Monday, October 30, 2000

Asian American Ticket to the American Dream

Keynote speech, October 28, 2000
Seattle Area Asian American Professional Organizations Joint Fall Conference,

Ladies & Gentlemen,

It is a distinct pleasure and privilege to be with you today. Seattle is my adopted hometown. When I immigrated to the United States as a refugee, not knowing a word of English, Seattle was where I landed and where I grew up. My father was a research fisheries biologist with University of Washington, and I attended Laurelhurst Elementary, Nathan Eckstein and Hamilton Junior Hi and Lincoln High School. After I went to MIT for college, I had summer jobs at Boeing. I remember working one summer as interns when we carefully updated the original engineering drawings with all the engineering changes and advanced engineering changes. We were part of Boeing’s effort in converting the military tanker KC-135 into 707, the first commercial jet liner in the world. While my contribution is not even infinitesimal, I am proud to be part of Seattle’s history. Roughly some twenty years later, I was to make a business trip to Bellevue. When I got off the elevator at the wrong floor of the then only skyscraper in Bellevue, I walked into the office where a bunch of scruffy young kids was sitting around. Unfortunately I didn’t ask if I could buy some of their stock but those were the early days of the eventual software giant that has since moved to Redmond.

So as you can see, I have some real Seattle roots, and I presume, in common with many of you in the audience. I am very proud to be a former Seattleite. However, even though I lettered in varsity tennis, I am convinced that growing up in Seattle deprived me of any chance of becoming a Michael Chang. I simply didn’t see the sun often enough.

The organizers of this conference asked me to talk about what it means for a Chinese American to be successful in America. There are many Chinese Americans more prominent than I, more accomplished and with higher net worth, so I am not sure why I have been accorded this honor. However, as I grow older, I have become more opinionated and I rarely pass up the opportunity to sound off. So here I am and I will do my best on this subject.

Even as far back as the 19th century, the Chinese made contributions to America far beyond their numbers. The transcontinental railroad could not have been built without the Chinese taking on the most dangerous, life threatening tasks. The Chinese also took on jobs that no one else wanted, operating laundries, small shops and eating places. Despite their contributions, they were not given citizenships and cannot be called Chinese Americans. When the last spike was driven to link the transcontinental railroad and a photo taken to document the occasion, no Chinese can be seen in the historic photo. Instead, the Chinese in the Wild West were beaten, robbed and frequent victims of vigilante acts.

On the shores of the San Francisco Bay, there is now a state park on a beach where the Chinese used to catch the tiny bay shrimp, dry them and ship them back to China where dried shrimp has been and continues to be a favorite flavoring agent in cooking. In those days, the shrimp had no other commercial value and attracted interest from no one else. Nevertheless, the city passed a series of ordnances that restricted or prohibited shrimping on certain times of the year and drying on the beach. All for the purpose of stifling the Chinese without being explicitly racist.

Others more authoritative than I can tell you about the unjust and unfair laws, regulations or simply racist attitudes that prevailed in the U.S. against the Chinese up to and following World War II. I will simply relate to you a couple of personal experiences of mine.

When we moved into our first house in America, it was on 4th Avenue and 47th Street in the northeast section of Seattle, between University district and Wallingford. This is now one block away from Interstate 5. After living a university housing project for three years, we moved into the house in 1952, a modest home that my father could afford. On the first day we moved in, I remember an obviously inebriated man knocking on our door to tell us that “our kind” was not welcome. That was our welcome to the neighborhood. That was how our American dream got started.

In the ‘60s, my wife and I took a vacation on Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. A beach apparel shop was plastered with signs announcing an end of season sale. Being a Chinese, I couldn’t pass up a bargain, went in and selected a beach robe. When the manager of the store rang up the regular price, I said wait a minute, wasn’t this on sale? He said only some items were but not beach robes. When I said in that case I didn’t want the item, he blew his top. He was outraged and said people like me should go back to where ever I came from.

I am sure most of you have experiences of your own to tell. Stories of slights that you still remember vividly to this day, stories that remind you that you are still a foreigner in your own country. My parents used to remind me all the time, “don’t forget you are a Chinese. Don’t do anything to embarrass us.” For me, the consequence of all this admonition was to develop an attitude, an attitude that automatically assumed that I would have to put out more than 100% of effort to get the credit that my white colleague can get with less than 100%. Along with this attitude also came the desire to always outdo the white guys in every undertaking.

Indeed I began my professional career just about when the term, “model minority,” as a way of describing the Chinese Americans, came into vogue. We were considered a model minority because we had a lower crime rate, we held tight family values and we were academic achievers. Until the politicians got hold of the term, I believe the people that referred us as “a model minority” were sincere and did it out of admiration. However, even without condescension the term has some unfortunate consequences, one of which is a mental trap, namely, the presumption that if we keep our nose clean, behave and mind our own business, we will be OK. Not getting involved means staying away from volunteer organizations and local politics.
For much of the 20th century, the model minority concept worked reasonably well. Our willingness to mind our business and know our place fitted comfortably with the mainstream’s expectation that we know our places and cause no trouble. So long as we were content and willing to settle for professional rank and file positions and not expect or demand a shot at management positions, everything was copasetic. It didn’t seem to bother us that we could be senior engineers and scientists but not managers, that we could be professors but not deans or chancellors, that we could do the heavy lifting in the national labs but not serve as lab directors. It may not have been idyllic but it was a peaceful co-existence.

In recent years our willingness to get along as second-class citizens ran into trouble. In 1989, the evil empire known as USSR began to crumble and at the same time the world saw on TV the student protest on Tiananmen Square in China getting out of hand, culminating in bloodshed and tragedy. Since that day, the man standing in front of the tanks became forever imbedded in the media’s consciousness to be re-wound and replayed every June. It became the icon that demonized China. Zhongnanhai replaced the Kremlin and the leaders of China became the butchers of Beijing. For those in America disquieted by the sudden absence of an enemy, China conveniently stepped into the void as the next evil empire.

The next event that significantly affected the lives of Chinese Americans was the election of Bill Clinton as the president of the United States. For whatever reason and for reasons really beyond the scope of my presentation, President Clinton has managed to arouse the hatred of a certain segment of the American population. These people went thru millions of taxpayers’ money to go after Bill and Hillary Clinton ranging from Whitewater to travelgate to campaign contributions to Monica Lewinsky to Los Alamos. While this was basically a domestic political squabble, somehow we Chinese American by-standers were victimized.

How were we victimized? It has been estimated that the total amount of money spent at each presidential election run in the order of $2 billion, give or take a few hundred million. No body got hot and bothered about the source of funds except for the $2 million or so that Chinese Americans were accused of raising possibly from foreign sources. The senators and pundits making the accusation couldn’t even tell the difference between Chinese Americans, Chinese from PRC, Hsilai Temple Buddhists from Taiwan, or Indonesians that are ethnic Chinese. It didn’t matter. If an ethnic Chinese was involved, it must be sinister and it must have involved Beijing trying to influence the election. Imagine for a moment, how much influence $2 million can really be in changing the course of a history with the momentum of a couple of billion dollars.

John Huang, an assistant Commerce secretary, was made into the arch villain/fund raiser, for alleged irregularities--irregularities that never came into light of day. The only consequence is that his career ended in tatters and he in financial ruin. Even the famed Cox Report after pages and pages demonizing China, Chinese and Chinese Americans had to admit that John Huang never upgraded his level of access to confidential information even though he was entitled. He was observed not taking notes during briefing and not asking for documents that he could have asked for. In other words, they couldn’t find a single disloyal act upon close scrutiny.

The Cox Report, of course, has done more to alienate the Chinese Americans than any other act since the days of Joseph McCarthy. Unfortunately, your great state of Washington is complicit in this by virtue of the minority chair of the Select Committee being headed by Congressman Norm Dix. The Democrats on this committee must have been so glad that President Clinton escaped from the Lewinski scandal that they did not even protest the publication of this report. The report distorts, exaggerates, and fabricates, all for the purpose of demonizing China and embarrassing Clinton and by innuendo implying that somehow Clinton is letting the Chinese get away with absolutely everything worth stealing. Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation, in a report prepared by four eminent scientists and edited by Michael May, former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab tore the Cox Report to shreds. They concluded and I quote: “The report lacks scholarly rigor, and exhibits too many examples of sloppy research, factual errors and weakly justified inferences”—and in my opinion the Stanford group was being kind. Again the unfortunate by-product of the hysteria created by the Cox Report is to imply that all Chinese Americans are potential spies for PRC.

The Cox Report also led directly to the Wen Ho Lee case. In January 1999, the committee leaked the word that they had uncovered evidence of espionage by China whereby China had stolen the secrets of W88 multiple warhead and that the secrets were stolen from Los Alamos. This information turns out to be based on closed-door testimony given by Notra Trulock. Trulock was absolutely certain that the secrets were stolen with the help of a Chinese American. The code name the FBI used in their investigation was “kindred spirit,” so you can see that everybody in the counterintelligence business pretty much share the same foregone conclusion as to where to look for the culprit. This information was leaked to the New York Times, which led to the immediate firing of Wen Ho Lee. The news broke on March 6 and Richardson fired Lee on March 8.

After Lee was fired, cooler heads pointed out that W88 secrets could have been pilfered from literally hundred of places and not just from Los Alamos. Further there was no real evidence, other than Trulock’s overactive imagination, that China has really co-opted the W88 design. In fact to this day, China has not been observed to have made any multiple warhead missiles. At this point in mid 1999, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson must have been getting awfully uncomfortable with eggs on his face. He could have backed off. Instead he persisted on the Lee case. In the meantime, the FBI got lucky. They were roundly criticized for failing to conduct a wide and objective investigation, but while searching Lee’s home, they found evidence of Lee having downloaded restricted data. Somebody, I don’t know if it’s the FBI or someone else upgraded the classification of the restricted data into the “crown jewel” class so as to justify arresting Lee, throwing him in solitary confinement in a cell lit around the clock, isolating him from the outside contact including TV, and subjecting him to chain and shackle for the one hour of fresh air each day.

As you all must know, the Wen Ho Lee case has become a cause celebré. Asian Americans who have been actively working on getting Wen Ho Lee fair and due process are now clamoring for an impartial panel to conduct public hearing on this case. The feeling is that until all the details of this case are out in the open, there can be no closure.

The Wen Ho Lee case has driven home a point that should be increasingly obvious to us all. Namely, uneasy lies your American dream if you are satisfied with being a second-class citizen. In our case being second-class doesn’t mean an increase probability in getting pulled off the road. You don’t fit that profile. But your loyalty is suspect and you are not entitled to the customary rights of presumed innocent until proven guilty. Even if you do your best to keep your head down and avoid trouble, trouble can come to your doorsteps anyway due to circumstances beyond your control.

Whether you like it or not, whatever your political inclination may be, and how ever you might feel about Taiwan and China, your American dream is intimately tied to the U.S. China relationship. When China is regarded as a friend of the White House and U.S. Congress, we are the model minority. When China becomes the demon in America’s eyes, we become potential enemy agents. As the campaign finance scandal has shown and as what happened to Wen Ho Lee has confirmed, to the mainstream America, a Chinese is a Chinese, or in many cases, an Asian is an Asian. They don’t care or necessarily know how to make the distinction between those that came from Mainland China or Taiwan or elsewhere in Asia or those born in America. There is no escaping the broad profile cast to fit us all.

Before concluding on where do we go from here, I would like to share with you my experiences and observations of Silicon Valley. Deloitte & Touché, my employer, conducts an annual survey of fastest growing, technology companies in America. The survey is based on the compounded growth rate in revenue over the most recent 5-year period. Every region has a list of fast 50 companies, which is consolidated into a national Fast 500. This year from Silicon Valley, the top three and five of the top eight fastest growing companies are founded and/or headed by a Chinese American CEO. In case you are interested, the five are Yahoo, Pctel, Nvidia, Broadvision and Viador. Yahoo is the only company not headed by a Chinese American CEO, but as you all know founder Jerry Yang has become a worldwide icon for the Internet age.

Even for Silicon Valley, where Asian Americans found 30% of the companies, 5 out of top 8 are pretty remarkable. I have been living and working in Silicon Valley for nearly 30 years and have had a ringside seat. I can tell you, it wasn’t always this way. Twenty years ago, Asian American entrepreneurs had to band together and form their own network and associations. Ten years ago, most of the blue ribbon venture capital funds had no Asian American partners. Today, most of them do. How did this happen? I think the current generation of successful entrepreneurs owes a debt to the pioneers who broke through the glass ceiling and proved that they can manage a company as well as doing the technical work.

David Lee founded Qume, a daisy wheel printer company, which was sold to ITT and he became one of the earliest senior executives of a Fortune 100 company. Even though public speaking is not his favorite activity, he is seen frequently in public forum sharing his experience with the younger generation. David Lam founded Lam Research, a major semiconductor equipment company. He went on to found or lead a series of companies. He is active in various associations such as Asian American Manufacturers Association and served as advisor to many other start-ups. Pauline Lo Alker is also a serial entrepreneur and widely recognized and honored for her achievements. She makes a point of allocating part of her time coaching young Asian entrepreneurs, and served as role model to young women entrepreneurs. Lester Lee founded his own company called Recortec but devotes much of his time serving on the board of Chinese related organizations. All of these people support political candidates and are involved in fund raising efforts for them. Lester was the first Chinese American to serve on the board of regent for University of California. David Lee is a current regent.

Thanks to the organizing skills of people like Barry Chang, the Bay Area has become a must visit place for Asian American political candidates in search of financial support. Your governor Gary Locke has been a regular visitor. When Barry organizes a fundraiser, he gets young people involved by getting the students to preside over the fundraiser and introduce the speakers and candidates. His goal is to get young people engaged early. Barry’s publicly stated goal is to see a Chinese American as the president of the United States.

The Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund was started by a handful of Chinese Americans in the Bay Area. We met Alberta, Lee’s daughter in September of last year, and began letters of protest, fund raising, and discussions with the media. Eventually Chinese Americans from all over the country got into the act that then pulled in other Asians and the rest of American public was made aware that justice in the Lee’s case was not being served.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think it is pretty obvious where we go from here. Second class citizenship, with or without the moniker of model minority, just isn’t going to cut it any more. Even if you can be satisfied with a permanent seat in the back of the bus, is it right to leave this legacy for future generations of Asian Americans? How can you be sure that your middle class, or even upper middle class, respectability won’t be stripped away in a moment’s notice when a scapegoat is needed? Or that you won’t be shot dead by the police because they fear your martial arts capability even if you are drunk and can barely stand, as it happened to a Chinese scientist in Santa Rosa, California? Or that you won’t be clubbed to death because some Detroit workers thought you were Japanese, as it happened to Vincent Chin?

This is only one way. That is to make sure you belong to the first class with full rights pertaining to the citizenship of the United States. If you have been living in the U.S. for any length of time, you would have heard the saying: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” What it means is that you will have to act like a regular citizen before you can be treated like one. Register and vote. Speak up about issues in public forum and with letters to the editor. Show up in town hall meetings with your Congressional representative. Support political candidates. Run for office. Be a volunteer in local community. Every day, look everybody in the eye with the bearing that says I belong here, this is my country too.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” For Asian Americans, a variation should read: “Vigilant insistence of all rights due a citizen so that there will be no more Wen Ho Lees.”

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