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.

But after the votes on Proposition H were counted, it became clear that the strongest support for the measure had come from heavily Chinese-American neighborhoods -- Visitacion Valley, and the Sunset and Richmond districts. Clearly, Chinese-American political power had moved to other parts of the city.

And just as clearly, the SFNA had been planning its strategy with extraordinary care. But the women at the forefront of the group still claim they're just regular folks.

"We're just housewives," Lee and Tsai insist repeatedly. Both are mothers -- Lee has four grown children, Tsai's son is 9. But Lee, 51, is also a successful realtor who owns First National Realty on Taraval with her husband Lucas and has several properties in San Francisco, including an apartment building. Tsai, 43, also a property owner, has a degree from the Hastings College of Law and works with her husband David, a Taiwanese businessman.

Anger, Tsai says, is what first prompted her to get involved in city politics. In 1984, she bought a house in the Sunset at 11th Avenue and Lawton. She planned to tear it down and build a two-unit building. But several neighbors opposed the plans and protested outside the house, claiming that the new building would block cherished views and upset the "character" of the neighborhood.

After battling with her neighbors and fighting her way through the city Planning Department, Tsai was able to build her house.

But she claims the zoning laws are a clear example of the city taking away the rights of Chinese-American property owners to build on their own land. Like many other Chinese-Americans whose renovation plans have been restricted by the Planning Department, Tsai felt that city zoning laws were discriminatory because the people who wanted most to build were Chinese-American.

And, she says, the racism was overt. "At the very same time, someone across the street was building an even bigger house, and he had no problem. He was white."

Water and sewage rate increases are just another way that the city is treating Chinese-American property owners unfairly, says Tsai. "Most of us in SFNA are homeowners, and we're sick and tired of all these tax increases," she says. "This is totally outrageous. You would think that in times like this we would be getting better services and less taxes."

"We want good government," says Tsai. "The government needs to be held accountable."

For someone with strong feelings about fiscal accountability, however, Rose Tsai has some odd financial practices. According to public records, she still owes the state of California $21,000 in back taxes from 1993.

And it's not the first time Tsai has run into trouble with her taxes. In April 1991, the state notified Tsai that she owed $95,000 in back taxes from 1988. She paid the debt -- eight months later.

Julie Lee describes herself as a "typical immigrant."
Born in China, Lee moved to Hong Kong with her family when she was a teen-ager. At age 23, she arrived in San Francisco. She took courses at City College to become a dental technician, but later decided to become a real estate agent and got her license in 1979.

The real estate market is booming, and every few minutes, Lee's cellular phone rings. The 51-year-old realtor is busy and profiting nicely.

She is the virtual opposite of her partner, Tsai. While Tsai is serious and intense, Lee is gregarious and talkative. Every so often, in conversation, she will nudge a listener with her elbow for emphasis.

But beneath the affable exterior, Lee is angry too.
Like Rose Tsai, Lee ran into opposition from neighbors when she wanted to build on a property at Second and Clement. The two women met at a public hearing on the zoning laws five years ago. Shortly afterward, they organized other homeowners to form the San Francisco Neighbors' Association.

The group's message hasn't changed much since then: Chinese-Americans -- particularly taxpaying Chinese-American property owners -- are getting a raw deal. The issues the SFNA takes on are almost exclusively those affecting property owners -- like sewage and water rates -- or, occasionally, other causes the group considers significant to Chinese-Americans.

But despite this apparent focus on homeowner issues, important people are starting to take the San Francisco Neighbors' Association very seriously. Three weeks after the victory on Prop. H, investment banker and multimillionaire F. Warren Hellman gave the group $2,500. And Hellman, whose financial coups have included the $1.8 billion leveraged buyout of Levi Strauss in 1985, is decidedly not in the habit of financing losers.

Lee and Tsai like to claim the Proposition H campaign was funded by $5, $10, and $20 donations. "All the money for the campaign was from small donations. You should see our list of contributions -- it looks like a phone book," says Tsai.

"We're just small neighborhood people," says Lee.
Public records indicate otherwise. Campaign disclosures show the Committee to Save the Central Freeway received tens of thousands of dollars in large-sum donations and loans -- loans with no repayment schedules and no interest rates.

These "small neighborhood people" themselves loaned the campaign thousands of dollars of their own money. Tsai and Lee each put up $5,000. Another business owned by Lee and her husband Lucas, First Financial Services, loaned the campaign an additional $5,000.

The committee's financial disclosures also list several large contributors whose common bond seems to be a discontentment with the traditional power structure in San Francisco. Supervisor Leland Yee, who is known to have mayoral aspirations, loaned the campaign $7,500. San Francisco Honda, which is owned by former San Francisco Supervisor and City Administrator Roger Boas, gave the campaign nearly $7,000.

Chinatown merchant May Louie, who owns the Canton Bazaar and several other shops in Chinatown, gave the Campaign on H a total of $6,500 in donations and loans the day before last November's election. (Louie would quite naturally support a group that opposes Rose Pak, because she has never forgiven Pak for dropping her opposition to the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway.)

And after the victory on H -- and just weeks before announcing he would run for mayor -- political consultant Clint Reilly gave the group $2,500.

Even players inside the establishment are starting to pay attention to the SFNA. Last fall, Rep. Kevin Shelley gave the group $3,500. The former San Francisco supervisor is closely connected to the Democratic Party and to Mayor Brown. But his state Assembly district lies squarely within SFNA territory.

Supervisor Yee has high hopes for the organization. Over the past year, he's become one of the SFNA's strongest supporters, and the group has returned the favor. The SFNA held a fund-raiser for Yee last summer, and Julie Lee has said on numerous occasions that the SFNA will support Yee if he chooses to run for mayor. Yee took a leading role in the group's Central Freeway campaign and, most recently, joined its drive for signatures to put the sewage and water rate measure on the June ballot.

Yee clearly believes the association has staying power.
"They're an organized group for neighborhoods. They represent empowering neighborhoods and communities, helping with the self-sufficiency of individuals," he says. "They're winners."

Bolstered by endorsements like Yee's, Rose Tsai is running for the San Francisco County Democratic Central Committee, and is considering a bid for supervisor.

The Neighbors' Association's style of political organizing has also earned the group many enemies.

Of course, on the positive side, the group has filled a void in the Chinese-American community in San Francisco. New immigrants have traditionally not participated in politics in this city -- largely because they don't speak English, and also because many traditional Chinese people do not care to air their grievances publicly. Protests and demonstrations are considered shameful.

History taught many Chinese-Americans that politics were for white people. For decades, discriminatory laws barred Asians from becoming citizens and from voting. Even after the laws changed, many Chinese-Americans still felt powerless.

The Neighbors' Association has amplified efforts to involve immigrants in the political process. Last fall the group registered 500 voters. But beyond registration, the SFNA believes informing voters about specific issues is even more important. Through its radio show, the group has provided extensive commentary on and discussion of political issues in Cantonese.

"We try to educate people from lower levels," says Julie Lee. "We try to tell people, 'If you don't work on this issue, you're going to pay more on your water bill and property taxes and this is your chance to speak up.' To get people to speak up and get people to come out emotionally, you have to have some good issues."

But the Neighbors' Association's message often relies on selective information.

And whether the issue is live animal sales, the Central Freeway, or sewage rates, the SFNA operates the same way. For instance, the Neighbors' Association was irate over Supervisor Mabel Teng's Owner Move-In (OMI) legislation, which passed last December. The law set an 18-month freeze on OMI evictions for longtime tenants who are disabled or elderly in an effort to slow the city's rapidly rising rate of tenant evictions.

The Neighbors' Association saw things differently. A lot differently. According to the group, the law was an attack on homeowners, namely Chinese-American homeowners. In the Chinese-American press and on Voice of the Neighborhood, the SFNA screamed that Chinese-Americans would be hardest hit by the OMI law, since -- they claimed -- Chinese-Americans own 50 percent of all homes in San Francisco.

Night after night on their radio show, Tsai, Lee, and co-host Ed Liu incited program listeners by telling them that the law meant that homeowners would never be able to evict tenants who were disabled because of alcohol or drug addictions. They labeled Teng a communist, a race traitor, and a "running dog."

On a program that aired early in December, Liu told his Cantonese-speaking audience, "In this bill, alcoholic, mentally disturbed, drug abusers are considered disabled too. Because taking drugs can be interpreted as having mental problems, drug abusers can be classified as disabled. If you buy a house and you want to move in, but if the tenant says that he is an alcoholic, a drug abuser, or he has a mental problem -- all these mental disorders, for example, he would say, 'I like to start a fire' -- he can use this as an excuse and stays permanently in the house."

The facts of the matter are rather different from the SFNA's interpretation. A study by the Chinese American Voter Education Committee that took information from the city Assessor's rolls and census data revealed that Chinese-Americans own roughly one-fifth of all homes in San Francisco -- not one-half. Chinese-American renters also greatly outnumber Chinese-American homeowners -- another fact that the Neighbors' Association neglected to mention.

And contrary to Liu's assertion, alcoholics and drug abusers are not protected under the OMI moratorium because drug and alcohol addictions no longer qualify as disabilities under federal and state aid guidelines.

But the misinformation spread by Liu and the Neighbors' Association put fear in the hearts of many newcomers, whose primary source of information about OMI was the group's radio show. The message was clear. Either fight, or lose your rights.

On a wet weekday evening in February, no fewer than 100 people packed the hallway and the chambers of the Permit Appeals Board meeting at the temporary City Hall.

They came to support Bhazubhai Patel, the owner of the Beach Motel, who was fighting the city's assessment that he has been illegally operating a tourist hotel in a residentially zoned area.

But this was not your typical City Hall crowd. Instead of dark tailored suits and polished wingtips, they wore ill-fitting coats and flat-bottomed shoes. They were mostly first-generation Chinese-Americans, mostly middle-aged and older. Most of them had arrived by bus, bringing with them the faint odor of mothballs and cooked rice.

They had come because of what they heard on the radio: that the city was robbing Patel of his property rights -- and that housing advocate Randy Shaw wanted to turn the Beach Motel into a homeless shelter. Most of the group's supporters didn't know that Randy Shaw, or anyone else for that matter, can't simply seize another person's property and turn it into a shelter. After all, many of them had vivid memories of life under Communism.

Inside the chambers several dozen more Neighbors' Association supporters stood three deep along the walls, wearing yellow "Save Our Neighborhood" stickers. Randy Shaw's seated contingent, a dozen or so shaggy unfortunates, was greatly outnumbered.

Tsai surveyed the room. The expression on her fair, round face was serious. She was determined to be the first to speak. Meanwhile Lee, the shorter and rounder of the two, circulated among the crowd greeting supporters smilingly with waves and pats on the arm.

"Now this," said Lee approvingly. "This is what they call 'people power.' "

Not everyone approves of the SFNA's particular brand of people power. Some in city government criticize the group. Supervisor Michael Yaki -- one of Mayor Brown's "lap dogs," according to the SFNA -- says the group represents only a very small segment of the Chinese-American community.

"They oversimplify the issues and they're a very focused interest group," says Yaki. "The SFNA can only hold people's attention for so long."

Longtime Chinatown activist the Rev. Norman Fong says that while he supports the SFNA's efforts at getting more Chinese-Americans involved in the political process, he fears the group wants more involvement only for people who share its beliefs.

"They would like to present a point of view that because Chinese-Americans are a large part of San Francisco, they should be included in big issues," says Fong, program director for the Chinatown Community Development Center. "And that part's OK. But they're not saying they want alternatives. They're saying they want to be the voice for the community."

One of the loudest voices in the Chinese community doesn't like Tsai and Lee much either. Ask Rose Pak about the SFNA and be prepared to get an earful.

And a lungful too. The room is already thick with cigarette smoke when Pak, a gruff, diminutive woman in a brown faux fur vest, tersely apologizes for her habit and lights up yet again. On the back of her office door at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce is a dart board with a photo of Chronicle columnists Matier and Ross -- a gift from the two writers last year. A half-inch stack of pink telephone message slips awaits Pak's attention on a corner of the desk. In this tiny office, deals and careers are made.

Pak and Rose Tsai are not even on speaking terms. Tsai and the Neighbors' Association dislike Pak because of her proximity to the mayor, and her role as a "gatekeeper" to Chinatown.

"She's a force that's trying to undermine political empowerment, because the more people who learn about the political process don't need to depend on her to get political access," Tsai claims.

"They're jealous because they think I have a lot of influence," Pak retorts, lighting yet another cigarette.

She accuses Julie Lee of being two-faced. "She says these bad things about me being the mayor's lap dog, then she comes up to me like this." Pak affects a grotesque grimace, scrunching up her eyes and grinning like a jack-o'-lantern. "And she calls me dai jeh ['big sister'] Rose."

Just then, Pak's secretary knocks at the door. Senate leader John Burton's office is on the phone. Pak picks up the line: "Hi -- so where is Johnny? I have to talk to him personally."

The most powerful Democrat in the state of California -- "Johnny" -- will call her back late at night, at home.

She continues. "They say they empower people." A contemptuous snort. "They empower themselves."

Pak is one of at least a dozen of the Neighbors' Association's sworn enemies. Randy Shaw, who first crossed swords with the group over the OMI issue, is another. Compared to what Shaw wrote about the SFNA in a recent issue of the Frontlines newspaper, Rose Pak's comments seem positively polite.

Shaw's article in the left-leaning publication unleashed a host of unsubstantiated allegations that link Lee and Tsai to virtually everything except the Kennedy assassination -- even claims that the two are agents of the Christian Right and the Taiwanese government.

But Lee and Tsai don't seem terribly bothered by these or any other allegations.

"They say what they like. We don't care," Lee says lightly.

The San Francisco Neighbors' Association's long-term impact remains to be seen. Rose Tsai is not as popular as the SFNA would have you believe -- even though, for the past several weeks, Lee has been telling reporters that a recent survey by the Committee on Jobs showed Tsai was twice as popular as Super-visor Mabel Teng in the Asian-American community.

But according to a survey on a number of public policy issues by the San Francisco business community at the beginning of this year, 71 percent of the Asian-Americans polled had never even heard of Rose Tsai.

Tsai is deliberately vague about the SFNA's specific plans for the coming year. She says the group is taking a rest, recuperating from the Prop. H campaign and trying to recover its campaign debt.

"I think this year we want to focus more on voter registration and getting out the vote," says Tsai.

Though Tsai is running for the County Democratic Central Committee, she says she's weighing whether she would be more effective inside City Hall or as an outside agitator. She says the SFNA's main objective is to get the mayor to listen to the concerns of the west side.

Meanwhile, Brown spokeswoman Kandace Bender dismisses the SFNA's claims that the mayor has ignored the Richmond and Sunset districts.

"The mayor pays attention to the whole city," says Bender.

The Neighbors' Association's real chance to seize power will come in 2000, when the introduction of district elections will allow voters to elect candidates directly from their neighborhoods. The SFNA hopes to elect three candidates to the Board of Supervisors who are pro-west side and pro-Chinese-American. And they want a mayor who's "responsive" to the Chinese-American community.

Supervisor Leland Yee is one possible candidate who fits the SFNA's description. Yee himself politely declines to say if he is considering a bid for mayor. He will only say that he would support Rose Tsai for supervisor.

But the increasingly close relationship between Yee and the SFNA suggests that the former school board member and the neighborhood organization have definite plans for the future.

As the next election approaches, Yee is making a decided effort to define who and what he represents. The supervisor has made himself much more visible in recent months, writing op-ed pieces in the daily papers and even launching his own Web site complete with color head shots and discussion groups.

And the issues he's chosen to taken on are the very concerns that are dear to the SFNA -- neighborhood, taxpayer, and property owner issues.

Courting the Chinese-American vote is a wise move for Yee and any other politician with an eye on the next city election. Chinese-Americans currently account for 18 percent of the city's 411,000 registered voters, and pollsters expect that percentage to grow significantly in the next two years -- particularly on the west side.

It will be impossible for the next mayor of San Francisco to ignore the city's Chinese-American community -- and if the SFNA's membership continues to thrive, impossible to ignore the specific concerns of the group.

But what Tsai and the SFNA do in the next mayoral race will show if getting Willie Brown's ear is enough for the Neighbors' Association members -- or if what they really want is his head.

No one in the city's traditional power circles seemed to have a clue that perhaps divergent interests and political views might exist within the Chinese-American population.

"They [the SFNA] represent empowering neighborhoods and communities, helping with the self-sufficiency of individuals," Supervisor Leland Yee says. "They're winners."

One of the loudest voices in the Chinese community doesn't like Tsai and Lee much. Ask Rose Pak about the SFNA and be prepared to get an earful.

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