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Rose Pak, S.F. Chinatown Political Leader, Dies at 68

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A Chinese woman with glasses looks at the camera with people in the background.
Rose Pak attends a Central Subway event in San Francisco in 2012. Former San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee stands in the background. (Steve Rhodes/Flickr)

Chinatown leader Rose Pak lamented the fact that she was always identified as a "powerbroker."

"If I was white," she said, "they'd call me a civic leader." Perhaps. But Pak understood and wielded power with the best of them.

Pak was found dead at her home in Chinatown Sunday at the age of 68. A family spokesman said she died of natural causes.

I first met Pak in 1986 when I was a young staffer working for then-Assemblyman Art Agnos. She was dogged in her support for Agnos, who was about to announce his run for mayor of San Francisco. They shared a passion for empowering "outsiders" -- immigrants, low-income seniors, gays and other newcomers who didn't sit at the table with downtown powerbrokers.

Pak was short and stocky and a chain smoker with a penchant for the dramatic. Her favorite word seemed to be mother-f***er. She could unleash a torrent of f-bombs with the best of them.


When Rose Pak was on your side, she added formidable resources, organizing volunteers, raising money and opening doors. But when she turned on you, watch out. Just ask Ed Lee.

In the 1980s, Pak was instrumental in getting Mayor Agnos to bring Lee, then a civil rights attorney, into city government. Lee was one of many beneficiaries of Pak's relentless advocacy for Asian-Americans.

For the next few decades, Lee continued his rise through the city bureaucracy. In 2009, as Mayor Gavin Newsom prepared to exit for the lieutenant governor's office, Pak and Willie Brown arranged to have the Board of Supervisors appoint Lee out of virtual anonymity to finish Newsom's term.

Pak was proud to help install the first Asian-American as mayor of San Francisco. But after persuading Lee to break his promise not to run for a full term as mayor, Pak gradually lost respect for Lee.

In a recent interview with Will Hearst for "The New West," Pak described her disappointment with Lee's mayoralty.

"He’s afraid of his own shadow," Pak said. "He hasn’t named any Chinese-Americans to any important position or anything. I think he’s bending backwards to show he’s the mayor of the city and not the mayor of Chinese-Americans. So that means you’re very insecure in your own skin."

Pak begins her comments on Lee's mayoralty, saying she's been "heartbroken about it," at 4:30 in this video:

After Lee refused to name Pak's choice, Cindy Wu, to fill a vacant seat on the Board of Supervisors in January 2015, Pak went all out for her own candidate -- Aaron Peskin -- to help defeat Lee's appointee, Julie Christensen, last November. Peskin's ascendance tilted the board's politics to the left, away from Lee's pro-tech agenda.

It was a show of raw power, a signal of what could happen by crossing Pak's political wishes.

It was a lesson she also taught her former friend and ally Art Agnos. Against Pak's wishes, Agnos led the fight to tear down the damaged Embarcadero Freeway after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Pak thought removing the freeway, with its off-ramp on Broadway bringing traffic to Chinatown, would devastate local businesses. She even argued that to the Chinese, the long-winding artery was like a snake, considered good luck in Chinese culture.

When the freeway came down, Pak turned on Agnos and helped his nemesis Frank Jordan defeat him in 1991.

In "The New West" interview, Pak described Agnos as "very condescending," with a kind of "papa knows best" attitude.

She added: "That’s why he lost (re-election) by such a narrow margin -- if he weren’t holier than thou," he wouldn't have lost. She didn't have to say she helped orchestrate that "narrow margin" for Jordan. Political payback, but also community loyalty.

Mayor Lee, reacting to the sudden death of his former mentor, said in a statement that "there will never be another Rose Pak."

That much seems true, given the outsized nature of her personality and power.  She also nurtured generations of Asian-American leaders, including San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim.

Mayor Lee ordered flags on city buildings flown at half-staff in Pak's honor.

A wake will be held for Rose Pak on Friday night at Green Street Mortuary. A service is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday at Old. St. Mary's Cathedral on California Street, with a funeral procession afterward. Both the wake and service are public.

This post has been updated.

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