TAIPEI, Taiwan — On the ground floor of the emerald green 12-story Evergreen Group headquarters here, dozens of primly coiffed female clerks, all dressed in two-tone green jackets, busily take orders for the company's fleet of 73 ships bound for destinations all over the world, their decks stacked high with the company's bright green shipping containers.
Evergreen Chairman Y. F. Chang loves all things green. The company logo, a nautical compass, is green. All the telephones in his offices are green. So are the chairs, the carpets and the mainframe computer cases.
If it were not for the conservative gray suits worn by most of the male employees, Evergreen would be in danger of being a monochromatic enterprise. Even the urinals in the employee restrooms are green.
"The chairman likes green because he is from a poor family and for him green stands for hope," explained Carlos Lin, a company spokesman. "He was a sea captain. At sea, you are always happy to see green."
After starting in 1968 with just one ship, former ship captain Chang built Evergreen into the largest container shipping company in Asia. Internationally, it is second only in size to the American giant Sea-Land. The company's success has helped Chang, 66, the son of a ship's carpenter, amass a personal fortune estimated by Forbes magazine to top $2 billion.
In recent years, as many of Taiwan's manufacturing industries moved offshore, mostly to China, Evergreen has diversified into steel production--it makes steel for its cargo containers--hotels and commercial aviation. In 1989, Evergreen launched its own international airline, EVA Air, connecting Taipei to international destinations, including Los Angeles and Paris.
As much as any other enterprise here, Evergreen symbolizes the storybook transformation of Taiwan itself, from a sleepy Japanese farming and fishing colony to a modern industrial power in the span of just 40 years.
Chang, a prominent leader in the secretive Chinese religious sect Yiguan Dao, is the Asian version of Horatio Alger--poor Taiwanese boy makes good by stressing hard work and personal morality.
It was all smooth sailing until August, when Evergreen officials admitted making more than $172,000 in illegal campaign contributions to more than 20 California politicians, ranging from Los Angeles City Council candidates to Gov. Pete Wilson and Dianne Feinstein, then a gubernatorial candidate, now U.S. senator. State and city investigators said the San Pedro-based office of an Evergreen subsidiary, Evergreen America Corp., illegally paid employees and their friends to write checks to political candidates as part of a money-laundering scheme to circumvent campaign spending limits.
Although motives for the contributions were not revealed, Evergreen has a large presence in the Port of Los Angeles, as well as pending applications for gates for EVA Air at Los Angeles International Airport. When many of the contributions were made, the firm also had plans for a since-aborted hotel project in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo.
Figuring prominently in the money-laundering scheme was Evergreen America Vice Chairman William Wang, who has since been transferred from San Pedro to another company office. At least some of the illegal gifts were funneled through the law offices of former Los Angeles City Councilman Art Snyder. Snyder's wife, Della Wu Snyder, is Wang's sister-in-law.
On Aug. 24, Evergreen, claiming ignorance of campaign finance laws as the reason for its activities, nevertheless agreed to pay the largest fine of its type in American history--$895,000--for its role in the illegal contributions. In an out-of-court settlement on Nov. 15, Chi May (Marian) Chen, the controller in Snyder's law office, agreed to pay a $38,000 fine for repeatedly directing illegal contributions to politicians.
The announcement of the unprecedented penalty was major news in Los Angeles but received little attention in the Taiwanese press, traditionally protective of local business interests.
But the California case is said to have deeply shamed Evergreen Chairman Chang, who prides himself on the personal, moral guidance of his business. "It was the saddest news for Evergreen in its history," said one chagrined employee. "It truly is a pity."
Approached by The Times, Evergreen senior executives were reluctant to discuss the illegal donations except to refer to the firm's tautly worded statement, saying: "Evergreen America Corp. accepts full responsibility for its actions. The reimbursements provided in connection with political contributions resulted from decisions made in the San Pedro office of Evergreen America and were made without a full understanding of the campaign finance laws."