Mayor Ed Lee reflects on a childhood in Seattle and a career in San Francisco

By Jeffrey Osborn
Northwest Asian Weekly

Mayor Ed Lee (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

The date is May 5, 1952, and in a Seattle hospital, a piece of American history was born.

Edwin Mah Lee was born to immigrant parents from the Chinese province of Guandong. They had moved to America hoping for a better life. Edwin Lee would eventually realize his parents’ dream and later become the first Chinese American mayor of San Francisco.

Lee, who prefers to be called Ed, grew up with his mother, father, and five siblings in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

“I was the fifth of six children in our family. We had a pretty large family.” The size of the family required both parents to work diligently to provide for it. Lee’s father worked as a cook in restaurants, and his mother worked odd jobs around Seattle.

When asked about his involvement around the house, Lee said, “I always felt responsible to help my family. Even though I was the middle child, I thought it was important that with such a large family, I pitch in.”

Even in the dead of winter, Lee was always willing to help. “You know, the hills there are pretty steep. I can remember walking up and down them in the icy winter to help do laundry at the local laundromat with my sisters.”

Lee attended public schools in the Seattle area. “When my family was living on Beacon Hill, I attended Beacon Hill Elementary. […] For high school, I went to Franklin High, just off of Rainier Avenue.”

While attending high school, Lee’s family moved to Mercer Island, where his mother still resides today. Due to school zoning laws at the time, he and his high school siblings continued to attend Franklin High.

It was around that time that tragedy struck the Lee family.

“My father passed away when I was a junior. Yeah, I was 15.” Lee’s father died of a heart attack. “I had spent time learning the kitchen with my father at his restaurant, so I worked in a kitchen to help my family.”

Education and civic involvement

Ed Lee was accepted to Bowdoin College, in Maine, and graduated in 1974. Lee eventually decided to pursue a degree in law and attended the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. It was during his time in California that Lee became interested in politics.

In 1977, Lee fought to prevent redistricting of a San Francisco senior housing unit primarily for Filipinos. The International Hotel was set for demolition as part of an expansion of the business district of San Francisco. However, the property was almost fully occupied, and the destruction would have done little but displace a large group of senior citizens.

“[Other protestors and I] chained our arms together and formed a circle around the property. It was my first experience with physical evictions. The police came in on horses in the middle of the night.”

Ultimately defeated in his protest against destruction of the International Hotel, Lee gained a taste for political movements and continued his support of the San Francisco community through volunteer action and legal support. Lee worked his way through local politics starting as a city investigator as part of a city ordinance known as the Whistleblower Ordinance.

Becoming a mayor

In 2005, having moved through several public offices, Lee was appointed city administrator by then-mayor Gavin Newsom. In the 2010 elections, Newsom was elected lieutenant governor of California and the mayor’s position was left vacant in San Francisco. The city council was to decide who would serve as interim mayor until elections would be held. The council came up with four individuals, including then-City Administrator Lee.

In a hotly contested debate, Lee was eventually picked as the interim mayor.
In 2011, an election was held in San Francisco that involved a unique process of voting for three top choices. Lee won overwhelmingly with 30.72 percent of the vote. The nearest competitor received only 19.25 percent of the vote.

Lee was asked about what the first Chinese American mayor would be able to bring to Asian American communities that previous mayors of San Francisco were not able to.

“I am able to make a link to the Asian communities,” he said. “Being mayor helps them to know that they no longer are second-class citizens.”

Perhaps due to his upbringing, Lee shows deep compassion and support for young Asians in America. In an attempt to reach out to Asian youth everywhere, he ended his interview with a plea to the Asian youth of America, “Don’t limit yourself. This country has plenty of opportunities for Asians outside of the fields where [Asians] are normally viewed as excelling, such as math and science.” (end)

Jeffrey Osborn can be reached at

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