Chinatown movers

Chinatown survival guide: You didn't mess with Rose Pak

Rose Pak wielded clout with Mayor Ed Lee. Photo: Paul Chinn, The ChronicleRose Pak wielded clout with Mayor Ed Lee.

Rose Pak wielded clout with Mayor Ed Lee.

Rose Pak had been dealing with health problems for some months before her death Sunday, but she wasn’t exactly mellowing.

We had lunch together a few weeks back, and she was in vintage form. We’d no sooner sat down than she called a local politician “an idiot.” And then she went on a riff about “the mayor’s baldies, ” which was her nickname for follicle-challenged Steve Kawa and Tony Winnicker, advisers to Ed Lee.

It was profane and merciless. It was also Pak at her hilarious best.

We met at the R&G Lounge, which is the power nexus for Chinatown movers and shakers.

I walked in and got a quick, polite nod from the hostess, who pointed me to a barstool. Then Pak came through the door, and everything started happening at once.

We were whisked to a corner table in the back room, where two waiters were assigned to our needs. After all, this had been Pak’s usual place since the 1980s, and Rose Pak was not a person to be treated lightly.

She said she was sitting “right here at this table” in 1989, when then-Mayor Art Agnos came in to sketch out his plan to take down the Embarcadero Freeway, which had been damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake. Pak, it would be safe to say, was not a fan of the plan.

“You don’t just come in here and scribble on a placemat, ” she snorted. “Schedule a goddamn meeting.”

When the food came, I picked up my chopsticks, hoping to avoid dropping too much food in my lap. Pak immediately grabbed a fork.

She didn’t really order — food just began to appear, plate after plate. There was far more than we could eat, so Pak asked a waiter to bring a box because she wanted to give the leftovers to a homeless guy she knew would be on the corner.

A check never appeared. Probably an oversight.

When we were done, Pak said, “Come with me. We’re going for coffee and you can talk to me more there.”

She probably didn’t know every single person we met on the sidewalk, but that’s how it seemed. We walked a couple of blocks, then stepped into a small bakery where she was again the center of attention.

Pak told long, stem-winding stories and even a couple of jokes — like the one about the Chinese cook at a railway camp who, when told the workers were not going to play mean tricks on him anymore, said that in that case, he would stop peeing in their soup. She was the kind of person who would slap the table when she hit the punchline.

She remembered names, dates, and details of past campaigns and political dust-ups. She ended up losing the Embarcadero Freeway battle — it was torn down in 1991 — but no one who was around then forgot the fight she put up.

Pak says she mobilized the owners of hundreds of Chinatown businesses, who shut down for a day and marched on City Hall for the Board of Supervisors’ vote. She said only four business owners declined to participate, “and at the end of the year, all four were shut down.” You didn’t want to cross Rose Pak in Chinatown.

For years, Pak’s appearance at the Chinese New Year Parade was a not-so-guilty pleasure for political junkies. Somehow it became a tradition for Pak to pace along the reviewing stand with a microphone and comment on politicians as they rolled by in their cars.

No one in City Hall wanted to skip the parade, but if you were on the outs with Pak, you had to be ready for the abuse. One year, angry at District Attorney George Gascón, Pak suggested that “we light some firecrackers under the D.A.’s crotch.”

“You had to go through the gantlet, ” Agnos said this week. “And they got skewered. You always knew what their standing was by what she said as they passed by. Her running commentary was better than any poll in Chinatown.”

Calling Pak an advocate for the Chinatown community was an understatement. Another lunch story involved the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.

Pak got a tour of the place before it opened in 1976 and found that there was only a small plaque to commemorate the Chinese workers who did much of the construction on the Transcontinental Railroad. Pak pitched an enormous fit.

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