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Rose Pak Never Stopped. Until She Did.

The Chinatown power broker unapologetically lived the life of her choosing. And, in doing so, died the death of her choosing.


Rose Pak in 2012.

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On August 17, Rose Pak sat down with me at the Chinatown Hilton to discuss the dynamics of San Francisco politics. It was my first in-person meeting with Pak since 2015, when, battling renal failure, she summed up her life with a degree of candor, force, and sorrow that, truthfully, neither of us had anticipated. But, on this recent summer afternoon, Pak—who died on Sunday in her Jackson Street flat at the age of 68 (or, perhaps, 69; even her family wasn't quite sure)—didn't much seem interested in discussions about politics. Instead, she spent nearly two hours largely recalling poignant memories of her formative days. 

There was the time, as a child in Macau, when she came across the colonial governor's children on the beach with their servants—Angolans—who were the first black people she'd ever seen. "I went up to the guy and rubbed his hand" to see if the color would come off, she said. While we spoke, the Hilton staff, with whom Pak had an obvious rapport, would slide in and out to provide fresh pots of tea as needed while she continued to reminisce. There was her trip to Watts in the late 1960s: "I was very dumbfounded. To me, Watts was luxury housing. You have a yard in the front and back: Detached homes!" There was the blizzard in New York City, during which the youthful Pak was confused as to why the public housing tower across from her hotel was entirely unlit at night. It was only at sunrise that she realized all of the building's missing windowpanes had been replaced with plywood. 

Was Pak strolling down memory lane because she knew her time was short? It's hard to say; we're told that friends talked to her on the phone as late as 8:30 a.m. on Sunday and she sounded "just fine." She had plans for noon yesterday that fate unmade; during chats last week with San Francisco elected officials she recited the many, many things she planned to do in the coming days leading up to election day on November 8.

In the end, however, you didn't need to talk to Pak about how political dynamics worked in this city. You just had to watch her.

When she stepped off a plane at San Francisco International Airport on May 23 after a six-month sojourn in China—during which she underwent a kidney transplant—the entourage that arrived to greet her was nothing short of astounding. Even the lion dancers appeared befuddled: Standing alongside Pak were Academy of Art president Elisa Stephens and City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who was in the midst of suing the Academy for its decades of rule-bending real-estate dealings. There was her erstwhile best friend and political creation Mayor Ed Lee flashing a ribbon-cutting grin alongside his frequent antagonist, the also-smiling Supervisor Aaron Peskin (in whose return to elected office Pak played no small role) There was Mission lefty Supervisor David Campos, a Pak favorite, and public defender Jeff Adachi, whose pension crusades earned him a lifelong scarlet letter from the city’s public employees’ unions, the most ardent backers of progressives like—you guessed it—Campos. There was progressive Supervisor and state senate hopeful Jane Kim alongside former mayor and eternal influence peddler Willie Brown (who never failed to address Pak as "Miss Rose"). Rose Pak traversed her very own path in San Francisco and stood in the center of God knows how many Venn diagrams of political power. 

Multiple shell-shocked elected officials yesterday told me that Pak was the kind of dynamo you expected to live forever. But Pak did not want to live forever. "Do I want to linger on for the sake of lingering on?" she asked me last year while undergoing a blood transfusion. "What is life? Life is, you know, an active life. You can do things and help other people. But then you get so sick! You have to rely on people to help you. You become a burden on society. I have no desire to linger on." 

Her lingering ended yesterday in her Chinatown second-story walkup, an unassuming final home befitting of someone who, regardless of what anyone thought of her motives, never sought personal financial gain. She always reinvested all of her political dividends in advancing what she felt were the needs of her community. Pak never married nor had any children nor even bothered to obtain health insurance until she reached her 50s; she worked, 24/7. Until she didn't. 

It's hard to overstate
the impact Rose Pak had on this city. The Chinatown Master Plan ensuring wealthy arrivistes can't boot out indigent seniors à la the International Hotel in 1977; the continuing existence of Chinese Hospital; the Central Subway boring its way through Chinatown, North Beach, and Muni's finances—all of these are on Pak's C.V. As is the ascension of Mayor Ed Lee and, for that matter, a full roster of Chinese American elected officials and city employees. Love Pak or hate her (and few people were indifferent), but she was zealously devoted to the advancement and well-being of her community—but on her terms, of course, and the elements of her community that she preferred. 

Never was this more in evidence than in the year 2011, which, for Pak and her coterie, was the best of times and the worst of times. In a Seal Team Six–worthy political raid, Pak and her fellow power brokers installed her pal Lee—whom she had elevated into city government as a thirtysomething aparatchik under Mayor Art Agnos and secured promotions for through the years—as "caretaker" mayor. Pak, a fearsome fundraiser, was one of the sharks behind the "Run, Ed, Run" campaign: The caretaker, elevated to Room 200 solely because he would not run for mayor, was compelled to run for mayor. Riding the wave of Chinese American political strength Pak spent her adult life creating and nurturing, Lee easily won election (and, last year, re-election). But things didn't go as Pak had hoped. She and others behind "Run, Ed, Run" felt they were elbowed out of the way after doing the necessary dirty work and replaced by, in the words of a Pak ally, "a bunch of bottom-feeders." 

By August of this year, of course, things had fallen even further apart. Pak told me she only sees Lee, formerly one of her closest friends, "at public functions." Little wonder: Last year she described this "Chinese American fucking mayor" as "the biggest disappointment in my life.... This mayor got no balls!" It's hard to walk something like that back, and those fleeting encounters at public functions didn't sound like much fun. Pak in August rattled off to me a series of alleged misdeeds from erstwhile City Hall staffers, but claims Lee recently disavowed any knowledge of it. His purported answer disappointed her. "Every time I come back to you, you always claim you don't know," she says she told the mayor. "You say it once too often. I won't bother mentioning these things to you again." 

In the waning moments of our August meeting, Pak noted a series of aspirational politicians she hoped to get appointed or elected to office. With a wry grin, she claimed that one up-and-comer would advance regardless of the will of Mayor Lee. Now that's not at all certain. And also uncertain is how Pak will be remembered in the longterm. San Francisco is an ephemeral city. Tens of thousands of newcomers arrive every year, and memories are short. So, it's hard to say what memories will keep. 

As the mayor can attest, these memories were not always pleasant ones. Though she was never elected to any office, never served on any city commission—and was not even registered to vote—every year, Pak would post up on a platform at the Chinese New Year parade and subject the city’s politicians to her very public excoriations, approvals, or downright psychoanalysis. 

In 2012, she was in particularly fine form. She told then-Supervisor David Chiu (whom she ditched as a mayoral aspirant in favor of the "caretaker" he helped put into office) that whether or not she would work to short-circuit his supervisorial re-election depended on "how you behave in the next few months." She told Supervisor John Avalos he'd do well to "kowtow to our mayor." And, most agonizingly of all, she lectured poor Supervisor Eric Mar that his real problem is that he's too nice, and that he agrees with whoever talks to him last even if it's against his best interests. And—again, this was taking place in front of a large crowd and projected on an amplified sound system—Mar nodded his head: He agreed with her!  

Other memories, however, are happier. Last year, after leaving Chinese Hospital, Pak told me she was skipping a doctor's appointment to organize a meeting (could it have been about getting Aaron Peskin elected? Yes, it could have been). While walking through a well-kept alleyway, Pak smiled at the murals, the courtyard gardens, the sounds of young kids playing in the street. It was a lovely place to be on a San Francisco afternoon; "Man," Pak told me as if the notion just occurred to her, "I love Chinatown." 

Rose Pak's allies are, as you read this, manning the battle stations to ensure her enemies don't make a play for the keys to her kingdom. But no one person can grasp all of those keys. In life, Pak was not to be trifled with. Now she’s gone. But San Francisco lingers on.  

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