How I Made It: Stephen Cheung went from cutting threads in a sweatshop to cutting global trade deals

Stephen Cheung, president of World Trade Center L.A., a county office responsible for promoting local businesses overseas and attracting foreign investment to the region.
(Glenn Koenig/ Los Angeles Times)

The gig: Stephen Cheung, 37, is president of World Trade Center Los Angeles, which is charged with promoting local businesses overseas and attracting foreign investment to the region. Before that, Cheung worked as director of international trade for the Port of L.A. and served as an aide to two mayors: Eric Garcetti and Antonio Villaraigosa.

China factor: In his role at World Trade Center L.A., an affiliate of the nonprofit Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., Cheung eyes business opportunities from all over the world. But his background and expertise make him vital for one of the globe’s biggest economic trends — Chinese outbound investment. China is on a spending spree, and L.A. County is a major beneficiary. Hollywood studios, downtown real estate developments and hotel properties are now regularly infused with Chinese money. Over the years, Cheung has become one of the first points of contact for Chinese companies looking to enter the L.A. market.

Helping them adjust: One of Cheung’s biggest jobs is explaining how things work in the U.S. Though China is the world’s second-largest economy, many of its companies are going global for the first time. As a result, some executives are learning the American regulatory and cultural environment on the fly. It’s not uncommon for Chinese firms to complain to Cheung that projects require too much environmental oversight and community input. In China, they say, the government is all-powerful. Why isn’t it the same in L.A.?


“I explain what [the California Environmental Quality Act is] and what an environmental impact report is,” Cheung said. “They usually have heard of them and understand them in concept. But they’re not completely convinced it’s necessary.”

Then there are the blunders caused by inexperience. Instead of using a commercial real estate broker, one Chinese firm looking to build a mixed-use development chose a residential real estate agent instead. The salesperson had been helping a company executive find a house in the San Gabriel Valley but did not have the expertise to handle the commercial project. The development never made it off the ground.

Then there was the Chinese bank that promised Cheung it would open an office in L.A. Cheung was mystified when the firm later chose Pasadena. It turned out to be a misunderstanding about the geography of L.A. County. “The Chinese bank didn’t know the difference between L.A. city and L.A. County,” Cheung said. “They thought that Pasadena was in L.A.”

Hardscrabble beginnings: Unlike many of the well-heeled Chinese immigrants who come to Southern California today, Cheung grew up poor in Hacienda Heights. At only 9 years old, Cheung joined his mother working at a sweatshop in El Monte. He earned half a penny for each thread he cut off a dress shirt. He later toiled as a busboy and waiter at Chinese restaurants where he’d dread seeing his classmates come in with their families on weekends for dim sum.

“When you’re in survival mode that young, you don’t know how to feel sorry for yourself,” said Cheung, who after graduating from UCLA took jobs at Asian American social service agencies because of his experience at the sweatshop.

Language barrier: Cheung spoke only Cantonese, the native language in Hong Kong, when he arrived in the U.S. in 1987. The local school district found a Chinese speaker who could help Cheung learn English. The problem was the tutor was from Taiwan and spoke Mandarin, the primary language in China.


“I had to learn Mandarin to learn English,” Cheung said. “In hindsight, it helped my career.”

From politics to commerce: After a few years in social work, Cheung interned with Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) when she was a state assemblywoman. That led to a position as a community liaison for Villaraigosa. Cheung’s background later proved invaluable to the former mayor as commerce between the city and China increased. Cheung later landed at the Port of L.A. and then served as secretary general of foreign affairs and trade under Garcetti.

Being diplomatic: Cheung has helped plan trade missions and mayoral trips to China. One of the keys to a successful visit is knowing cultural protocol. In China, government officials are seated prominently ahead of businesspeople.

“I have to explain to our [American] CEOs as director of international trade I will sit in the head seat in front of them even though we view them as equal to the mayor and staff,” Cheung said.

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