Skip to main content
Politics & Policy

A quiet power rises in SF politics: Chinese grandparents

Crowd of people wearing yellow hats, holding yellow signs supporting Mayor London Breed, in a dimly lit room with joyful expressions.
Chinese elders were front and center at Mayor London Breed’s reelection campaign kickoff on Saturday. She’s not the only one counting on their support this election year. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

On a sunny Sunday in late March, Siu Kwan Man, 81, took a bus from San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood to Golden Gate Park. It wasn’t for an outdoor exercise class; it was a day trip with a political agenda.

Man was joining a dozen other monolingual Chinese seniors attending the reelection campaign launch for Supervisor Dean Preston, a polarizing politician who represents District 5, which includes the Tenderloin.

After the event, everyone gathered for a big group photo with Man’s crew of Chinese immigrant grandmas front and center.

“I’ve known Dean Preston for over a year now,” Man said in Mandarin.

“He thanked us by saying the Chinese word ‘duo shieh’ [多谢, many thanks], but his Chinese is not that good,” she laughed.

Engaging in politics isn’t always a top priority for many Chinese elders—they’d rather be singing and dancing together. But in an election year when candidates are aggressively courting Chinese American voters, Chinese seniors are becoming increasingly visible on the campaign trail.

A choir of elderly women in pink floral robes sing passionately, holding red folders, conducted by a person with a raised hand, indoors.
Tenderloin Chinese Rights Association members gathered for a singing rehearsal earlier this month. As local candidates court Chinese American voters, seniors are getting more involved in San Francisco politics. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
People are holding blue and green signs with "EF" in a city street, advocating for a proposition, wearing masks and gloves.
People march down Stockton Street during the Election Day Get-Out-The-Vote Walk in Chinatown on March 5. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Behind Chinese elders’ participation in political rallies and other events, a handful of organizers wield outsized influence, both among their peers and with the politicians who aim to reach them.

Siu Han Cheung, 68, is the leader of the Tenderloin Chinese Rights Association, a group representing low-income Chinese immigrants and renters in the embattled neighborhood. Most of its active members, including Man, are older, monolingual Chinese women.

“We trust her leadership,” Man said about Cheung. “We are elders and we don’t know too much.”

Cheung organizes her troupe of elders to sing together every Tuesday, exercises with them outdoors, brings local politicians to meet them, explains the impact of local politics to them, and, inevitably, shuttles them to rallies. Anti-displacement and tenants’ rights are core issues for Chinese elders, said Cheung, making this group of grandmas more inclined to support progressive politicians.

A group of elderly people, wearing yellow caps and jackets, sit holding "Mayor London Breed" campaign signs by a red curtain. Some wear masks.
A large group of Asian elders attended Mayor London Breed’s official kick off for her bid for re-election as Mayor at The Fillmore on Saturday. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Much like candidates and elected officials adopting Chinese names, the prominence of monolingual Chinese seniors at political rallies has become a perennial election-year phenomenon in San Francisco. This demographic may not swing elections, but their presence sends a signal to other pockets of this heavily Asian city about diversity and organizing power.

“They are one of the most difficult groups to organize,” said Jeremy Lee, co-president of the progressive Rose Pak Democratic Club, which has helped organize monolingual Chinese immigrants for years. “When you have the Chinese monolingual seniors come, it’s showing strong grassroots support.”

To outsiders, monolingual Chinese seniors may seem not especially political, preferring to lie low and live their lives quietly. But that stereotype is changing, Lee believes, pointing to the Community Tenants Association—a Chinatown tenants group known for its progressive political endorsements.

CTA boasts thousands of low-income, monolingual senior members. The organization hosts weekly meetings to talk about politics and community issues. At many progressive candidates’ rallies, CTA members are frequent guests.

Wing Hoo Leung, the longtime president of CTA, said the group’s track record of protecting tenants from eviction has encouraged more people to join and get involved in elections.

A man speaks at a podium with a "We Need Aaron!" sign, to an attentive audience holding similar signs at an outdoor mayoral campaign event.
Wing Hoo Leung, president of the Community Tenants Association, left, listens to Supervisor Aaron Peskin speak at his mayoral campaign kick-off rally. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

“We have to show our achievements so the tenants will trust us,” Leung said in Cantonese. “Our main purpose is to help the vulnerable.”

Through his powerful tenants’ group, Leung can easily summon hundreds of seniors to show up. He said in 2011, when the group was supporting Ed Lee as San Francisco’s first Asian American mayor, over 1,000 members came out for a Chinatown event. Cheung said she could organize about 50 people for an in-person event.

Rose Pak Democratic Club also helped organize CTA members to attend Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s mayoral campaign launch last month in Chinatown, where Leung was a featured speaker. He also showed up at Preston’s reelection campaign event.

In a statement, Preston said he’s grateful for the support of Chinese seniors and emphasized the importance of uplifting their voices and concerns. 

“These seniors’ advocacy has helped us address issues within District 5 and beyond,” Preston said. “It is an honor to have their trust and support.”

The mayor’s ‘adopted grandma’

While Cheung and Leung may be more left-leaning, moderate politicians can also count on the support of Chinese elders.

In April, at a Chinatown merchant walk, Mayor London Breed held hands with Tow Kuk Wong, a longtime senior organizer. Breed gave Wong a panda doll during the event, a gift she brought back from her recent trip to China. Wong said she was extremely flattered.

On Saturday, Breed called out the organizer’s name at the beginning of her campaign kick-off speech, speaking a few words in Cantonese as she welcomed the large crowd of Chinese seniors that Wong helped mobilize.

An elderly Asian couple shares a joyful moment with a smiling woman in a blue blazer, inside a bright room with large windows.
Community organizer Leon Chow, left, and Wong Tow Kuk, center, greet Mayor London Breed at Pier 27 after her State of the City speech in March. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

“Mrs. Wong and all my grandmothers sitting in the front row are joining us,” said Breed, who has described Wong as her “adopted grandma” after her own grandmother passed away. “I love you so much!”

A SoMa tenant and a leader of the California Friends of Tenants Caucus, Wong has been active in local politics for decades. In a phone interview in Cantonese, Wong declined to discuss her political activism in depth because she said she’s not good at speaking to the press. She said she doesn’t want publicity, preferring to focus on her community work.

Joe Arellano, a spokesperson for Breed’s campaign, said the mayor has connected with many Chinese seniors over the years but that Wong is special to her. Their relationship is not about politics, he said, as Breed personally made sure Wong received her Covid vaccine early and checked on her regularly.

And now, Wong and her “community of grandmas” are incredibly vital to Breed’s reelection, Arellano said.

“Mayor Breed is honored to have their support and thanks the many grandmas and grandpas in the Chinese community that have taken care of her, and helped fill the void of losing her own grandmother,” he said.

For the pork buns?

In the past, critics have argued that Chinese seniors attend political rallies because they are offered free meals or lunches.

Lee said that providing snacks, like the pork buns given to seniors at Peskin’s rally, is the least a campaign can do for seniors who are donating hours of their time. Some other campaign events provide food. Mayoral candidate Mark Farrell, for example, was photographed serving Chinese food to seniors in the Bayview neighborhood and posted the images on X.

Man, the 81-year-old Tenderloin grandma, said she attended Peskin’s rally but had to run to catch the bus back home so she didn’t get a pork bun.

A group of elderly Asian people, holding political campaign signs, listen attentively to a speaker in an urban setting.
Marlene Tran, left, talks to her Chinese American senior supporters in 2010. | Source: Courtesy Marlene Tran

“I have been talking with you for so long now,” Man told The Standard reporter in Chinese. “Should I be awarded a pork bun?”

In the Visitacion Valley neighborhood, which has a large population of Asian American immigrants, monolingual seniors are also a sought-after presence at political events.

Marlene Tran, a well-known community activist and retired teacher, has accumulated a big following of Chinese grandmas, she said, after fighting for immigrants’ rights and language access for decades.

She said organizing seniors is her passion, and she often shows up with a group of grandmas at political rallies in the southeastern side of the city.

“I’m hoping I’m giving them the right influence,” Tran said. “I’m going to be 78 years old pretty soon and try to do something good every day.”

Four senior women in a community room, three seated and wearing pink smocks, one standing in a green jacket, all appear cheerful.
Siu Han Cheung of the Tenderloin Chinese Rights Association leads a singing rehearsal. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Despite their advanced age, Chinese senior groups expect to ramp up their political activities as the campaigns heat up.

Cheung, the 68-year-old Tenderloin organizer, said she’s the youngest in her group—everyone else is older than 75.

Leung, who’s in his 80s, refused to reveal his exact age. But Wong isn’t hiding her seniority.

“I was born in 1937,” she said. “How old am I?”