San Francisco’s Chinatown was quiet on Saturday just days after the FBI raided a neighborhood association there. (Vinnee Tong/KQED)

In the wake of  last week‘s arrest of state Sen. Leland Yee, one of the state’s best-known Asian-American politicians, some of the Chinese-Americans he represents in San Francisco are asking how the political scandal reflects on them.

Yee was the first Chinese-American to be elected to the state Senate. Many people admired his public record on a number of issues, such as gun control, government transparency and gay marriage. And his indictment seemed to come just as some Asian-Americans were feeling that they had made some progress in the political arena.

Now, some Chinese-Americans say they’re disappointed. Or even worse, the arrest makes them feel ashamed.

Yee was arrested last week — along with 25 others — after a lengthy FBI investigation that led to charges against various defendants of corruption, money laundering, drug distribution and gun dealing. Longtime Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, an ex-convict who claimed he’d gone straight, was one of those arrested.

Joyce Chen, assistant chief editor of the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily, said many Chinese people are taken aback at the news. They’re simply having trouble resolving the public image Yee had built as one of the most prominent Chinese-American politicians with the potty-mouthed Yee who the FBI described in a 137-page affidavit supporting the criminal complaint that was filed.

“Even the ones who knew him from public service, as a public official, say (he’s) not the one we know,” Chen said. “It’s not the Leland Yee we know.”

Those who have followed Yee’s career say he has more political support from the west side of town, closer to San Francisco’s two newer Chinatowns on Clement Street in the Richmond District and Irving Street in the Sunset.

In the Sunset District, where Yee lives, some say he has let them down.

“I felt like it was bad reflection on Chinese people, the Chinese-American people,” said Jennifer Cheung, who is 21 and a student at San Francisco State University. “This person who is high profile, in the public eye, and represents Chinese Americans in the government and California in general. It’s just frustrating. It reflects negatively not just on him but the group he represents.”

Another longtime Sunset resident, 21-year-old Matthew Louie,  said it’s downright shameful.

“To have Leland Yee represent the Chinese in San Francisco, and have these accusations brought against him of illegal weapons dealing, wire fraud, things of that nature, just looks poorly in front of us, as he represents the Chinese people in Chinatown and in San Francisco,” Louie said.

Yet there are those in the community who are feeling more protective, as if maybe Yee didn’t deserve this fate.

“Some people may think there’s something behind it, (like) is it a conspiracy,” Chen said.

Chinatown businessman Peter Kwan is a Yee supporter. He thinks Yee’s downfall was getting mixed up with the likes of Raymond Chow.

“Regarding this whatever you call it, corruption, whatever, it could be very complicated,” Kwan said. “And I believe in some way, he might have been, I couldn’t say framed, but it’s something like a setup.”

Meanwhile, some in the community worry that people might start to think that triads, drugs and guns are just part of the fabric of Chinatown.

Walking around Chinatown, you don’t get the sense that there’s an underground crime syndicate there. What you get is tourists, dim sum places and tchotchke shops.

The neighborhood is relatively sleepy today, versus a few decades ago when gang activity was a headline staple. This is partly why people were so shocked by Yee’s arrest — and even Chow’s.

The coverage of their arrests certainly made Chinatown seem to have a sleazy underbelly. And this, Chen said, is making some Chinese people feel defensive about how the neighborhood is being portrayed.

“About Chinatown itself, we covered some people having complaints about why the media is already focusing on Chinatown, the triads, all the tongs,” Chen said. “They think it’s back to the ‘70s or ‘80s or ‘90s, like a crime scene everywhere, like underworld Chinatown. But that’s not really true now. That’s not true nowadays.”

What San Francisco’s Chinese-Americans Are Saying About Leland Yee 25 April,2014Vinnee Tong



Vinnee Tong

Vinnee Tong is a producer working on Bay Curious at KQED. She produced Truth Be Told, the award-winning KQED series on race and identity distributed nationally by Public Radio International.

Before KQED, she was a print reporter at the Associated Press. Awards for her reporting work include an RTNDA Edward R. Murrow Award, as well as awards from the New York Press Club and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

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