Block Party

Rose Tsai, Julie Lee, and the Neighbors' Association are set to tuck into a heaping helping of Willie Brown's majority

Rose Tsai does not look like the kind of woman to raise hell. Sitting quietly behind the microphone in a studio at KEST this evening, the petite woman with large round glasses is the virtual opposite of what you'd expect of a talk radio show host -- quiet, extremely polite, and even a little bit shy.

In the seconds before Tsai's program begins, she says few words to the guest sitting across from her, except that there will be a short break halfway through. At 8 p.m., the ON AIR sign lights up.

Tsai begins speaking in a soft, airy voice, introducing the Cantonese-language show, The Voice of the Neighborhood. This evening's topic will be perinatal care, but before that, Tsai has something more important to discuss.

This afternoon, her group, the San Francisco Neighbors' Association, submitted signatures to place a measure on the June ballot to freeze water and sewage rates. As Tsai explains the issue, her voice grows more animated.

Her pale visage becomes passionate and behind the round glasses her gaze is intense. Her cheeks are slightly flushed as she speaks faster and louder.

"They've been transferring the surpluses to the General Fund, and we don't even have any say over how that money is spent!" Tsai says angrily. "The city shouldn't use us property owners to mess around with."

The guest sits silently, seeming somewhat dumbfounded. After 15 minutes of impassioned polemics, Tsai pauses a moment, and her tone softens. "Now, let's talk about perinatal care."

Rose Tsai isn't just a radio talk show host. She isn't just the leader of a small-time neighborhood group. In fact, Tsai heads one of the fastest-growing, best-funded community political organizations in the city.

She's Willie Brown's worst nightmare.
Tsai and San Francisco Neighbors' Association co-founder Julie Lee appeared out of nowhere late last summer to shock the Democratic establishment of San Francisco. The two women -- both immigrants, both self-described housewives -- somehow collected enough signatures to place a measure on the civic ballot to force the rebuilding of the Central Freeway. Then, against the opposition of virtually all the major political players in San Francisco, including Mayor Brown and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, they got that measure -- Proposition H -- passed.

The vote proved that so-called "Chinese community leaders" had far less influence over Chinese-American voters than the political establishment had assumed. More importantly, the vote showed that Tsai, Lee, and the SFNA could mobilize a powerful segment of the Chinese-American vote -- one with its own interests and no particular allegiance to the Democratic Party machine.

Now, with growing support -- and serious money -- from a number of longtime political players, the SFNA may well represent the only serious challenge to Willie Brown's continued mayoral career.

Tsai and Lee's chief weapon is their fiery Cantonese-language radio show, broadcast for an hour on KEST-AM (1450) five nights a week, plus a half-hour of commentary every Thursday afternoon at 12:30. Tsai hosts the show two nights (Thursday's broadcasts are in Cantonese and English), Lee -- who funds the show herself -- hosts another two, and attorney and Neighbors' Association board member Ed Liu takes the remaining evening.

The rhetoric the three use is often inflammatory. Among other things, they've used their broadcast forum to call Supervisor Mabel Teng, a soft-spoken administrator at Stanford University, a communist.

But until last summer, nobody in San Francisco took the San Francisco Neighbors' Association very seriously. The group -- made up of mostly Chinese-American homeowners from the Richmond and Sunset districts -- had organized in 1995 to oppose zoning laws restricting residential construction on the west side.

Then came Proposition H.
Lee and Tsai didn't even know where the Central Freeway was when they began working to save it. In fact, Tsai still doesn't drive on freeways. But the two quickly proclaimed the Central Freeway a "Chinese" issue. They warned that the Chinese community had gotten screwed in 1990 with the loss of the Embarcadero Freeway, once a main artery to Chinatown. Without the Central Freeway, they predicted that the predominantly Chinese neighborhoods on the west side of the city, particularly the busy shopping strip along Clement Street in the Richmond, would suffer similarly.

The San Francisco Neighbors' Association devoted show after show to the issue on its nightly radio program. SFNA members hit the streets and, within just three weeks, were able to gather 30,000 signatures -- three times the minimum required to put the measure on the November ballot.

Despite Mayor Brown's opposition, the measure to rebuild the Central Freeway passed by 53 percent.

For decades, Chinatown was perceived to be synonymous with the Chinese-American community of San Francisco. In political circles, there was an unspoken and naive assumption that if you had the support of Chinatown, you had the support of the Chinese-American community.

No one in the city's traditional power structure seemed to have a clue that perhaps divergent interests and political views might exist within the Chinese-American population, just as they do among other ethnic groups. And even though statistics clearly showed large and growing numbers of Chinese-Americans on the city's west side, politicians remained stubbornly and irrationally fixated on Chinatown.

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