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Lunch With the Lees

Talking family, politics, and a changing Chinatown with Mr. and Mrs. Mayor.

Anita and Ed Lee

Anita and Ed Lee 


Editor's Note: San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee died at 65 last night. Here's a wide ranging conversation he had with him and his wife Anita in April 2015.

On the first day of the Year of the Ram, the First Couple of San Francisco—and the first Chinese Americans ever to be granted that lofty title—duck into City View dim sum restaurant on the eastern edge of Chinatown. Ed and Anita Lee, who met cute in a language-exchange program in her hometown of Hong Kong in 1974 (“He didn’t know Cantonese until I taught him—now he’s very good!”), glide more or less unnoticed through the crowded dining room. Even here in Chinatown—where Ed Lee earned his activist stripes as a tenants’ lawyer in the early ’80s, and where his appointment to the mayor’s seat in 2011 was treated as a community coronation—the Lees’ presence barely moves the celebrity needle.

Though their profiles remain absurdly low, 2015 is shaping up to be an auspicious year for the son of a cook and a seamstress from Guangdong Province and his media-shy wife. The mayor is up for reelection in November, and, thus far, his path to a second term appears untroubled. He faces no serious opposition, having scared away the biggest potential threat, state senator Mark Leno, last November—and he’s raising just-in-case money at a furious clip. Even a recent dustup with longtime allies in Chinatown over an unpopular Board of Supervisors appointment seems unlikely to derail the Ed Lee Express.

So, understandably, the Lees are in a buoyant mood on this sunny New Year’s Day as they share dim sum and conversation with San Francisco editor-in-chief Jon Steinberg. While Anita Lee does the ordering, her husband does the talking, expansively fielding questions about his priorities for a second term, his hopes for a diversified Chinatown, and his sometimes-rocky relationship with an ascendant Chinese community.

San Francisco: Was political ambition something that was instilled in both of you early on?
Anita Lee: My mom told me that no matter what, you had to graduate from college and get a job, and don’t think that you can depend on any man. She told me that when I was five years old, and I told my own daughters that when they were five.
Ed Lee: I once had a conversation with my mom, who said, “Hey, you’re a lawyer, you’re successful—don’t you want to continue being a lawyer instead of being a government bureaucrat? That’s political.” Up until my generation, that had been the attitude among people from China: You don’t want to do politics. Politics is either dirty or you get blamed for everything that goes wrong. There’s a saying in Chinese: “ho gang,” which means, “That profession is dangerous.” My mom came from a place where government was pretty bad. People got killed over there. She felt like, “We educated you. You had a good education. Why would you go into a dangerous profession?”

Mr. Mayor, right after being appointed in 2011, you spoke about the great pride you felt in becoming the city’s first Chinese-American mayor. You said that your election was a testament to the struggle for equality that Chinese Americans have waged for decades. Has that long battle essentially been won?
EL: I often tell people, don’t automatically assume that all Chinese Americans in San Francisco are successful just because we have a Chinese mayor. I visit often with immigrant families, people in public housing, people struggling with housing costs, with the language barriers, with questionable immigration status. They’re all struggling. And I’m constantly getting their input about how to make sure our kids aren’t growing up in little ghettos or Chinese-only communities.

Some within the Chinese-American community here say that you have a bit of an Obama problem—that in trying to be a leader for everyone, you haven’t fought hard enough for your own people. How do you respond to that?
EL: If you look at where we’re spending the city’s budget, I’d argue that the dollars are spent well in Asian communities. But it’s true that I am the mayor for everyone. If there are expectations among leaders in Chinatown that I should take care of Asians first, I’m going to disappoint those people. I think the mayor shouldn’t be looked at as a single representative for a single ethnicity. Clearly, I understand my own background. But I also want to be the mayor for the gay and lesbian community, the black community, the Latino community. I actually believe that helping those communities is going to allow Asians to prosper as well.

That seems like a tough sell to community activists like your longtime supporter Rose Pak, who seems to want you to appoint Asian Americans exclusively.
EL: Look, I lived through the years when the Asian movement was all about building the Asian community strong, sometimes even to the disinterest of other groups. I think being the mayor of San Francisco is a very different gig from that. I’d make the point that Chinese people are no longer met with a lot of resistance when they move to Visitacion Valley or to the Richmond, the Sunset, the Bayview, Hunters Point. So why should Chinese leaders say only Chinese people can live in Chinatown? That doesn’t make sense. What I’d like to ask is, how can African Americans live in Chinatown, and how can both cultures embrace each other to climb out of poverty?

Is that something that you want: a more diverse Chinatown?
EL: What I’m painting a picture of is, just as the Chinese should never have been limited to living in Chinatown, so too should other communities not be stuck in specific neighborhoods. The Bayview should not be just for blacks; African Americans should be successful all over the place. And Latinos shouldn’t just be concentrated in the Mission; they should be able to buy and to rent anywhere in the city. I grew up asking, “Why are we Chinese stuck only in Chinatown? Why is Chinatown housing so dilapidated?” There shouldn’t be limitations just because our original roots happened to be in those areas.

A big change is coming to Chinatown soon with the Central Subway: How do you see it impacting the neighborhood, and the city at large, when it opens in 2019?
EL: First of all, it’s going to be a huge connector between the north and south. I definitely want to see a decrease in density on the 30-Stockton Muni line as a direct result. You’re going to see more Chinese people living in the southern part of the city. I think you’ll see a lot of Chinese patrons of the Warriors in their new arena; you’ll see a lot of Chinatown residents servicing the incredible healthcare in Mission Bay. You’re going to see a strengthening of Chinese businesses along corridors like Noriega, Clement, Irving, and Third Street. I think the African-American community that’s been struggling with its small businesses is going to welcome the investment from Chinese small businesses to go along with its restaurants and grocery stores along Third Street in the Bayview.

You make it sound as if this one subway spur—which some call the train to nowhere—is going to spread commerce and prosperity throughout the entire city. Is that really how these things work?
EL: The same source of money that funded the Central Subway—the federal government—asked the same questions about the Third Street light rail. And we told them that the T line would be an economic engine for the Bayview. And look at what’s happening, with the Lennar Corporation building thousands of homes out there, with Vis Valley at the end of the T getting 1,700 new units coming on. That investment would not go there unless developers saw a good transportation network that would encourage other investors to open up grocery outlets or small restaurants.

There was a lot of blowback within the Chinese community after you appointed a non-Asian, Julie Christensen, to take David Chiu’s D3 spot on the Board of Supervisors. I’d imagine that Christensen has a pretty steep learning curve ahead of her when it comes to Chinatown.
EL: Well, I don’t think it’s true that she has a lot to learn, except maybe [Chinese] dialect. Julie has been a community activist for decades, she’s been a small business owner, she’s been a proponent of playgrounds where the majority of users are Chinese. She’s been a big transportation advocate. So she understands the things that we’ve been doing in Chinatown. She may not be the darling of certain leaders, but at the heart of it, she shares our values.

But we’re not talking about just any old leaders: Again, we’re talking about Rose Pak, historically one of your biggest backers, who came out swinging viciously against Christensen from the get-go. How do you get Rose back in your corner?
EL: I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to convince Rose. But if not, well, while she’s important, the community in general is just as important. If I know anything about the Chinese community, it looks less at what you say than at what you do. I think that when people hear about what Julie is doing—walking the blocks with the precinct captain, hearing the needs, in Mandarin and Cantonese, of the people in public housing, supporting the widening of Stockton Street all the way from North Beach to the Stockton Tunnel, and using her planning skills and her incredible heart—people will come around.

I wonder if you really relish these battles, Mr. Mayor. You’ve always seemed a bit ambivalent about being a politician.
EL: I still don’t like politics sometimes. It rears its head in different ways, and there are times that I think, why did I sign up for this? But I’m willing to look past those political challenges if it means getting stuff done for other people: improving the schools, making sure businesses share prosperity with a lot more people, making sure we build more housing than we ever have before, making the city safe, bringing sports teams in that are willing to invest their own private money in a risky place like San Francisco. These are things that drive my level of enthusiasm.

Do you think of yourself as paving the way for the next wave of Asian-American leaders?
EL: Yes. Whereas once politics was not really considered an option, now I’m seeing a whole generation of Carmen Chus and Katy Tangs and David Chius and Eric Mars and Jane Kims arising, and they’re saying, “We can handle politics.” I think Asians in political life are getting a much bigger thrust. I have to say that my being mayor has helped push that along. I don’t think anyone thought there was going to be a Chinese-American mayor for a long, long time.

Did you ever expect to be the one?
EL: No, but I never expected to see a black United States president in my lifetime either. Hopefully I get to see the first female president. Right? [Nudges Anita, who perks up: “Right!”] I think a lot of things are moving faster than ever before. I spent 21 years in city government trying to be a good public servant. I never looked at myself as being mayor someday. My cultural advantage was that I was known as a hardworking kid whose mother and father were working-class. And that’s still who I am.


Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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