Members of the Mission District Chinese community reacted with varying degrees of surprise, sadness and bitterness to the sudden death of Mayor Ed Lee, who collapsed from an apparent heart attack on Monday at around 10:30 p.m. while shopping at the Safeway near his home in Glen Park.
“I was so shocked this morning,” Tina Tsang, who owns City Discount Meat & Grocery at 19th and Mission street, said on Tuesday. “I can’t believe it happened.”
Tsang said she thought Lee’s reign had an overall positive effect on the city’s economy — and, generally speaking, she thought he pulled for small businesses like hers.
Andy, a co-owner of Sun Fat Seafood on Mission Street, was surprised this morning when he heard the news. “He’s one of the most famous Chinese people I know,” he said.
But, while Andy felt it was good to have an Asian mayor, he at times felt neglected by Lee as a small business owner in a rapidly changing neighborhood like the Mission. In 2013, the Mission’s Asian population was 12 percent.
“He did a lot for the Chinese community, but the Mission changed a lot, and we’ve been recently losing a lot of business,” he said. “He’s a good guy, but sometimes he didn’t do enough to protect small Chinese businesses.”
Lai Lee Choy, 84, said through an interpreter that she thought Lee was far too young to die and still had a strong political future ahead of him. Lee was the city’s first Asian American mayor.
“He was also the face that represented the Asian American community,” she said, sitting in the foyer of the Bethany Center. “It’s good to have a Chinese mayor, because he knows the culture of the Chinese community, and there’s a bridge, and he can represent us.”
Jackie Tan, 23, who works at the Bethany Center, said he met Lee twice during charity and volunteering events. “He seemed like a nice guy,” Tan said.
Tan, who speaks Cantonese, said with Lee it was “definitely easier for Chinese people to speak up for what they wanted to change in San Francisco.”
But, like Andy at Sun Fat Seafood, some business owners felt that the first Chinese mayor had not done enough. Lee, a manager at Casa Thai Market on 16th and Mission streets, said that, although Mayor Ed Lee was great for the economy and “everyone loved him” for it, some issues could have used more of his attention.
“Can’t say much about the homeless,” he said, pointing around the 16th Street BART Plaza.
Tsang, the owner of the 19th and Mission market, agreed. “Maybe he could have done the homeless situation better,” she said.
Others, like Annie Luo, who runs a Chinese restaurant on Mission Street, said she and many in Chinese community felt abandoned by Lee as he supported retail cannabis in more family-oriented neighborhoods like the Sunset.
“Didn’t he know anything about Chinese history?” she said, referring to the drug stigma Chinese people sometimes hold because of China’s history with the opium trade.
Luo said that she and around 100 Asian-American residents recently demonstrated twice in front of Lee’s house before he signed the city’s retail cannabis law on Dec. 6.
“He didn’t even open the door,” she said. “We were so disappointed — we wanted to sit down and talk, and he didn’t want to talk at all.”
But she also said the dissatisfaction in the community had been building “day by day, week by week, year by year,” largely because, in the face of mounting unaffordability in the city, Lee remained partitioned off from their concerns.
“Even though we pushed his doorbell, and even at his office, he didn’t open up at all,” she said. “He didn’t listen to you.”