San Francisco's Chinatown Hurt By Yee Scandal

State Sen. Leland Yee, who's been indicted in a FBI probe, doesn't represent Chinatown. But the scandal fits neatly into a caricature of Chinatown, says Sue Lee of the Chinese Historical Society.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, these charges against Leland Yee have been rippling through San Francisco's large Asian community. NPR's Richard Gonzales has been listening to reaction in the city's storied Chinatown.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: On a busy San Francisco street in Chinatown, elderly Chinese shoppers compete with curious tourists for sidewalk space. School kids run past the bright red doorways of old fraternal organizations founded back in the mid-1800s. This neighborhood is embroiled in the developing political scandal involving the well-known State Senator Leland Yee and an alleged mobster, Raymond Chow. The news is unsettling, says Sue Lee, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America.

SUE LEE: I was shocked. Said, oh my God. It's not a good reflection on our community.

GONZALES: The scandal come as the Asian community is making great strides, political speaking, she says. Of course, the Chinese have been part of San Francisco since the gold rush. But Lee says it's only in the past two decades that Asian-Americans have become a potent political force in mainstream politics.

LEE: We now have a Chinese mayor. We have several members on the board of supervisors. You know, that's never happened before and that's something that is a source of pride for Asian-Americans. So, to have an elected official arrested is harmful.

GONZALES: Lee is not the only one trying to make sense of the charges against Senator Yee. Journalist and blogger Emil Guillermo has been covering Asian-American politics for the past 30 years.

EMIL GUILLERMO: He's an immigrant from China but grew up in the Mission District, went to Mission High. He got his Ph.D. He was an educator, a psychologist. You know, he had this heavyweight portfolio for a guy from the hood. And he was always seen as the guy who could make it.

GONZALES: Yee was a political pioneer. He was the first Chinese-American president of the San Francisco school board. Years later, he was the first Chinese-American elected to the state senate. Emil Guillermo...

GUILLERMO: I think at that point, you know, there was no stopping Leland Yee.

GONZALES: According to a federal affidavit and a grand jury indictment, Yee did a favor for the Ghee Kong Tong in Chinatown in exchange for money. The Tong is a fraternal organization led by the reputed gangster Raymond Chow. David Lee teaches politics at San Francisco State University.

DAVID LEE: In reading the affidavit, the person that's portrayed in the transcripts is somebody who is desperate to hold onto power at almost any cost.

GONZALES: The irony is that Senator Yee doesn't represent Chinatown. Yee's senate seat covers the west side of San Francisco, the neighborhoods from which Asian voters have flexed their political muscle. David Lee says Chinatown is no longer the only capital of Chinese-American politics.

LEE: Today, Chinatown is still important culturally but more and more people have fewer and fewer connection to the cultural institutions that are there.

GONZALES: But the scandal, a tale of crime and corruption, fits neatly into a caricature of Chinatown, says Sue Lee of the Chinese Historical Society, as if the neighborhood were still full of gambling houses, opium dens and brothels.

LEE: You know, makes it sound we're from another world, we're exotic, we're foreign, we're not of this world. And it just serves to, you know, nurture this misperception of Chinatown and Chinese.

GONZALES: Senator Leland Yee is expected to enter a plea in a San Francisco federal court this morning. His lawyer has suggested that Yee will claim that he was entrapped by the FBI. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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