“Rally” is the unusual but truly apt title for a new documentary about Rose Pak, the polarizing San Francisco community leader and power player who held sway over local government for four decades.
“Even though she was arguing and advocating for stuff specific to the Chinese-American community, Rose’s story is a universal one of friendship and betrayal,” said the film’s director Rooth Tang, in town for the premiere of “Rally” at the 66th San Francisco International Film Festival (screening Friday at CGV and Sunday at BAMPFA).
From her arrival in San Francisco in the 1970s until her death in 2016, Pak contributed mightily to the shape of the city. She gathered people for causes and candidates and bounced back from personal and political setbacks, from her beloved Chinatown to City Hall, where among other accomplishments, she played a behind the scenes role in seating the city’s first Chinese American mayor, Ed Lee.
“Reading about her, I was trying to make it more personal to me as well,” Tang said.
Pak had an extraordinary ability to define issues important to her community and reach people across cultural lines. Focusing on the archives at the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and fixing his lens on the community organizers and politicians with whom Pak forged change became part of Tang’s storytelling strategy.
Initially hired as an editor to sort through raw footage for the Rose Pak Community Fund — much of it acquired during a contentious San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency public comment meeting at San Francisco City Hall on the naming of the Chinatown-Rose Pak station — “I gave my thoughts and what I thought was missing as a storyteller,” he said, before signing on as director.
“There was an initial reluctance of people to give up archival materials,” said Tang, a feature filmmaker born in Bangkok and raised in Los Angeles.
“People who couldn’t or wouldn’t help us. … We had to find it on our own, added Tang, who relied on longtime Chinatown activists and community leaders like Gordon Chin and Phil Chin, former executives with San Francisco’s Chinatown Community Development Center, and Rev. Norman Fong, to tell stories and open doors.
“I was introduced to Phil,” said Tang. He was my guide.” And then the pandemic hit.
“It gave me time to research her story more,” said Tang. With producer Michelle Moy, Tang and a team of community volunteers dug through photos and VHS tape and came up with filmmaker’s gold, like the previously unseen images of trips to China by former mayors Willie Brown and Lee.
It was a long distance from Pak’s beginnings as a refugee from mainland China’s civil war, through her private school upbringing in Macau, where she organized her fellow students to help refugees in need. After graduate studies at Columbia School of Journalism, she was hired at the New York Times, but opted to move west in 1974 and work for the San Francisco Chronicle.
“I was the first Asian that the mainstream media hired in the Bay Area full time,” says Pak in “Rally.” “I don’t think they knew I was an immigrant. I think they thought I was local born since I spoke English very well and I didn’t try to tell them otherwise.”
After several years at the paper, she tired of being the sole representative of Asian culture in the newsroom.
“They think because you hire a Chinese, that should cover all Asian stuff,” she explains in one of film’s archival sequences. “That was the mentality they had.”
“In the mid-seventies, there weren’t any Chinese American elected officials in City Hall,” said former mayor Art Agnos, one of Pak’s early political allies interviewed for the film. “Rose was unhappy with that kind of status. She wanted more engagement in direct policy making and decision making by the community she was a part of and led.”
Also in the film, former mayor Brown recalled, “When I first met Rose, she was not much of a figure politically speaking, but she was unusual. We became friends, and that’s the point at which the Chinese community became at the center of all decisions that would be made politically.”
In addition to mayors Agnos and Brown, former supervisors Carmen Chu, David Chiu, Jane Kim and Chris Daly, and current Chinatown/North Beach Supervisor Aaron Peskin unravel the ups and downs in Pak’s and their own stories inside San Francisco politics.
“What I thought was important was getting people together and getting them talking, evoking that feeling which is universal, remembering the old times,” said Tang. The film’s contemporary interviews with Chinatown elders and present-day leaders over restaurant tables are a refreshing change from the documentary standard of talking heads against a static backdrop.
“I have to give credit to Mayor Brown who suggested the round table,” said Tang, who consciously tapped those who knew Pak vs. more recognizable names.
“Gavin Newsom may’ve been enticing, but ultimately it came down to whether there was development in the relationship and does it change. I was looking to include the people with character arcs,” he said, which explains passing images of Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi and London Breed, while Peskin and legislative aide, Sunny Angulo, get plenty of screen time.
“Something that Chris Daly said that didn’t make it into the film keeps ringing in my ears,” said Tang. “Rose is a paradox. She would advocate for housing, which he thought was in line with progressives, and she then would back someone like Mayor Brown—who Chris Daly thought was a moderate—advocating for conflicting issues.”
Contradictions withstanding, all these stories and more, get an airing in “Rally.” From efforts to rebuild the Chinese Hospital and keep Chinatown connected to the rest of the city after the demolition of the Central Freeway, the film captures the essence of a bygone era in San Francisco politics—a time when one woman had the ear of the power structure and kept the pressure on from the bottom, while literally installing a mayor at the top.
“Gordon Chin and Rev. Norman Fong asserted the most important thing Pak did was make Ed Lee mayor of San Francisco,” said Tang. “We wanted to show what the people behind it were thinking and feeling at the time,” he said. “This is the stuff that really happened.”
“Rally” screens at 5:30 p.m. April 21 at CVG, 1000 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco and noon April 23 at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. Tickets, $21.50, are available at rush on day of screening. Visit Rally – SFFILM.