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Rose Pak’s Body Is Stranded in a Mortuary As Her Family Descends into Ugly Legal Dispute

One sister claims a “phony funeral”; the other allegedly considers a lawsuit.

Rose Pak at a Central Subway event in 2012.


On September 24, Chinatown powerhouse Rose Pak was mourned at a public funeral that drew both the city’s movers and shakers and legions of poor tenement dwellers for whom Pak long acted as a guardian and advocate. After the ceremony at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, Pak’s body was placed in a hearse and paraded through the city en route to Cypress Lawn in Colma, where it was supposed to be cremated and interred in a plot purchased by Pak’s older sister Theresa Pak Wang. 

But, in a bizarre turn of events, Pak’s body has since returned from Colma, and is resting unburied at the Green Street Mortuary, not far from the Jackson Street walkup where she died. Wang is now claiming that the public was hoodwinked by a “phony funeral,” and is accusing her youngest sister Joanna Pak Kish of having Pak’s body removed from the crematorium so that it could undergo a private autopsy, against Wang’s instructions. 

Wang charges her surviving sister, Kish, of “cheating all the people who believed a funeral took place and the body was cremated afterward…This was a phony funeral. The body is still there.” The two sisters have retained more than half a dozen attorneys between them, and Wang is now refusing to sign papers that would allow Pak's body to be cremated. The brewing legal battle will likely kick up a notch during a probate hearing scheduled for Wednesday,* in which Pak’s descendants will wrangle over the deceased power broker's estate. And it is a significant estate: Papers filed in October by one of Kish’s three attorneys peg Pak’s worth, conservatively, at $550,000. 

This dispute is an unsightly but perhaps predictable finale to the often-operatic saga of Rose Pak, a longtime civic leader who reveled in playing politics as a “blood sport.” Though she had been battling severe illnesses for at least the past two years, she apparently did not put all of her personal affairs in order before her death—opening the door to rancorous divisions within her family. 

At the heart of the dispute is the sisters’ disagreement over why Pak died and who should be blamed for her passing. Though the medical examiner determined the cause of Pak’s death as cardiac arrest, with sequential conditions listed as “acute myocardial infarction,” “coronary artery disease,” and “diabetes mellitus type II,” Kish has told Wang and others that she is considering a malpractice lawsuit against San Francisco’s California Pacific Medical Center—where Pak apparently had a coronary stent operation in the week before she died. According to Wang and others, Pak’s doctors told her to stay in the hospital for at least three nights after the procedure. She allegedly left after one; she was simply too busy to stay cooped up in a hospital to undergo rehabilitation. (This was a recurring habit for Pak; following a 2015 procedure, she told me she was skipping a scheduled heart test to organize a meeting on behalf of supervisorial candidate Aaron Peskin).  

Pak, continued her older sister, was “a ticking time bomb.” She had a bad heart; she smoked for 40 years; she had diabetes; she had high cholesterol. So, Wang claims, she was jarred in the aftermath of Pak’s death to hear her sister Kish suggest a malpractice suit against the hospital. Reached at her home, Kish declined to speak to a reporter and said that “someone will call you back.” Nobody did. Byron Sun, one of her three lawyers, declined to comment. Messages for Roberto Ripamonti and Jon Vaught, her two other attorneys, have not yet been returned. 

According to both Wang and multiple organizers of Pak’s funeral, Kish and her family pushed hard for a private autopsy. But this autopsy, Wang believed, would have been unnecessary given Pak's declining health over the past few years. Further, an autopsy would have delayed Pak’s memorial services until after the date that had been publicly disseminated in both the English- and Chinese-language media. Wang authorized Pak’s cremation and hired an attorney named Ernest Der to inform the Green Street Mortuary that there should be no autopsy, and that the funeral should not be delayed.

But while the funeral did proceed, Wang claims her sister intervened afterward and had Pak’s body whisked away from the crematorium at Cypress Lawn. An autopsy was subsequently performed, according to the manager of the Green Street Mortuary. Pak’s body remains at the mortuary; Wang claims her relatives will not release the results of that autopsy. Wang’s husband, John, worries that possession of this autopsy report will allow Kish’s family to access Pak’s overseas accounts.   

Wang further claims that Kish and her family improperly entered Pak’s apartment after her death, surprising Pak’s longtime companion Stephen Fong and possibly removing personal possessions from the premises. Eyewitnesses confirmed that Kish’s family also entered Pak’s office at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce before being ordered out of the building. 

This is the fraught backdrop for the probate hearing this Wednesday.* In a document filed on October 28 on behalf of Kish, the value of Pak’s below-market-rate flat at 400 Beale Street is put at $300,000. “Personal property” is valued at an additional quarter of a million dollars. Both John and Theresa Wang tell me that exploring how and where Pak obtained her money and possessions is something they’d rather not do, especially in the setting of a public hearing. “I am hoping to save her reputation,” John Wang says. “Let her be cremated.” 

And yet, his wife, Theresa, is now refusing to sign the papers that would allow for a cremation. Asked why, she says she does not intend to do so unless her sister, Kish, assures her that no malpractice lawsuit is forthcoming. No one, she says, “should profit from Rose’s death.” Wang also says that to now give her consent to quietly dispose of Pak’s remains, following the litany of bad behavior she accuses her sister of, would make her complicit in it. 

“I don’t care about her money,” says Wang, who claims any funds she receives will be directed to the causes Pak believed in, such as Chinese Hospital. “Give me a few pieces of jewelry to remember her by. Instead of this phony funeral and making me part of a cover-up.” 

Following the publication of this article, the probate hearing scheduled for Wednesday, November 23, was postponed until December 7.


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