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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
WW: Yeah, he came to
see me many times to get my support.
MG: How many times?
WW: Eight or nine
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
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.
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
MG: Well, that they
take off their lawyer hats and do expediting work on a project for
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
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
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
WW: Yes, Iíve noticed
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
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?
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
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.