Jackson Cheung, an old hand at trans-Pacific crossings, maneuvered deftly through a throng of Far East-bound travelers at Los Angeles International Airport.
With his watch already set 16 hours ahead for his Hong Kong destination, Cheung confidently negotiated difficulties at the check-in counter. Then the Duarte businessman jostled past the bulging suitcases lugged by passengers making their first trips back to Asia in years.
Cheung makes this journey of 7,266 miles as often as once a month, and he treats it as a trip across town. He is a spaceman. Or an acrobat, if you prefer.
For Cheung and a growing number of other Asian business people in Southern California, corporate and family life straddle continents and seas. So much of their time is spent flying to and from the Far East that the oft-used colloquial Mandarin Chinese terms \o7 tai kung jen \f7 (spaceman) and \o7 kung chung fei jen \f7 (acrobat) are used to refer to them.
These are frequent fliers with a difference, motivated by cultural background, political uncertainty, family ties and educational draws, as well as by money-making opportunities. Some maintain homes on both sides of the Pacific, some make the round trip in as little as three or four days and all, at times, risk occasional alienation from their spouses.
Flights that last 13 to 15 hours are routine for these so-called spacemen--and for the smaller number of spacewomen who belong to the high-flying clique as well. Crushing jet lag does not deter them from skipping across eight time zones and the international date line in a single trip.
Like many of the frequent travelers, Wai-Jen Jeffries, 52, of San Marino has a complicated story to explain her trips to Asia. The tale has as much to do with emotional connections and the march of history as it does with commerce.
She flies to Taiwan, Hong Kong and China up to eight times a year to conduct business related to her three factories in China's Fujian province. A resident of the United States since 1968, Jeffries still remembers the late 1940s, the post-World War II years when she and her family fled the Communists, leaving behind a sister and grandmother in their tiny, mountain-ringed valley village. Decades later, Jeffries found out her sister still lives in the village, although her despondent grandmother had hanged herself.
Six years ago, she opened a rice bag factory in that village with the help of the Chinese government. Today, when she travels there to keep an eye on things, she also visits her long-lost sister.
There are emotional tugs from this side of the ocean as well.
"When I leave, my son Patrick says: 'You have to go \o7 again\f7 ?' And sometimes friends try to call me and get upset because they can't reach me," she said. But, she said, her trips also fulfill a lifelong desire. "I always dreamed of going back and helping my village."
Cheung also juggles work responsibilities and family needs in his travels. At 34, Cheung owns an industrial metals firm with offices in Irwindale and Hong Kong. He has a house in Duarte, and his wife and two children still live in the British colony. Cheung endures the arduous travel schedule as a way to hedge his bets in case he has to settle here permanently with his family in 1997, when Hong Kong reverts from British to Beijing rule.
"If there aren't too many changes in Hong Kong, then we won't move," he said in Chinese.
But he had little time to talk on a recent morning at LAX. He had to navigate his way to the China Airlines gate.
At the airline's check-in counter, customer service representatives told of another Chinese-speaking Southern California businessman who, in the span of three weeks, made three round trips to Asia--logging the mileage equivalent of 1 1/2 times around the world. Then there was the man who traveled the 6,774 miles from Taipei to Los Angeles, stayed less than two days, then flew back.
"These usually are new immigrants who retain roots in Asia. But it's not just the cultural linkage. Either they are waiting for citizenship or (an immigration) green card. Or they feel homesick or whatever. That's partly why they make all those trips," said Francis Hong, a Monterey Park import-export businessman who travels five to six times yearly to the Far East.
The so-called spacemen sometimes end up in David Ma's Monterey Park office. Ma has built a legal and immigration consulting business with branches in Hong Kong and Taipei by helping newcomers solve professional and personal problems.
Observers of the trend say it is impossible to quantify how many such travelers live in Southern California but believe the numbers are increasing. "I know of 20 to 30 of these people in Arcadia alone," Ma said.
Some of the Asian frequent travelers relocate their families to Southern California to enhance educational opportunities for their children, but they return to the Far East because they can make more money in Chinese-speaking markets. Ma offered an example of one of his clients: