Rose Pak: Journalist to Activist Curated by Maura Wilson, Special Collections & University Archives assistant at the University of San Francisco, and Lia Sina, Special Collections & University Archives Assistant in celebration of Women's History Month

"If you're about the community, then I'm here for you." - Rose Pak

Rose Pak (1947-2016), a community and political activist, played a major role in shaping the physical and political landscape of the city of San Francisco. Labeled a "king-maker" by some and a traitor by others, there is no denying the lasting impact that Pak's work made on the San Francisco community.

Left: Rose Pak in the El Faro yearbook, 1969; Right: Rose Pak, 1999, by Nancy Wong.

Rose Pak was born in Heng Yang, in the Henan, a large land-locked province in Northern-Central China. [1] Her father, Yun Shan Pak, was a businessman, her mother, Anna Wong, worked as a seamstress and embroiderer. [1,2] Pak also had two younger sisters. [2] When Pak was between the ages of two [1] and four [2] years old, her father was killed in the Chinese Civil War. [2] After her father’s death, Pak’s mother took her three daughters and fled from a now Communist-occupied Henan to British-occupied Hong Kong, where Pak began attending Catholic Schools operated by the Sacred Heart. [3]

Left: Image of Rose Pak and her family, courtesy of the Rose Pak Community Fund.

That’s another thing I really admired about Rose... She didn’t worry about fitting in, ever. It was more of, ‘Hey, I’m here. You guys got to make room.’” - Rooth Tang
(Rose Pak as a child), courtesy of the Rose Pak Community Fund.

Pak was never a quietly obedient type of person. In a 2015 interview with the San Francisco Magazine, Pak recounted two instances from her childhood in Hong Kong and Macao in which she pranked the Catholic church that she attended. She spoke of one instance when she poured black ink into the holy water font and another instance when she mixed gunpowder with incense which, when lit, began to pop and sizzle inside the thurible. [4] Pak recalled how the Bishop, who was holding the thurible when the incense was lit and began to explode, dropped the thurible in surprise during mass. [4]

Despite her sometimes wicked sense of humor, she was not someone without feeling. Pak's compassion for others and strong leadership drive were traits that she also demonstrated from an early age. In another interview given in 2013, Pak somewhat brusquely recounted being a teenager in Macao in the 1960s. [5] While still a student at a Sacred Heart school, a Jesuit priest expressed that he was seeking ways to aid refugees living in Macao. [5] Pak noted an abundance of firework factories in Macao, and stepped up to not only help employee refugees in these factories, but also to effectively run the facilities to ensure that her hires remained employed. [5]

In 1964, Pak was awarded a scholarship to the San Francisco College for Women (SFCW), a College of the Sacred Heart located in northern California. [6] This move to San Francisco would prove key in shaping the monumental figure that was Rose Pak.

At the SFCW, Pak pursued her academics and extracurriculars alike with her trademark tenacity. She became a staff writer for the student newspaper, The Tower, which chronicled student and city life [7]. She was also a part of the International Students Club and can be seen photographed alongside her peers in the 1970 edition of SFCW’s yearbook, El Faro [8].

Right: A young rose Pak sitting at a desk, courtesy of the Rose Pak Community Fund.

Pak graduated in 1970 with a Bachelor’s degree in Communications. [3] Prophetically, Dianne Feinstein, who would later become mayor of San Francisco and would work closely with Pak, gave the Commencement Address titled “San Francisco in the ‘70s - A Time and Place for Urban Solutions.” [9]

From left to bottom right: Rose Pak graduating from Lone Mountain, 1970 (courtesy of the Rose Pak Community Fund); Rose Pak (front row, second from the right) with the International Students Club; Rose Pak senior portrait

After graduating from SFCW, Pak continued her education at Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York City where she earned a Master’s of Journalism in 1971. [3, 10]

From left to right: Fall 1970 Columbia University Journalism Facebook featuring Rose Pak; June 1, 1921 Columbia University commencement program cover; June 1, 1921 Columbia University commencement program, listing Rose Pak as a graduate. All courtesy of University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries.

Eventually life lead Pak back to San Francisco. In 1974, Pak was hired as a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle. [3] This appointment made Pak only the fourth female news reporter to work at the San Francisco Chronicle, and it made her the Chronicle’s first ever Asian-American reporter. [2]

Despite her academic qualifications and her reputation as a “pushy” reporter [3], the Chronicle relegated Pak to “fluff” pieces. In a 2016 interview, Pak recounted a time that the Chronicle assigned her to a story about a cat stuck in a tree. Pak said that she arrived at the scene, scared the cat down from the tree, and called the Chronicle to report that there was “no story here.” [2]

As the only Cantonese-speaking reporter on the Chronicle’s staff, Pak was regularly assigned to report on the historically underrepresented Chinatown area. [3] When Pak first came to San Francisco as a student, San Francisco’s Chinatown was home to one of the densest populations of Asian-Americans in California. [2] It was here that Pak found her life’s calling.

She left the San Francisco Chronicle in 1982 to work as a consultant for the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which would continue to be her official working title for the rest of her life. [6]

Left: Rose Pak on what is believed to be the University of San Francisco campus, courtesy of the Rose Pak Community Fund.

She's a goddess here" - former San Francisco Mayor, Art Agnos

Pak’s departure from the San Francisco Chronicle marked the beginning of her career as a community activist. [11]

The same year that Pak left the Chronicle, it came to Pak’s attention that the city of San Francisco was planning to close the dilapidated Chinatown hospital and use the lot to build new high rise apartments buildings. [12] Pak advocated that the hospital needed to be preserved, as it provided comprehensive care to the predominantly non-English speaking Chinatown community. Here Pak first showed her knack for fundraising and rallying people to her cause when she successfully raised $160 million dollars to repair and preserve the hospital. [11]

Pak was later elected a board member for the hospital, [6] and continued to push for the preservation and accessibility of the hospital. As late as 2013, Pak was working with medical staff and their families to inspire the next generation not only to seek an education in medicine but also to practice medicine in Chinatown. [5] This would ensure that the Chinatown hospital remained a bilingual space where non-English speaking residents could confidently seek medical care. [5]

Throughout her career, Pak consistently denied any credit for her work on the Chinatown hospital, stating “I just stuck to it longer than most people.” [5]

One of Pak’s consistent passions throughout her career was encouraging a connection between the younger generation and their community. Besides her work to encourage the families of Chinatown hospital staff, Pak also established the Ms. Chinatown Pageant. Despite the controversy that most beauty pageants carry, Pak insisted that the Ms. Chinatown Pageant greatly benefited the community.

Pak observed that many third and fourth generation Asian-American residents had lost their connections to their ancestry. [13] As part of the Ms. Chinatown pageant, contestants were shown the Chinatown region closely associated with their ancestral regions of China. [13] This often resulted in Ms. Chinatown contestants connecting with distant relatives that they had previously never known. [13] Winners of the competition were not only awarded a cash prize, but were also sent on a trip to China where they further connected with their extended families and ancestral roots. [13]

Right: Rose Pak on a Chinatown street holding a sign that reads "Save the Embarcadero" in English and Chinese, courtesy of the Rose Pak Community Fund.

After her fundraising success in the Chinatown hospital, there was speculation that Pak might be elected deputy mayor, should John Molinari be elected mayor in 1988, as he had previously promised to ensure an Asian-American person was appointed to the position. [14]

Despite this speculation, Pak raised money and campaigned strongly in favor of Molinari’s opponent, Art Agnos. [14] When Agnos won, he not only appointed Pak’s choice for deputy mayor, James Ho, but Pak also became his confidante and advisor in matters concerning the citizens of Chinatown. [15]

Pak maintained her foothold in the mayor's office for the rest of her life, earning her a reputation as a person who could make or break any San Francisco politician’s career. [5] A personal friend of Mayor Diane Fienstein, confidante and advisor to Mayors Art Agnos and WIllie Brown, and an initial fervent supporter of Mayor Ed Lee, Pak’s consistent influence inevitably became threatening to those who lacked Pak’s support. [5] Despite accusations of communist ties, using the Chinese Chamber of Commerce as a cover for illegal activity, being a lobbyist, and of having mayors “on (her) leash,” [5] Pak remained constant in her assertion that her only motivation was “improving the lives and the quality of lives for my community and for San Franciscans.” [5]

Above: "The New West with Will Hearst" interview with Rose Pak, July 18, 2016.

The work that Pak did, first and foremost, was always focused on preventing urban decay. In 2013, Pak recounted being a student at Lone Mountain College in the 1970s and already seeing the creeping effects of urban decay on San Francisco as a result of the freeway bypass, preventing access to downtown San Francisco. [5] She didn’t want to see the same empty storefronts and desolate streets that she saw in the downtown area crop up in Chinatown. [5]

Staving the encroaching threat of urban decay was a career-long challenge for Pak, spanning issues from housing to transportation to parking.

As far back as 1987, just five years after beginning her work with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Pak aided in battles against urban developers who sought to evict Chinatown tenants from their homes. [16] Pak also sought to improve conditions in Chinatown Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units. A single room with a bathroom and kitchen shared by an entire floor of other tenants, Pak observed many of the elderly tenants who fill these SRO units, struggled to provide for their own basic needs. Those who needed food delivered had no way to refrigerate it, tenants with mobility issues struggled to access the shared bathroom and kitchen, and even navigating the building posed a challenge. [5]

The irony that America, one of the most affluent countries in the world, could not adequately house their low-income, sick, and elderly, frustrated and fueled Pak, especially towards the end of her career. [5]

When the Embarcadero Freeway was scheduled for demolition, Pak also fought this, saying that such a major project would reduce access to and from Chinatown. When she lost this fight, she worked to build a parking garage in Chinatown so residents and tourists could have easier access to parking [4], and she advocated for the construction of a subway extension into Chinatown so the majority of Chinatown residents, who did not own cars, could easily access the rest of the city and bay area. [12] Just days before Pak’s passing, she interviewed with local news stations about a proposition by the city of San Francisco to close a local street in order to create a walkway. [17] Pak swore that if the project moved forward, she was ready to mobilize local allies and demonstrate the impact of such a closure to city hall. [17]

Even as Pak began to struggle with her health, she kept fighting for the quality of life in her community. Even while hospitalized at the same Chinatown Hospital that she fought to save, Pak continued her advocacy work. [4] Although unable to personally pound the pavement or invite politicians out to dinner for discussion, Pak found ways to shift her work to the phone. [4]

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." - Pak, 2010

With her health declining, Pak traveled to China. While there, she received a kidney transplant and a variety of other medical treatments. [4] According to her family and friends, the transplant had been a success and Pak was steadily continuing to improve upon her return home. [3]

Despite her best efforts to improve, on the morning of September 18, 2016, Rose Pak’s body was discovered in her Chinatown apartment by a caregiver. [17] Although her recent struggles with kidney and heart disease were no secret, the loss to the community was sudden and shocking.

Friends, family, and community members gathered at her home as soon as they heard the news of Pak’s passing. At her service, Pak’s allies and foes came together to honor a woman that, regardless of anyone’s opinion, was an undeniable force of nature.

In her own opinion, Pak was not a force of nature. She was not a juggernaut, a lobbyist, or any other term given to her throughout her lifetime. She was simply one person serving her community. [5]

It was a long road (or, railway) from the conception to completion of the much-anticipated Central Subway project, and the controversial christening of its Chinatown station the Chinatown-Rose Pak Station. [1] Pak first met with city transportation officials to discuss extending the rails on Third Street, connecting it to Chinatown and increasing residents’ access to faster, roomier public transport through more of the city, in 1984. [1] It would take 24 years of dedicated advocacy from Pak and her allies’ for the Municipal Transportation Agency to finally approve the project in 2008. [1] Pak spent the last years of her life continuing to fiercely advocate for the project, even successfully securing federal funding for it. [1] After Pak’s passing in 2016, discussions soon commenced about naming the Central Subway’s Chinatown station in her honor. [18] Some controversy over the naming arose from those opposed to Pak’s politics and personality, opponents even going so far as to take up a petition against the naming of the station, but the SFMTA board ultimately voted in favor of the naming. [18] The Chinatown–Rose Pak Station officially opened under Stockton and Washington on November 19, 2022. The station’s memorial plaque reads, “For three decades, Rose Pak championed the Central Subway, a critical transportation service for residents and businesses in Chinatown and San Francisco neighborhoods.”

The Chinatown Central Subway extension, named after Rose Pak.

This virtual exhibit was curated with a combination of materials from the University of San Francisco Archives and materials from external sources.

A special thanks to the Rose Pak Community fund for generously giving permission for the use of their images in this exhibit, and to the Columbia University Archives for kindly sharing their resources and permission to display them.

The purpose of this exhibit is to celebrate Women's History Month and honor the work of a monumental San Francisco community member and woman of color.

For more information about Rose Pak and how to contribute to the ongoing work of her legacy, please visit the Rose Pak Community Fund.

At the end of the day, everything she did, every person she talked to, it was about enhancing the community and making the community better, and she was very vocal about that." - San Francisco Police Department Commander Paul Yep

Works Cited

  1. Cano, Ricardo. “Rose Pak’s Family Says Birthplace of Central Subway Station’s Namesake Is Correct on Plaque.” San Francisco Chronicle, 22 Nov. 2022,
  2. Gates, Anita. "Rose Pak, 68, a Brash Force on Behalf of Asian-Americans in San Francisco." New York Times, Sep 21, 2016.
  3. Wildermuth, John. “Rose Pak, SF political powerhouse, dies.” SFGate, 21 Sept 2016.
  4. Eskenazi, Joe. “A gravely ill Rose Pak on life, death, and her greatest regret (the mayor).” SFGate, 20 Aug 2015.
  5. Pak, Rose. KQED First Person. By Michael Krasny. KQED, 21 March 2013.
  6. “About RPCF.” Rose Pak Community Fund. 1 March 2024.
  7. “Staff.” The Tower. (1 June 1967): 2. University of San Francisco Archives.
  8. El Faro. San Francisco, CA: Lone Mountain College for Women, 1970. University of San Francisco Archives.
  9. “San Francisco College for Women Fortieth Annual Commencement 1970.” Commencement Program. Lone Mountain College for Women, San Francisco, 1970.
  10. “The Commencement Bulletin.” Commencement. Columbia University, New York, 1971. University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries.
  11. Rodriguez, Joe Fitzgerald. “Rose Pak Film ‘Rally’ Explores the Community Legacy of ‘Power Broker.’” KQED News. KQED, 23 April 2023.
  12. Eckholm, Erik. "Power Broker Savors a Victory in San Francisco." New York Times (1923-), Nov 12, 2011.
  13. Chung, L.A.. "The Lunar New Year Is Looking Beautiful." THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, FINAL ed., sec. NEWS, 18 Feb. 1988, p. A3. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current, Accessed 17 Mar. 2023.
  14. Andersen, Patrick. "C-Town Question to Mayor's Race: Which Woman Will Go to City Hall? Anni Chung, Julie Tang, Rose Pak seen as Likely Candidates." Asian Week (1983-1989), May 22, 1987.
  15. "WHO'S IN AND WHO'S OUT AT CITY HALL." THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, FINAL ed., sec. NEWS, 11 July 1988, p. A7. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current, Accessed 17 Mar. 2023.
  16. Zane, Maitland. "Victory for Chinatown TenantsBuilding's Residents Get Reprieve." THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, FINAL ed., sec. NEWS, 29 Jan. 1987, p. 3. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current, Accessed 17 Mar. 2023.
  17. Vasquez, Joe. SF Chinatown Political Player Rose Pak Dies. Michael Finny. KPIX 5. 18 Sept 2016. Video, 4:14.
  18. Barmann, Jay. SFMTA Votes to Name Chinatown Station for Rose Pak, Despite Protests. SFist. 21 August 2019.