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Family History and the Race for Mayor of San Francisco

Biff Barnes

The next time somebody asks you why family history is important you might want to share a story that recently appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

In January, 2011, Ed Lee, was chosen by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors to serve as interim mayor to fill the remaining year of the term of Gavin Newsom who had been elected Lt. Governor. Lee was the first Chinese-American to become mayor of a major American city.

A few weeks ago Lee, who had previously said he would not be a candidate, decided to run for mayor in the upcoming election.

What does family history have to do with city politics? Chronicle reporter Heather Knight explains, “Shortly after Ed Lee became interim mayor in January, the rumor spread around Chinatown…Lee, the whisperers said at banquets and festivals, was not a Lee at all.”

In a city where there are 10,000 Lees, and the Lee Family Association is the largest of Chinatown’s family associations, that’s pretty important to a candidate for mayor.

(Photo courtesy of Viva Vivanista, attributed under Creative Commons)

“This much is true:” says Knight. “The mayor's full name is Edwin Mah Lee, and his father, Gok Suey Lee, was born in the Toishan district of Guandong province in southern China.”

The rumors making the rounds said that the Mayor’s father’s surname was actually Mah. That he had become a “paper son” of a Lee family. Paper sons entered the United States after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed government records. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act had barred entry into the country for a quarter century. The loss of immigration records allowed Chinese residents to claim citizenship and bring in family members from China. A number of those “family members” were not related to the sponsoring families, but instead paid for the privilege of becoming “paper sons".

Lee’s father died during the Korean War, so the mayor had friends research his genealogy. They eventually found his father’s home village in China and traveled there with his family including his mother.

"That was where he brought my mom back after their wedding,” the mayor said. “We had some people who were kids at the time tell my mom, 'Oh, you were the pretty lady we had to go down and fetch water for.' They were asked to fetch water for the newlyweds.”

Lee followed up with research of his own to confirm the facts of his family history.
The mayor said that his father had been adopted by a Mah family in a neighboring village who had no sons and needed help working the land.

"Life was very, very tough in China. Families did whatever they could to survive,” said Sue Lee executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America. “These are very common stories. ... Big families couldn't support all the children, and an aunt or an uncle or a cousin with no children would end up adopting one."

“I went back to see these very people who were part of his family,” the mayor said. “I wanted to make sure about it, just for the family's sake, and they confirmed that he was a Lee."

“The mayor, for one,” says Knight, “dismisses the whole thing as ‘silly’."

“I'm proud to be a part of the whole family association network in general. They've appreciated me being the first Chinese mayor," he said. "They probably want me to be a Chin, too, and a Woo. They want me to be everything.”