By Christopher Chow
I remember Herb Lee, Inspector Herb Lee of the San Francisco Police Department, the first Chinese American policeman in the City. That’s how I knew him, as Insp. Herb Lee. I met him when I was making the documentary Under Their Ancestors Shadows. I was a reporter at KPIX CBS 5 in October 1971. That was a time when the Chinatown youth gangs Wah Ching and Yow Lay caught the attention of metropolitan news media as fights, vandalism, and murdered Chinese American bodies were found in different parts of the Bay by police. Merchants in Chinatown suffered robberies and intimidation by alienated, out of control, and disadvantaged youth struggling for a place and a future in an officially-designated poverty pocket with barriers to getting up and out imposed by the Chinatown establishment as well as San Francisco’s historical white racism and institutional discriminations.
Inspector Lee was bilingual and understood what was troubling the youth and tried to help them find legitimate and peaceful ways to live and grow. He was renowned for his fishing trips and the recreational opportunities he organized for the young people of the community. He tried his best to work through and with the system. And he did it well. But he was isolated and under-utilized by the SFPD. He was only one voice in the ranks who could speak up and give wise advice to those in the department calling the shots or running things. He did not have the opportunity to lead, co-lead or supervise investigations in Chinatown or direct cases suspected of Chinatown gang involvement. There were a few other Chinese Americans on the force at the time, such as the late Ed Tong. And this was around the time my Galileo High School classmate, Fred Lau, challenged the Department’s 5’8” height requirement that had effectively discriminated against Asians and women. Fred, who later became the City’s first Asian/Chinese American Chief of Police, was inspired by Insp. Lee.
I remember talking to Inspector Lee on the telephone as I was developing my reporting of Chinatown youth gang activities and what led to them. He said many, both American-born and immigrant youths, felt hopelessness growing up in what even then, nearly 50 years ago, was called the “gilded ghetto.” Chinatown was then and still is the second most densely-populated area of its geographic size outside of Manhattan. He said many youth were being used by the established legitimate and illegitimate forces of the community for their own ends and self-interests, even as they decried the plight and violence of young people. He had valuable insights and ideas about how things could be turned for the better. But he didn’t have much opportunity to share them or have them acted upon by the powers that be.
After our telephone conversation, I went through channels and asked for an on-camera interview for the documentary, mentioning that I had spoken with Inspector Herb Lee. SFPD gave the okay but said Lt. Bill Keays, head of the Juvenile Bureau, would be the spokesman for the Department in this situation. Lt. Keays was well-spoken and did have Insp. Lee sitting along the side and behind him. The documentary was aired in prime time following the 7 o’clock newscast and won an Associated Press Merit Award for investigative reporting. It could’ve been better had I taken more initiative and asked Inspector Herb Lee if he had anything to add to the filmed interview. For that and the lessons learned from him I cherish his legacy and salute Inspector Herb Lee.
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