If you're in Alhambra and ask Shawn Chen what his job is, the 46-year-old Chinese American will probably tell you he runs a 60-room Best Western next to a drugstore and a burger stand on Main Street.
But if you pose the same question standing here in China's central Henan province, Chen will say he's building one of this nation's fastest-growing universities on about 400 acres -- almost twice the size of the main USC campus.
Nine years ago, Chen launched SIAS International University with less than $2 million, 250 students and a healthy dose of gumption. Today, the school has more than 16,000 students and nearly 50 buildings -- including a Roman amphitheater, French and Italian restaurants and an administration hall with a domed Capitol-like facade on one side and a Forbidden City tableau on the other. A swimming stadium, with an Olympic-size pool, is rising amid lotus and wheat fields.
The school's faculty of about 700 includes 119 foreign instructors, mainly from the U.S. They teach English, history and literature and help students with debate club, cheerleading and marching band -- things unheard of in this country.
"I don't believe only in textbooks," Chen said. "We want to make a very rich campus life."
Born and raised in China's midwestern metropolis of Chongqing, Chen went to the United States in 1985 and got a master's degree in education at Linfield College in Oregon. After attending a typical no-frills, monochrome college in China, he basked in campus life in the Pacific Northwest.
Chen worked as a dormitory resident assistant. He joined the international club. He swung a tennis racket for the first time. Chen was so taken by American culture he named his children Brandon and Brenda, after the two characters in the early 1990s TV hit "Beverly Hills, 90210."
In California, Chen made money trading lighters, shampoos and steel doors from China. With two partners, he paid $2.7 million for the four-story Best Western in 1996. Chen says the idea for SIAS came naturally as he traveled between China and the U.S., making contacts and building relationships.
"When I left, China was rationing," he said. "Now, it has an abundance of tall buildings and everything. But it doesn't matter how much China grows, it is still lacking in education."
Chen saw the need -- and the business opportunity -- while serving on the board at three Chinese high schools in the early 1990s and organizing exchange visits between students in Chongqing and San Gabriel. He went on to arrange similar trips for government officials from China and California.
In 1996, he called a few friends and they put together a 20-page business plan. Chen took it to Henan, one of China's poorest provinces and the most populous.
Henan officials were hungry for investment, and Chen knew things looked good when, after a meeting with Communist Party leaders in the provincial capital, Zhengzhou, they called the airport and ordered the plane to wait for a tardy Chen.
"My impression is that [Chen] is a clever and shrewd person," said Zheng Haodong, vice mayor of Xinzheng City. "He didn't have a lot of money. It was not easy for him to develop the school to its scale today."
Chen is a little cagey about the finances of SIAS, which doesn't stand for anything even though it looks like an acronym. (It is named for a company Chen dreamed up for a master's in business administration project at UCLA. He didn't graduate there but eventually got an MBA from Willamette University in Salem, Ore.)
He says he has built SIAS on funds from relatives, tuition fees and a $12-million loan from Bank of China. He says he has yet to receive a salary, only a $500 monthly travel and expense allowance.
The school is set up as a nonprofit enterprise, though China's rules on such operations are vague. "So far we haven't made any profit," he said, calling his work a philanthropic endeavor.
Despite the university's rapid growth, getting it off the ground wasn't a piece of cake. In the early years, the school struggled to get hot water into dorms. Recruiting qualified teachers has been a challenge, as has financing, especially after the local government flip-flopped on its land grant.
Chen just keeps forging ahead, pressing the flesh on both sides of the Pacific. He hooked up with Fort Hays State University in Kansas, another school in the middle of wheat fields, and arranged a partnership that lets SIAS students receive an American degree without setting foot in the States. Taking classes by video and over the Internet, SIAS students earn a dual bachelor of arts degree: one from SIAS and a general studies degree from Fort Hays.
For Fort Hays, China was a way to help reverse declining enrollment and revenue. The university now has 4,200 students in western Kansas and 5,200 off campus -- 2,200 in China, most at SIAS.
SIAS isn't cheap. Tuition this year runs about $1,400, about triple the average for a college in Henan. For students wanting a dual degree, the tab is $2,250. Only a tiny fraction has access to financial aid.
Is it worth it? In local government and business circles, SIAS has a reputation for producing students with strong English skills. But SIAS is still considered to be among the third-tier universities in China, mainly private colleges that are expensive but easy to get into.
Zhao Xin, 24, graduated this summer with a dual degree in industrial and commercial management. He works in Beijing as a salesman for Pingan Insurance, making $200 a month, plus commission.
"People in Beijing haven't heard of SIAS, so I applied with my Fort Hays degree," he said, adding that the Kansas university is better known because it also has a partnership with Normal University in Beijing.
Enrollment at SIAS and other private colleges has been growing fast as standards of living in China have risen. Since 2002, about 100 Sino-foreign cooperative programs at schools have been launched in China, says Fang Minglin, researcher with the Department of Educational Development in Beijing.
SIAS' foreign instructors earn $400 to $500 a month plus room and board and round-trip airfare. Many are recent college grads looking for adventure and tend to leave after a year or two.
Mary Alice Meeks, 68, an oral English teacher from Dayton, Ohio, is one of the few who has been around since the beginning.
The former Montessori elementary school teacher has coached the SIAS English speech team, which is top rated in the province. "It's just like in America. You can help out with this club or that," she said.
In other ways, college life at SIAS is regimented much like everywhere else in China. At 7 a.m., public speakers blare the national anthem. Students must leave their dorms by 8, when doors are locked, and they aren't reopened until 11 a.m. Lights turn off at 11 p.m.
But between those hours, the university is bustling. On a cool October evening, Bi Beibei, a 19-year-old sophomore, was working up a sweat in Jordan Hall, named for basketball legend Michael Jordan. (He didn't donate money for it; Chen says all buildings are named for famous people -- Einstein, Edison, Pasteur.)
Bi goes to this gym four days a week, practicing cheerleading drills two to three hours each time. Wearing a maroon skirt and top with SIAS emblazoned in white, Bi said she was attracted to the university by pictures she saw in recruitment materials posted in her high school.
Bi didn't even know what cheerleading was, but in May, she and 15 others flew to Orlando, Fla., to compete in the world cheerleading championships, with support from CKE Restaurants Inc., the parent of fast-food chains including Carl's Jr. "Chairman Chen encouraged us, told us his expectations, drove us around and even watched our bags when we sneaked out to play" at Disney World, she said.
Some students call him Dr. Chen, the title on his business card. In interviews, Chen downplayed the title, confiding that it refers to an honorary doctorate degree he got from the University for Humanistic Studies, an obscure San Diego school that's now defunct. Chen has tried to bolster his academic credentials by taking classes for educators at Harvard.
Chen says he prefers to keep a low profile for himself and SIAS. Drawing too much attention is risky, he said, alluding to the old Chinese saying, "Fame portends trouble for men, just as fattening does for pigs."
That's no problem in Southern California, where Chen is little-known even in the Chinese American community. He spends every other month in San Gabriel, in a large two-story home with a pool and waterfall, with his wife, Angel, and their two children. Chen sometimes takes his black Cadillac sport utility vehicle to his inn about 10 miles away, but he has a manager running it day-to-day.
"He's a down-to-earth, unassuming individual," said Mike Gin, mayor of Redondo Beach, which this year became a sister city to Zhang Jia Gang, an industrial town about 60 miles north of Shanghai.
Gin, a second-generation Chinese American, credits the relationship partly to Chen's efforts a decade ago when Chen helped Redondo Beach officials during a friendship trip to China.
Chen's efforts to leverage such goodwill in California and China haven't always met with success.
In 2004, he launched a project more ambitious than SIAS. Chen called it California Industrial City, a sprawling industrial park in Zhengzhou, with Western-style homes, entertainment and an enterprise zone where California businesses could set up shop.
Henan agreed to devote more than 11,000 acres to the project. Chen's team pledged to raise $99 million for development. But the deal unraveled late last year. Wang Qinghai, vice mayor of Zhengzhou, said Chen's group never came through with the money.
Chen blamed it on changed land policies in Beijing. The experience left him bitter, and he turned his focus back to SIAS, where he has plans -- lots of them -- on his drawing board. Next up? A greenhouse, a nine-hole golf course and a 12-story library in grand Italian style.
"My vision, my dream," Chen said, "is for a very different model of education in China. I want to build a more well-rounded and creative student body."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times