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Politics & Policy

Chinese American political pioneer Tom Hsieh passes at 91

Former San Francisco Supervisor Tom Hsieh in the 1970s | Nancy Wong/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Former San Francisco Supervisor Thomas K.S. Hsieh, a trailblazer for Chinese Americans in local politics, died peacefully at UCSF Hospital in San Francisco on Sunday, surrounded by his family. He was 91 years old.

An Immigrant Story

Hsieh came to San Francisco from China in 1951, with only $400 in cash, a suitcase and, according to a colleague, a guitar. An architect by trade, he designed and built over 1,600 low- to moderate-income units designated for elderly San Franciscans, as well as the Mandarin Tower on Stockton Street opposite what is now Chinatown-Rose Pak Station.  

“In many ways, Tom Hsieh was the story of San Francisco,” Steve Kawa, who was Hsieh’s legislative aide on the board and went on to be chief of staff to three mayors, told The Standard, “someone who comes to the city and ends up doing so much more for others. He was most proud of his relentless pursuit of seismic safety; he understood that issue deeply as an architect.”

“He was the person who taught me the most about civility in my 30 years in politics,” Kawa added. 

Hsieh served on multiple local and regional commissions in the 1970s and ’80s, and was also very active in the local Democratic Party. He was the founding national chair of the first Asian Pacific Caucus of the Democratic National Committee and served there from 1978 to 1986.

He was appointed to a vacant seat on the Board of Supervisors by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein in 1986, before Asian American political power became the force in San Francisco politics that it is today. The first Asian American to sit on the board after Gordon Lau left six years before, Hsieh served for 11 years.

A Fiscal Hawk

On the board, Hsieh became known as much for his fiscal hawkishness as for his bow tie. He was credited with shepherding the city through years of fiscal crisis as Budget Committee chair, while being a trailblazer for other Asian Americans in city politics. 

Mabel Teng joined Hsieh on the board toward the end of his second term. Together, they symbolized the evolving political diversity of San Francisco’s Chinese American community. 

“He never held back from his moderate viewpoint, but worked effectively across political lines when it came to Chinatown’s well-being,” Teng said. “He was ahead of his time when he ran for mayor in 1991. He was best known for his life-size cut-out posters challenging former Mayor Art Agnos.”

Kevin Shelley, another colleague of Hsieh’s on the board, also remembered him fondly.

“He was an incredibly decent and honorable man,” Shelley said. “Our politics differed a bit, but he approached every issue thoughtfully, and where he could find common ground he always sought to achieve it. He will be remembered fondly by all who served with him.”

‘A Class Act’

Hsieh combined moderate politics with a willingness to engage the other side of the aisle and was transparent with his positions. 

“Tom Hsieh was a class act,” Angela Alioto, who served with him on the Board of Supervisors, told The Standard. “Very much a gentleman, very respectful. He never got upset, but you always knew where he stood, whether we disagreed or not.” 

Supervisors who served alongside Hsieh in the 1980s recalled Hsieh’s sense of decency.

“Tom was a solid legislator,” former Supervisor Bill Maher told The Standard. “He had positions and viewpoints that he promoted and defended, but was always polite and civil to his opponents. A good man.”

“He was old school in the sense that he said, ‘You know, hey, I'm a Feinstein appointee, and I'm not going to forget that. But when I get elected in my own right, I'm going to be independent.’ And that's exactly what he was,” Jim Gonzalez, who also served on the board with Hsieh, told The Standard. “He loved San Francisco and loved democracy.”

Tom Hsieh is survived by Jeannette, his wife of 63 years; his sons Jackson, Franklin and Tom Hsieh Jr.;  and his grandchildren Nicholas, Cameron, Emma, Jack and Ryder.