Banker building East-West bridge

Times Staff Writer

For decades, civic leaders have talked about Los Angeles’ role as a key gateway to the Pacific Rim. But often, it’s been more hype than reality.

Enter Donald Tang. By day, he’s a vice chairman of Bear Stearns & Co. By night, he’s chairman of the Asia Society Southern California. In between, he sits on the boards of multiple L.A. civic and cultural groups.

Tang blew into town in 2001 and set to work using the sprawling, ethnically diverse city as a petri dish for improving relations between China, his homeland, and the United States, his adopted home.

Consider some recent projects: Last year, the investment banker helped arrange a trip to China for the Los Angeles Urban League, setting up meetings with Chinese leaders and even flying to Beijing to ensure that the visit went smoothly.

In December, he hosted a dinner in L.A. for Tung Chee-hwa, the former Hong Kong chief executive who holds a leadership post in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Tung is exploring several projects in South-Central L.A., including sending Mandarin teachers into public schools.

“China’s leaders know Africa, but they don’t know African Americans,” said Tang, 44, who sees his work as nothing less than that of a cultural translator.

“When you translate, you have to gain the trust of both sides,” he said. “You have to be able to expand on things which they meant to say but didn’t really get across. You need to shrink things culturally.”

His approach has found many supporters. “Donald is very, very focused on finding common ground,” said John Mack, president of the L.A. Police Commission who was among the Urban League delegation, along with league President Blair Taylor and actress Alfre Woodard. Mack described the trip as a unique opportunity for African Americans to start a “significant new relationship” with the next economic superpower.

Tang’s friends laud his outsize ambitions. He’s “two or three Energizer bunnies in one” said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

Others view him with a bit more skepticism. Though few are willing to challenge the influential banker publicly, some question whether he has become an apologist for leaders in Beijing accused of imprisoning critics and cozying up to repressive governments in hopes of getting much-needed oil and minerals.

Mostly he’s made a good impression among a wide circle of power-brokers. Former Mayor Richard Riordan, maverick union leader Andy Stern and Hong Kong industrialist Ronnie Chan insist that Tang is a big thinker with an even bigger heart. They say his goal is ensuring peaceful relations between the two nations he calls home.

Last year, he arranged a trip by business leaders and officials from California and China to India. He has invited Jewish community leaders and religious experts from China to events at his home in Beverly Hills.

China has been criticized for its repression of independent labor unions. But Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, has been trying to open a dialogue with Chinese officials. This year, Tang helped him get a meeting with Zhou Wenzhong, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Stern is leaving this week for his sixth trip to China.

“He’s a nationalist, he loves China and he wants good things to happen to China,” Bear Stearns Chairman James Cayne said. “He clearly is also a patriot of the United States. It’s natural that he thinks the two should meet and greet and have joint ventures.”

Tang’s citizen diplomacy has served him, and his friends, well.

Several years ago, he invited Wong Kwong Yu, founder of the Hong-Kong based GOME retail chain and one of China’s wealthiest men, to speak at an Asia Society conference in Los Angeles. In March, the two men announced that their firms were setting up a $500-million fund to invest in China’s retail sector.

Riordan, who credits Tang with helping line up a private meeting with then-Premier Zhu Rongji in Shanghai, calls him a “closer.”

In public, Tang prefers the persona of armchair philosopher to hard-nosed banker. He will, if prompted, talk about leveraged buyouts and private equity transactions. But he seems far more comfortable riffing on the power of romantic love or how his friend Viacom chief Sumner Redstone is serving up “spiritual food” to the masses.

Few could have imagined such a highflying career for Tang 25 years ago. Born in Shanghai to a couple of college professors, he sweet-talked a U.S. consular officer into giving him a visa to follow his girlfriend Jean, now his wife, to California in 1982. He worked restaurant jobs to pay for classes at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, but couldn’t find a job after graduating in 1986 with a chemical engineering degree.

Rather than depositing his wife’s paycheck in the bank, Tang said he secretly opened an account at Merrill Lynch and started day trading. Impressed by his stock-picking abilities, his broker got him a job, where Bear Stearns found him in 1992. Tang served in the firm’s L.A., Hong Kong and Chicago offices before returning to California in 2001.

It was L.A. civic leader Eli Broad who urged the Asia Society to take Tang as his replacement in 2005, said former U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, chairman of the society’s executive committee. The Asia Society, based in New York, was started by John D. Rockefeller III in 1956 to promote ties between the U.S. and Asia.

Broad “told me that Donald Tang was the man he looked to as a younger Eli,” said Holbrooke, who called Tang a “real Sino-American bridge.”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Shortly after taking the Asia Society post, Tang upset some longtime members when he replaced Executive Director Carie Cable, who had helped recruit him. Cable, an experienced Asia hand, still stings from what she considers a personal betrayal.

Tang said Cable was a “very nice person,” but lacked the skills to “lead us to the way we wanted to go to.”

Tang’s way has been profitable. Membership has more than doubled to 700. Proceeds from the annual fundraising dinner, which provide the bulk of the organization’s budget, have jumped fourfold to $700,000.

He has also persuaded some of China’s rising political stars -- such as Li Yuanchao, party secretary of Jiangsu Province, and Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan -- to speak at Asia Society events.

Tang said he urged China’s leaders to throw away their canned speeches, filled with diplomatic niceties and economic data, and share their personal experiences about life in China.

“The media can say all they want,” Tang said he tells them. “The American people will judge by looking at you, straight in the eyes. If they think you are lying, even if you are not, they won’t believe you. The fact that you’re not willing to talk to them triggers suspicion.”

The society’s annual fundraising dinner has morphed from a staid foreign affairs gathering into a glitzy display of Hollywood stars, powerful executives, ethnic community leaders and China’s rich and powerful. Oscar winner Halle Berry, whose former stepchild attends the same private school as Tang’s two daughters, emceed Tang’s first dinner.

Hosting this year’s gala, being held tonight, is pop diva Ashlee Simpson. Also taking the stage are Israeli hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari; Ah Bao, a performer of traditional Chinese songs; and performers from the L.A. Urban Entertainment Institute.

The guest list includes Wei Wang, executive vice president of Beijing’s 2008 Olympics Organizing Committee, and Kai-Fu Lee, president of Google China. Special honors will be given to Viacom’s Redstone and Andrew Cherng, founder of Panda Restaurant Group.

Before the gala, the Chinese representatives will participate in a seminar on entertainment, media and the Olympics. But don’t expect Tang to broach sensitive topics, such as the campaign to boycott next year’s Games over China’s ties to Sudan, which is accused of backing militias in a civil war that has killed 200,000 in Darfur. “I am obviously for human rights,” Tang said, steering the conversation in a different direction. “But I don’t feel I know enough to really comment on this.”

After an Asian diplomat complained last year that the Asia Society was rapidly becoming the de-facto “China Society,” UCLA professor Thomas Plate wrote a syndicated column questioning whether the society’s “increasing infatuation with all things Chinese” was short-changing other important issues and countries.

Plate braced for an angry response. Instead, he got a call from Tang seeking advice on how to beef up the group’s non-business, non-China programming.

“He responded immediately, openly and without defensiveness,” the columnist said. “I think there’s been some mid-course adjustment.”

That move was vintage Tang: part diplomat, part warrior, ever the strategist. It was one of many life lessons he said he has acquired through years of watching Bear Stearns’ Cayne, an 11-time national bridge champion.

“Most bridge hands are mediocre,” Tang said. “The winners always take advantage of the mediocre cards. You treat every single card like it’s your last card.”

evelyn.iritani@latimes.com