Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

San Francisco's first Chinese American mayor

Photo by Steve Rhodes/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The city whose past is perhaps most closely intertwined with Asian immigrant history, including its most troubled periods, has achieved a milestone: San Francisco has its first Asian American mayor.

Yesterday's swearing-in of City Administrator Ed Lee as interim mayor came after a flurry of political jockeying as city leaders scurried to fill the seat being vacated by former mayor and now Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, who was sworn in to his new office Monday.

Lee was voted in by the city's Board of Supervisors and is expected to serve only until next January, when the winner of next November's mayoral race would take over. He has said he will resume his previous post after the temporary term, limiting his long-term influence.

Still, the selection of Lee as mayor is seen as a symbolic victory in a city that is synonymous with Asian immigrant history.

Attracted to the United States by railroad jobs and the gold rush, Chinese immigrants began settling in San Francisco's Chinatown in the middle part of the 19th century. The resulting cultural and political backlash helped give rise to a movement that would eventually lead to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a federal law that banned most immigration from China and paved the way for measures that further discriminated against Asians. The San Francisco Bay became home to the Angel Island immigration station, where would-be immigrants not allowed in, most of them from Asia, were detained.

Asian immigrants and their descendants still make up a large chunk of San Francisco's population. Lee, 58, is the son of Chinese immigrants who settled in Seattle. He is a former civil rights attorney and a Democrat.

The San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus issued this statement:

"This is an historic moment for our great City," said Titi Liu, ALC's Executive Director. "It signals a new era in San Francisco government and also for the city's residents, over thirty percent of whom are Asian American."

Lee's ascent to the office also means that the greater urban Bay Area is now under the leadership of Asian American mayors; Jean Quan was sworn in as mayor of Oakland last week.

A story in the Bay Citizen last week described Lee as having been little known in the mainstream media until now, but quite familiar to the city's Chinese American community and local Chinese language publications. New American Media had a piece that should answer the question, "Who is Ed Lee? Ask Chinese Media." The Bay Citizen also recently published an interesting behind-the-scenes piece as to how Lee was chosen.

There is also a gushing and very funny fan site, mayorlee.com.

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