By Douglas S. Chan
To recall the untimely passing of Chinese American activist Harold T. Yee at the age of 74 ten years ago is to reflect upon the life and times of an American original. When Harold’s accomplishments are assessed someday by ethnic social historians, he should be considered as one of the great, pivotal figures in the history of Chinese Americans and the modern history of Asian America itself.
It was no accident that Harold Yee founded his service agency, ASIAN, Inc., in 1971 – near the dawn of what was then known as the “Asian American Movement.” His life’s work represented a rare confluence of revolutionary change not only of program but also of political consciousness. As such, he stands squarely at the epicenter of the pragmatic effort to create from the politics of Asian American protest viable institutions for community progress and empowerment.
For his friends and allies I have offered some of the man’s words and my argument in favor of his steadfast place in our hearts and minds.
CADC and a Strategic Quadrangle
“. . .But make no mistake about what is required to ascend the path of increasing responsibility and authority; good deeds, strength of one’s logical articulation, grounded subsequently in empirical outcomes, [and the] willingness to pay the cost of leadership. I do not have to suggest that a person has to take responsibility for one’s action or leadership, the Club is already very good in placing fault!.”
With the election of Harold’s longtime friend, Alan Wong, to assume the presidency of the Chinese American Democratic Club (CADC) in 1969, the first of a new generation of community activists came to the fore. Although some were not technically post-WWII baby boomers, they represented the leading edge of a wave of generational change to come. Harold (along with Betty Lim Guimares, Jim Sing, Lillian Sing, Ben Tom, Ling-chi Wang, Alan Wong, and Gordon Lau), took CADC from a modest cog in the Democratic party machinery of Congressman Phil Burton and transformed the club into a strident advocate for the civil rights of Chinese Americans. CADC entered the 1970s with a program to empower the community, oppose the Vietnam War, and support the normalization of relations with China (for which they would be regarded initially as communist sympathizers). With the exceptions of Ling-chi Wang and Harold, virtually the entire group would go on to hold appointed or elective office in local, state, federal and partisan bodies.
CADC was not the only instrument of political change. The club was part of a strategic quadrangle of organizations that included Chinese for Affirmative Action (“CAA”); the Chinese American Voters Education Committee (which had evolved from a group that Harold had organized in 1968 under the name “Asian Americans for Fair Representation”); and the “Asian-American Service Institute for Assisting Neighborhoods,” which would become known as ASIAN, Inc. In Harold’s conception, CAA would be the advocate for civil rights; CADC would engage in the political and partisan action that CAA could not undertake; the nonpartisan voter registration committee would develop the broader constituency for the future, while simultaneously recruiting activists for the political club’s agenda; and the network would be maintained, support-staffed, and sometimes financed by the economic development infrastructure created by ASIAN, Inc.
In practical terms, voter registration drives – ideally organized around a “hot” candidate or a hot issue – would mobilize door-to-door workers in Chinatown and the Richmond District. The assembled organizers and the volunteers would provide a ready network to roll over into the campaign of a candidate endorsed by CADC. The political work would often be financed through the donations raised by the business networks created and fostered by ASIAN, Inc., whose direct role Harold would steadfastly refuse to acknowledge during his life, and over which his friend and collaborator, architect Frank Fung, would preside as the Chairman of a “Council of Asian American Business Associations.” The model worked well and proved itself in the 1970s’ campaigns of Ben Tom for Board of Education, Gordon Lau for Supervisor, and Lillian Sing for Community College Board.
CADC’s material support for the elections of Mayors George Moscone and Frank Jordan garnered appointments for its members and allies enjoy success and access to City Hall. Dramatic demographic changes within the Chinese community, and the election of Mayor Willie Brown, would create deep divisions of opinion about the appropriate strategic response to the new political environment. The fault lines were never erased, and several political clubs were organized from CADC’s splinters.
“Neither the Democratic party nor the Republican party has served the Asian American communities in addressing our needs. There has not been an Asian American appointed to serve in the White House to represent the interests of the Asian American communities in the past ten years. . . . There has been no Asian voice to elevate the legitimate right of Asian Americans to full parity in minority programs along side with blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans. All too often in our struggle for acceptance and legitimacy in this society, we have allowed political brokers, yes, even from our very own communities, to fraudulently sell their candidates to Asian American communities without any return or accountability for measurable results to the communities. We have allowed our financial and human resources to be squandered in political campaigns without exacting our fair share of attention, public concern and public resources to address our needs. This year, we must speak out, we must act. Join with us in raising the consciousness and commitment of our political leaders in carrying out the Asian American agenda. . . .”
As the above quotation suggests, Harold was no slavish devotee of the Democratic Party. He contended that the Democratic Party in San Francisco in its ossified, post-Phil Burton incarnation represented at its core a force for political conservatism and the status quo. Propelling Chinese American candidates to the higher levels of public office entailed change which would not come easily. For that reason, he supported term limits, denounced reapportionment schemes for Congressional, Assembly, State Senate and Supervisorial districts that unreasonably divided Chinese American precincts. He encouraged Chinese American Republicans to run for office in the belief that, if they did their job, they would help sharpen the competition between the political parties for the votes of Chinese and Asian Americans. That partisan bidding-war was supposed to have produced tangible benefits to the community (and the same strategy is being pursued by S.B. Woo and the “80-20” organization in the 21st century). Harold continued to support Democrats, but insisted on CADC’s independence and its declining to charter the club through the San Francisco Democratic Central Committee.
On the state and national levels, he wanted the Democratic Party to compete actively for the loyalties of Asian Americans by putting forward the best programs to resonate with the voters. He directed CADC organizers to identify, sponsor, and negotiate slate position on behalf of candidates for delegate positions in party caucuses.
Harold had been disappointed by the modest pace of progress of Asians at the federal level during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. He wanted to see a real Chinese American advocate appointed to the US Civil Commission on Civil Rights and the EEOC. Toward that end, he produced in the Fall of 1983, the first national position paper on Asian Americans as a litmus test for the presidential campaigns. The national wish list for federal appointments, immigration reform, education, housing, and health and welfare was sent out to a huge network of politicians, businesspeople, nonprofit directors, and opinion makers in March 1984. The basic elements of the program were replicated many times over by Asians in future presidential campaigns and party platform planks.
“And, have you noticed how empirically-minded are the Chinese? On the average, the Chinese are extremely critical. You might be offended by the use of these adjectives to described an entire ethnic group, even on an average. Perhaps you prefer the adjective ‘pragmatic’? Can a people be pragmatic without being empirical? I believe the two qualities go together, for it is only with a good sense of measuring evidence that allows individuals to adjust frequently. I only wish the Chinese were more verbal, to articulate their critical evaluation for discussion to further negotiation and change rather than to walk away from annoyances.”
If Ling-chi Wang was the academician and theoretician of the Asian American Movement as practiced in the faction-ridden politics of Chinatown, Harold Yee was a master of organizational theory for whom the economic and political development of Chinatown was important. However, it was only part of a larger stage on which Harold’s skills as business consultant, housing developer, economist, statistician, political scientist, and negotiator would come into play. Harold worked with Amado Cabezas at ASIAN, Inc., to produce volumes of studies, reports and analyses utilizing current census data that charted the profound demographic trends and argued for a greater share of local, state and federal dollars to Asian communities. The trends would, over the next three decades, result in the establishment of significant Chinese and other Asian communities throughout the state and the US.
A civil rights revolution needed organizations to realize the visions advanced by the ideologues and the activists. ASIAN, Inc., was part of a pragmatic response that sought to institutionalize change. Harold’s nonprofit organization advised or established directly hundreds of nonprofit social service agencies, trade associations, and community organizations such as the Northeast Community Federal Credit Union, the Center for Southeast Asian Resettlement, and Richmond Area Multi-Services.
Celebrity and the Fallacy of “Positioning”
“Is it possible to adopt a strategy of positioning oneself to give the illusion of leadership when, in fact, no proactive leadership is given? . . . There is a difference between leadership and ‘positioning.’ The difference is not all that difficult to discern. To ‘position’ takes bouncing around perceived trends, with no apparent underlying commitment. Results will not be traceable to the . . . posturing. There will not be sufficient energy to take the collective forward.”
Although Harold thought of himself as much a product of the barrio of East L.A. as he did a Chinese American, he often decried the politics of celebrity as practiced in Southern California because such behavior left no “footprints in the sand.” He was particularly quick to condemn within his own organization persons who sought to create their own cults of personality at the expense of organizational objectives. However, he could be a shrewd manipulator of self-interest in the service of advancing beneficial policy outcomes or greater political advantage. He taught his staff and his junior officers to (a) discern the point at which personal interest intersected with the public good or the objectives of the organization, (b) turn that self-interest to drive toward the policy goal, and (c) exact a return from political leadership to infuse new resources back into the infrastructure that had supported the individual’s rise to power.
He had little tolerance for politicians in Yellow-Face or synthetic Asians who did the bidding for the structure of Anglo power and privilege. He often repeated the line “ethnicity is not enough” to shame Chinese and Asian politicians to take risks and do the right thing for Asian America. He respected the risk-takers. For example, he often expressed his admiration for San Jose Mayor and Congressman Norm Mineta. Norm had worked with Harold to restore Asian Americans’ eligibility under Section 8(a) of the federal small business law.
“Norm didn’t have to do that,” he once told me during a phone call (to coax me into making a Mineta campaign donation), while observing that Mineta represented relatively few Asians in his district but had found the time and the wherewithal to legislate on behalf of Asian Americans throughout the US.
He was far from naive about candidates. Harold knew that creating opportunity for Asian Americans was an exercise in the creation of public goods, and that some ethnic politicians and other private interests would inevitably enjoy for little cost the hard-won benefits created by political agitation and difficult negotiation by Harold and his allies.
Affirmative action and minority business enterprises
The San Francisco minority business enterprise ordinance stood as a testament to Harold Yee’s force of personality and a lasting legacy to the economic development of Asian and other minority communities. From its original enactment to the passage of California’s Proposition 209, the MBE ordinance was one of Harold’s greatest legislative achievements. He was involved intimately in the drafting of the original ordinance and its many subsequent amendments. The perfection of the ordinance through successive amendments, rulemaking, and administrative action would for more than two decades occupy much of Harold’s professional and political life.
He expended the energies of the trade associations that he had convened under the Council of Asian American Business Associations (“CAABA’) to lobby local government and make common cause with members of the Black, Hispanic and women business communities. The resulting coalition provided CAABA with needed partners in overseeing the implementation of the MBE ordinance and, in particular, organizing of the minority business community’s and the City’s defense of the law, which has been under legal attack in recent years.
The experience of applying race-conscious remedies in the business context shaped Harold’s complex views on the entire issue of affirmative action. He had concluded that the courts would scrutinize affirmative action programs closely to determine whether such programs were tailored narrowly in accordance with standards enunciated in the US Supreme Court decision in the Croson v. City of Richmond. Harold’s interpretation of the cases and his concern about the long-term viability of affirmative action in contracting induced him to take controversial positions. For example, he opposed loudly the inclusion of East Indians among the list of classes of business owners protected by the City’s MBE ordinance because of what he had concluded was the negligible evidence supporting any legislative or judicial findings that discriminatory policies or practices by the City had actually harmed East Indians.
In practice, Harold argued for selective application of affirmative action remedies to benefit Asian Americans only in those areas where Asian American interests had been excluded from mainstream opportunities. Affirmative action was only needed where Asian Americans had not attained parity because of discriminatory policies or practices; it was not necessary where Asians had overcome the illegal barriers, particularly in fields such as educational admissions.
Thus, while he acknowledged that Asians applying to Lowell High School and other City schools did not need affirmative admissions, he argued passionately against the use of quotas to cap Chinese enrollment because the quotas discriminated unlawfully against Chinese and created de facto affirmative admissions benefits that favored whites and non-Chinese Asians.
Developing Talent and Leadership
‘Leadership is to make things happen through collective action, to lead in doing what is right within many collective eyes . . . to take credit when results follow, good and bad. To lead a voluntary association takes intensity of effort and commitment.”
“There are spectators, and there are active participants in the political process. There are takers, and there are givers. These characterizations are indeed idealized, extreme limits. Most of us fall somewhere in between these limits. Nobody can go full blast at all times to carry the mantle of leadership, and we must each take our turn to coming in and going out of leadership slots in a voluntary organization. Otherwise, we shall soon find no one willing to pay the costs of heading the organization and, without players, democracy just doesn’t work.”
Harold Yee was a developer and incubator not only of minority business enterprises, but also of political talent. Through his guidance and material support, scores of Asian Americans moved on to hold public office and pursue careers in the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government.
However, his leadership style and sometimes bellicose personality often overwhelmed the individuality of the same individuals that he sought to elevate into positions of leadership in government and the community. Sometimes wrong, never in doubt, his restless urgency was never satisfied. He demanded measurable results, particularly when registering Chinese voters. The attainment of one objective simply set the bar higher for reaching the next set of accomplishments. He could be exasperating and irascible; he drove away more than a few prospects.
Often, his belligerence and militancy in advocating for the interests of Asian Americans in the streets provided the cover and the social justice rationale needed by an elected or appointed official to pursue the moderate course of action and get the needed votes to accomplish desired change. He relished playing the “bad cop” to advance the policy objective.
“Psychologists have long recognized the value of group support, but feeling good about oneself through the moral support of like-minded needs is no substitute for real accomplishments of collective action. It is only through measurable gains, even if incrementally small, can a political organization sustain itself over time. It is just too difficult to fool everyone over an extended period of time. No one is that dumb to be forever fooled; no one is that dumb to be forever fooled; no one is that smart to forever do the fooling!”
In many respects, Harold Yee approached community development as he had perhaps learned as an agricultural economist serving with AID in Southeast Asia, drenched in the crusading Cold War atmosphere of the1960s. He conceived of his role as helping people make their own decisions about how and where they worked and lived. Part of the reason was that he had concluded by the early 1980s that the community could not depend on state and federal support because “government had shown itself incapable of sustaining meaningful involvement in people’s lives.”
He scorned openly social service agencies that kept their clientele in “dependency relationships.” To be merely “active” on behalf of the disadvantaged in the Chinese community was insufficient. He detested those who claimed leadership because of their skill in the “bureaucratic politics of grantsmanship to fund their social services agencies to serve the poor.”
He viewed only “organized constituencies” as worth the time and resources to merit his direct attention and assistance. Nevertheless, he continued throughout his life to be a sympathetic cultivator of organizations that provided direct services to newcomer and indigent populations.
Harold was particularly proud of his nurturing organizations such as the Asian American Contractors Association. He took delight in having helped package loans and technical assistance for businesses that employed scores of heads of households and provided families the means to send their children to UC in half a generation. He was always looking for new industrial classifications to organize. One of his political friends, David Looman, remembers vividly riding along with Harold as they personally took an inventory of every Korean bar in San Francisco.
From the mid-1990s until his death in 2004, Harold’s influence to shape events in the Asian community waned, due in part to his declination of a modus vivendi with the Brown administration and vindictive competitors. ASIAN, Inc. lost significant city funding for micro-enterprise development. Ironically, his political fortunes kept him and ASIAN, Inc., on the outside of City Hall – a victim of the same political pluralism in the Chinese community that he had helped to promote in more than three decades in the public arena. He may have stayed in the game too long.
Nevertheless, he continued to be fascinated by the prospect of creating civic culture within the new Chinese America, one that practiced transformational political behavior rather than the easy transactional politics toward which immigrant power brokers gravitated naturally. The task of transforming Asian Americans’ attitudes, so they could assume greater levels of public responsibility and self-determination remained one of the great themes of his thinking.
“Democracy rewards those who participate,” he would say often. He wanted Asians to show up and play the game and to transform the individual and collective destinies of their communities. To those who were fortunate enough to work with him, he will always be there as we strive on, cajoling everyone to do better and pointing the way to the next horizon.
He will be missed, and we may not see the likes of him again.
-Douglas S. Chan is an attorney and a member of the San Francisco Civil Service Commission.
*Editor’s Note: The quotations from Harold Yee are excerpted from written notes from a lecture delivered to the Board of Directors of the Chinese American Democratic Club on July 1, 1987, at Asilomar, California.