Asian Support for Chambers of Commerce Rises

Times Staff Writer

Just a few years ago, when Alhambra Chamber of Commerce officials would approach recently arrived Chinese immigrants who were opening businesses, the new merchants were skeptical about the chamber.

“They really didn’t understand what a chamber was. And we were naive in how to approach them,” says Dick Nichols, executive director of the Alhambra group. “They looked at the chamber as sort of a protective agency, or Mafia: Someone asking for money in exchange for helping them with business.”

Now, Nichols said, the chamber’s relations with the Asian-American business community have improved. And, Nichols said, the chamber’s profile has been enhanced by its first Chinese-American president, an Alhambra orthodontist, Annie Siu, who next month finishes a one-year term.

In Monterey Park, where a Chamber of Commerce president resigned last year because he said the chamber wasn’t doing enough to assist Asian immigrants, the new president is a Chinese-American, Sophie Wong. So is the agency’s newly appointed executive director, Flora Yuet-Ming Chiu. Both were born in China and speak several Chinese dialects.


Maturing Community

The ascendancy of these Chinese-American businesswomen, says Wong, who owns a number of businesses, including an Alhambra real estate firm, typifies a maturing of the local business communities which now accept women and minorities in leadership positions.

Chiu, Wong said, will serve as a bridge among different groups in Monterey Park.

Although Chiu says she doesn’t want to overemphasize her ethnicity, she believes her language skills and cultural background will enable her to be able to communicate with many groups.

Born in the Portuguese colony of Macau in 1952, she first came to live in America while a college student in Massachusetts. In 1982, she became a U.S. citizen.

She has worked as a computer programmer and computer analyst, a broker in Shearson Lehman Hutton’s Beverly Hills office, and in Hong Kong with an import-export firm.

Chiu’s and Wong’s elections represent an improvement for the chamber, according to David H. Ma, who once led an Asian-American committee of the chamber. Now, he said, the chamber will “have a direct link with the community, and someone who can communicate” with Chinese-speaking business people.

Still, he said, “Monterey Park and the chamber can do much more to promote Asian and Pacific Rim trade and stand out as a model city. They haven’t done much so far.”

‘Broken Faith’

When he resigned as Monterey Park’s chamber president in May 1987, George Ricci, who is white, complained that the organization had “broken faith with a moral commitment to help assimilate the immigrant population into the community.”

In resigning, Ricci cited his displeasure that six of seven Asian-Americans, Ma among them, lost in their bid for election to the chamber board of directors.

Wong and Chiu say they hope to alleviate any apprehensions that different groups may have about the chamber. They say they hope to play a role in helping businesses that want to expand locally as well as internationally.

Wong, a board member of a regional group affiliated with the U.S. Small Business Administration, said that through contacts in China she is trying to expand her own business interests. And she said she hopes that she and retired business executives, in seminars arranged by the SBA and the chamber, can share their knowledge with chamber members.

Chiu worked for five years in the import-export business in Hong Kong. She also served as an intermediary between officials in China who were reaching out to the European business community and trying to develop markets there.

That experience, Chiu said, should help guide her in dealing with the sensitive, multicultural and highly political situations that arise in Monterey Park. “In Hong Kong,” she said, “I met people from all over the world and people with all different ways of doing business. I realize the diversity here and the sentiments about the different issues.”

‘Positive Atmosphere’

Chiu replaces Carmela Sarni, who Wong said resigned unexpectedly. Of the internal political turmoil the chamber has faced in recent years, Wong said: “The main thing right now is the atmosphere is very positive and we as a board are very united.”

Wong, who was not on the committee that hired Chiu, said: “The board sees the need of the community and that’s why we hired Flora. Our interest is to build up this chamber for all people.”

The immediate past president, Marion Williams, who served on the committee that chose Chiu, said “it’s important we have someone in our office who can speak Chinese. I’m not saying it has to be the president or the manager, but we should never neglect the ethnic groupings in our community. But I would object to any one group--Chinese, Hispanic or people like me, taking over the chamber. We need to unite together to build a community that works together.”

Chiu said she hopes that in her new role she will be able to do just that, by increasing by 100 the chamber’s current membership of 300.

When Siu became president in Alhambra, she said the fact that she is Chinese-American brought that chamber much more attention from the locally published Chinese-language newspapers, which had essentially ignored the organization.

Siu, who was born in San Francisco and came to Alhambra in 1954, said the fact that she speaks some Cantonese has helped her occasionally as chamber president. But, she said, “I have not been able to do as much ‘bridging’ as some people in the chamber would have liked.”

Nonetheless, Alhambra’s Nichols, who ran a dry cleaning business for 30 years and has served as that chamber’s executive director for 10 years, says that having a president of Asian ancestry “helps us from a PR standpoint.” Siu’s becoming president, Nichols said, “gave us some credibility” in the Asian-American community.

Siu acknowledged that “sometimes the Asians feel more comfortable just seeing another Asian face.”

Still, in Monterey Park, Chiu said she has faced some difficulties. “I never expected I would have experienced what I’m experiencing now. It is a challenge. But I don’t want to elaborate about the challenges.”

In regularly using her Chinese-language skills, Chiu said she encounters Chinese-speaking business owners who don’t even know what a chamber of commerce is. “Some feel that (the chamber) has nothing to do with their lives. But some feel the chamber is exactly the place where they can join in and get help.”