Huan Zheng Fang was already into his 30s and considered an aging bachelor. So, when his boss in Kaiping, a riverfront city in southern China, set him up with a young lady, he was happy for the referral.
Not that he would have refused. Those were bleak times, and to potentially offend his superior and lose his government job would have carried dire consequences: Fang, now 73, “would’ve had to go back to the countryside,” he says through a Cantonese translator. “There was not much food back then.”
Whatever his other skills, however, it seems Fang’s boss was a skilled matchmaker. The young lady, Rui Xia Zhen, turned out to be the love of Fang’s life. They were married in 1978 and emigrated to San Francisco in 2004. Zhen earned her U.S. citizenship and was able to bring their only child, Zhuorong “Ray” Fang, over in 2010. The couple lived in a small Chinatown apartment on her earnings as a caretaker of the elderly and his as a restaurant janitor, a job from which he retired several years back. They didn’t have much, but they did have each other.
Fang wears a blue puffy jacket, a crumpled white baseball cap and round eyeglasses with tortoiseshell frames. The memories of his early days with his wife are happy ones, but there are no smiles.
On March 1, 2020, on the cusp of the pandemic and lockdown, Zhen was on her way to care for an elderly person whom she had been working with for a decade. In the security video from within the Walgreen’s on Geary and Taylor, she moves with a litheness and speed that belie her 67 years.
If she had been weaker and slower, none of this would’ve come to pass. She would still be alive today.
In the security footage, Zhen steps out of the Walgreen’s at around 7:25 a.m. and heads briskly across Geary in the crosswalk. In the blink of an eye, a San Francisco Public Works pickup truck turning left onto Geary barrels through the crosswalk; the disparity in size between Zhen and the oversize truck, and the deadly quickness of the incident, bring to mind videos of a shark attack.
It is a horrific sight: The hood of the truck is at shoulder-level for Zhen; it strikes her and drives her back onto the pavement. Her goods scatter on the red transit lane and her arms splay across the ground.
She was transported to San Francisco General Hospital and, at 8:03 a.m., pronounced dead.
Fang lost his wife of 41 years, his partner, his friend, and the household’s sole earner. These are bleak times, and there is not much food right now. When asked how he survives on his $434 monthly retirement checks, he replies that he’s frugal. He’ll have a bowl of oatmeal in the morning. Maybe some rice in the afternoon. And that’s it.
“We had a very nice family. Now it’s breaking apart. That’s the thing,” Fang says. “And I am in my 70s. I don’t know my future.”
So, in a flash, Zhen was gone. But everything since then has gone slowly. Ray Fang raced back from New Jersey to help his father, quitting his job and indefinitely delaying his wedding. He is unable to find work and now both men spend their days in a forced idleness, sitting together in an apartment that feels both crowded and empty.
“I feel like this city,” says Ray Fang, “is just going through the motions.”
The Fang’s attorney, Joseph Breall, has thoughts on this. He accuses the city of both lowballing his clients and slow-walking this case, dragging things out for an impoverished and elderly widower.
“It’s not like the city has said, ‘I hate your client, I will never help you,’” Breall says. “It’s just disregard.”
After an elaborate song and dance over whether a trial date could even be set prior to resolution of the pending misdemeanor criminal case against the truck’s driver, Breall prevailed — but the trial isn’t scheduled until summer of next year. That’s a full 28 months after Zhen’s death.
Breall’s brief calling for the setting of a trial date, incidentally, cited Clinton v. Jones, in which President Clinton’s attempts to defer a day in court until out of office were thwarted.
The city, meanwhile, has stated that it is willing to assume liability for Zhen’s death “for the purposes of mediation and settlement discussions.” But it has not yet agreed to admit liability at any trial.
Considering that a city truck blasted through a crosswalk and killed someone, it’s a bit jarring that there is any discussion about liability at all. Perhaps, à la Bill Clinton, it depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is.
And then there’s the money. The city, per Breall, has started at $600,000 and got as high as $950,000. Breall started at $6 million but has subsequently come down to $2 million.
Placing dollar values on deceased individuals is not a haphazard affair. And it is more desirable for cities to run over 67-year-old caregivers than 27-year-old hedge fund managers, as tabulations are made considering future earnings — which also take into account the life expectancies of dependants.
A forensic economics report prepared by Robert W. Johnson and Associates pegs Zhen’s lost income at $1.65 million, if one assumes Fang lives to age 85. The report breaks down dollar figures into “expected income,” “other income,” “Social Security income,” and “household services,” while subtracting “personal consumption.”
The City Attorney’s office is not yet ready to accept the report as gospel.
“What happened to Ms. Zhen is heartbreaking, and we understand families often want litigation to be resolved quickly,” responds City Attorney spokesman John Coté. “But we have an obligation to provide the best legal representation possible to the City, its taxpayers, and its employees. We enter into fair and cost-effective settlements where and when appropriate, but we don’t negotiate them in the press. In this matter, we are having productive discussions, and we’re hopeful an appropriate resolution can be reached.”
The calculating and cold-hearted method of figuring the earning potential of the deceased doesn’t take into account whether the deceased was a good person or not.
But, before we tumble too deeply into the rabbit hole of legal tactics and dollar figures and Clinton v. Jones, let it be known that Zhen was a beloved friend and colleague.
Keith Riley, who served 10 years in the army, breaks down into tears when asked about the woman he unabashedly calls “my sister.”
“She was feisty. Up for a fight. She would always speak up for people’s rights, workers’ rights,” says Riley, who served alongside Zhen on the executive board of the SEIU 2015 longterm caregivers’ union. “She worked down the street from me. I saw her all the time. She’d come home from work late and go into work early.”
Daisy McArthur, also a union caregiver, saw Zhen only shortly before her death. They were on opposite sides of the street. They waved. And that was that.
“You know, she was just a kind-hearted person. She came to the [union] meetings, she always brought food for the members,” says McArthur. Zhen, in fact, made sure her neighbors had enough to eat. She also kept an eye on homeless people. Nobody would have to go back to the countryside while she was around.
“She was the type of person who was hands-on. She’d say ‘Miss Daisy, let me help you with this meeting; sit down, I’ll serve everybody.’ And I’d say, ‘No, baby.’ And she’d say, ‘Miss Daisy, you work so hard.’”
A client of McArthur’s recently celebrated his 100th birthday. Not long before, he’d asked after Zhen. “He was 99, so I told him ‘she’s busy. She’ll be here.’” McArthur sighs. “But, you know.”
When McArthur thinks about Zhen on the job, she has to go to another room. “My client is 100, but he can tell when something’s on my mind, heavy. I’m telling you, she was taken from us too soon.”
“It’s a great loss. A great loss,” she continues. “She was bursting with love and kindness. She was just a blooming flower who bloomed all the time.”
While lawyers argue over numbers and time keeps on slipping, Huan Zheng Fang carries on. There’s not much to do and he doesn’t do much; he marks his days in single, desultory bowls of oatmeal.
When asked what justice would look like in this case, he quietly responds, “I don’t know how to fight for it.”
“She is dead. And you cannot make her come alive again.”
Update, May 27: Many readers have reached out and asked if there is something they can do to help Huan Zheng Fang and Ray Fang. On Wednesday, this GoFundMe was organized by the Community Youth Center of San Francisco.