Attracted by opportunities in Seattle's technology industry, a wave of professionals who grew up in China has contributed to a 55 percent increase in the Seattle area's Asian population over the past decade, according to new U.S. census figures.
At its annual Chinese New Year party this year, the Chinese employees group at Microsoft had a special guest: CEO Steve Ballmer, who handed out lucky red envelopes to children.
Membership in the organization has surged in recent years — to more than 3,000 — and Ballmer’s presence for the first time reflected its growing importance within the company.
Attracted by opportunities in the region’s technology industry, a wave of professionals who grew up in China has contributed to what new U.S. census figures show is a 55 percent increase in Asians in the Seattle area over the past decade.
Just 4.8 percent of the total U.S. population, Asians represent about 13.1 percent of the population in the Seattle metropolitan area, which includes Bellevue and Everett. People of Chinese descent are the largest segment, their ranks growing 67 percent between 2000 and 2009, to nearly 77,000.
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Some who are employed in the tech industry are here on work visas and may eventually return to China. Others arrived as students, established their careers in the U.S. and have become American citizens or are working toward that. As they make their mark in industries like software and aerospace, more also are becoming a force outside the workplace — deepening the region’s business and political ties to China, organizing community events and helping to bring Chinese language and culture classes to local schools.
“I want the larger community to see what Chinese culture is about,” said math teacher Xinyue Gong, who moved to Redmond with her family when Microsoft hired her husband to help develop the Bing search engine. “I get the vibe from people thinking we don’t donate our time, we’re not active in community work, that we don’t care about others, other than our own family.”
Yushi Shen, a 32-year-old software developer at Microsoft, leads the company’s Chinese employees group, known as CHIME, and also serves as a board member of three local nonprofit organizations.
China’s increasing heft in the world economy means more opportunities for people like the gregarious Shen, who helped coordinate a National League of Cities meeting in Seattle last week that brought U.S. mayors together with a delegation of mayors and business leaders from China.
While he and other members of CHIME aim to promote Chinese culture and values and help the company do business in China, for many of them, that kind of involvement doesn’t come as easily as excelling in technology, Shen said.
“Community affairs and politics is more challenging for us because of the language and culture,” he said.
Nevertheless, “the community is evolving,” said Maria Renhui Zhang, who moved to the U.S. as a student in 1995 and now runs her own Bellevue company, UrbanQ. “Before, people got together just to make dumplings,” she remarked at a recent tech forum and mixer for young Asians in Bellevue. “Now they are organizing like this.”
The government crackdown on Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 had lingering effects on the generation who lived through it, Zhang said.
“I was there when 1989 happened in China,” she said. Afterward “people were afraid of expressing their own point of view publicly and stayed away from idealism. That was a dark period. But with the younger generation it’s different.”
The newest arrivals join a large and well-established community in the Northwest — including descendants of earlier Chinese immigrants, mostly from southern China, who came to the Seattle-area more than 100 years ago to help build Western railroads.
Zhang, like Shen and many other CHIME members, landed in the Seattle area by way of Tsinghua University, China’s most prestigious university for engineering.
So did Tiger Feng, 34, a software developer at Google, who earned advanced degrees in the U.S. and came to the area in 2004 to work at Microsoft.
Once a month at Bellevue City Hall, Feng invites people working in the technology sector to gather for the Seattle Technical Forum — part seminar and part salon for the tech crowd. Among the forum’s sponsors are Chinese companies that recently have opened offices in the area.
Feng started the forum last year to bring people from different companies and industries together in an informal way to socialize and share knowledge about the latest trends.
The forum typically attracts more than 100 people to its events. Many of them are under 30, and more than half are Asian.
Feng said he hopes to make the forum one of the region’s biggest and best technology organizations “so it can benefit all the IT companies and also the startups and nonprofit organizations.”
As Chinese professionals here build their career networks, Xinyue Gong, the math teacher, would like to see them reach out more to the larger community.
Gong grew up in China, immigrating as a teen to Canada with her family before moving to Redmond with her husband five years ago. She misses the diversity she found within Vancouver’s Chinese community, which includes Asian artists and musicians, and wants to inspire that richness here.
If the Chinese language and culture are to be truly understood and appreciated here, she believes, the community needs to be more engaged.
To that end, Gong helped put on the Chinese Scholastic Competition last month for more than 400 local students — Chinese and non-Chinese alike — at Seattle’s Chief Sealth International High School.
Students from 30 schools recited Chinese poetry and compositions and competed in a test of knowledge of Chinese arts, literature, philosophy, culture and current events.
Conrad Lee, deputy mayor of Bellevue, said that while the Chinese population is larger than the other fast-growing population of tech-savvy Asian immigrants — people of Indian descent — those from India have been more engaged in civic affairs, actively supporting the Performing Arts Center Eastside, helping establish a statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the Bellevue Library and working to persuade the government of India to open an Indian consulate in Bellevue.
There are signs that is changing as immigrants from China put down deeper roots. In February, for example, a Chinese New Year celebration and auction raised more than $100,000 for the Seattle Chinese Garden. Shen and other CHIME members joined Asian community groups in large fundraising drives for Japan earthquake relief.
And in early April, Gong and a group of friends held a ceremony at the Arboretum to commemorate the Chinese holiday of Qingming, when people traditionally sweep the tombs of their ancestors.
She also organized a larger tree-planting event in Redmond that combined the concept of Qingming with Earth Day.
It’s a way to honor not only their loved ones, she said, but “generations who came to this land before us and fought their way through so we could live in a racially just society.”
Why Seattle area?
After a career in New York and Beijing, retired technology manager Fred Wong recently settled in the Bellingham area so he could be close to both Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. The fact that Washington elected an Asian-American governor enhanced its reputation, said Wong, referring to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who was elected in 1996, served until 2005 and was recently nominated as ambassador to China.
“People think Washington is more progressive, more diverse, more inclusive, and they like to do business with a state like that.”
The culture in the Northwest is also more accepting of the rising stature of Asia in the world, he said, whereas in the Northeast, “the view of the world is almost always like from Mount Olympus looking down.”
Wong, who grew up in Shanghai, is active in the community through a local chapter of a national organization of retired business executives who help small businesses. He also writes letters to newspapers, and speaks out about issues involving the U.S. and China.
With more people from Asia and more Asian Americans getting involved in their communities, he said, they spread knowledge. “That’s good for the American general public. They have a better understanding of the world.”
Seattle Times reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report. Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org