An Immigrant Story – Yi Ping (Y.P.) Chan

My 23 years journey from selling Dim Sum in a Chinese restaurant to being a CEO of a public-listed company

1/15/2013


Born in a village in Taishan, Guangdong China, two years before the Cultural Revolution, I grew up in a peaceful, safe but material-lacking environment. As a child, all the food was rationed with about 1 lb of pork per person per month. We ate chicken a few times a year and my special treat for my birthday was an egg.  When I was nine years old, my father realized that we had to learn a skill to make a living in the future so he mandated all three sons should start learning to be carpenters. I attended school in the morning, and then as part of the education, I  spent a lot of time in the afternoon growing rice, sugar cane, peanuts, and other vegetables. I also spent my spare time playing  ping-pong and even representing our school in ping-pong competitions.  I spent time during the summers with my brothers catching fish in nearby  rivers. When China started to open up in 1977/1978 and viewed education as a way to revitalize the nation, I was selected as the only one from my village middle school to attend the best high school in the county based on a competitive examination.

Childhood picture of Y.P.
Childhood picture of Y.P.

In 1979, right after China opened up to economic reform, four of my six family members obtained permission to leave China to go to the United States.  At that time, I thought I would leave China for good and would probably never return. We went to Hong Kong for a year while waiting for my father and brother to get their permission to leave China. At age 15, there was no money for me to go to school in Hong Kong and thus I worked in a  garment factory full time making about US$70 per month while attending evening school to study English. My family was among 15 people who lived in an 800 square foot apartment. In 1979, people from China were discriminated against and looked down on by the people of Hong Kong.  It was a cultural shock to experience  struggling at the bottom of the society but yet learning the power of the free economy at the same time. Essentially, everyone had the same opportunity based on hard work and luck but there was little social safety net for the less fortunate.

Chan family picture, 1970 (Y.P. on right)
Chan family picture, 1970 (Y.P. on right)

In 1980, a few days after landing in New York City, I was working with my brother in a Chinatown restaurant selling Dim Sum, and making just $2.25 an hour. My career aspiration at that time was to be a waiter because they were making four times more money. As new immigrants who couldn’t speak any English, my parents were making minimum wage but our family always lived within our means. Having experienced the situation in Hong Kong where I was not able to attend school because we did not have money, I really treasured the opportunity to attend Seward Park High School on Manhattan’s lower Eastside, even though it was one of the worst of the City’s the public schools.  I was robbed by fellow students in the school bathroom. My wristwatch, bought with the money it took me one year of hard work in Hong Kong to afford, was taken away and broke into pieces. Of course, I took advantage of the free breakfasts and lunches offered by the school because of our low family income.  I worked in a fish store and a restaurant after school and on the weekends to supplement our family income. At that time, my grandmother’s primary concern for me was that I would not join a Chinatown gang, like one of my cousins who arrived a few years ahead of us. I realized that I had an important choice to make for myself: Study hard to attend college or work in Chinatown for the rest of my life.  Starting out in an English as a Second Language school program, I graduated number three out of 700 students three years later.

I was disappointed when my top two choices for college, Columbia University and Cornell University, did not accept me  due to my poor English skills.  But I did not give up.  With excellent math and science skills, I decided to study electrical engineering at Polytechnic University in New York City. I received scholarships and financial aids and  was able to attend this private university free of charge. I graduated in the top 10% while working at part time jobs in Chinese restaurants and at the New York Veterans Administration Medical Center.  During my first seven years in New York City, I learned tremendous “street smarts” and survival  skills in a foreign land with different cultures and ethnic groups. At the same time, I really appreciated the free education and ability to make my own choice to move up the social ladder based on my determination and hard work. I transformed my situation from bottom of the society to middle class professional through education and I was proud of what I had achieved.

Upon graduation from Polytechnic, I was accepted to the PhD program at Cornell University but decided to work as an engineer for TRW in California where I worked on an advanced satellite project for NASA. Then I switched to IBM, working as a development engineer in its Poughkeepsie Laboratory in the Mid-Hudson Valley, New York.  Under IBM sponsorship, I first obtained my MSEE from Columbia University part time while working at IBM full time. During this period, my confidence level rose substantially as a result of my improved English language capability and social skills. Despite being among the top performers at IBM, I realized that I would not want to be an engineer for the rest of my life.   Then, again under IBM sponsorship, I obtained my MBA from Columbia full time while working at IBM part time.  During my two years in the MBA program and working at IBM, I worked about 100 hours a week.  In between semesters, I took two separated study tours, one to to Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and the other to Brazil and Argentina. Returning to China in 1993 for the first time since I left in 1980, I immediately recognized the opportunities presented by China and decided to go back there after business school. During this 7 year period, I obtained two master degrees from Columbia University, the school that had rejected my undergraduate application. This was both sweet “revenge” and the reward for not giving up my dream.  I also transformed myself from being a myopic engineer to someone with business skills and perspective, willing to take on the global challenges ahead. As an extra bonus, I met my future wife at Columbia Business School.

Y.P. Chan
Y.P. Chan

In 1994, recognizing the potential of China and the opportunity to use my business and technical skills, I joined Honeywell to work on Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) and joint ventures in China and Japan.  I was  first stationed in Beijing and then transferred to Hong Kong where I worked and lived with my wife from 1995 to 2003. During that nine year period in Hong Kong and China, I started my own company, worked at a technology holding/venture firm, and expanded a technology consulting company from 15 to 70 people.  Both of our daughters were born in Hong Kong.  We travelled and worked in many Asian countries such as China, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, and Australia.   During this period, we witnessed the historic return of Hong Kong to China and the Asian Financial Crisis.  We gained great perspective from living this ambicultural life with a view of an expanded global horizon.

In 2003, during the height of the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, we moved back to the United States  (South Florida) where I was first COO and then CEO of a small public company listed on the American Stock Exchange.  There I was engaged in the  restructuring and turnaround of the company.  After almost four  years of very demanding work load and high pressure, I moved on and have since been  focusing on investment and business advisory services.  In 2008, we moved to Seattle where both of our kids are attending a private gifted school.

It was a 23 year journey from arriving in the USA as a teenager to becoming a CEO of a public listed company.  Looking back, the experience in China, Hong Kong, USA and other global assignments, as well as hard work  have all contributed to my story of achieving the American dream.  Communist China helped to shape my values (integrity, honesty, respecting  others), work ethic, devotion to good of the society before oneself, and the importance of family.  In Hong Kong, I learned how to survive at the bottom of the society, while keeping my dream alive, as well as the power of entrepreneurship. In the USA, I learned how to leverage the best that a free and democratic society has to offer and I took advantage of the opportunities available to me. The greatest gift of living in New York City was the opportunity to learn and practice my “street smart” skills with a diverse group of people. Once I had moved into the mainstream of society, I kept my intellectual curiosity and drive by exploring new challenges and opportunities. America is an ethnically diverse society where everything is possible if one dares to dream and work hard for it. At the same time, there is no free lunch in America. One must work hard to make the dreams into reality. It is up to each one of us to control our own destiny.  Life is a journey.  We need to be sure we enjoy it and not waste it.

 

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