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ďMy first job was to remodel a kitchenĒ

Walter Wong interviewed by Matt Gonzalez

This interview took place at the home of Matt Gonzalez on October 11, 2004.

Matt Gonzalez: Walter, first let me thank you for sitting down and talking with me. I know you have generally been reluctant to speak to the press about yourself and the various endeavors you are involved in, so I appreciate you doing that now. Letís start by discussing your background. What part of China are you from? And what brought you to the United States?

Walter Wong: I was born in Hong Kong. I left home when I was 16 in order to support myself. I went to Thailand. At that time, my father lost his job so he could not support all of his children and the expenses of college. So I went to Thailand to work in film. I worked in movie subtitles and also as a photographer. I was in Thailand for 3 years. I started out making $20 a month and in three years time, I built my business up to having almost having 30 people working for me doing photography for the major newspapers. By then, I was making $3,000 US dollars a month. One of my photos even made it on the cover of Life Magazine. That was 35 years ago.

By that time, I felt the need to have more education. So I applied for a visa to come to the United States to study. First I enrolled in Heald College in the engineering department. In school, I worked very very hard. I thought at first engineering is easy, just put in some numbers, but then I realized it is very difficult.

After that, I was accepted in the business school at the University of San Francisco. So I started in the accounting program over there. By this time, I was going to USF and working full time in a restaurant, the Imperial Palace, as a janitor. So, at the same time I was going to school full time, taking around 24 units a semester, I was also working 50 hours a week. I worked hard as a janitor in the restaurant and was eventually promoted to assistant manager. This was important, because I was not just making money but also learning how to deal with people.

I graduated with an accounting degree, but still realized how little I knew. So, I continued to get my masterís from USF, which I received in 1978. After I graduated, I looked for a job, and I applied to around 20 or 30 banks and financial institutions. I had many many interviews, but I always heard the same thing; that I should stick to working in restaurants where I had more experience rather than try for a career in accounting or in financial management.

At that time, I felt really bad. After I studied really hard, to hear people tell me I could only work in a restaurant. As a Chinese man, I felt very bad. Luckily, I met my wife at that time. She worked for a music company. She told her boss that I could do handyman jobs. And my first job was to remodel a kitchen. Thatís how I got in the construction business. That was my first job. I used to buy self-help manuals from Readerís Digest that showed me what to do. Thatís how it started.

MG: What year was that remodeling job?

WW: 1979.

MG: So you gave up accounting work because you couldnít get hired in the business?

WW: Thatís right.

MG: How did you go from contracting to getting into the permit expediting business? I guess we call it permit consulting now.

WW: I was doing construction work for approximately 15 years. In the early 90s, I was approached by Chester Chin. He said to me that since I did so much construction work, I must know how to get permits. He said there were a lot of people that needed help getting permits because the system was so complicated. So he invited me to learn how to help people get permits.

MG: So before we get into that, tell me about those 15 years?

WW: I did a lot of construction work in San Francisco. I did 12 to 15 million dollars a year. But it was always difficult to collect money. In those days, my company had about 20 people, but we grew to over 300 people.

MG: But in the early years what did it look like?

WW: I had about 5 people working for me. Three trucks doing about 3 or 4 projects at a time. Fifteen projects a year. Then in the early 1980s, I had over 300 people working for me with 30 to 40 projects at a time and over 300 projects a year. Basically it was like everything else I did in my life. I worked harder than everyone else, did good work, and charged fair prices.

MG: All of that started out of the kitchen remodeling job?

WW: Yeah. I learned a lot. The older contractors taught me how to do many different things.

MG: So when you say you were making 12 million a year, is that your profit or the value of the

WW: Not making 12 million, but working on projects worth that.

MG: What got you interested in politics?

WW: At the time, it was tough to get jobs from different firms as an Asian. So I joined the Asian Contractors Association formed by Asian, Inc., under Harold Yee. He taught me to get involved in the system. I did not know what a system meant at that time.

I came to understand the system as bureaucracy that was related to politics. I still donít really know what politics means. But we thought that to get jobs in the city we have to be able to market ourselves. So I became the President of the Asian Contractors for ten years.

During the ten years, I attended many functions. We started to support candidates who supported our minority contracting position. Then we started to work to market ourselves so we could get jobs from the city. And this has proven successful. Today, many of the Asian contractors became mainstream contractors. We are getting jobs to build libraries and schools.
Thatís how I started to get involved in the politics.

MG: Do you think you were doing anything differently than what mainstream contractors were doing? In terms of getting familiar with the political landscape and players?

WW: I do not believe I was doing anything different. The only thing thatís different is that Iím Asian. Other contractors look at me differently because Iím an Asian, Chinese contractor. Many times Iíve been singled out for many many different issues. Other contractors do the exact same thing, but no one pays attention to them.

MG: Do you think youíve been singled out for getting involved in politics or using influence in an improper way?

WW: I know Iíve been singled out for the issue of improper influence. But thatís not the case. Iím very good at what I do. Every time I handle any case or project I spend a lot of time working to understand the issues and what the project is about. I consider the history of the project Ė whether other projects that are similar have come before and what happened to
them. I spend a lot of time reviewing and making sure plans comply with the code.

I have found that by spending money up front, I save a lot of money and delay during the review. Itís really that simple and everyone that accuses me of doing something improper should learn to work harder and get their projects in better form before submitting them to the city.

MG: Who do you hire to prepare your documents?

WW: I hire retired building inspectors and fire inspectors to review all drawings, all documents to be certain everything conforms with the city codes. And I have architects, planners, and engineers check things also.

MG: I would expect that youíve also built up many relationships over the years that help you get the attention of folks reviewing documents at building inspections department, for instance?

WW: Yes, but that is only natural. In the same way that you have built friendships during your time as a supervisor, it is only natural that you get to know people in the course of doing business. But itís not because of something improper or illegal. I work hard and have a lot of experience so it is natural that I have gained perhaps a little advantage over someone seeking to do it for the first time. It shouldnít be that hard for the average homeowner, but over the years change upon change has resulted in a very complicated system. But I canít be to blame for the system. Iím only working within it.

MG: I thought it was interesting how during the mayorís race, after you decided to support me in the race, Newsom started attacking you. Is it true he sought your support?

WW: Yeah, he came to see me many times to get my support.

MG: How many times?

WW: Eight or nine times.

MG: Why didnít you want to support him? It seems that he had probably supported your interests certainly more times than I had in the past.

WW: Well, as Iíve said in the newspaper previously, I felt he wasnít well rounded enough to be mayor. It wasnít personal. Sometimes you just get a feeling about someone, and itís important in life to follow your instincts. Also, Iím good friends with Mayor Art Agnos, who I know likes you a lot, and so it made me pay attention to you more.

The reason I supported you is that you were just like one of us, a hard working, common citizen, from an immigrant family. Your family worked hard to support you to go to school. You gave back to community as an attorney helping people who donít have a chance. That is what I face often. We had that in common. We were both immigrants basically.

I also consulted the Chinese astrology. As a result of my review, it was very close between the two of you. He had an advantage on election day, but just barely. Thatís why we worked extra hard to overcome this advantage, and, as you can see, we almost made it. It was easy to say I wasnít going to support you, but maybe history can be rewritten.

Did you know that downtown developers threatened me that if I continued to support you they would not use my services? After I rented you space, they wanted me to evict you.

MG: Who were the people making those calls?

WW: Iíd rather not mention them by name. This is part of the decision I have to live with. Itís politics.

MG: Is it true you had worked for Newsom, on one of his projects as an expediter.

WW: Yes, a building project on Folsom Street that houses the Mexican embassy. He was one of the investors in the project.

MG: But you didnít work on his house or anything like that?

WW: No, he had a lawyer do the expediting work for him.

MG: Is it common that lawyers second as expediters?

WW: What do you mean second?

MG: Well, that they take off their lawyer hats and do expediting work on a project for instance?

WW: Yes, there are many lawyers who do expediting. Some work strictly as lobbyists and try to use their connections. Some work on technical and procedural issues.

MG: Getting back to the mayorís race, how were you received for throwing your support behind me?

WW: Well you have to remember, some people already forget, that you were a major threat to the establishment. And anyone supporting you was themselves attacked. In my own case I believe I was received negatively. I was portrayed as a crooked guy, a crooked person. I was portrayed as someone who obtained permits with improper influence. But thatís okay. People can say whatever they want. The truth is the truth.

MG: I had supported reform in building inspections at a time Newsom had not. Did that figure into your decision?

WW: Iím not worried about reform in any governmental agency. Whatever the rules are I will do fine.

MG: The Chronicle wrote a story about you a few years ago, I forget who the writer was. How do you think you were portrayed in it?

WW: The Chronicle published an article in September 2001 by Susan Sward. In the article, I am portrayed very negatively. She interviewed over 400 people in three years to come up with the article. But in the cases cited in the article, all the projects went through proper hearings and due process. My clients prevailed on each of those projects because they all followed the code. Several projects, because of complaints were investigated by the FBI, for wrongdoing, but there were never any charges brought. The accusations carry on. The newspapers fail to point out eventually how the Planning Commission or Board of Appeals under several different mayors made those decisions.

I have been investigated before because unnamed people complain about my success. But there has never been a single substantiated charge against me. I want to be treated like everyone else. If Iíve done something wrong, fine, charge me with a crime. But if I havenít, then I should not be treated differently from the others.

I believe it is common when someone is as successful as I have been that people assume it can only be because I am doing something illegal. But itís not true. All of my life I have worked hard, stay up past midnight, 5 or 6 in the morning, if necessary. That is the truth.

MG: I think itís interesting that the papers, whenever they mention you now, they always say how you supported me in the mayorís race. But they never mention that you were the President of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce at the time and that all the candidates, including Ammiano and Leal and Alioto, sought your support.

WW: Yes, Iíve noticed that.

MG: One of Newsomís biggest backers, Julie Lee, is in a lot of trouble now because of her contributions to Kevin Shelley. Do you want to comment on that?

WW: Since the case is being investigated by so many agencies, I believe the truth will come out. What actually happened. For me to make any comments here would be improper.

MG: Have you noticed that her association to Newsom is barely mentioned in the press?

WW: Yes, I noticed that, even though she did many fundraisers for Newsom. Many of those campaign fundraisers have not been mentioned.

MG: I think it is ironic that my campaign for mayor, which raised so little money compared to Newsomís, paid you rent while Newsom never paid Julie Lee any rent.

WW: The newspapers mentioned you paid only $9,000 in rent, but you paid much more than that. They got their figures wrong; it was over $14,000.

MG: You just got back from China. I know you travel there often. Tell me why?

WW: I travel to China often, itís true. This time, I went to do some charity work. Iím helping children with birth defects, cleft pallets. In the last few years, I arranged for 35 doctors from San Francisco and Australia to go to China to help children. I fundraised over $100,000 for the trip and with this trip I had various supporters helping me. I really believe in this work and I will continue to do this to give something back to China, my ancestral home.

MG: How many children benefited from this effort?

WW: Between 400 and 500 children in the past three years.

MG: What kind of charity work have you done locally?

WW: I funded the equipment for the Excelsior Youth Center. Iíve donated money for Chinese Hospital in Chinatown. I also funded many senior projects, such as Elder Project, a Self Help For the Elderly. Other donations have gone to the Japan Cultural Center, the African-American social hall, and the Childrenís Center in Chinatown, to name just a few. In the past five years alone, Iíve donated over 1 million dollars.

MG: Can you say something about the recent allegations by Eugene Wong? He said you threatened him when he met with you about his race in District 3?

WW: That is completely false and absurd. He knew before visiting me that I was supporting Supervisor Peskin. Still, he came to see me to win my support. And as a courtesy to the leader of the Wong Family Association I agreed to meet him. I advised him to do more community work and maybe run in the future. And to watch out with his business practice because there were many people saying he was practicing law without a license, which is a crime. I tried to help him and was surprised by his claims.

MG: Are the two of you related?

WW: No. We both belong to the Wong Family Association, but we are not related.

MG: Well, weíve been at it for a while here. Let me just ask you a couple more questions. Can you say something about your singing?

WW: Iíve been singing since I was 16 years old. Iíve always enjoyed it. Itís something I can share. It gets my mind off work, for relaxation. I will do more singing in the years to come.

MG: You actually produced a CD and have sung in the War Memorial building?

WW: Yeah, Iíve also sung the National Anthem at PacBell and Candlestick Park. It was a great thrill for me, as an immigrant who came here with nothing, to sing the National Anthem before so many people in my adopted country. I donít think Iíll ever forget it.

MG: And can you say something about the Christmas party you have each year?

WW: The reason why I do a party is for my family, friends, and clients, but especially to benefit the children. Anyone who as ever been there will see that most of the activities are for hundreds of children who attend. When I was young, we never had Christmas. My family was too poor. We stayed at home. I didnít know what Christmas was about. Now I go to church. It is about sharing. I do a party each year, invite friends and family, especially the children, to share what Iíve gotten with the community.

MG: Okay, Walter, on that note, I think we should call it. Itís been good talking with you.

WW: My pleasure.