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Chinatown Rose Pak Station: A Rose by Any Other Name

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Who knew that seven little letters could incite such emotional response?

The name Rose Pak means different things to different people. To some, she was a tireless activist, a power broker with a cause, an inspiration. To others, she was a divisive, foul-mouthed bully. In reality, she was probably both. But one thing is undeniable: Rose Pak made her mark on San Francisco.

That mark has been etched into history, for better or for worse, and it will now be etched into the sign at the Central Subway’s new Chinatown Rose Pak station. After years of proposals, policy changes and backlash, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority Board of Directors voted Tuesday night 4-3 to settle the contentious battle over what to name the subway station currently being built in Pak’s Chinatown turf.

Tuesday night’s board meeting at City Hall was the culmination of a years-long fight. Hundreds lined up for nearly six hours to voice their support and objections to the station being named after the famous, and infamous, Pak. While many argue that Pak’s intimidating reputation should disqualify a station name in her honor, others assert that the station wouldn’t even be a thing without the work she did to have it built.

The Central Subway Project is an extension of the Muni Metro T Third line that will eventually run through SoMa, Union Square and Chinatown. Pak took up the cause for its construction after the Embarcadero Freeway was heavily damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and ultimately demolished. The old freeway was originally intended to connect the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge, but that never really happened. Instead, the freeway ramps emptied deep into sectors of the city, becoming a gateway to neighborhoods like Chinatown. When it was gone, Pak was having none of it.

Photo: San Francisco Magazine

Supervisor Aaron Peskin championed the Pak station name since the first resolution was approved in 2016. Peskin has publicly acknowledged her contribution to securing the initial federal funding to get the project off the ground. The project was a labor of love, and maybe some spite, for the political activist but it was hardly the only fight she took on before her death in September 2016 at the age of 68. She watched over decades as the Asian community boomed in San Francisco and demanded that it be given a seat at the civic table.

Armed with a master’s degree in journalism and an uncanny ability to influence others, Pak barreled her way to a place of respect but as the late Mayor Ed Lee said:

“Whether she was right or wrong, she grounded herself in representing the community. She really wanted to make sure Chinatown as a whole was respected.”

She was an organizer for the Chinese New Year Parade, consulted Chinatown businesses, successfully fought to save Chinatown Hospital and later to have it renovated and yes, she took on countless people in the fight for the Central Subway. Not all appreciate the system extension, some calling it the “subway to nowhere,” but she played an integral role in lobbying for its existence because she believed it was important, and shying away from an unpopular fight was not her style. Pak summed it best in a statement she made to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2010:

“You can’t be so afraid of offending anyone that you don’t do anything.”

“If people take positions I don’t agree with, am I just going to roll over and pretend to be dead? No, I’m going to fight.”

After the hours of back-and-forth argument over the station name Tuesday, the newly appointed Director Steve Heminger broke the tie among SFMTA directors. He acknowledged that she was a tough character who did indeed sow some division in the community, but with his vote, Heminger made an interesting point. He said:

“I don’t think divisiveness is disqualifying from civic recognition. If that were the standard, we’d have to tear down half of the street signs in San Francisco.”

It is said that well behaved women seldom make history. Rose Pak was not always well behaved and she definitely made history. It seems only natural that the decision to name the subway station after her came with such a fight. If anything, it proves that Pak can still stir up some shit and get her way. That, you can’t deny.

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.