For decades, civic leaders have talked about Los Angeles' role as a key gateway to the Pacific Rim. But often, it's been more hype than reality.
Enter Donald Tang. By day, he's a vice chairman of Bear Stearns & Co. By night, he's chairman of the Asia Society Southern California. In between, he sits on the boards of multiple L.A. civic and cultural groups.
Tang blew into town in 2001 and set to work using the sprawling, ethnically diverse city as a petri dish for improving relations between China, his homeland, and the United States, his adopted home.
Consider some recent projects: Last year, the investment banker helped arrange a trip to China for the Los Angeles Urban League, setting up meetings with Chinese leaders and even flying to Beijing to ensure that the visit went smoothly.
In December, he hosted a dinner in L.A. for Tung Chee-hwa, the former Hong Kong chief executive who holds a leadership post in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Tung is exploring several projects in South-Central L.A., including sending Mandarin teachers into public schools.
"China's leaders know Africa, but they don't know African Americans," said Tang, 44, who sees his work as nothing less than that of a cultural translator.
"When you translate, you have to gain the trust of both sides," he said. "You have to be able to expand on things which they meant to say but didn't really get across. You need to shrink things culturally."
His approach has found many supporters. "Donald is very, very focused on finding common ground," said John Mack, president of the L.A. Police Commission who was among the Urban League delegation, along with league President Blair Taylor and actress Alfre Woodard. Mack described the trip as a unique opportunity for African Americans to start a "significant new relationship" with the next economic superpower.
Tang's friends laud his outsize ambitions. He's "two or three Energizer bunnies in one" said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.
Others view him with a bit more skepticism. Though few are willing to challenge the influential banker publicly, some question whether he has become an apologist for leaders in Beijing accused of imprisoning critics and cozying up to repressive governments in hopes of getting much-needed oil and minerals.
Mostly he's made a good impression among a wide circle of power-brokers. Former Mayor Richard Riordan, maverick union leader Andy Stern and Hong Kong industrialist Ronnie Chan insist that Tang is a big thinker with an even bigger heart. They say his goal is ensuring peaceful relations between the two nations he calls home.
Last year, he arranged a trip by business leaders and officials from California and China to India. He has invited Jewish community leaders and religious experts from China to events at his home in Beverly Hills.
China has been criticized for its repression of independent labor unions. But Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, has been trying to open a dialogue with Chinese officials. This year, Tang helped him get a meeting with Zhou Wenzhong, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Stern is leaving this week for his sixth trip to China.
"He's a nationalist, he loves China and he wants good things to happen to China," Bear Stearns Chairman James Cayne said. "He clearly is also a patriot of the United States. It's natural that he thinks the two should meet and greet and have joint ventures."
Tang's citizen diplomacy has served him, and his friends, well.
Several years ago, he invited Wong Kwong Yu, founder of the Hong-Kong based GOME retail chain and one of China's wealthiest men, to speak at an Asia Society conference in Los Angeles. In March, the two men announced that their firms were setting up a $500-million fund to invest in China's retail sector.
Riordan, who credits Tang with helping line up a private meeting with then-Premier Zhu Rongji in Shanghai, calls him a "closer."
In public, Tang prefers the persona of armchair philosopher to hard-nosed banker. He will, if prompted, talk about leveraged buyouts and private equity transactions. But he seems far more comfortable riffing on the power of romantic love or how his friend Viacom chief Sumner Redstone is serving up "spiritual food" to the masses.
Few could have imagined such a highflying career for Tang 25 years ago. Born in Shanghai to a couple of college professors, he sweet-talked a U.S. consular officer into giving him a visa to follow his girlfriend Jean, now his wife, to California in 1982. He worked restaurant jobs to pay for classes at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, but couldn't find a job after graduating in 1986 with a chemical engineering degree.