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[COMMUNITY] Surprising APA Success Stories

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  • madchinaman
    SURPRISING SUPERSTARS http://www.goldsea.com/Personalities/Surprising/surprising.html There are two kinds of successes — the paint-by-numbers kind and the
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 24 10:28 PM

      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

      Dat Nguyen

      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
      for stealing.

      "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

      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.

      Shoji Tabuchi

      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
      the Mockingbird".

      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.

      Vera Wang

      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.

      Hubert Vo

      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.

      Morgan Chu

      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
      professional student.

      "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
      favorite student.

      Saori Kawano

      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
      doing this."

      Noel Lee

      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
      Asian Wood.

      "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.
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