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Trip with Gov. Brown lets L.A. executive reconnect with China

Bill Allen, whose family's roots in China date to the early 1900s, says the L.A. area could see billions in investments from the Asian nation in the next several years.

April 16, 2013|By Anthony York, Los Angeles Times

SHENZHEN, China — The dozens of business officials who accompanied Gov. Jerry Brown to China this week included many with existing business in the country, some who hoped the governor's presence could help open new doors for them and others who wanted to spend time with California's leader and his entourage.

For Bill Allen, president of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., the connection to China is more personal. Allen, son of "Tonight Show" founder Steve Allen and actress Jayne Meadows, was returning to a nation where his family's roots date to the turn of the 20th century.

His grandfather, Frances James Meadows Cotter, was an Episcopalian missionary who left New England in 1912 to spread the gospel in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, on the banks of the Yangtze River. In the mid-1920s, the town was also a hotbed of early communist organizing, and Chiang Kai-shek ordered it bombed.

According to Allen family lore, his grandparents "were surprised one day to hear a crashing sound through their roof and look into their living room to see the dining room table literally split in half by an unexploded bombshell," he recalled here. "My grandfather took that as a sign that it was time to go back to New England for a while."

Allen's mother was just 7 years old, and her sister Audrey, who went on to star in "The Honeymooners," was 4 when the family returned to Rhode Island, where Frances Cotter became dean of the Episcopal cathedral.

Allen may be descended from a missionary, but he was also inspired by his famous parents to go into the entertainment business. He developed prime-time programming at CBS in the 1980s after graduating film school at USC, then went to work for MTM Television, where by the early 1990s he had become president.

When the company's building was severely damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Allen became involved in rebuilding the region, which eventually led to his current job.

Projects such as the new Chinese-owned BYD vehicle plant coming to Lancaster this year — a deal Allen helped facilitate — presented not just an economic opportunity for the Los Angeles area but also a chance for Allen to reconnect with his family's history.

His first trip to China was in 1975, when he spent 31 days traveling through the country with his father and visited his mother's birthplace.

Initially, Allen's mother was supposed to go on the trip, "but she was under commitment to star in a Broadway play called 'Once in a Lifetime' with John Lithgow," Allen recalled. "The producers wouldn't let her out of her contract."

Meadows, who still lives in Los Angeles, eventually did return to China and has made several other visits since. Allen's father wrote a book about China, for which the younger man took photographs. His parents even briefly ran a business importing Chinese carpets.

"It really wasn't a business that made money," Allen said. "It was just an excuse to be able to visit China more regularly with a business visa."

Allen's own business dealings bring him to China often. He says the Los Angeles area could see billions in new Chinese investments over the next several years.

"China strikes me as the greatest opportunity for foreign investment in Los Angeles," he said. "We just need to be more proactive about attracting that investment."

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