Our honorable and respected elder, the mayor of San Francisco Edwin Mah Lee, has passed away this Dec 12, 2017, from a cardiac arrest. He was born on May 5th, 1952 in Seattle, Washington to humble Chinese immigrants from Taishan, Guangdong, China. From his humble beginnings, he rose to power during one of the most turbulent economic eras in American history. He was able to work with diverse groups and helped to bring back an economic resurgence by working with the tech industry. This helped to develop high growth at the price of gentrification; which impacted the subsequent homeless crisis that arose from the income inequality. Still, through all of the controversy or turmoil during his reign, his rise to power in the very city which had earlier evoked the discriminatory, xenophobic and racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, signified a new more egalitarian, proud and empowering moment as he became the first Asian American mayor of San Francisco.
“As a Chinese-American, I am well aware of my community’s long and troubled and proud history in this city,” said Edwin Mah Lee. “The San Francisco of old was directly involved in racism and neglect. The San Francisco that I fought as an attorney began to change.”
Ed’s parents originally immigrated to America in the 1930’s and his father, Gok Suey Lee, would serve in the Korean War. He would still face discrimination in America and struggled to survive with his wife in public housing. His mother worked as a seamstress and waitress in order to support their six kids. When Edwin was just 15, his father died. He then had to work in order to help support his mother and his five siblings.
All of these burdens growing up in an immigrant Chinese American family left hard impressions about his identity, rights and place in American society. He grew up facing discrimination and wanted to change things for immigrants, workers and human rights.
He would show his hard work ethic and talents by earning his J.D. at the UC Berkeley School of Law. As a civil rights attorney, he defended poor tenants during housing issues. In our Asian American Community, he would become a leading force at the San Francisco Asian Law Caucus. Later he moved on to work in housing, human rights, public works and as a city administrator before assuming the role of Mayor from Gavin Newsom. However, it was when Rose Pak and many supporters started to galvanize the run Ed, run slogan that his election became an important edifying moment for Asian Americans.
Unfortunately, things would sour between Ed Lee and his support base as he began to reach out to the more powerful tech industry and elites; this further stratified the economic divide in the city. The poor were being squeezed out as the city was transforming into a vibrant, innovative, expensive and world leading but gentrified metropolis. The poor just didn’t fit into the mix and Ed tried to alleviate things unsuccessfully.
A bright spot was the announcement of free community college for local residents. From his years of growing up as a working student, Ed came to understand the importance of helping his community gain more access to education. Community colleges also provide a lot of vocational training that can lead to better employment. Someday, a forest will bloom out of these fruitful seeds.
What people will always remember was his commitment to immigrants and his support in keeping San Francisco a sanctuary city. Again this was consistent with his history of supporting immigrants as he himself grew up in a poor immigrant family.
However, some of the last shining moments of his legacy will be in improving international relations with China, a rising trade and tourist power, and supporting the Comfort Women statue memorial. This was a bold move that alienated San Francisco from some right-wing or extremist Japanese supporters who regard the Comfort Women as propaganda instead of a factually, historically accurate or proven system of sexual slavery. Human rights were supported in the face of international pressure.
In the end, may our community reflect upon his acts, sacrifices, collusions and triumphs through an objective lens. No matter your position on his political actions he did make history for our people, fight for human rights and oversaw a prime era of economic and technological innovation, vertical expansion and high-growth that made San Francisco the dynamic, cosmopolitan and world-class city it is today.
“Our struggle is here, and it is succeeding.”
– Edwin Mah Lee
Edwin Mah Lee, leaves behind his beloved wife Anita, and daughters, Brianna and Tania. May they have peace, closure and support during this difficult loss. Please, show respect for his family and honor his legacy.
Public Service History
2010 – 2017 Mayor of San Francisco
2005 – 2010 City Administrator
2000 – 2005 Director, Department of Public Works
1996 – 2000 Director, City Purchasing Department
1991 – 1996 Director, Human Rights Commission
1989 – 1991 Whistleblower Ordinance Investigator & Deputy Director of Employment Relations
1979-1989 Managing Attorney at the San Francisco Asian Law Caucus