[COMMUNITY] Surprising APA Success Stories
- SURPRISING SUPERSTARS
There are two kinds of successes the paint-by-numbers kind and the
bolt-from-the-blue kind. In the first, those who follow all the steps
can expect to become doctors, lawyers and corporate chiefs. But it's
the second kind that fascinates us the adventurous souls who defy
conventional wisdom by shunning the beaten path to set off through
the brambles in search of their own. Years later a few emerge scarred
but stronger. The only way they know they've stumbled into success is
the admiring look in the world's eyes.
This feature looks at eight Asian Americans whose surprising
successes have taken them far beyond their original quests for a life
of their own
DALLAS COWBOYS MIDDLE LINEBACKER
Tammy Nguyen faced a tough choice. She could let her eighth-grader
son play football and possibly get injured or she could let him
continue spending afternoons with the wrong crowd and end up in jail
"I was running around, wasn't coming home at night, and my mom
threatened to send me to a boys' school in Missouri," recalls Dat
Nguyen, Dallas Cowboys standout middle linebacker. "I wanted to stay
with my folks, so I had to find something else to do."
The biggest obstacle to playing football wasn't his mother's
fears about injury, however. It was his size. The Vietnamese American
boy was small compared to the other boys playing the sport. But he
was shown the way by older brother Hung who, at 5-4 and 140 pounds,
was even smaller but played center for Rockport-Fulton High. Dat
managed to put on some precious pounds by eating as often as possible
at the home of best friend Jimmy Hattenbach whose mother served
heaping helpings of rich American food.
By the time Dat was running through his college options,
recruiters were over the size thing. He was recruited by Division 1
powerhouses like UCLA and Michigan. Dat chose Texas A&M so he could
pursue agricultural sciences. And he pursued his studies with far
more seriousness than most football stars, racking up a solid GPA
while setting an Aggie record with 517 career tackles over 51
consecutive starts. He finished his senior year with a career-high
147 tackles and became the only player in school history to lead
Texas A&M in tackles four seasons running.
Those impressive stats earned him some impressive accolades. He
was named Big 12 Male Athlete of the Year by the Dallas Morning News.
He was the national and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year his
senior year. He won the Lombardi Trophy. Best of all, he was drafted
in the third round by the Dallas Cowboys despite his size (5-11, 221
pounds). What everyone was beginning to see was that Nguyen's ability
to read a play more than made up for his size and mediocre footspeed.
"It was a great feeling when I got drafted, especially having
been such a huge Dallas fan when I was growing up," said Nguyen. "I'm
an Asian-American who is now playing America's sport, for America's
team what more can you ask for? That's like a storybook!"
What makes the story complete is the remarkable success Nguyen
has seen as one of the NFL's smallest middle linebackers. After two
seasons of playing on special teams and backup positions, in 2001 he
was promoted to starter at the middle linebacker position. That
season he started all 16 games and led the team in tackles. Not even
a wrist injury in 2002 could keep him from receiving his well-earned
reward: a 6-year $13 million contract.
Tei-Fu and Oi Lin Chen
FOUNDERS OF SUNRIDER INTERNATIONAL
Tei-Fu Chen and his new bride Oi Lin immigrated to the United States
in 1974 in search of an entirely conventional kind of success. They
planned to study hard, get into medical schools, become doctors and
live in a nice home in the suburbs. Instead, four years later Tei-Fu
Chen found himself with a 4-year-old daughter, a pregnant wife,
stacks of med school rejections and only seven dollars and fifty
cents in his pockets not even enough to rent an apartment.
"The longer I stayed in the United States," Tei-Fu Chen recalls
of what was easily the nadir of his adult life, "it seemed the
American dream became farther and farther away from me."
For the moment the Chen family's only option was to live out of
their battered car. In desperation Tei-Fu took a series of odd jobs
to get his family off the street. It was only when he renewed his
early acquaintence with the traditional herbal remedies used by
Taiwanese of humble means that his life began turning around. He used
his knowledge to find work as a researcher for Nature's Way and
Nature's Sunshine. Within four years Tei-Fu was ready to start his
own company. Unlike herbal companies that professed to sell remedies
for diseases, he wanted to create supplements to keep the body
While wife Oi Lin attended medical school, Tei-Fu began doing
precisely the kinds of traditional things from which he had hoped to
distance himself by becoming a medical doctor boiling herbal
extracts in the basement of their apartment. To sell his supplements,
Tei-Fu built up the kind of multi-level direct marketing scheme used
by his former employers. At last he had arrived at a formula for
The Chens faced some severe tests along the way. Exploiting
western suspicions of oriental health traditions, numerous lawsuits
were filed claiming injury from Sunrider herbal supplements. Sunrider
also became the target of scandal pieces by TV networks and
newspapers. Tei-Fu Chen's own sister and father filed suits claiming
a share of the fast-growing company. Uncle Sam sued for taxes owed on
imports and exports of herbal products, casting yet another dark
shadow on the Chens. That suit was ultimately settled for tens of
The Chens survived the tribulations thanks to the most valuable
of their traditional remedies family closeness. They and their four
children became a support network for one another. By the mid-90s
Sunrider International had grown into one of the world's biggest and
most profitable food supplements company, with several million user-
distributors in 38 countries and sales of a billion dollars a year.
Its business headquarters were moved into a sparkling $45 million
complex in Carson, California and the Chens themselves moved into a
spectacular mansion they could never have afforded had they realized
their original dream of becoming doctors.
COUNTRY MUSIC STAR
Those who believe that country-music-loving middle Americans have an
aversion to Asians probably haven't heard of Shoji Tabuchi. He's
sometimes called the King of Branson, the world's live country music
As a kid growing up near Osaka, Shoji Tabuchi hated violin
lessons. His mother had to chase him down and drag him there. "She
became pretty good at climbing trees," Tabuchi likes to recall.
Mother knew best. By the time Tabuchi was a teen-ager, he
was the leader of a group of boys with a passion for American country
and western music. Shoji's fate was sealed when he was 17. He and his
friends went to a concert featuring Roy Acuff and the Smokey Mountain
Boys. The lanky Japanese kid was enchanted by Howdy Forrester's
rendition of birdlike sounds with his violin while playing "Listen to
That night Tabuchi decided that he was not going to become a
corporate executive like his father. "Since I went to see Mr. Acuff,
I got into country music and bluegrass music." At the age of 18
Tabuchi founded a band called Bluegrass Ramblers. It ultimately won
the all-Japan band competition. Tabuchi became something of a minor
celebrity among Japanese country music fans and had a standing
invitation to perform on the Asahi TV channel. He even made enough
money as a musician to buy himself his own car, a rarity in the Japan
of the 60s.
But he knew that his only chance for a real career in country
and western music would be in the States. In 1967, a few months
before he would have graduated with a bachelor's in economic from
Osaka's St. Andrew's College, Shoji Tabuchi decided to leave for the
U.S. "In the back of my mind, [I wanted] to see if I can get on the
Grand Ole Opry or even just to see the Grand Ole Opry."
His mother was surprisingly supportive. She gave him some money
to augment his savings. With $500 in his pockets and another $100
hidden in a shoe, Tabuchi and a banjo-playing friend left for San
Francisco on a tourist visa.
"Since I came to the U.S. I quickly found out that [having a
Japanese face] is more of an advantage than a disadvantage," says
Tabuchi. "Say person A and person B play just as good. Who stands
out, me or him?"
Maybe so, but the young Japanese musician found that his
inability to speak English fluently made it hard to be taken
seriously as a country musician, even in a San Francisco that had
become the capitol of the hippy movement. And all the talk about free
love and brotherhood didn't change the fact that with only a tourist
visa he couldn't get a musician's union card and work regular gigs.
But he found cafes where he could pass the hat and a restaurant where
he was paid under the table. He also met and married his first wife,
a young woman from Kansas.
After they married and had a son, Tabuchi was forced to get a
day job as a radiology technician for two years. But he continued
playing nights. And his return to being a full-time musician was
inevitable, especially with his vastly improved English and U.S.
citizenship. His virtuosity with a fiddle and the novelty factor made
him a popular opening act, then a rising star on the country music
circuit. By the early 1980s he was pulling down six-figure annual
In the early 1989, after a divorce and remarriage to a
beautiful, well-heeled divorcee named Dorothy, Shoji Tabuchi was
through making money for other people. He and two partners raised
$3.5 million to buy a 20,000-square-foot building on a 21-acre lot in
Branson, Missouri and converted it into a theater. With Dorothy
acting as producer, the couple put together a glitzy country show
built around Shoji. The show proved such a hit with the busloads of
tourists flocking to Branson that after a single season, the Tabuchis
were able to put up $1 million and get a bank loan to finance
construction of the present 30,000-square-foot, 2,000-seat theater
along Sheperd of the Hills Expressway. It was a bold, not to say
reckless, move premised on continuing popularity thanks to what many
saw as a country-music fad.
"I hate to discuss monetary things, but I will say it was kind
of scary," Tabuchi recalls.
The gamble proved to be the best ever made in Branson. Not only
did the town continue to pull in ever-growing numbers of visitors
eager to see live country music, the Shoji Tabuchi Theater came to be
its biggest attraction. Shoji's flair with the fiddle, credible
vocals and Dorothy's genius for glitzy costumes, dance numbers and
interior decor proved an irresistable combination. By its third
season, the theater was putting on two shows a day, six days a week
and grossing upwards of $14 million a year. The boy from Osaka had
made himself America's king of live country music.
Rich girls don't sew. Especially ones who attended pricey schools
like Chapin, Sarah Larence and the Sorbonne. Certainly not ones who
competed as an elite amateur figure skater, worked sixteen years as
senior fashion director for Vogue, then two years as design director
for Ralph Lauren. They are supposed to marry, have kids, spend their
energies on the charity circuit.
Vera Wang might have ended up doing just that but for the
dismaying fact that she simply couldn't find a wedding dress that
embodied the kind of chic sophistication to which she was accustomed
in her career and personal life. The idea of wearing an overblown
pile of satin and tulle made her break out in hives. It precipitated
a crisis of faith.
But Vera Wang emerged stronger, having resolved to save
countless other rich girls from a similar crisis as they approached
the altar. Wang designed an entire line of wedding dresses and
launched Vera Wang Bridal in 1990. Bucking prevailing stereotypes
about women of her background, she even did some of the initial
cutting and sewing to get her designs just so.
But how often does a girl get married? Not wanting to become
pigeonholed into a once or twice (or thrice) in a lifetime occasion,
Wang began looking for ways to port her sensibility into other types
of fashion. Drawing on figure-skating memories, she designed a
stunning white dress with illusion sleeves for Nancy Kerrigan in
1994. That dress won Vera Wang instant fame and acclaim as a designer
with a unique brand of wickedly chic elegance.
The fashion business is treacherous, murderously unprofitable
and, even in the best of circumstances, capital hungry. Fortunately
for Wang, her indulgent father is a pharmaceutical tycoon who had
trouble saying no to her pleas for investment. Thanks in large part
to his generosity, she was able to expand her lines into evening wear
and ready-to-wear categories. Her gowns began draping the much-
photographed frames of creatures like Sharon Stone, Uma Thurman, Meg
Ryan and Tyra Banks. So admired has the Vera Wang brand become that
its owner has licensed it for a fragrance, jewelry, eyewear, shoes,
and a home collection.
No doubt the best part of her success for Vera Wang is the
knowledge that her two daughters will be able to move confidently
through life's transitions knowing that mummy has paved the way with
an appropriate look for every turn.
TEXAS STATE LEGISLATOR
It's conventional wisdom that Vietnamese Americans vote Republican.
Going against the grain, Hubert Vo made his bid for the Texas State
Legislature in 2004 as a Democrat by challenging a powerful
Republican incumbent who had been weakened by a bizarre scandal. A
few months before the election Talmadge Heflin had raised eyebrows by
making an eccentric and unsuccessful bid to claim his former
housekeeper's 20-month-old child.
Any politician who wins his seat by 16 votes has to wonder if he
isn't challenging fate. That's the slender margin by which Hubert Vo
was elected to represent Houston in the Texas assembly. But he first
had to survive charges of voter fraud brought by Heflin, a 22-year
incumbent who had been chairing the powerful House Appropriations
Committee. In the wake of the election, Heflin argued that if illegal
votes are weeded out, he would end up with a 5-vote vitory instead of
a 33-vote loss. Vo countered that discounting improper votes would
actually have increased his margin to 36.
State Representative Will Hartnett was appointed as special
master to sift through voting irregularities. Texas Democrats rallied
Asian Americans to pressure their elected representatives not to
support Heflin's challenge. When the dust had settled, the only
voting irregularities turned up were a couple dozen ballots cast
twice by confused voters, only a handful of whom were Vietnamese. The
special master made his finding of a 16-vote Vo win. By early
February Heflin threw in the towel and Vo made a gracious speech
calling Heflin a "good man".
Hubert Vo's skin-of-the-teeth entry into the Texas legislature
was no more difficult than his long and arduous struggle to graduate
from college. After arriving in the U.S. Vo worked a wide variety of
jobs including waiter, busboy, cook, convenience store clerk, phone
book updater, goldsmith and data technician. He supported himself
through the University of Houston by working nights as a steel worker
at the Hughes Tool company. Vo managed to work his way up the ranks
at Hughes from a forge shop assistant to a master machinist while
progressing toward his 1983 bachelor of science degree in mechanical
That degree gave him the credibility to start a business that
sold computer systems and networking services to local government
agencies. By 1995 Vo had saved enough to buy an apartment building.
Since then he added several more apartments and developed an
office/shopping mall in the Houston suburb of Alief. And now Hubert
Vo has added the distinction of becoming the first Vietnamese
American elected to the Texas Legislature.
IRELL & MANELLA PATENT TRIAL LAWYER
Asked to pick the UCLA student least likely to go on to a career as
the nation's most eminent patent trial lawyer, Morgan Chu would have
figured near the top of your short list. During the late 1960s and
early 70s he cycled through a long list of majors ranging from math
to psychology over a meandering six-year college career. It was only
when the university forced him to settle on a major and finish up
that he decided on political science.
"`We have to kick you out of school when you get a certain
number of units, and here's how far away you are away,'" the dean's
office told him. "`Pick one of these areas where in a quarter or two
you can graduate. You have to do it. If you don't do it, we're just
gonna kick you out,'" Chu recalls the harsh edict. "I was forced at
gunpoint to graduate."
So poli sci it was. But Chu's educational path to nowhere
didn't end there. He simply moved it to the graduate division. He
earned a masters in an obscure interdisciplinary social science
called urban educational policy planning.
"I was deciding what to do because of the Vietnam War," he
recalls. "There were three choices. I was 1A and had a low draft
number, so the choices were to join the Army, go to Canada or go to
jail. One of the vice chancellors at UCLA I knew said, `They're
starting this new program. They have federal funding.' If I joined it
I could get a stipend. They had a way to work things out so I could
get a continuing deferment for a little period of time. I
thought, `No Army, get paid a little and get paid to be a student.'
That sounded like a good thing."
Chu continued on to a PhD in the field. Even after the PhD, he
hadn't settled on anything concrete. Instead he spent another year on
a post-doctoral program that included some legal studies.
"The law stuff was kinda interesting, so I thought maybe I'll
learn a little bit more," says Chu. "It was also in keeping with my
continuing to be a student."
Instead of just going to law school, Chu remained true to form
and kept his interest in the field academic and theoretical by
enrolling in Yale's new masters of law program. He might have
continued on to further studies in scholarly law but for a bit of
timely prodding by his wife she accused him of becoming a
"Perhaps if I had never met Helen I wouldn't have had her voice
of conscience dissenting, `Maybe you shouldn't spend your entire life
being a student,'" acknowledges Chu.
Chu moved over to Boston for two years for an accelerated degree
from Harvard Law School. That final degree was a catalyst that set in
motion, with remarkable swiftness, the chain reaction that produced a
lawyer who pioneered computer software litigation, won multi-million-
dollar patent settlements, and, in 2002, the coup de grâce a $500
million verdict in a biotech patent suit. It was the second biggest
verdict in the entire U.S. that year.
Today Morgan Chu is America's most successful Asian big-firm
lawyer. His success is entirely of the blue-chip variety. At 54 he's
the superstar partner at one of California's most admired law firms,
commanding seven-figure annual draws. But Chu's personal style
remains that of the lifelong student with a curiosity about all
things. He wears bowties, speaks with professorial attention to
piquant details and notable sidelights and treats everyone like a
FOUNDER/CEO OF KORIN JAPANESE TRADING CO.
Those who see Asian immigrants as people who abandon their ancestral
cultures to embrace Hollywood-style American materialism might be
surprised by Saori Kawano.
"My original ambition was to teach traditional Japanese culture
and arts, such as flower arrangement, tea ceremony and the like," she
recalls. "Through these traditional Japanese arts I wanted to
introduce the beauty and spirit of Japanese culture to Americans and
the world. It was my dream from a very young age."
That missionary zeal to share her native culture is central to
Kawano's earliest memories.
"I was an unusual child," she recalls. "I was fascinated by
traditional Japanese things since I was very young. I have been
collecting Japanese dishes since I was in elementary school. I
studied tea ceremony, archery, calligraphy, was interested in kimono.
I didn't always just think about getting married like the other girls
in school; my dream was to go abroad and teach traditional Japanese
Kawano had been married only two months when she and her husband
left Yokohama for New York City. Like Mormon missionaries, they
traveled light. Saori brought only the clothes she was wearing, and
to help her English studies, a dictionary and a tape recorder. They
spent their days in school and nights working at a midtown Manhattan
restaurant called Nakagawa. Saori waitressed while her husband washed
In the early 1980s Japanese restaurants were just starting to
pop up in American cities. Kawano kept hearing the owner of Nakagawa
lament that the few Japanese restaurants in the U.S. had difficulty
finding suitable tableware and decor. With her innate interest in
Japanese cultural objects, Kawano immediately saw the need for a
business that could supply dishes, tea sets, knives and other items.
She made a trip home and returned with 1,200 teacups. She lugged
around samples to every one of New York's Japanese eateries. The
owners snapped them up.
One of the trickiest feats Kawano had to manage was overcoming
the stereotype that a young Japanese woman simply wasn't capable of
heading up a business. Kawano convinced a Corean acquaintence, a
businessman from the neighborning garment district, to act the part
of her company's president. He occupied the desk shuffling papers
while Kawano convinced prospective landlords that her newly formed
Korin Japanese Trading Company was indeed a substantial enterprises.
With signed leases on a tiny midtown showroom and a downtown
warehouse, Kawano began importing larger quantities of Japanese
tableware. Her deep sense of Japanese culture and aesthetics were
borne out by a steadily growing volume of orders. Within a decade
Korin was supplying knives and tableware to top chefs like Nobu
Matsuhisa and Wolfgang Puck, as well as to five-star hotels like the
Mandarin Oriental and the Bellagio.
"Over the years I faced the usual obstacles in starting and
running a business money problems, lack of experience, problems
arising from being a woman, and after my divorce, being a single
parent," says Kawano. "I was discouraged sometimes by these things,
but I had to keep my motivation high, remind myself to stay positive
and keep on going. That was hard for me, but the thought of all the
people who supported me would be enough to keep me going; I didn't
want to let them down! Controlling my fear was the biggest obstacle.
That was hard."
Call it fear or call it uncanny timing, but in 1995, just ahead
of the economic downturn, Kawano cut costs by combining her Tribeca
showroom with her downtown warehouse into a spacious on Warren Street
near Nobu, her biggest customer. The big new showroom displays
Korin's extensive lines of haute-Japanese tableware. Among them are
two entire walls lined with countless hundreds of knives. Some are
museum pieces, with handles of ebony or water buffalo horn or blades
etched with kanji script. Some knives are the product of two weeks of
work by four or five artisans. Another Korin specialty are stoneware
sake sets. A recent addition is a snow-white "matte and shiny" bone
china set designed by Nobu Matsuhisa. The showroom is a memorial to a
quarter century of entrepreneurial struggle guided by an abiding love
of beautiful Japanese objects.
"I started with very simple idea and just built the business
naturally," says Kawano, who says she still have difficulty seeing
herself as a successful entrepreneur. "It was an ongoing process. I
did not make strict business plan for myself. I just wanted to
introduce beautiful products to the American people. The markets have
changed since I started, but the original idea to bring beautiful
products from Japan has not changed over the 23 years I have been
FOUNDER/CEO OF MONSTER CABLE
hat does it take to have a legendary ballpark named after your
company? About $6 million and serious attitude. Noel Lee has always
had the attitude, though the money is something that only came about
recently. Back in 1972 he decided he was too cool for his job as an
engineer at Lawrence Livermore Lab where he was playing a key role in
the setting up of the then top-secret laser-fusion experiments.
Instead Lee began touring with his all-Asian country-rock band called
"I played drums at that time," Lee recalls. "The band I was
playing with had an offer to go on a world tour so I took a chance
and packed up the wife and kid and leased out the house and went to
follow my music passion." That began a two-year stint playing at
hotels and clubs in Hawaii. When he returned to the Bay Area, Lee
discovered that he was still too cool for the engineering job he
found at Lawrence Berkeley Lab.
"They were terrible projects," he recalls. Naturally, he got
bored. Within two unhappy years he quit and once again turned to
music. This time he focused on his love for music on the appreciation
"I loved playing music but I also loved listening to music. So
music reproduction was a big deal for me." In his quest to improve
the quality of the sound coming out of his speakers, Lee discovered
that the conductivity of speaker cables was crucial. He tried getting
a job in the audio business to explore his ideas, but lacked the kind
of experience needed to get hired. So he created speaker cables of
quality copper with gold-plated connections and decided to make a
business of it.
The problem was, speaker wires were perceived as something that
were thrown in for free. To overcome that hurdle, Lee began giving
demonstrations to every stereo store that would let him in the door.
Slowly but surely audiophiles began coming around to the view that
expensive speakers were wasted on cheap cables. Thus was born Monster
A quarter century later, it is the Bay Area's biggest private
Asian-owned employer with 750 employees at its Brisbane facility. Its
name is on what was once Candlestick Park, then 3Com Park until the
tech giant hit hard times in 2002 and had to give up the naming
rights. In an age when hi-tech is king, especially among ambitious
Asian Americans, Noel Lee has shown that lo-tech executed with
passion and flair could trump a local multi-billion-dollar hi-tech
What's Noel Lee doing with the resulting Monster publicity?
Launching a whole slew of Monster-attitude products and services,
including Monster Power, Monster THX, Monster Car Audio, Monster
Photo, Monster Game, Monster Mobile and Monster Computer.