San Francisco’s Hellman Paved the Way for “Chinese City”

San Francisco’s Hellman Paved the Way for “Chinese City”

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Photo by Dave Golden Photography


SAN FRANCISCO—Chinese Americans are mourning the death of billionaire philanthropist Warren Hellman, age 77, who they say paved the way for San Francisco to become what Hellman once called “the Chinese city.”

“He often said to me in the last few months of his life [that] San Francisco has become a Chinese city. It is a Chinese city in a very good way,” recalls David Lee, executive director of Chinese American Voter Education Committee (CAVEC).

Chinese Americans constitute the largest single ethnic group in the city, a strong presence in the business community, and a growing political power. In many ways, Chinese Americans keep the city vibrant and keep the city on the map, Lee said.

Hellman, who died Sunday from leukemia, was an early supporter of Chinese American voter registration when Chinese Americans were still less than 8 percent of the registered voters in San Francisco. His dedication to increasing voter registration helped deliver the results 20 years later in electing the city’s first Chinese American mayor, Lee added.

Voting Key to True Power

“In my view, [Mayor] Ed Lee’s election could not have happened without Warren Hellman,” said Lee. He explained that Hellman believed encouraging Chinese Americans to vote in every election was crucial to their achieving true political power.

“He had a long-term view of the community at a time when everyone else was taking [a] very shortcut,” said Lee. “They were just interested in the election in front of them.”

As a result, Lee said, there are now Asian-American representatives in almost every major public office in the city, such as the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco School Board, and City College Board of Trustees.

In a nod to the philanthropist, Mayor Lee, in his first address to a city commission after the election, requested that Golden Gate Park’s Speedway Meadow be renamed “Hellman Hollow.” San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Commission unanimously approved the name change last Thursday, honoring Hellman’s having founded and sponsored the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival there. The renaming also recognized his longtime support of civic engagement activities in San Francisco.

The city’s Chinese media also remember Hellman’s great affection for the Chinese community.

Kai Ping Liu, city editor of World Journal, said he met Hellman in 2002, when the entrepreneur sponsored various ads in Chinese media to educate readers about the city’s new ranked-choice voting system.

“I felt that he cared a lot about the Chinese community,” said Liu. He had interviewed Hellman on the importance of helping Chinese American voters understand the new and sometimes confusion voting method. “He was very casual and nice. He didn’t act like a billionaire,” Liu said.

Hellman also helped to support minority-owned businesses, such as Time Capsule Press, a publishing company specializing in creating books using the archives of newspapers and magazines.

Chinese American entrepreneur Dickson Louie, who owns the publishing house, first met Hellman through a friend after he left his position as director of strategic planning at the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007.

Louie said Hellman was his company’s principal investor and stressed that the business wouldn't have been possible without Hellman’s financial support.

“Warren was kind enough to supply us with the seed money to get going, and forever we will be grateful,” said Louie. He added that Hellman also gave him advice along the way on how to make his business a success.

Inspirational Figure

For David Lee, Hellman was an inspirational figure, who helped expand his view of the city of San Francisco beyond the Chinatown of his childhood.

When he was growing up in Chinatown, Lee said, the city was not as welcoming to Chinese as it is today. Lee remembers the night when two drunken white sailors beat up his grandfather in a Chinatown alley, leaving him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Lee recalled carrying this memory with him when he started participating in political organizing in Chinatown 20 years ago. Hellman, he continued, helped the young Lee look beyond the powerlessness of his past and restored his confidence in the future of the city.

The Hellman family was well known in the history of San Francisco, but Warren Hellman also had a vision for what the city was becoming--and the key role that Chinese Americans would play in the leadership of the city, said Lee.

“He represented the past and the future,” said Lee. “The torch has been passed from one generation to the next.”