The lake at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is a piece of China in San Marino, California
The lake at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is a piece of China in San Marino, California

In July, one of the world’s largest Chinese gardens launched its final phase of development, expanding its footprint to 12 acres, including a scholar’s studio, an art gallery and a hillside pavilion. The garden is not in Beijing or Suzhou. It is in San Marino, California, at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Its expansion, funded by more than 400 Chinese-American families making gifts of $10,000 or more, with 20 people giving $1m or more, serves as a metaphor for the growing prominence of Chinese Americans on the US philanthropic landscape.

Between 2000 and 2014, the number of Chinese-American foundations rose by 418 per cent, according to the Global Chinese Philanthropy Initiative.

Misti Sangani, chief donor engagement and services officer at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), which helps donors create and manage a range of philanthropic funds, says there is a growing awareness of philanthropy among Chinese Americans, as well as increased wealth generation and transfer. “They’re giving both to organisations here and overseas and they’re opening funds with us,” she says.

This has led to a rise in sizeable gifts. In 2014, for example, the Global Chinese Philanthropy Initiative found that large gifts (of $1m or more) from Chinese Americans totalled $492m.

Much of the funding makes its way to China, particularly since last year, when the country relaxed regulations that had restricted gifts to many local non-profits.

This has led to a rise in gifts to China, including those from Chinese Americans, according to Birger Stamperdahl, president and chief executive of Give2Asia, which connects donors to charitable projects and organisations in Asia. “We’ve seen a jump of 30 per cent in our total giving to China since the passage of the laws,” he says. “It’s hard to attribute that to any other trend other than these new regulations.”

China’s rise on the global stage has also prompted more giving to the homeland. “It’s a huge difference over 10 years ago,” says Randy Shulman, vice-president for advancement at the Huntington. “Chinese Americans are now proud of ascendant China and want to support the institutions that make it both in education and culturally a powerhouse.”

When it comes to the causes most ardently supported by Chinese-American philanthropists, cultural organisations and civic activities, workforce and leadership development and community services for Asian Americans are popular, with education topping the list.

This emerged from a 2014 SVCF study, which found that most Chinese-American donors gave to the college or university they attended, while many funded business as a means of supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs, business leaders and philanthropists.

High-income Chinese Americans also give more to healthcare charities than their US counterparts (41 per cent versus 33 per cent), according to a 2016 CTBC Bank Report.

However, younger donors are adopting similar giving strategies to those of other US philanthropists. “It’s moved from those who came from mainland [China], Taiwan and Hong Kong to first-generation and second-generation Chinese-American communities,” says Sangani. “That has made a difference in giving patterns.”

This means that, rather than writing charitable cheques or creating foundations, donors are now making social or impact investments and setting up new types of entities, as Priscilla Chan, daughter of Chinese-Vietnamese refugees, and husband Mark Zuckerberg did when they established a limited liability company for their philanthropic activities.

Many of these social investments are being directed to causes in south-east Asia, says Dien Yuen, managing director in the San Francisco office of Evercore Wealth Management. “The parents came to the US and now the kids are interested in going home and doing broader giving in that area,” she says. “So it’s come full circle.”

Mei-Lee Ney

Mei-Lee Ney is funding the event space, Terrace of Many Delights, at the Huntington’s Chinese Garden © Claudia Lucia for the FT

With her gift of $2m to the Huntington’s Chinese Garden, Mei-Lee Ney will fund the construction of the Terrace of Many Delights, an event space to be built on the garden’s western hilltop overlooking its lake. Born in Shanghai, she came to the US at the age of two when her family fled China’s Communist revolution.

Much of the inspiration behind her giving comes from her mother, who worked for the IMF and for decades sent money back to the family in China, supporting her six siblings and paying for a number of family members to go through middle school and college.

“I’m past retirement but I continue to work because I’m concerned about my clients and about my giving,” says Ney, who still runs her own investment advisory firm. “And how much money does a person need? I feel very grateful that I’m able to help causes that I’m interested in.”

Buck Gee

Buck Gee
Buck Gee focuses his philanthropy on education, working through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation © Cayce Clifford for the FT

For Buck Gee, a Chinese American born in California, what enabled him to become a philanthropist was being in the right place at the right time. Gee’s father had come to the US from China in 1936 and, with his wife, ran a Chinese restaurant.

Armed with a degree from Stanford in electrical engineering and a Harvard MBA, Gee co-founded six networking start-ups. “Two were acquired by Cisco,” he explains. “I had an IPO, all in the networking industry, which was the right place to be in the ’80s and ’90s.” Cisco acquired his last company in 2004 and he retired in 2008. “I thought now I don’t need all this money, so I’ll start to give some of it away.”

Gee focuses on education. Working through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, he has given to middle schools in the San Francisco Bay area and non-profits serving the Asian American community, and has set up a scholarship fund in his home town of Oroville, in northern California and one in San Francisco for Asian Americans. “I felt I was lucky,” he says. “Even though my parents weren’t wealthy, I had access to a wonderful education system and I wanted to help other people get lucky.”

Carolyn Hsu

Carolyn Hsu and her husband have set up scholarships in China and Taiwan

“He was the first Chinese American to get a PhD and he wanted to return home to help move the country forward,” says Carolyn Hsu of her great grand-uncle, Kuo Ping Wen, an influential pioneer of modern higher education in China.

Hsu, who has a babywear company called SnoPea, also describes him as a powerful influence on her philanthropy. Born in Virginia to parents whose families left China in 1949, Hsu and her husband have set up scholarships in China and Taiwan. They also provide funding for schools, libraries and teachers’ salaries in minority communities in China’s Yunnan province.

“He’s been a great role model,” she says of her great grand-uncle. “And I wanted to continue his work today and to be the bridge between the east and the west.”

Wang Ji

Wang Ji
Wang Ji set up his fund after his daughter was killed aged 20

After a car hit and killed his 20-year-old daughter, Chinese-born Wang Ji decided to set up a philanthropic fund in her name, the Wei Wei Wang Fund. Wang left China in 1993. “I was the CEO of a public company in China but I was only in my 30s, so saw an opportunity to come to the US and start my own business,” he says.

Pem-America, a home products company, was successful and enables Wang to finance his philanthropy. He now gives a proportion of his annual income (with a goal of 15 per cent and the amount depending on how well the business has done) to the Wei Wei Wang Fund. With the help of Give2Asia, which identifies organisations and monitors their impact, Wang directs gifts to students and Christians in China.

For Wang, the fund allows Wei Wei to live on. “Every time I give, I feel I do it in memory of our daughter,” he says. And, for his other two daughters, it is a way of building a family tradition of giving. “This will influence their lives and they will continue this in memory of their older sister.”

Bo Shao

Bo Shao
Bo Shao is pursuing new forms of philanthropy

Born and raised in Shanghai, Bo Shao, who co-founded Matrix Partners China, a venture fund with $3bn under management, sold his online trading company, EachNet, to eBay in 2003 for $180m at the age of 29.

Yet Shao, now based in the San Francisco Bay area, found early success did not bring personal fulfilment. “What I discovered is that all these external gratifications and acknowledgments do not make happiness,” he says.

Now he is pursuing new forms of philanthropy. Last year, he created a venture capital-style philanthropic fund, Evolve Ventures, with $100m from his family’s Evolve Foundation.

The fund invests in companies using technology to advance and apply developmental psychology, neuroscience and mindfulness. These include Edovo, a tablet-based platform to help incarcerated people improve their lives, and Oji Life Lab, a mobile-based corporate training programme focusing on universal human skills and emotional intelligence.

“I’m particularly interested in the suffering that comes from the inside rather than the outside,” says Shao.

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