of untouched chicken wings and egg rolls on the lazy Susan. She fixes me with a mischevious grin. "So, David Chiu squirmed."

 

PAK HAS BEEN general consultant to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce since the 1980s, but the title hardly does her justice. She is a confidante of mayors, a consumate political infighter who can get people hired or fired, and one of the leaders of a Chinatown-based political machine that has helped elect generations of local politicians. Most famously, of course, Pak and Brown engineered Lee’s ascension to the mayoralty in 2010, making him the city’s first Asian American to hold the position.

So these are good days for Rose Pak. But they are also good days for the Asian-American (particularly the Chinese-American) political class. Surveying the local landscape, it’s tempting to say that the community has suddenly reached political maturity. At press time, 4 of the 11 members of the Board of Supervisors were Asian-American, including David Chiu, who has served as board president for the past three years. (The race for a possible fifth spot, for Norman Yee, was still undecided.) Mary Jung is chair of the Democratic County Central Committee, and Sacramento has state senator Leland Yee and assemblyman Phil Ting, who will replace the termed-out Fiona Ma in January. Asian Americans now constitute almost 34 percent of San Francisco’s population (22 percent are of Chinese ancestry) and, for the first time ever, an even higher percentage of its political leadership.

To be sure, plenty of other influencers besides Pak helped make this happen, from Julie Lee on the west side to Marlene Tran in Visitacion Valley, and plenty of Asian-American politicos owe nothing to Pak. Moreover, the Asian-American rise to power didn’t happen overnight. “It’s the result of a lot of foundation-laying and a lot of losing campaigns that laid the bones for the progression of Chinese Americans,” says Malcolm Yeung, deputy director of the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), the nonprofit that provides services for low-income Chinatown and has long been allied with Pak.

But Pak is unquestionably the prime mover behind the power shift. An activist who came of age during the civil rights movement, she has worked all her life for the Chinatown community. A prodigious fundraiser, she turned the Chinese New Year parade into a money-minting juggernaut and kept Chinese Hospital afloat, allowing it to continue serving Chinatown’s poor. Her support for neighborhood nonprofits has aided thousands of low-income immigrants, and, in the 1980s, she was key to preventing developers from tearing down Chinatown’s historic buildings and erecting high-rises.

Pak realized early on that to get ahead, the Chinese-American community needed political power, and she has done much to foster it over the years. In fact, her rise closely parallels the community’s political awakening. Not for nothing do the media describe her as a “power broker,” though she resents the term. “If I were white, they’d call me a civic leader,” she says.