DECEMBER 8 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 46 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK
Chinese immigrants are flocking to the U.S. with dreams of new economy riches. Zan Ng made it but, he warns, it wasn't easy
By LISA CULLEN
On a summer afternoon so hot that the air ripples like water, New York City's Chinatown bustles with commerce. Old ladies poke at pompano and snapper flopped whole on beds of melting ice in the fish markets. Children nibble at squares of fried tofu on sticks. A woman hurries by with a box of Hong Kong pastries and a rolled up Sing Tao newspaper. In his usual uniform of jeans, polo shirt and cowboy boots, Zan Ng struts along the sidewalk, stopping at a fruit stand to look for a thick skinned pear native to his Chinese hometown. Zan, who likes to go by his given name, makes his way to a six-story building nearby, its brick facade recently scrubbed and its fire escape newly painted. Back when the building looked like it had been hit by an earthquake, back when the street hosted drug dealers and prostitutes, home was a bunk bed here in a room that he shared with 15 other men. Another 16 rotated in during the day.
"Good deal," he says, "for $12 a month."
He takes one last look at the building, then hops back into his gleaming black Mercedes-Benz for the drive home. These days, home is a six-bedroom house in Greenwich, Connecticut, an hour's drive north of New York city, a town of doctors and lawyers and Manhattan executives where the average house costs close to a million dollars. Zan, a wiry 44-year-old with a mane of shoulder-length hair, is rich now. He's founded five companies that are set to gross a total of more than $40 million this year. He takes a salary of $150,000, has a $1 million stock portfolio and $5 million in real estate. "Not bad," he says. Not bad for a guy who landed on these shores with $68 and the clothes on his back.
New American Dreamers
The American dream used to go something like this: Arrive in this country for a menial job with scant pay. Save and save until you can open a small business in recent years, a take-out restaurant or a dry cleaner. Buy a modest house in the suburbs. Send the kids to college and hope they grow up to be doctors so they can subsidize your golden years. In the past decade, that dream has mutated. For many immigrants today, the new economy, bull-market version of the dream goes more like this: Arrive in America for a high-tech job with stock options. Invest and invest until you can open your own business a dotcom, preferably, or a software consultancy. Buy a sprawling house in an exclusive suburb. Cash in on your company's IPO, then spin out more start-ups. And if you don't have an engineering degree? Work like crazy, get a tech-related job and pump your wages into Nasdaq stocks until you don't wait for your kids are rich.
Immigrants have long been viewed as the most financially conservative of groups. But in the past few years, more and more stock market day-traders and other capitalist cowboys seem to be foreign-born from Eastern Europeans to South Asians. No group of immigrant Americans, though, seems to have embraced the stock market as passionately as the Chinese. There are nearly three million Chinese living in America now. Another 60,000 or so arrive legally each year, along with perhaps tens of thousands of illegal settlers. Many are well educated and computer-savvy. Flush with cash, they've plunged into the market like no immigrants before.
The craze for stocks isn't confined to affluent professionals. The manager of discount brokerage Charles Schwab's Chinatown branch, Pierra Ho, says she's seen restaurant workers rush in with their first paychecks to buy a stock. (Schwab turns them away unless they have the $5,000 needed to open an account.) Zan's friend Peter Wong, who owns a clothing factory, says one of his employees retired after making $300,000 on Yahoo. A Chinatown cabdriver surnamed Tam keeps his radio tuned to Bloomberg business radio. Asked about the market, he responds instantly: "Dow up four, Nasdaq down five." Soon he's carrying on about how he got in cheap on computer maker Compaq and is poised to buy chip giant Intel. Dangling from his rear-view mirror, next to a picture of the Buddha, there's a plastic rendering of a Chinese character. It means fortune.
The Making Of A Mogul
Cutouts of the same Chinese character are pasted around Zan Ng's Manhattan offices. The walls are painted red for luck, and the firm's phone number is auspicious too. But the offices are also decorated with the kooky American kitch Zan loves vintage Coke machines, a row of cowboy boots and a framed picture of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Good fortune seems to follow Zan like a cloud of incense. These days, he seems to be the embodiment of the new-style American dream. It wasn't always that way. Born in a fishing village in China's Fujian province, he was abandoned by his parents at the age of four. They left to find work tapping rubber trees in Indonesia, sending home what cash they could afford for Zan and his brothers, who were 12 and six. With no electricity or running water, the boys stewed sweet potatoes and rice over a fire pit and bathed in a nearby river. They attended a one-room schoolhouse.
After elementary school, there was little to do in the village besides rob peach orchards and catch crabs. Zan passed the time betting on fighting crickets ("Chinese eat anything, bet on anything," he says). But he was preparing for a bigger gamble. At 13 he set off for Hong Kong. He had no papers and only a bit of change. At the border, he dived into the bay and swam to the then-British colony. In Hong Kong, Zan delivered packages on foot for an export firm. By 18, he'd met his goal: $2,000 for a phony visa, plus $800 for a plane ticket to America. He knew about the place from newspapers and magazines. "It was land of opportunity," he says. "And New York best of all. Best money, best job, best opportunity."
Arriving in 1975 without a single piece of luggage, he slept in the street on his first night in this best of cities. The next day he found work as a dishwasher, and a co-worker directed him to the building with the rotating bunks. A few months later, he became a busboy at another restaurant, worked his way up to waiter and found a small apartment to share with only five other men. He married an American cook at work, became a U.S. citizen and had two children.
Eager to improve his English, Zan chatted with any friendly-faced customer. One, a photographer, offered him a job cleaning his studio. While mopping floors, Zan watched him shoot photos. "It looks easy to me," he recalls. "I think to myself, I can do this." He bought a secondhand Nikon camera for $1,000 and began soliciting freelance jobs. That first year, 1982, he earned $30,000 taking photos. Supplies cost so much that he kept waiting tables by night, but he persisted, showing up uninvited at ad agencies and magazines to push his portfolio. Eventually he talked his way into shoots for clients like finance giant American Express and cosmetics firm Revlon, and by the late '80s he was grossing $300,000 a year.
The endless workdays took a toll, though, and his marriage broke up. He remarried in 1990, this time to a Chinese American named Eva Chin. Meanwhile, his clients were starting to pester him for advice on how to target Asian Americans with their ads. "I think to myself, I can do this too," he says. Corralling a friend with advertising experience, he started an agency called Admerasia. Jeff Lin, one of Admerasia's original four-member staff, remembers his first impression of Zan. "A punk," says Lin, who hails from an elite Taiwan family. "A Chinese punk. I see a guy with long hair and cowboy boots. He swims from China to Hong Kong, gets on a plane, comes here with nothing. He rushes forward, gets bruised, rushes forward."
That tenacity has served Zan well. Admerasia now has 75 employees in New York, Toronto and Los Angeles, and Zan has launched four other firms. There's 618 Inc., a telemarketing outfit with 300 bilingual workers. There's a translation agency. There's Cyverasia, which designs Asian-language websites. And, most recently, there's AsiaCentral, a dotcom that aims to be a liaison between Asian-owned companies in America and abroad. Zan has christened his budding privately-owned empire "New A" New for new economy, A for Asia.
His success has sapped none of his ambition. "I want to buy Internet company, radio station, newspaper, magazine," he says, " because immigrants have a lousy image in America. Always I want to change that. We are not all just sweat shop and laundromat and restaurant. They do dotcom, we can do dotcom." Never mind that scores of Internet firms are dying these days. The risk of failure gives him no pause: "I never think about it. I come here with nothing." Zan's face splits into a grin as he utters his trade mark phrase: "What I got to lose?"
Beyond Bruce Lee
A dozen employees of AsiaCentral huddle around a table in borrowed offices in Chinatown. The walls are papered over with the firm's battle plan. On the whiteboard, someone has scrawled a single Chinese character meaning money. It's August 2000, a few weeks before the website is set to launch, and the air is tense with excitement. The employees Asian immigrants in their 20s and 30s have pinned their dreams of explosive success on Zan's continuing good fortune. But their timing couldn't be worse, with dotcom stocks imploding. Zan and his partner, a Chinese-owned incubator called Consortio, are plowing ahead any way, and his staff still clings to the hope that the company will go public.
Nicolas Chai, a serious-looking 37-year-old from Hong Kong, is typical of these young fortune seekers. As he sees it, he's part of a new wave of tech-oriented immigrants. "Before, when someone sees a Chinese in New York City, they think you work in a restaurant," he says. "Thirty years ago, they think you're Bruce Lee and you know kung fu. Now if you're Chinese, they think you're an I.T. professional." Chai grew up poor, living alone in Hong Kong for most of his teenage years after his mother left to work in a New York garment factory. He came here at 20, waited tables, then landed a full scholarship to New York University. He found his niche in business classes and figured he'd eventually run his own firm. "Most Asians like to own their own business," he says. "We don't believe that working for someone will make you really rich. The one paying you is always richer."
Before joining AsiaCentral, Chai worked in ad sales at a Chinese-language newspaper. But he longed to join the Internet gold rush, and he was drawn to Zan: "I thought he was crazy. But he has the confidence, the fearless attitude, to make people follow him." Chai signed on as "multicultural media director," a job that includes everything from marketing to hiring 50 new techies. In the earliest days, Chai paid for business trips out of his own pocket and brought his own computer to work. He didn't mind, because he expected to make a bundle off his stock options.
A big saver, Chai also invests a chunk of his salary in the stock market. He used to favor blue chips like financial giants Chase Manhattan and Citigroup. But amid the roar of the new economy, he grew impatient and gradually dumped his blue chips. Earlier this year, he had 85% of his $200,000 portfolio riding on tech stocks like AOL and Yahoo. He reasoned, "If I'm going to work in Internet, I should believe in it." When the Nasdaq cratered last spring, about half of his assets were wiped out. He's since recovered those losses, but he's scaled back to around 40% in tech and has put the rest back in blue chips. Still, Chai's ambitions remain undiminished. "I have big hopes," he says. "I'd like to retire at 45." For a man who came here with almost nothing, he's already made fast progress. "Not fast enough," he laments.
Stock-Picking Beats Mahjong
"Oh, no," says Zan. "Market so bad this week."
He's clicking through his holdings on Schwab.com, where he keeps one of his accounts. Zan, who got into online trading way back in 1995, has been investing in stocks since the '80s. He started out buying giants like GE and IBM. But when high-tech hysteria hit, he moved into names like Netscape, Apple and China.com. Until recently, he traded at least twice a week. This year, as the market cooled and his business commitments intensified, he's cut back to about once a month.
Lately it's his wife, Eva Chin, who spouts stock tips and market commentary. Along with 10 other Chinese women, she belongs to an investing club called Qian Jin, a play on a Chinese proverb that means: "It's easier to earn a thousand pieces of gold than a single friend." Wealth, in other words, matters less than community. Perhaps. But if you can combine the two, what's the harm? "Chinese like to make money," says Christine Li, an accountant and the club's treasurer. "But this group is for friendship. I guess it's the modern version of my mom's mahjong club. They played mahjong, we play stocks."
The women, mostly housewives in their forties, gather at 8:30 on Saturday mornings in the home of one of the members. Over jasmine tea and pastries, they analyze the stocks in their $100,000 portfolio. It's stunningly aggressive: Nearly 90% is in tech. Members boast of a 30% annual gain since they began in 1997, although Chin concedes, "We've slipped pretty badly this year." In their aggressiveness, the women of Qian Jin are typical of Chinese investors. Brokers say Chinese immigrants generally trade more, with riskier stocks and with more money than other investors. Many have online accounts, which tend to appeal to trigger-happy investors. A survey by Web portal Sina.com found that over half of Chinese Internet users in the U.S. own stocks and that 70% of these investors trade online.
Not surprisingly, brokerages are competing furiously to attract them. Schwab, for example, opened a new branch in Manhattan's Chinatown this year in a building designed to resemble a pagoda. Inside, customers can speak with brokers in an array of Chinese dialects, check out stocks on the firm's Chinese-language website and read educational material that features beaming Asian models. The executive leading this charge is Larry Yu, who founded Schwab's Asia Pacific Services division a decade ago to attract Chinese customers in the U.S. When Yu immigrated here from Hong Kong for the job in 1989, "I couldn't even get a credit card," he says. "And I had money! The industry paid no attention to us at all."
That's changed. Schwab has already attracted $17 billion in assets from Chinese investors in the U.S., and there's more to chase. Yu figures Chinese in America possess $200 billion in investable assets. With an average income of $90,000, Schwab's Chinese customers are richer than the average non-Chinese client, says Yu, and they trade up to twice as often. They favor individual stocks over more conservative mutual funds, he adds, and "the value of their accounts is closely tied to the Nasdaq." Carrie Rattle, senior vice president of international marketing at T.D. Waterhouse, a rival brokerage, concurs: "Chinese investors are naturally higher risk-takers, quicker to adopt new technologies, more money-focused," she says. "If you take Hispanic investors, they're a little shier online at this time, a little more risk-averse."
What is it that makes the Chinese such gun-slinging invest-ors? Yu offers some ideas. "If you come from an economy growing at 8% to 10%, as it did for a while in Taiwan and Hong Kong," he says, "the expectation of return is higher." The volatility of those markets, he adds, has inured Chinese investors to the risks of the Nasdaq. And many of them work for tech companies, so "they're naturally more familiar with those stocks." In addition, he says, the Chinese view money differently: "Chinese feel there's one pocket for saving, the other for playing money. The feeling is, I can afford to take more risk with the playing money." John Wang, who runs an Asian-Amer-ican trade group with headquarters on Wall Street, adds: "There's a lure of instant riches the market offers, just like gambling. And Chinese love to gamble."
It's 7 o'clock on a Friday evening in August, and Zan is lounging in a leather armchair on the 39th floor of a midtown skyscraper. The Havana Club is an exclusive cigar bar with wrap-around views of the city. A walk-in humidor houses individual cubbies with the golden nameplates of Hollywood stars Michael Douglas and Joe Pesci. Zan comes here every few weeks with a gang of friends to puff cigars and sip cognac. The air is thick with smoke and self-satisfaction. All of the men are Chinese immigrants who arrived here as children or young men, poor, scared, unable to speak the language. Now they're manufacturers, restaurateurs and Internet executives.
Tonight they're discussing an upcoming trip to Las Vegas, where they've booked suites at the Mirage hotel and casino to play baccarat. They're all highrollers. Over the years, Zan has won and lost six figures in Vegas, and he goes gambling at least four times a year. The games are a release that he came to rely on when he lived in Chinatown. In those days, he'd sometimes bet an entire week's wages on pai gow, a domino-like game. "Ten time I play, nine time I lose," he says cheerfully. No matter. Playing helped relieve the monotony and exhaustion of his daily life.
The basement pai gow games still exist, but many more immigrants are finding their way to gambling meccas like Atlantic City and Vegas. Casinos now devote entire wings to Chinese gamblers, complete with Chinese-speaking dealers and entertainers from Hong Kong. For poorer immigrants, casino games represent something different a risky escape from lives of virtual slavery. Some illegal immigrants have paid smugglers as much as $50,000 to come here from China, and many of them struggle for years to pay off the debt. And for those who cannot afford to lose, gambling can be deadly. The issue got some press last year, when the body of a young Chinese immigrant was found beaten and folded into a suitcase in Boston. He'd owed thousands of dollars in gambling debts to bookmakers all over town.
Still, such tales are overshadowed in the Chinese press by success stories like Zan's, which feed the myth that wealth comes easily in America, especially if you play the stock market. "All this talk about IPOs and stocks increases expectations among the poor," says Peter Kwong, director of the Asian-American studies program at Hunt-er College in New York. "Some immigrants get rich on stocks. But that obscures the reality, which is that for many it is as dangerous and unsuccessful as gambling."
"I Very Lucky Guy"
As the sun sets on a weekday afternoon, Zan pulls his Mercedes into the driveway of his home. Three of his kids are selling pink lemonade by the roadside. Kwan, 9, rushes up with two glasses and hands them over. Zan scolds: "Before you deliver goods, you have to ask for the money."
Kwan looks astonished. He says, "But you're my father."
Zan sighs. "This the hardest thing," he says. It's tough to teach the values of a hard-scrabble immigrant life to children growing up in one of America's wealthiest towns. He now has five children, ages four to 17, all American-born. They laugh, he says, when he lectures them about the importance of education. "They say, 'But Dad, you didn't go to school.'"
Zan is proud of his success here but nervous about the message it sends not just to his kids but to people back home. Three years ago, he visited his village in China. For two days he walked around the tiny town, squinting through the smog that shrouded the mountains, staring at the grime polluting the river. The one-room school house is still the only one in town. He spoke with a few villagers but mostly kept to himself. He didn't want them to know who he'd become, for fear that they would follow his path and meet with disappointment. "I want to tell immigrants how hard to work in U.S.A.," he says quietly. "They think so great opportunity, they gamble their life to come here. I don't want them to think, Wow, that guy can make it, I can too. I very lucky guy. But I work every single step. Nobody hand me anything."
Zan watches his kids as they tear around the yard. He's found his fortune by taking risks they can't imagine, risks he took because he had nothing to lose. "Success is like a lotto. Not easy, never easy," he says. "Someday they understand."
This story originally appeared in MONEYmagazine
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