Blowing Smoke, Breathing Fire (Part I)

The Fang family rides tabloid journalism and hardball politics to the winner's circle

And last year, in addition to gaining influence with the district attorney, the family dumped their old friend Frank Jordan and jumped on Willie Brown's victory train. Ted and James' mother, Florence, helped organize several fund-raisers in Chinatown for Brown. Ted Fang says his mother raised at least five figures for Brown's treasury. Even Asian Week pitched in, allowing Willie Brown phone banks to operate out of its offices, according to campaign disclosure statements.

As a reward, James Fang was appointed to Brown's transition team where he reviewed the rŽsumŽs of potential commission and department heads and interviewed job candidates. The post wasn't a plum, but it helped rehabilitate James, who has been keeping a low profile politically ever since he became a laughing stock for inflating his resume in 1992 as he sought appointment as the mayor's international trade director.

But at the onset of this flowering, the family lost its leader, John Ta Chuan Fang, who died in 1992. The father had always called the shots, set the agenda, kept the boys -- James, Ted, and Doug, the youngest -- on a steady course. In John's absence, Ted has taken the reins of the family. Sure, Florence still makes her opinion known and James, the oldest, is the public figure and politician of the family. But truth be told, Ted Fang is the man of the house now.

And as Ted sits atop his formidable, expanding political machine, he has a lot to learn. Power is an intoxicating thing, but one needs to wield it wisely. John Fang was known for taking care of the Chinese community as much as he advanced his family's interests, observers in that community say. But since his death, the family has developed a reputation as self-serving, as the Citizens for Mass Transit episode illustrates. Winnercrats, some call them, for their willingness to support candidates based largely on their ability to win.

"The comment I hear frequently these days is that this or that wouldn't have happened if John was alive," says Wendy Paskin Jordan, securities broker and wife of former Mayor Frank Jordan.

True enough, while John Fang was alive, the FPPC and other ethics watchdogs never came sniffing around the family encampment.

A close associate of Ted Fang's says the publisher recently found a letter his father wrote to himself shortly after arriving in America. The text of the letter centers on resolve and focusing on one's goal. Ted Fang has framed the letter and hung it in his office, where he also keeps a large photograph of his father.

The baby mogul would be wise to tack to his father's course, especially considering the trouble the family has gotten into since John's death. Talking to Ted Fang, one comes away with the impression of a man at once savoring and fearing his power. In one breath he will brag of political feats. In the next he will feign surprise that he is considered so powerful. Like a hand-me-down from his late father, the mantle of power doesn't fit yet.

Ted Fang orders breakfast for dinner at the Baghdad Cafe, a steak-and-eggs joint in the heart of gay San Francisco. The conversation begins with the perception of power and how that changes depending on who holds it. Forking into his huevos de chorizo, Fang uses as an example the way local journalists, especially Examiner reporters, characterize his family.

First he takes off on SF Weekly for a 1992 headline calling his mother "Imelda of Chinatown." "Can I just say that was racist?" he says. Fang then turns to the Ex, complaining that whenever the paper writes a story about any Fang family member, it applies the phrase "politically powerful Fang family" or refers to patriarchs, matriarchs, and scions. These newspaper monikers have Ted Fang wondering about the issue of race.

Does the paper, do any of us, make an issue of the power accumulated by white families? Fang asks. Does the Ex feel compelled to describe Kevin Shelley as the scion of the politically powerful Shelley family? Does the Ex feel compelled to treat Angela Alioto or Terence Hallinan, both products of local political dynasties, in the same way? No, he says, and the disparity in treatment tells us something about the way the white elite views minorities advancing, and even beating them, using the amoral rules of power they themselves developed and mastered.

"Don't you think that's a derogatory stereotype?" Fang says. "Don't you think that it's part of the Examiner's campaign to portray the Fang family as an oddity?" He maintains that exotic words like "scion" are meant "to pigeonhole the whole family as somehow unusual, inappropriate."

Whether or not there has been some subtle, subconscious racism going on over at Fifth and Mission, the Fang family has made itself known. They have mounted the rostrum. Instinctively, Ted Fang knows that the pursuit of power will make him a magnet for criticism.

"I welcome the scrutiny," says Fang.
Fang deflects criticism arising from the Citizens for Mass Transit PAC. The PAC was helping ally Ahmad Anderson retire a campaign debt, which is the same as supporting candidates who agreed with the family's transit agenda, he says. Pressed on how he makes that connection, Fang deftly turns to the issue of political loyalty.

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