San Francisco Subway Debate Triggers Insults

September 8, 2011 7:41 pm Last Updated: February 8, 2013 9:10 pm

SAN FRANCISCO—Discussions about the Central Subway, a controversial megaproject that could cost more than $1.6 billion, have become a one-sided food fight recently with statements by prominent figures in the Chinese community calling opponents to the project “political rats” with ulterior and even racist motives.

A press event held at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association on Sept. 6 extolled the benefits of the project while decrying local political figures who have come out against it, mostly for fiscal reasons.

That was followed up with more strenuous remarks in Sing Tao, a Beijing-friendly daily, on Sept. 7.

The article said that after 30 years of great efforts by the Chinatown community, business and community leaders “dearly hope” that the plan won’t become a “political pawn.”

Norman Fong, deputy director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, was quoted as pleading: “Please don’t turn the Central Subway into a political football,” and “Do not politicize the dreams of the community.”

In a manner typical of contemporary mainland Chinese political discourse, sources quoted in the Sing Tao article read deeply into the motivations of Aaron Peskin and Dennis Herrera—beyond anything the two had said publicly. Peskin is former President of the Board of Supervisors and current head of the San Francisco Democratic Party. Herrera is City Attorney.

Sing Tao paraphrased Raymond Mah, President of Yeong Wo Benevolent Association, as saying, “They’re using this to oppose Chinese people supporting a Chinese mayor, it’s a form of discrimination against the Chinese community.”

The most caustic remarks came from Rose Pak, a behind-the-scenes dealmaker with a thick Rolodex.

Pak, whose official title is “general consultant” to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, but whose influence extends far beyond it, is regularly sought out for a stinging quote in the local pages of Sing Tao.

She called Peskin and Herrera “political rats” and told them that they could “go somewhere else to make your living, don’t come to Chinatown.” She said there was no way for the project to turn back now, and that opponents to it are putting up resistance at this point because their election strategies have “reached a dead-end.”

In desperation they use “despicable means,” Sing Tao paraphrases her as saying. She then says: “Usually they speak nicely, because there are so many Chinese in San Francisco. But now there’s a chance that a Chinese will become mayor, and some people don’t want to see that happen, so they don’t stint from attacking the Chinese community. This is fundamentally racism.”

What Pak had in bluster Li Zhensheng, a senior member of the Lee On Dong community association, had in drama. He was quoted as saying that Herrera had “stabbed a knife into my heart,” and that in order to win votes, Herrera “does not stint from bullying minority groups.”

The racial recriminations are the continuation of charges leveled by Rose Pak and Sing Tao, and later adopted by mayoral candidate Ed Lee, after Peskin told The Epoch Times that he thinks Lee is Pak’s political tool, and that Pak serves the interests of communist China.

The Central Subway is a 1.7-mile line that is supposed to ease congestion on crowded Chinatown buses. It will link Little Hollywood and Visitación Valley with SoMa (South of Market), Moscone Center, Union Square, and Chinatown.

Peskin and Herrera had much more pedestrian explanations for withdrawing their support from the Central Subway than those attributed to them in Sing Tao: a ballooning budget and not enough delivered for the cost. While the majority of the upfront costs would be footed by the U.S. federal government and the California state government, San Francisco would have to pay for the estimated $15 million in yearly maintenance and cost overruns.

Those fiscal concerns were originally set out at length by the Civil Grand Jury, which in a July publication titled “Too Much Money for Too Little Benefit” urged a complete redesign of the project.

Herrera was rumored to be holding a press conference about the project this week, but yesterday his office was unable to substantiate that. Herrera and Peskin were unable to be reached for comment today.

According to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Central Subway project has been pushed by “shameless power brokers” like Rose Pak and former Mayor Willie Brown.

Brown is close friends with former top executive at AECOM, the main contractor for the Central Subway (and other major projects), and Pak has ties with Chinatown businesses and non-profits, like the Chinatown Community Development Center, who stand to benefit from the subcontracts.

These players, in turn, then funnel money into political organizations that support interim Mayor Ed Lee’s electoral campaign, the Bay Guardian says.

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