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Politics & Policy

As APEC looms, San Francisco’s Filipino American community criticizes summit’s legacy

Brandon Lee poses for a portrait in his apartment in the Mission District on Nov. 3, 2023. Lee was shot in the back in the Philippines, allegedly for his activism work in the country. | Source: Tojo Andrianarivo for The Standard

With APEC’s calendar of meetings convening in a little more than a week, San Francisco is hoping to present its best face to the world. Not since the end of World War II has the city been so at the heart of world affairs.

But some community leaders in South of Market’s Filipino community have to confront an uncomfortable reality: Their neighborhood is the focal point for the conclave of world leaders and CEOs, and as such, it will be a warren of street closures, restrictions, security checkpoints and general disruption. This presents considerable challenges to seniors, non-English speakers and people with limited mobility, but it also means swallowing a rather bitter pill: welcoming a longstanding, pro-trade body whose convenings have sparked discontent in the Philippines and elsewhere.

Led by Raquel Redondiez, the executive director of the cultural district SOMA Pilipinas, a group of activists spoke last week during public comment at the Board of Supervisors’ meeting. She was present in Manila in 1996, when the Philippines hosted APEC. The government rolled out the red carpet, she said, promising increases in the standard of living that were unevenly distributed among the country’s 110 million people.

READ MORE: At APEC Teach-In, San Francisco Residents Voice Concerns About Summit Impacts

“APEC is not about sustainability or shared prosperity. There will be no unions or farmers or Indigenous representatives at the APEC summit,” Redondiez told the board. “It will be all heads of states and billionaire CEOs who are there to increase their profits. Philippine President Bongbong Marcos, son of the late dictator, will be there to sell out the Philippines to the highest bidder.”   

Macroeconomics is one thing, but Redondiez believes that the situation at the local level will echo that dynamic. This extends even to APEC’s physical footprint. The Moscone Center sits squarely within SOMA Pilipinas—and, in fact, the conference’s rectangular-shaped security perimeter overlaps almost perfectly with the cultural district’s boundaries.

Redondiez sent a letter to Aaron Peskin, president of the Board of Supervisors, in support of a motion by Supervisor Connie Chan that would allocate $10 million to mitigate APEC’s impacts on small businesses and residents in the vicinity of the Moscone Center. 

The Standard has reached out to APEC’s media relations team for comment.

“There’s a lot of concern,” Redondiez told The Standard. “I was just in a meeting last night at the Children’s Creativity Museum [on Fourth Street], and a lot of residents in the area are hearing for the first time what’s happening.”

At that meeting, it became clear that many logistical points didn’t seem to have been communicated, she said. For example, a child care center that serves some 80 families will be closed down for several days.

“The city and the Secret Service are telling people, ‘If you don’t have business here, stay away,’” Redondiez said. “And APEC is exclusive. It’s not like we’re invited!” 

Redondiez said overtures to the government of the Philippines have met with silence.

“SOMA Pilipinas reached out to the consulate saying [President Marcos’ delegation] should meet with the district, to see our challenges and our accomplishments. We haven’t heard a response,” she said. Consular officials “were just at our showcase of Filipino Indigenous dances that happened a couple Saturdays ago, so they’re definitely aware of our work.” 

The issue may be especially delicate considering how a Hawaiian court held Marcos in contempt for flouting an order to disclose details about his family’s wealth. Marcos’ father, Ferdinand Marcos, led the Philippines with First Lady Imelda Marcos from 1965 until he was deposed in 1986 after facing widespread accusations of corruption. The Filipino consulate did not respond to The Standard’s requests for comment.

The Philippines Hosted APEC—Twice

APEC, established in 1989, is a regional forum intended to promote economic integration. It has 21 member economies, which account for about 38% of the global population, nearly two-thirds of global GDP and half of all trade.

The 21 APEC members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the U.S. and Vietnam.

Anti-APEC protestors clash with Philippine riot police as they attempt to get near the venue hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on Nov. 19, 2015, in Manila. | Source: Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images
A signed poster of Brandon Lee with heartfelt messages from community members hangs on the wall of his Mission District apartment on Friday. | Source: Tojo Andrianarivo for The Standard

Redondiez was in Manila when the Philippines hosted APEC in 1996, and San Francisco activist Brandon Lee was present when the Philippines hosted it the next time, in 2015. He had been working with Indigenous populations in Northern Luzon Province after the government liberalized the country’s mining industry.

“It allowed foreign mining corporations to reap 100% profit from plundering Indigenous people’s land,” Lee told The Standard. “Of course, I stood with these Indigenous communities protesting it, because it led to the destruction of their ancestral land and the destruction of the environment.”

The military responded by bombing villages and strafing them with artillery fire. During APEC in 2015, Lee and his compatriots protested at the mining companies’ headquarters and at Malacañang, the country’s equivalent of the White House, where they were met with police barricades and firehoses.

On Aug. 6, 2019, after several years when Indigenous rights activists were surveilled, abducted or put on trial with allegedly fabricated evidence, Lee, who is Chinese American, was shot four times. He remains paralyzed from the neck down. No investigation was ever undertaken.

That occurred under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, but Lee sees little difference between the policies of that government and the current one. The fact that San Francisco’s Filipino American community is bearing the brunt of APEC sickens him, he said.

“We established the U.N. in San Francisco. We’re supposed to be promoting human rights,” he said. “But with this exclusionary zone, they’ll be training their guns at us. … The U.S. should not be hosting APEC because of all the human rights violations that come out of APEC policies.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks at City Hall on Oct. 24. The mayor gave a press conference about the upcoming APEC summit. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Auditing the City’s Promises

Kristen Brillantes owns The Sarap Shop, which started as a food truck and has grown into a stand in Chase Center and another stand scheduled to open in Saluhall, the Downtown San Francisco food court tied to Ikea. The heart of its business, built on sauces and halo halo milk tea, is in the city’s Filipino cultural district.

Brillantes was also among the 14 signatories to Redondiez’s letter to Peskin. To her, SoMa’s Filipino American small-business owners are being asked to “wait and see” for their share of the city’s expected windfall. 

“London Breed said APEC would return $53 million to the city,” Brillantes said. “If so, how much goes to small businesses as opposed to corporations? ’Cause I’m sure they’re seeing things we’re not.”

Further, she believes the summit may have been better suited to a less central location, like Treasure Island, where a security zone might be less disruptive.

“I can understand the security measures, but then why pick a place where we’ve never hosted before?” she said. 

Although details, like the topic of the meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, remain TBD, the economic summit is essentially a done deal at this point. Brillantes is now focusing her attention on the summit’s aftermath—to auditing the city’s promises, so to speak.

Although protests are expected, APEC may ultimately be a grin-and-bear-it thing for the city’s Filipino American community. Brillantes has resigned herself to taking a hit to The Sarap Shop’s bottom line for a week.

“We’re resilient, but we want to feel joy,” she said. “That’s Filipino culture!”