Will Ed Lee Be a Mayor for SF Chinese?

SAN FRANCISCO — Ed Lee’s anticipated win in Tuesday’s mayoral race is a major milestone for Chinese voters, but not all members of the community are celebrating the victory as their own.

For Daniel Li, a San Francisco resident who came to the United States from China nearly 30 years ago, Lee is among a number of Chinese political leaders who were either born in the United States or came here at a very young age.

The result, he says, is that there’s a disconnect between these leaders and the community, which is made up largely of immigrant Chinese.

Ed Lee finished with 61 percent of the vote as of Wednesday, well ahead of second place finisher John Avalos. It’s the city’s first competitive mayoral election to use ranked choice voting, however, and about 30,000 ballots still have to be counted. Lee was appointed in January to replace former Mayor Gavin Newsom, who left to take up his current role as Lieutenant Governor. If elected, Lee would become the city’s first elected Chinese-American mayor.

But the candidates were more American than Chinese, said Li, referring to the pool of five Chinese-American mayoral hopefuls, including State Senator Leland Yee, Supervisor David Chiu and Assessor Phil Ting. Lee was born in Seattle to immigrant parents, while Yee came to the country at the age of three, growing up in the city’s Chinatown.

Li worries that Chinese politicians often go against the benefits of the community for wider political gain. California State Assemblyman Paul Fong, for example, pushed a ban on shark fin sales in the state — a move many in the community saw as an attack on their culture — and California State Senator Leland Yee’s opposed a new City College campus in Chinatown.

San Francisco is home to one of the oldest and largest Chinese communities in the country. Having first arrived in the mid-1800s at the height of the Gold Rush, the city’s Chinese residents endured decades of hostility, including being the target of the nation’s first immigration law to single out a specific ethnicity, the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Despite measures aimed at stemming the inflow of migrants, Chinese soon made up one of the largest immigrant communities in the state. According to the latest census data from 2010, Asians account for 13 percent of California’s population, a majority of them Chinese. That figure jumps to over 30 percent for San Francisco, which is still known as “Old Gold Mountain” by the Chinese who live here.

Among them is one 80-year-old resident of the city surnamed Wang (he declined to give his first name), who says that having a Chinese mayor will help deepen ties between the city and the Chinese community, which has long suffered from an array of racial and linguistic barriers to civic engagement.

“I’m excited to see a Chinese mayor in City Hall,” says Wang, who has lived in the city for over 40 years.

It’s a sentiment shared by others in the community, including Steven Chiu, a longtime political analyst and columnist with the World Journal, one of the largest Chinese newspapers in the country. He says that given San Francisco’s relative prominence as a major metropolitan area, having a Chinese mayor will “help to more effectively communicate the needs of the Chinese community to the state and federal government.”

Others are less concerned about the mayor’s ethnic or racial background, noting that Chinese have enjoyed considerable representation in government for some time now, and that many Chinese have long since embraced their American identities.

Helen Chen, who immigrated from China with her parents 40 years ago, says that back when Chinese representation was all but invisible, she would “often vote along ethnic lines.” But today, with a number of Chinese Americans holding high offices in the city and state, she says what’s more important is the candidate’s “values and political platform.”

Along with Mayor Lee and State Senator Leland Yee, who represents San Francisco’s District 8 and who came in fifth in the race for mayor, three of the city’s 11 supervisors are Chinese American, as are two of the seven school board members. On the national level are Energy Secretary Steven Chu and former Governor of Washington Gary Locke, who now serves as U.S. ambassador to China.

“Chinese have been in San Francisco for 160 years,” notes Sue Lee, director of the Chinese Historical Society of America, “but it’s only within the last few decades that they began to have a presence in local government.”

With Ed Lee’s expected victory, she says, City Hall will likely be more attuned to the needs of the community, adding that it could also draw the attention of investors in China, with potentially huge benefits for the local business community.

Still, she says most Chinese voters expect a mayor who does not advocate for a specific group, but rather “leads the entire city.” In that sense, Tuesday’s election results “send a strong message that Chinese Americans have become part of the city’s mainstream.”

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