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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.

Pak’s political enemies—and they are legion—have their own loaded terms to describe her. They see her as a Chinatown “godmother,” ramming through policies that benefit her friends and punish her enemies. They say that she’s corrupt, dictatorial, an all-around nasty piece of work. Even the extent of her power is the subject of much debate in political circles. Sometimes she revels in her notoriety, but mostly she down-plays her influence. “Power,” she likes to say, “is an illusion.” If so, a lot of people can’t take their eyes off the shadow on the wall.

 

A COUPLE OF WEEKS after the banquet, I find myself careering down a steep fairway in a golf cart at the Olympic Club, the old-line, members-only golf course out on the city’s southwestern edge. It’s a rare bluebird day with a light breeze off the ocean—perfect for the charity tournament Pak has organized here for the last 18 years to benefit Chinese Hospital. She has already raised $25 million for the hospital’s rebuilding. Today will bring in another $720,000.

Pak is in the cart ahead with the mayor, who drives hunched over the wheel as if fleeing a bank robbery. At the wheel of my cart is David Ho, a 35-year-old community outreach manager with the CCDC and one of Pak’s closest associates. Periodically, Lee and Pak stop to chat with golfers beerily playing their way through a round. At one stop, Pak yells to a man about to tee off, “Hey, you need a mulligan? We’re selling them for 125 bucks a pop!” She laughs—ahuh-huh-huh-huh, like a muscle car backfiring—and then they’re off again.

By all indications, Pak has always been a larger-than-life character. She was born in northern China, the daughter of a rich businessman. After Mao’s Communist forces drove the Nationalists from power, life became increasingly difficult for her family. In 1951, Pak’s father put her and the rest of the family on a plane full of nuns bound for Hong Kong. The family never heard from him again.

Pak attended Catholic schools, first in Hong Kong and then in Portuguese-run Macao. She was a bright student, learning both English and Portuguese, but even then she was a troublemaker. When she was seven or eight and the papal nuncio came to visit, she put Chinese firecrackers in his incense burner, creating a miniature bomb. “He threw it out the window, he was so scared!” she recalls.

In 1967, Pak won a scholarship to San Francisco College for Women. She wanted to come to the United States to study journalism, and this was one of the only places where she knew people. She arrived to find a Chinatown that was insular, overcrowded, and overwhelmingly poor. “Great place, great food and all of that,” says Mayor Lee, conjuring up the neighborhood of his and Pak’s youth. “But there were all of these poor SROs where people died in their beds.”

Inspired by the civil rights movement, Chinese-American activists, including then–lefty firebrand Ed Lee, began working for their long-marginalized community—and Pak was drawn to the tumult. After getting her master’s in journalism from Columbia University in 1972, she became the first female Asian-American reporter at the Chronicle. It wasn’t always pleasant. One of her editors, for instance, repeatedly called her “cookie.” But it was the start of Pak’s political education. She hung out in the offices of congressmen John and Phil Burton, San Francisco’s foulmouthed kingmakers, peppering them with questions and learning how to swear. “They called everybody under the sun ‘motherfucker,’” she says. “I thought it was a term of endearment.”

As the only Chinese speaker at the Chronicle, Pak became the paper’s go-to person for all things Chinatown. Assigned to cover the Wah Ching, the Chinese youth gang that burst onto the scene in the early 1970s, she called George Woo, a student radical and the gang’s spokesman. Woo, who would go on to teach ethnic studies at SFSU, says that at first he refused to speak with Pak. Then, however, the stories started getting back to him. When gang members tailed Pak’s car to intimidate her, she pulled over and chewed them out, threatening to call the cops. Woo says, “When they told me that, I thought, ‘Hey, that woman I’ll talk to.’”

Pak also got to know the world of the Six Companies, the group of family associations that had controlled most aspects of Chinatown life since its inception, and that of the Tongs, the semi-secret brotherhoods that were often tied to organized crime. By the end of the 1970s, Pak—an outspoken northern-Chinese woman in a society dominated by southern men—knew everyone in Chinatown worth knowing. More important, they knew her.

 

ONE DAY IN 1979, Pak got an SOS call from the head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. The State of California was planning to shut down Chinese Hospital in five days because its facilities were no longer up to code. Thousands of poor, monolingual Chinese Americans would be without a hospital until a new one could be built.

Pak sprang into action, working her political contacts to delay the closure and leaning on her ties with the Six Companies to raise money. It took three years of off-and-on work, but Pak persuaded the state to grandfather in the existing hospital and secure funding for a new one. “Without Rose, this hospital might well be gone,” says James Ho, a hospital board member and former deputy mayor under Art Agnos.