China is the Land of Opportunity

Lots of Hawaii natives say China is great for their careers, but, if you come, use gas masks and bottled water, and leave the kids at home for their health’s sake

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Photo: Courtesy of Russell Leu

Russell Leu, second from right, an Iolani School graduate, stands with friends in Beijing. His friends once all worked at the China Daily newspaper and studied journalism at UH in 2001. In a sign of the times, two of the three have new careers: Tommy Chiu, left, is in the entertainment business; Shen Geng (holding child) is a spokesman for Shell Oil in China, while his wife, Lu Haoting, right, is editor of China Daily.

Photo: Courtesy of Russell Leu

Hawaii-born Russell Leu loves working in China, though he recognizes living there offers challenges.

The Hawaii attorney wears a top quality, high-tech, air-filter mask on the street on days with heavy air pollution, and has a phone app that tells him Beijing’s air quality each day, but he has never regretted his decision to go to China a decade ago.

It’s a story many people from Hawaii tell: the fabulous career and personal opportunities that China offers, balanced against the pollution and other challenges of life there.

“Living and working in China is like sitting in a front-row seat,” says Leu, an Iolani graduate. “You are sitting on the edge of the world watching and participating in a new global model being built. You’re participating in this once-in-a-lifetime experience where the business paradigm has changed all because of the China factor.”

Like other Hawaii residents, Leu found a business niche in a country exploding with economic expansion and new opportunities. Working with international clients going global, he helps them license their technology in China, protect their intellectual property and set up their investment structure in the world’s most populous country. He says he recently signed as a client one of China’s largest state-owned enterprises, which is also one of the largest companies in the world.

Brenda Foster is now back in Hawaii, but in 2009 she was president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai when she introduced then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Boeing facility in Shanghai.

Brenda Foster, in blue, meets with villagers in rural Sichuan to celebrate completion of a farming and education project supported by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. The chamber was heavily involved in increasing sustainable farming methods and reducing infant mortality in rural areas.

Photos: Courtesy of Brenda Foster

At the same time, he’s an associate dean at Beijing Foreign Studies University – one of Beijing’s major law schools – helping students develop into global lawyers, who often seek training at U.S. law schools and will bring their skills back to China.

“I am just a local guy who by happenchance made it out here 10 years ago,” says Leu. “I’m humbled and awed at getting these kinds of opportunities. I am living my bucket list 10 years ahead of others.”

Up to 110,000 Americans live in China, according to recent estimates, many in their 20s and 30s and lured by the chance to work in a growth economy.

“I had been representing banks and I could see back in 2000 that there was going to be a big crash in the industry,” explains Leu of his Hawaii law practice before heading to China. “I said, ‘I don’t want to be around.’ The practice had changed and was less collegial, and I wanted to get out of the rat race. I rolled the dice on it and went to China.”

When author and newspaperman Horace Greeley used the expansionist phrase “Go West, young man” in 1865, he was imagining the wide-open spaces of the American West as the best place to launch a career. Today, that advice could mean going west to China – also potentially lucrative and challenging, but in different ways.

“You’re going to have challenges in any emerging country. But in a country changing so rapidly it’s incredibly interesting to be a part of that change,” says Brenda Foster, who served as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai from 2005 to 2013.

Foster is now an executive-in-residence at the Shidler College of Business at UH-Manoa, assisting in international programs.

Despite chronic health problems, Foster and her husband, attorney and UH law professor Lawrence Foster, have no regrets about spending eight years in China. Where else would she have negotiated for 50 camels so an American business group could visit a remote northern province?

“To be able to be there and contribute in even a very small way to make a better society, I would absolutely do it again,” she says.

Lawrence Foster agrees. “China represents opportunities for us in Hawaii, both job and educational opportunities,” says Foster, who taught part-time and worked as an international lawyer for a Shanghai law firm. “You get to see up-front and personal the business in action. (We did) a lot of real estate development, mergers and acquisition work.

“A lot of young Americans are saying, ‘I don’t know what I want to do, so I’ll go to China and teach English and learn Chinese on the side,’ ” Lawrence Foster says. “I just heard of someone who went there in the ’80s as a language teacher and now is a big CEO. He’s been there for 30 years and never came home.”


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