CUPERTINO, Calif. — Gerry Liu still winces at the greeting that he received in San Francisco after a trip abroad last winter: At the airport, a U.S. customs agent lectured him about Asian immigrants taking jobs from other Americans.
"I said, 'Not true--the company that I founded created more jobs for Americans than it took away,' " the Taiwan native recalled recently. "It wasn't a pleasant conversation."
Liu, president of Knights Technology in the San Francisco Bay Area, is not alone. Little noticed outside Northern California, a growing corps of high-tech entrepreneurs has emerged with roots that reach from America to the Far East. Like Liu, they are immigrants who were drawn to this country for economic opportunity, and they have found it.
In the process, they also have given something back: Their firms--more than 500 in the San Francisco Bay Area--have created thousands of jobs, enhanced the nation's competitiveness in high technology and spurred innovation. All together, they generate over $1 billion in sales, according to the Asian American Manufacturers Assn. in Menlo Park, Calif.
"We're getting an actual commitment to build products in this country, and to build them the way they ought to be built," said Charles H. Nevil, a member of the California State World Trade Commission. "I think it's a very significant contribution."
Most of the entrepreneurs are ethnically Chinese, born in mainland China, Taiwan or Hong Kong. But unlike other Asian immigrants who have eked out livings in restaurants, laundries and grocery stores, these have entered America's mainstream via the classroom.
Many hold advanced degrees in physics, engineering and computer science from U.S. universities. They stayed here to work after graduation, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, and have since launched firms that run the spectrum of modern technology.
"I received the best education in the world," said Liu, 32, who has a Ph.D. degree in computer science from University of California, Berkeley and whose firm makes advanced equipment used to design semiconductors. "I want to stay here a long time and contribute my talent to the same society where I got it."
By all accounts, the group is diverse. Some of the entrepreneurs are more at home in American society than others are. Their command of English varies. Some always wanted to run their own companies, while others took the step only after feeling mistreated by Caucasian employers. Their companies vary from fledglings with just a handful of workers to established enterprises such as Everex, a personal computer maker with 1,900 employees.
And many are starting to benefit from their connections in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where booming economies have touched off a wave of U.S.-bound investment money and transpacific business opportunities.
"The one thing they have in common is that they have roots elsewhere," said Calbert Lai, a spokesman for the AAMA. "It's a tremendous boon to their businesses."
Actually, they have more than that in common: They come from families in which scientific pursuits are held in high esteem. And science is a uniquely portable skill for immigrants, because it is a language that they can speak as fluently as native Americans.
"Science is basically numbers and symbols," said Fred Wong, the Hong Kong-born vice president of Rapro Technology in Fremont, Calif. "It speaks a universal language.
Gradually, in different areas of modern technology, the Asian-American entrepreneurs are making their presence felt.
Southeast of San Francisco Bay in Milpitas, David S. Lee--schooled in China, Taiwan, Argentina and the United States--runs Qume, a maker of computer printers. At Pantronix in San Jose, employees of Chinese-born Stanley Wang build semiconductors used in the space shuttle. Expert Edge in Palo Alto--headed by David Lam, an immigrant from South Vietnam and Hong Kong--constructs devices used in robotics and other factory technologies.
Of the many entrepreneurs, few have strived harder or journeyed farther than Lee, 52, whose early education had more to do with basic survival than advanced science. "We appreciate more about America than many Americans do," he said in a conference room at Qume, the company that he helped start in 1973.
While growing up in war-torn China in the 1940s, his family was uprooted 13 times. They eventually moved to Taiwan, but the island was painfully close to grim wartime memories: In 1951, the Lees took a 59-day voyage to Argentina. Settling in Buenos Aires, they started a Chinese restaurant and import business where Lee helped translate Spanish for his parents.
His journey wasn't over: Lee studied engineering at Montana State University and later, while working in the private sector, helped develop a letter-quality computer printer system known as the daisy wheel. When Xerox bought Diablo Systems--a company he co-founded, "I made my first million dollars," he recalled.
Secret to Success