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OC-China Culture Club

You won’t find a typical Chinatown in Orange County—no ethnic concentration with block after block of storefronts offering goods for new immigrants from the world’s most populous country or tourists anxious to brush up against an outpost of its culture.

That’s a big difference from Los Angeles or San Francisco, where cityscapes include clearly defined Chinatowns that serve as touchstones for Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans alike.

The ethnic group has grown rapidly in recent years to about 85,000 residents in Orange County as of 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, good for about 3% of the county’s total.

That’s about half the size of the long-established Vietnamese-American community here, which is globally renowned and clustered to a large degree in the Little Saigon district, where more than 3,500 businesses anchor a territory that includes portions of Westminster, Garden Grove and several other cities.

Irvine has become known as a city with a lot of residents of Chinese descent, and some other cities boast their fair share. Indeed, the local residential real estate market has come to count on Chinese and Chinese-American buyers as a steady driver, especially at the higher end.

Those buyers shop throughout OC, though. That pattern—or lack of any pattern—has worked against the notion of a Chinatown and put the local community among the most assimilated ethnic groups here.

Far, Wide

And its business influence runs far and wide, with entrepreneurs and executives rising in industries ranging from consumer electronics to pizza.

William Wang, the chief executive and cofounder of Irvine-based Vizio Inc., one of the county’s largest private companies, is working to take the flat TV maker public.

Fountain Valley-based Kingston Technology Co. co-founders John Tu, a native of Chongqing, China, and David Sun, from Taichung, Taiwan, run the world’s largest memory products maker for consumer electronics, with nearly $6 billion in annual sales.

Sun’s son Donald heads the Association of Volleyball Players pro circuit from the league’s headquarters in Costa Mesa.

Pieology Pizzeria founder Carl Chang is mapping out an aggressive expansion plan for his Rancho Santa Margarita-based fast-casual pizza chain.

Others, such as Jinsong Ni and Ben Lai, are traversing the cultural and lingual divide to promote business ties and exchanges between the U.S. and China.

Entrepreneurs who have arrived from China or Taiwan to build companies here have lately seen a number of corporate investments follow them to OC.

Taking Stakes

A recent highlight came this month with a $3.8 billion deal that will give Unisplendour Corp. Ltd. a 15% stake in Irvine-based Western Digital Corp.

Beijing-based Unisplendour, an IT provider and electronics manufacturer, paid a premium for its chunk of the world’s largest disk drive maker as it aims to further relationships stateside and boost technology holdings.

The Unisplendour investment is the third deal—and by far the biggest—between OC-based companies and counterparts in China in recent months.

Last month, Fuzhou, China-based Fujian Thai Hot Investment Co. paid $102.5 million to acquire 51.5% of the common stock of Alliance HealthCare Services Inc., a diagnostic imaging and radiation therapy provider in Newport Beach. The transaction is expected to close by the end of the year.

Kingston in early June sold subsidiary Payton Shenzhen Co. for $110.7 million to Shenzhen Kaifa Technology Co. Ltd.

A much bigger deal with Chinese ties is in the works in Irvine, where chipmaker Broadcom Corp. has agreed to a $37 billion sale to Avago Technologies Ltd. in Singapore, the influential island nation with a population that’s about three-quarters ethnic Chinese. The deal is expected to close by early next year, creating the third-largest chipmaker in the world, with combined annual revenue of about $15 billion.

Not all the deals with China ties are being made by Chinese. Irvine-based architecture firm MVE & Partners is working on several large developments in China and more recently carved a niche as a guide for developers there who want to do business in the U.S. (see related story, page 1).

Committee of 100

Many members of the local Chinese-American executive class remain connected to their ethnic cohorts, even as they assimilate to the U.S. business scene.

Wang, who grew Vizio from an unknown startup in the early 2000s to a leading seller of smart TVs in the U.S. with $3.1 billion in annual sales last year, is a member of the Committee of 100, an influential mix of Chinese-Americans who help fellow emigres adapt to life in the U.S.

“Many of my friends have family and roots from China,” said Wang, who has been recognized as one of Forbes’ 25 Most Notable Chinese-Americans. “In the end, family is what matters—personal family, business family, customer family.”

The Taiwan native has a unique perspective. He’s started a few companies that failed and was one of 96 survivors of doomed Singapore Airlines Flight 006, which crashed upon takeoff at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport on Halloween night in 2000, killing nearly half of the 179 passengers aboard.

“When you survive a plane crash, your concerns about your business take a back seat to your family,” Wang said.

Over There

Ties to China also translate to efforts to help the needy over there.

Community outreach and philanthropy are tenets of Chang’s philosophy. The pizza chain founder supports several orphanages in mainland China that house physically challenged kids. Many will never be adopted because of their handicaps.

“We partner with the government and create family environments to help them grow from a child to an adult and get them into a system so they are self-sufficient,” Chang said during a lunch meeting at Pieology’s outdoor seating area at Tustin Marketplace.

Chang and his younger brother, Michael, the tennis phenom who changed the style of the game in the 1990s, spent most of their formative years in New York and Minnesota before moving to California to escape the cold winters.

Carl fondly remembers Friday afternoons when the family would share a bowl of rice. Times were tougher back then when his mother logged five part-time jobs to help ends meet. Those meals, along with tennis team outings in his teenage years in San Diego, helped form the idea behind Pieology, which generated $44.6 million in sales last year, according to Chicago-based restaurant researcher Technomic Inc.

“It wasn’t about a great monetary opportunity at all,” said Carl, who opened the first location in 2011 and now has some 70 outlets under the banner. “It was about how we could use a concept to share with others those memories that kept our family together. Those memories are very entrenched in who I am today.”

His father, who migrated to Taiwan before the Revolution, came to the U.S. to attend graduate school at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. His mother, who was born in New Delhi, the daughter of an ambassador, moved to New York in high school from Canton in southern China.

“We’re very involved in mainland China,” said Carl, who also runs Redwood Real Estate Partners in Rancho Santa Margarita, where he lives.

His work there and career here share some parallels with Pick Up Stix founder Charles Zhang, who now runs Laguna Niguel real estate investment firm Zion Enterprises.

‘Beautiful Culture’

Zhang, who sold the San Clemente-based fast-casual Chinese restaurant in 2001 for $50 million to TGI Friday’s parent Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, recently returned from a philanthropic trip to China, where he sponsored 50 scholarships for high school students. He’s also partnering with universities to enhance research related to various areas of Asian studies.

“It’s very important,” Zhang said. “This is a beautiful culture.”

The Shanghai native came to the U.S. in 1980 with $20 in his pocket and didn’t speak English. He was 24 at the time and worked countless jobs, including as a liquor store clerk, gas station attendant, house painter, and sewer worker, before finding his stride in the competitive restaurant industry.

A two-year stint at Yen Ching in Orange, where he learned the business inside out—and English from customer encounters—gave him the confidence to open up his own place.

Shanghai Charlie’s opened in January 1984 in San Juan Capistrano. Within seven months the business was cash-flow positive, prompting Zhang to establish a second location in Laguna Niguel. Over the next five years he tinkered with other concepts, an American diner, Japanese and Thai offerings, and a coffee shop.

The first Pick Up Stix opened in 1990 in Rancho Santa Margarita and within 10 years Zhang had expanded the fresh-ingredient concept throughout California, growing the brand to 64 locations and 3,000 employees.

His second big hit came in 2012 when he sold Corona-based dietary beverage bottling maker and packager Aseptic Solutions to conglomerate Glanbia PLC in Ireland after an eight-year stretch of turning around the company, which was losing $100,000 a month.

Zhang is involved in more than 15 ventures, including a printing operation, logistics and warehousing.

“I’m really an entrepreneur,” he said. “I love incubating from small to big.”

That’s a path Jinsong Ni aims to navigate after spending the last 15 years at Allergan PLC, leading research and development efforts in drug discovery, strategic planning and clinical testing projects.

The president of the OC/LA chapter of the Sino-American Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Professional Association, has been busy assembling a team of former Allergan senior scientists and researchers to help launch drug developers in his native China, where early-stage funding, infrastructure and expertise in the sector are lacking.

“I see this as a great opportunity,” said Ni, who lost his job at Allergan’s Irvine campus, which had been the drugmaker’s headquarters until its sale this year for $72.5 billion to Actavis PLC, which has since taken the name Allergan PLC. “The Chinese government is encouraging people to be more innovative and entrepreneurial.”

On the other side of that equation is Ben Lai, who runs the China U.S. Business Association in Anaheim. Lai is helping local businesses and entrepreneurs navigate the complex terrain of commerce in China as the country gradually transitions to an economy that relies more on its own consumer market to supplement its exporting power.

Fisker

China’s manufacturing sector benefits hundreds of OC companies and helped resurrect Costa Mesa-based Fisker Automotive and Technologies Group LLC from the grave.

Fisker was acquired early last year in a bankruptcy court auction for $149.2 million in cash by Wanxiang America Corp., the Elgin, Ill.-based unit of Wanxiang Group Corp., one of the largest auto parts makers in China, headed by billionaire founder and chairman Lu Guanqiu.

The new owner has changed the company’s name to Karma Automotive after its first luxury hybrid sedan, and plans to resume production at a factory in the Inland Empire.

The increasing buying power of Chinese consumers is an opportunity for local companies, according to Lai, who was honored in June at the 2nd Global Officials of Dignity Awards at the United Nations for taking thousands of books to Afghanistan and his work to eradicate poverty in China.

“We know the language, culture and history. We can bring a lot of business here,” said Lai, who’s spent 37 years in the U.S. and the same amount of time in China. “We have everything they need.”

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