Rose Pak, notorious Chinatown activist and the supposed mastermind behind the Run, Ed, Run campaign, is one of the best-known characters in San Francisco. This week, SF Weekly sat down to dish with Pak about politics, her projects and passions, and life before becoming the biggest power broker in San Francisco.
Last time: Pak railed on State Senator Leland Yee and talked about her 40-year-long battle for the Central Subway. This installment: Pak talks writing for the Chron in the '70s, and the daily battles she wages on behalf of the Chinese Americans in the city.
You were a reporter before you became a community activist. Where did you work?
[Pak laughs] Chronicle.
That was the time that Nixon went to China, so everything Chinese was a hot topic. I think the newspapers were a little schizo then, on one hand they loved to cover anything Chinese, and on the other hand, a lot of it was skin-deep and very shallow, because there was so little understanding of the Chinese or anything associated with China. So you're trying to tell them that there's a Chinese-American community here for over 160 years and there's nothing exotic about it. You try to tell them that Chinese is different from Koreans is different from Japanese. I get so tired of people asking me: "don't you people speak the same language?" The Korean president was in town and they expected me to speak Korean to cover the guy because he didn't speak English, and I was trying to tell them they're two different cultures and languages.
So finally I told them, let me, once and for all, tell you what's the difference between the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. I told them, it's by looking at our eyes: the Koreans, their eyes slant up. The Japanese, their eyes slant down, and the Chinese, one goes each way. [Pak roars with laughter]
Why did you move into politics?
By necessity. They were going to shut down the Chinese hospital and their board called me up and said: "Ms. Pak, we need your advice. You are in the newspaper business and so you know the regulations a lot better." The hospital had received a notice from the state board that gave them five working days to shut down the hospital, and I said: "What?!" I looked into it and the board claimed that the old hospital stairwell did not confirm to the fire code -- too narrow. And I go: "It's been in existence for 60 years, and now you're shutting them down because their staircase is too narrow, huh? And deprive the community of its only bilingual hospital? Are you nuts?"
So I took a leave and I went and organized the hospitals. And then my mother died and so I didn't need to work for a job to send home money, and I reexamined my life to see what was the most important thing -- to pursue a journalism career or to work for the community, teaching them how to organize and how to fight? I found that I have talent for organizing community and getting groups together, so I thought it was more important that I do that.
What is a typical day like for you?
I'm located in the heart of Chinatown, and I have a cubicle room in the Chamber of Commerce. People generally just come in with whatever problem they have, whether it is deportation papers, being unfairly arrested, or being evicted. I just pick up those things and try to help resolve it. So I spend 80 percent of my time dealing with this kind of thing, rather than the those "big" things. You just run from one meeting to another and sometimes you win and you help those people, and sometimes you lose and you can't help those people.
Sometimes it's very frustrating, and some days you are just overwhelmed. You just have so many hours a day and you can only do so much but each and every one is life and death to that person, to that family. So just one thing after another. It's nonstop.
I never feel disloyal when I'm proud of my heritage or if China did something right, like when they hosted the Olympics I was very proud. I have no problem. I don't feel torn between China or the U.S. I was just as loud cheering the U.S. team as I was cheering the Chinese team. In basketball, Americans were the favorite to win, so I would have been terribly disappointed if they lost, but for ping-pong, I was shouting until I lost my voice, cheering for the Chinese. I have no problem moving from one to the other, and I think I'm lucky that way because I feel very secure in who I am.
You've been called things like "the Red Queen" and "Chinatown's biggest powerbroker." How would you describe yourself?
I'm a community activist. I fight for my community, that's all.