Former San Francisco Supervisor Thomas “Tom” Hsieh, who was regarded as a “hero” and a trailblazer for Chinese Americans in local politics, has died at 91.
Hsieh died surrounded by his family at the University of California, San Francisco Hospital on March 5 from kidney failure, his son, Tom Hsieh Jr., told the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Tom Hsieh was a power broker before there were Asian power brokers,” Dennis Wu, a retired Recology board chairman, told the publication. “He was just about our people having a voice and working together for the benefit of the Chinese community and the broader San Francisco community.”
The California Senate Democrats adjourned its meeting last week in memory of Hsieh.
Hsieh is survived by his wife of 63 years, Jeannette Fay, their three sons and five grandchildren.
A memorial for Hsieh is set to be held at the Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City on March 30.
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“I am grateful to Supervisor Hsieh for his legacy, lifting our community up and paving the way for not only those who came before me, but for those who will come after me,” San Francisco Supervisor Connie Chan said on March 7. “He will be remembered and missed.”
Born as Kuo Shang Hsieh in Beijing on Nov. 17, 1931, Hsieh and his family fled to Taiwan in 1948 amid the Chinese Civil War.
With only $400, a suitcase and his guitar, Hsieh immigrated to San Francisco in 1951 to study in the United States like his father, who had a doctorate in chemistry from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and was the CEO of a chemical company in Beijing.
He reportedly picked up his American name while on his way to the U.S.
After earning his degree at City College of San Francisco, Hsieh transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his Master of Architecture degree in 1959. He later set up his own architecture agency.
As an architect, Hsieh built many projects for the San Francisco community, including the Mandarin Tower, which is the tallest building in Chinatown at 17 stories high.
Another contribution Hsieh developed for the community was the Western Park Apartments, which are now being used as part of the Sequoias senior living complex near Japantown in San Francisco.
“Tom Hsieh was not only our supervisor but our hero,” Annie Chung, executive director of Self Help for the Elderly, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “He was attuned to what our seniors need and worked hard on building housing and improved public safety for our community.”
Hsieh made history as the first Chinese American ever to be elected in a citywide election, after which he served as the San Francisco Supervisor from 1986 to 1997.
Years before his historic appointment, Hsieh was also named the first Chinese American appointed to the Arts Commission in 1970.
Hsieh, a supporter of former President Jimmy Carter, helped him with his candidacy for the Democratic nomination by raising money for his campaign. The former supervisor was also among those chosen to greet the former president on the airport tarmac during his visit to San Francisco.
Hsieh’s support for Carter later led to him becoming the founding national chair of the first Asian Pacific Caucus of the Democratic National Committee in 1978, later serving as the vice chair of the California Democratic Party.
Wu, a former Republican who transitioned to the Democratic Party, said Hsieh was “instrumental in getting Chinese [people] to join the Democratic Party,” as many Chinese people before that were reportedly inclined to “join the Republican Party.”