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Chinatown Politics: Behind The Curtain

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In November 2011, more than 160 years after the first Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco, voters overwhelmingly elected Ed Lee the city’s first mayor of Chinese descent. The election proved to be a historic milestone for the Chinese-American community. In a city where Chinese were once required to pay a $2.50 monthly tax and William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner newspaper stoked fears of “yellow peril,” five Chinese-American candidates were now running for mayor. This essay looks at the forces and institutions that helped galvanize San Francisco’s Chinese vote, and follows the candidates on the campaign trail, as they vie for the city’s highest office.

The Goddess of Democracy statue at Portsmouth Square in Chinatown, the center of political life for San Francisco’s Chinese community, on Friday, November 2, 2011. More than anything, the San Francisco mayor’s race has showcased the ascendant political power of a growing Chinese population, which now appears likely to produce the city’s first elected Chinese-American mayor.

Fan Xie, center, counts votes cast by members during a gathering of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (known as the Chinese Six Companies), the umbrella organization for Chinese family and regional associations in San Francisco’s Chinatown on Saturday, October 29, 2011. Since the 1860s, the Six Companies enforced order over Chinatown politics. In a city where Chinese were once required to pay a $2.50 monthly tax and William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner stoked fears of “yellow peril,” the associations provided jobs, legal assistance and protection from white “anti-coolie” gangs. But over the past three decades, the family associations have ceded influence to hundreds of community organizations run by politically savvy, American-educated activists and social workers.

An exhibit from the Chinese Historical Society shows community organizations registering Chinese voters and protesting living conditions in Chinatown. During the 1960s, a new generation of American-educated Chinese formed non-profits that lobbied the city to change housing and employment laws with a new degree of sophistication, thereby taking political power from the family associations.

Mayoral candidate Ed Lee, the son of an immigrant restaurant owner, comes from that world. He began his career as a tenant lawyer at the Asian Law Caucus, a Chinatown-based non-profit legal and civil rights organization.

Campaign posters for Leland Yee and Wilma Pang for mayor on display in San Francisco’s Chinatown on Monday, October 31, 2011. An unprecedented five Chinese candidates are contending for the city’s highest office.

Mayoral candidate Leland Yee (standing at right), canvasses for support in a Chinatown restaurant. His political signs are on display on every Chinatown street corner. Yee grew up in Chinatown, and hopes to cap a 21-year-career in public office with the mayoralty.

David Chiu announces his candidacy for mayor in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square. Chiu, a Harvard graduate who touts his city-wide appeal, can appear more comfortable touring tech companies than sitting through the lush banquets that underpin Chinatown political life. “It’s often easy for some elected officials to gravitate to one community or another,” Chiu said in an interview. “I’m running to represent all of San Francisco.”

Ed Lee campaigns at a dim sum restaurant (left) on Saturday, November 5, 2011. Since he entered the race, Lee has been the target of attacks by Leland Yee, but he has maintained the lead in the race. According to The Bay Citizen/USF poll conducted October 7 to October 13, 2011, Lee held 31% of first choice votes.

An elderly voter leaves the polling station at the Chinatown branch library after casting his ballot on election day, November 8, 2011. Nearly one-quarter of San Francisco’s population is Chinese, and for the first time, Chinese voters returned absentee ballots at a higher rate than the city average, heralding a record turnout.

Ed Lee’s campaign staffers check the election results outside the San Francisco Department of Elections at City Hall on Wednesday, November 9, 2011, the day after ballots were cast.

Ed Lee is declared the winner of the 2011 mayoral race, becoming the first Chinese-American to be elected mayor of San Francisco, and only the second Chinese-American mayor elected in a large American city.

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