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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

The survey prompted the group that commissioned it -- a national organization of Chinese American leaders called the Committee of 100 -- to encourage philanthropy by honoring major donors and publicizing charitable works. The committee has honored Tang, Hsieh and others, and its members and supporters have raised at least $3.5 million for relief efforts since last month's earthquake.

"There's an unprecedented wave of philanthropy by Chinese Americans that is breaking records in the level and breadth of giving," said Stewart Kwoh, the committee's Southern California regional vice chairman. "It's important to make the broader public aware of how this philanthropy is strengthening communities, which will help reduce misunderstandings and stereotypes."

Community leaders say that philanthropy has a long tradition in China -- philosopher Confucius extolled it as a sign of "nobleness and superiority of character" -- but is expressed differently than in the West. Although Americans may be accustomed to sending money to institutions to help solve social problems, the Chinese have typically focused their benevolence more personally on families, villages and clans, according to Ho, a manager for family foundations.

Moser of the Huntington, who mastered the cultural fine points of Chinese giving as a development consultant in Hong Kong for several years, said approaching people through personal relationships known as guanxi is critical. So when she needed to raise money for the Chinese garden, she knew better than to simply send out impersonal mailers. She enlisted influential Chinese American business leaders, including Dominic Ng, chief executive officer of the East West Bancorp Inc., to help out.

Ng, a Pasadena resident and Hong Kong native, put together a dinner with several of his high-powered Chinese American friends, including David Lee, former president of Global Crossing, , Andrew Cherng of the Panda Express restaurant chain, Beverly Hills real-estate magnate Roger Wang and others. A group of Chinese American women began holding monthly lunches for their friends. Eventually, many of them began pledging gifts.

"When I first pulled the team together, my reason was very simple: to make sure we Asian Americans step up and deliver something very important to the community at large," Ng said.

The urbane banker, who has donated millions to such causes as the Huntington and United Way and has recently acquired a collection of Chinese art for donation to the Museum of Contemporary Art, has long advocated more Asian American philanthropic work. In 1999, he became the first Asian American to head the United Way of Greater Los Angeles' fundraising campaign and broke records by raising $67 million in nine months. He then helped convince Cherng and Tang to chair the effort in succeeding years.

Some immigrants still focus much of their giving on China. Last year, China received $25.7 billion in remittances, mostly from the United States -- the second highest recipient country after India, according to the World Bank. But many of their American-born children are shifting priorities.

The Tam family of San Marino, for instance, reflects those generational differences. Robert Tam, a 47-year-old investor, said his Hong Kong-born father has built roads, schools, medical clinics, water sanitation plants and the like for his family's ancestral village in southern China. But Tam prefers to give locally with gifts to the Huntington, San Marino schools and others..

Even immigrants, however, begin to acquire U.S.-style philanthropic practices with time, according to an Indiana University study last year. Zhihang Chi, the Los Angeles-based general manager for Air China's Western operations, is a case in point. He arrived in the United States in 1988 to pursue a doctoral degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Philanthropy, he said, was a "very foreign idea."

"When we first come here, our first priority is survival: get a degree, find a job, gain success in a career," Chi said.

But the longer he lived here, the more accustomed he said he became to donation requests from his children's schools, public TV and radio, alumni associations. He began to give and now has convinced his Beijing-based airline to do the same.

In its first major contribution to a mainstream organization, Air China made a $170,000 in-kind donation to the Huntington's garden project last year by flying 58 artisans from China to work here.

It was a "leap of faith," Chi said, propelled both by business desires to cultivate U.S. customers and the philanthropic impulses he said America nurtured in him.

"Now I've been here 20 years and my ideals have gradually been changing," Chi said. "There's more to life than money, and we all need to do good."

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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