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Chinese immigrants give back to U.S.

The trend is most apparent in major donations, but lesser ones also fund projects on many levels.

June 15, 2008|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer
  • Ming Hsieh, who grew up poor on a farm in China, came to Los Angeles to study at USC.  Now, a bit more than 20 years later, he has made a fortune by manufacturing fingerprint-matching devices and is donating $35 million to USC's Engineering School, one of the largest gifts to any engineering school.
Ming Hsieh, who grew up poor on a farm in China, came to Los Angeles to study… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

Pasadena resident Ming Hsieh made a fortune from fingerprint identification software that helps U.S. authorities catch welfare cheats, guard the border and assist police in cracking cases.

Cyrus Tang built a Las Vegas-based business empire of specialty steel, pharmaceuticals and furniture. And in the heart of Silicon Valley, Jerry Yang developed one of the largest Internet search engines in the world -- Yahoo.

All three wildly successful entrepreneurs are Chinese immigrants, and now they and others like them are giving back to their adopted homeland in a new gold rush of philanthropy that is bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to U.S. universities, think tanks and other nonprofit groups.

"America is built by immigrants, and they all followed the same route," said Hsieh, 52, a survivor of China's Cultural Revolution and near-billionaire who gave $35 million to his alma mater, USC, in 2006. "You come here with a dream, and once you reach your dream, the issue is how to help the next generation fulfill their dream."

Although waves of Chinese migrants came to California 150 years ago as poor laborers lured by reports of gold mountains, many of today's immigrants come for higher education or skilled jobs. Some of them struck gold after launching businesses in engineering, software, finance and other fields and have begun to share their wealth.

The rising force of ethnic Chinese philanthropy is most apparent in major gifts, such as the $75 million to Stanford University last year by Yahoo's Yang and his wife, Akiko Yamazaki. But such large gifts are still relatively rare; the Chronicle of Philanthropy's annual list of biggest American donors -- generally the top 60 or so who contributed at least $10 million -- has included ethnic Chinese contributors just four times since 2000.

Instead, they are making more noticeable marks though gifts of $1 million or less. They are funding academic programs, such as retired banker Wilbur Woo's Greater China annual economic conference and plastics entrepreneurs Shirley and Walter Wang's new program on Chinese Americans and U.S.-China relations, both housed at UCLA. They are supporting medical institutions, such as air freight firm owner Ernie So's annual monetary gifts at the City of Hope medical center.

They are promoting cultural projects, such as the hundreds of ethnic Chinese who have pitched in to help create one of the nation's largest Chinese gardens at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

And some, like Donald Tang, do a little of everything. Tang, a Shanghai native who arrived in Los Angeles in 1982 with no English language skills and $20 in his pocket and is a longtime investment banking executive, spreads his annual seven-figure donations among United Way, Harvard Westlake School, the Asia Society, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Rand Corp. and Caltech, among others.

Many donors are being brought into mainstream nonprofit leadership positions. So, for instance, is the City of Hope's first Asian American board member; the once staid and Eurocentric Huntington has invited five Chinese Americans to join its 60-member board of overseers, beginning in 2002.

"There is a palpable sense that Chinese Americans have, by any measure, become wildly successful and they are proud of it and want to give back," said Suzy Moser, the Huntington's assistant vice president of advancement, who tapped the ethnic Chinese community for most of the $18.3 million needed for the garden's first phase.

Although there are no national statistics on the magnitude of ethnic Chinese philanthropy, fundraisers agree it appears to be on the rise.

A City University of New York study last year, for instance, found that Chinese family foundations in the area grew from 11 with assets of $23 million in 1990 to at least 47 with assets of more than $218 million in 2007.

In a 2004 study for Georgetown University, researcher Andrew Ho found that "the philanthropic potential has never been greater" among Asian Americans because of rising education and wealth. The Asian American share of affluent U.S. households -- those with more than $500,000 in investable assets -- grew from 1% in 2002 to 5% in 2004, with an average net worth of $2.9 million, Ho found. Nearly half of all Asian Americans have a college degree or more education, compared to 27% of Americans overall.

Ho and others say the new flurry of philanthropy challenges negative stereotypes of Chinese as frugal and even stingy people who are slow to support mainstream charitable causes. Those stereotypes, in fact, are one reason community groups are actively promoting philanthropy.

A 2001 survey found that one in five Americans polled said Chinese Americans "don't care what happens to anyone but their own kind" and were not likely to participate in their community.

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