San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (photo by Paul Sakuma)
Now that Lee and Quan are rock stars who have appeared on the red carpet, I remembered this article from the L.A. Times: Chinese American mayors overcoming Bay Area’s history of discrimination. Go read. Both have a long history of activism.
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.
With Lee’s help, tenants waged the first-ever rent strike against the San Francisco Housing Authority. San Francisco’s new mayor remembers draping a banner that announced the action over an upper balcony. After several months, the city agreed to upgrade the facilities.
The residents “came from China and Hong Kong, where the landlord was the ultimate law,” Lee said. “If you cross-eyed them, you were evicted…. We tried to teach them to demand their rights.”
Quan, 61, was born a year after her mother arrived in the East Bay suburb of Livermore. She was taunted growing up: “Chung chung Chinaman” and “You’re a Jap!” Her father, who ran a Chinese restaurant, had died of lung cancer by the time she was 5. Her mother worked long restaurant hours and took in piecework from a garment factory.
At Berkeley, Quan marched with Latino and Filipino farmworkers. It was her future husband, Floyd Huen, who introduced her to the Asian American Political Alliance and trained her focus on her own community.
In 1969, the alliance joined with other minority groups to successfully demand ethnic studies programs on campus. Quan was the first to teach a Berkeley class on Asian women.
In the late 1980s, Quan was working as the Service Employees International Union’s first Asian labor organizer. Lee sat on San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission. The friends joined forces to try to improve working conditions for janitors.