SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) - San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee shared rare details about his family's immigrant background during an interview with KTVU’s Amber Lee in Chinatown.
He says his roots helped shape his role as mayor of a city with a large immigrant population.
"I felt there were barriers in the city when it came to immigrant communities. I get to change a lot of that," says Mayor Lee
On this rainy grey day, Lee spoke about his long ties to Chinatown and his optimism for improving the lives of immigrants.
"I'm glad for the things we're able to accomplish."
For about an hour inside New Sun Hong Kong, a restaurant at the busy intersection of Broadway and Columbus chosen for its history of giving back to the community, Lee talked about the strength he draws from his immigrant parents.
"This is why I feel so strongly about protecting our immigrant community, enhancing it, providing pathways whether it be through citizenship or economic success," says Lee.
He says his desire to help immigrants started early.
The Seattle native graduated from UC Berkeley with a law degree. As a young attorney for the Asian Law Caucus, he fought for the rights of immigrants and tenants in the face of racism and exclusion.
"I wanted to use the law to open doors for a lot of people who laws prevented them from being a success and equal and this drives me personally," says Lee.
In Chinatown, the mayor says he sees folks who came to America to look for a better life. Their stories echo those of his own parents.
They came from a small rural village of Toisan, in the southern province of Guangdong, China and settled in Seattle.
"That grittiness that my dad had in his life to raise a family of six with just being a cook," says Lee.
His mom worked as a seamstress, the family lived in public housing. They were poor in material wealth, but rich in life lessons.
"We learn modesty. We learn sacrifice. We learn to be humble from people who may have even less. But we learn how to fight and survive at the same time," says Lee.
Lee tells KTVU his parents’ immigrant experience is a continuous reminder that he still has work to do to improve the lives of all immigrants.
One project that's underway is the renovation of all of the city's public housing. Another goal is to provide more affordable housing.
As mayor, he says a fun part of the job is participating in the Chinese New Year Parade, an event he has enjoyed for decades as a behind the scenes volunteer since 1974.
He says he helped set up booths and worked logistics.
Lee says his favorite part is the audience, "I love going through the crowds seeing the different ethnic faces seeing the 10 rows thick."
Whether the mayor is working the parade or at City Hall, meeting the challenges of running San Francisco or out greeting constituents, he takes it all in stride.
Some critics suggest the mayor has forgotten his roots, but he tells KTVU, he wants to be known as the proud son of immigrant parents who's learned to listen, observe and unify.