Since the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Va., set off white nationalist protests in August 2017, the question of whose legacies get to be honored has been asked ad nauseum.
San Francisco took down the Early Days statue at Civic Center over its depiction of Native Americans, renamed Phelan Avenue to Frida Kahlo Way, and stripped the name of destructive redeveloper Justin Herman from the plaza at Embarcadero. But in potentially naming a station on the city’s yet-to-open Central Subway after Rose Pak — the Chinatown activist and political powerhouse credited with making it possible — a proactive, but still controversial, effort has emerged.
Once it opens in February 2020, the new subway line will redirect the T-Third line, mostly underneath Fourth Street from the Caltrain station at King Street. At Market Street, the tunnel continues up Stockton Street, stopping at Washington Street in Chinatown.
Among other things, Pak is widely credited with persuading the federal government to contribute $500 million to a Central Subway for San Francisco. She died on Sept. 18, 2016, at age 68.
The Board of Supervisors quickly passed a resolution in October of that year to name the future Chinatown stop “Rose Pak Station.” In turn, the SFMTA adopted a policy in 2016 requiring that stations be named after geographic locations — ostensibly to avoid confusion — and the James Alley off Jackson Street was named “Rose Pak’s Way” instead.
As a compromise, Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced a second resolution in April to name it “Chinatown Rose Pak Station.” The SFMTA Board of Directors has yet to make a decision, after being split 3-3 and short one member at its meeting on Tuesday.
“This did not come without struggle,” Sunny Angulo, legislative aide to Peskin, told the SFMTA Board on Tuesday, about the Central Subway. “Rose was the one that did the work to make sure that it happened. I think it’s right to memorialize a legacy that is pro-transportation and pro-public transportation at a time when our public transportation system is under attack.”
The resolution recounts Pak’s trailblazing life as a Chinese refugee who grew up in Hong Kong and became the first female Asian American journalist at the Chronicle — only to leave journalism in 1979 to advocate for Chinatown. She was described as instrumental in attracting funding to open new facilities for the Chinese Hospital on Jackson Street and tried to get the Embarcadero Freeway rebuilt after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In the mid-1990s, she would begin advocating for the Central Subway to be aligned with Chinatown.
As she pushed for healthcare, affordable housing, transportation, and pedestrian safety in the neighborhood, she quickly became a fixture in City Hall — and one that politicians didn’t want to cross. Pak was often dubbed as a “power broker,” but dismissed the term. Nonetheless, her legacy looms large, and she already has affordable housing sites dedicated after her.
“I think she didn’t like the connotation that she was trying to control politics for the entire community,” says Gordon Chin, the founding director of the Chinatown Community Development Center and longtime friend of Pak’s. “She belied the stereotype of the quiet Asian woman. You cannot be a high-profile advocate without ruffling some feathers.”
Pak pushed for Asian American representation at City Hall, from elected officials like the late Mayor Ed Lee and former Supervisor Jane Kim, to department heads or commissioners. But she was public about her disappointment in elected officials she backed, such as when Lee appointed Julie Christensen to District 3 Supervisor after David Chiu was elected to the California Assembly. (Christensen later lost to Peskin.)
Phil Chin, a Chinatown activist who worked for former mayors Art Agnos and Willie Brown, admitted that, though he knew of Pak, he didn’t want to talk to her at first “because I heard she was pretty scary.” When asked if she lived up to that when they ultimately met around 1980, he added, “Oh, yeah!” (He and Gordon Chin are not related, although they were roommates decades ago.)
But that feeling faded in the early 1990s, after Pak invited herself and members of the Chinese press over for dinner.
“When she stepped into my house, she told me I needed to prune my rose bushes. Who does that?” Phil Chin asks, still incredulous. “It takes a long time for you to feel like it’s not personal when she’s criticizing. She’s doing it in the spirit of letting you know. Some people take it personally and feel insulted.”
The bitterness can linger. Falun Gong, an international group with members in San Francisco, has led the cause to stop the city from naming the subway station after someone they regarded as a bully and as an agent of the Chinese Communist Party. Pak drew the group’s ire after banning them from the Chinese New Year Parade in 2006 for violating parade rules by distributing political leaflets.
Now, Falun Gong charges that Pak discriminated against them and that naming the station after her would violate the Civil Rights Act.
“The San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ renewed attempt to name the new Chinatown subway station after Rose Pak is a disheartening decision,” says Alicia Zhao, spokesperson for the Coalition Against Naming After Rose Pak. “It indicates a lack of acknowledgment and respect towards the constituents and general public’s wishes.”
The coalition and several public commenters on Tuesday also don’t want Pak to be given sole credit, as many others in Chinatown pushed for the subway as well. Others also alleged that she bullied merchants in the neighborhood. But with or without naming the Central Subway after Pak, those pushing for the naming feel it’s appropriate given that she played a significant role in the project.
And though it’s been two and a half years since she passed, Gordon Chin is still reminding people that they shouldn’t wait for another person like her to come along. The Rose Pak Community Fund and Rose Pak Democratic Club, at least, take up some of the mantle.
“We have perhaps, at times, had been too dependent on the strong leader Rose was,” Chin says. “Rose would be the first to say that we need as many voices as possible. We all need to have a little Rose Pak inside of us now.”