Jean Quan and Ed Lee had a lot in common: Both had parents who worked in restaurants. Both grew up poor and lost their fathers at young ages. They were among the first Asian-Americans to become mayors of major U.S. cities.
Their friendship began long before they rose to leadership — Quan was elected mayor of Oakland, and Lee was appointed to San Francisco’s top job. They took office within days of each other in January 2011.
The two met in their early 20s. They were united in fighting for affordable housing and immigrant rights, Lee as a member of the Asian Law Caucus.
“A lot of us activists worked in San Francisco then because San Francisco Chinatown was being squeezed by the Financial District,” Quan said. “So that’s how I got to know Ed.”
Among Lee’s notable battles was his role in the ultimately unsuccessful 1977 fight to stop evictions from the International Hotel, the center of San Francisco’s old Manilatown.
“I think that he really had a passion for tenants rights and working with people around housing because he himself grew up in the projects,” Quan said.
She said there were lesser-known efforts by Lee to help keep immigrants in their homes and preserve their communities intact. One of those episodes, Quan recalled, involved a single-room-occupancy complex known as Orangeland, located above a Chinatown produce market. Some 176 people, many of them seniors, faced eviction as the property was due to be demolished for a new development.
“There were so many Chinese-American men who were separated from their families because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, never got reunited,” Quan says. “So there are a lot of single elderly Chinese men living in these single-room hotels, and if these went there would be no place for them to go.”
With help from Chinatown activist Rose Pak — a key future ally of Lee’s — the complex was saved.
When Lee became San Francisco’s mayor, it forced him to govern more toward the center, Quan said. He’s remembered as being a calm and hardworking leader — but Quan says she knows some dismissed him as a bureaucrat after his long career as an administrator.
“I think that sort of hurt his feelings,” Quan said. “He always felt like he should have been given a little credit for his roots.”
As leaders of two major Bay Area cities, Quan and Lee were sometimes rivals. Quan remembers trying to convince tech companies to relocate to Oakland. Of course, both cities have competed for the Golden State Warriors. But she said they also coordinated and shared ideas about how to lead cities that are often out front on progressive issues, discussing tactics like how to message the public to defend sanctuary city policies.
The two also had the added responsibility of representing Asian-Americans in leadership positions.
“We spent a lot of time trying to represent and raise the profile of Asian-Americans,” Quan said. “Today, there are a lot of Asian-Americans running for a lot of things.”
One of Quan’s fondest memories of Lee happened during the ceremonial reopening of the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
The photo op, she said, reminded her of a famous picture taken in 1869 at the opening of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory, Utah. The photo features white men and excludes the Chinese laborers who built much of the railroad. The picture of Lee and Quan on the Bay Bridge more than a century later somewhat reversed that image, she said.
“It was sort of a joke between us. This time the Chinese were in the middle,” Quan said.