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April 24, 2015

Portraits of the people who bring Chinese investment into the region

Puget Sound Business Journal

Marc Stiles

Culture shock confronts leader of $147M project

Imagine speaking hardly any English and being tasked with overseeing a $147 million project in Bellevue.

This was what Lili Lu faced when she landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in April 2014. The rental car's GPS provided directions to Bellevue - sort of. Interstate 5 was under construction and the GPS directed Lu back to Sea-Tac three or four times.

"I'll never forget that," said Lu in an interview that one of her real estate brokers, Holly Yang of the Bellevue office of Kidder Mathews, interpreted.

Lu is CEO of Create World America, which hopes to start construction of the midrise apartment building on the site next to the downtown Bellevue post office by the end of this year, with construction of a condo tower next door, possibly up to 19 stories, coming later.

"I love the U.S. because people here are so nice," said Lu, who launched Create World USA's Bellevue office, where 10 Chinese and Chinese-Americans now work. She wants to hire more Americans because the company wants a diverse office.

Lu has been taken by the region's clear air and water.

"The Chinese should learn from that - how to protect the environment," Lu said. "It's why so many Chinese people want to come here."

Lu is working with a number of U.S. business people. Her general impression is that people "are hard working and responsible, but their way of doing business is different."

It took her awhile to get used to consultants working by the hour rather than by the task, which is how things operate in China.

Then there's the byzantine U.S. tax system. In China, as the manager of Create World's projects, she found the system more straightforward. Here, she relies on certified public accountants.

Larry Lu, an economic consultant for Create World (who is not related to Lili Lu), said you can ask five different accountants about the tax consequences of a business decision and get five different answers.

"Here is a much more complicated environment," Lili Lu said.

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Pair find nonstop deal action at brokerage

White men have dominated the U.S. commercial real estate industry since its start, yet in one company's Bellevue office, it is not uncommon to hear Mandarin.

It started with the 2013 arrival at Kidder Mathews of two brokers, Sophia Wong and Holly Yang, who have worked on some large commercial real estate acquisitions by Chinese investors.

Wong, who is from Taiwan originally, and Yang, who immigrated from mainland China, did deals out of the gate, according to their boss, Executive Vice President Brian Hatcher.

Kidder Mathews launched its China Services Division several years ago, and today the company's website is in both English and Chinese. When the firm announced it was jumping into the Chinese market with both feet, Hatcher said, it got "quite a few chuckles from some of our competitors."

Yang and Wong themselves have invested in small commercial real estate properties, and anticipate the trend of Chinese buying properties will accelerate.

Asians love to buy real estate, they said.

"It's in their blood," Wong said. "They want to own something."

For the Chinese of past generations, that something often was gold.

"To our generation, we've already learned the best investment is buying income property," Wong said.

People from the communist mainland are especially drawn to U.S. real estate because in China people can own property but only on a 75-year ground lease. Wong said it's "a huge plus" for Chinese people when they learn they not only can own property in the U.S. outright but pass it onto their heirs.

"We are very busy," Wong said.

That's clear by the hours she and Yang keep and how active they are on WeChat, the wildly popular in China messaging and social networking platform.

"We get constant instant messages - nighttime, weekends. It's like this thing never shuts off," Yang said, with a laugh.

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Lakeside School? That's not lost in translation

Tom Yang has developed condominium and townhome projects in China totaling nearly 10.8 million square feet.

"We have experience like that in China, so we want to do investment like that here," Yang said during a brief interview at his company's headquarters in Bellevue on the site where he's planning an apartment/condo project. The development at 10230 N.E. 10th St., will have around 275 housing units.

Yang had just finished making a pitch to about two dozen Chinese people interested in investing in the Bellevue project through a U.S. program that grants foreigners green cards for investing in job-generating projects.

With an easy smile, Yang joked that he is investing in the Puget Sound region because of the Chinese movie "Waiting for Mr. Right." Even though it was filmed in Vancouver, the story line sets it in Seattle.

He said he looked at almost 20 properties in Seattle, Kirkland and Renton. He picked Bellevue because "Bellevue is the best," he said, laughing.

In reality, it is the economy that prompted him to invest in the region. Yang ticked off a list of companies headquartered here - Expedia, Starbucks, Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks.

Yang is representative of many Chinese nationals who have immigrated to Canada or the U.S. - or want to - because they want their kids to get a better education.

Yang has a residence in Vancouver, B.C., where he said his children are enrolled in some of the finest private schools. He said that as his children grow up, he might buy a house in the U.S. because he has heard the schools are even better.

Yang's Mandarin was translated by a Create World America employee. Yet when it came to education, it was clear that Yang comprehended.

The subject of Lakeside, Seattle's famous private school, came up. It was mentioned, in English, that Paul Allen and Bill Gates had studied there.

Not missing a beat, Yang, in English, said, "I know."

For the full story, go to Puget Sound Business Journal.

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