Honoree - Hsing Kung

[Note: The following biography was presented by Board member and journalist Thuy Vu at the 15th Annual Asian Pacific Fund Gala.]

Only a bamboo shoot planted in solid ground can become a bamboo tree.

Only a fish swimming fast through rushing water can become a dragon.

 To us, this beautiful piece of Chinese calligraphy means that when someone desires great transformation, it can only be attained by building a solid foundation, and pursuing one’s goals even against the odds.

The man who created this calligraphy is tonight’s honoree, and we think it really captures who he is and what he stands for. He is a man of quiet strength and determination, who has found great success as an entrepreneur. But he has also been a force behind the transformation of Asian civic and political participation in the Bay Area. His name is Hsing Kung.

When Hsing first arrived in Silicon Valley in 1974, voter registration was not a priority for Asians, nor was joining the PTA. And there were no Asians in elected office.

When he joined the Cupertino Rotary in 1994, and later joined the board, he was one of its first Chinese members.Today, it is 30-40 percent Asian. And now we have over 65 Asians in elected office in the Bay Area—five in the running just for mayor of San Francisco.

We have Hsing Kung to thank for much of this incredible community progress—for helping transform fish into dragons—so tonight the Asian Pacific Fund has chosen to honor him.

In his typical modest fashion, when we told him he was this year’s honoree, he said “I don’t understand why.”

Well, let me explain.

Hsing’s contributions span a broad range, from electoral politics to the performing arts.

In a well-deserved profile, the San Jose Mercury called him “one of Silicon Valley’s most understated power brokers.”

In politics, the most visible example was when President Clinton came to the Valley for a fundraiser in 2004, and Nancy Pelosi tapped Hsing to host the event at his Los Altos Hills home.

He and his wife Margaret have also hosted the likes of Senators John Kerry and Dianne Feinstein.

But he does more than just rub shoulders with our nation’s top leaders.

He has helped build bridges between our community and the mainstream from the ground up.

Hsing has used his position on the boards of over a dozen non-profit organizations and schools to simultaneously help these groups understand Asian needs better, and bring more Asians into mainstream civic participation. He has founded and nurtured organizations like Vision New America to develop the next generation of Asian leaders entering the political arena.

And he does what it takes from the grassroots level up.

Including the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes work. When Michael Chang, former Cupertino mayor, first ran for city council in 1995, before there were any Asian Americans elected officials, Hsing volunteered to create an outreach database for Michael.

Michael says, “Hsing’s willingness not just to give orders, but to spend time working at that level for me was really touching.”

Or there was the time he donned a reflector vest to work as a crossing guard at a Cupertino festival. Michele Lew, president of an Asian community based organization, was shocked.

She says, “It’s a great testament to who he is as a person. This extremely successful businessman stepping up and doing the unglamorous job.”

Hsing explains, “My mother taught us how to be good people. She taught me to be humble and not take anything for granted. That I need to work hard and not become over-complacent.”

And the lessons began early for Hsing as a young boy growing up in Taiwan.

Hsing’s father, who had worked in government to reclaim Taiwan from half a century of Japanese rule, and later served as mayor, died of cancer when Hsing was only 11, and his brother Hsing Jien was 9.

Left on her own, their mother devoted her life to raising her sons. She had a college degree but had not worked up until that point. A family friend helped her find a clerk job at the Bank of Taiwan, where she remained until she retired. She made good on her commitment to her late husband to raise both of their children well.

“She was a good role model and would supervise us every day even though she was working,” Hsing says. “Only now do we understand how difficult that was, and how important.”

Now 88 and living in Sunnyvale, his mother can smile about her accomplishments. Her other son, Hsing Jien is a biology professor and director of cancer research at UC Davis.

After Hsing graduated from National Cheng Kung University, he came to America in 1967 to get his master’s in electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. He later earned a doctorate from UC-Berkeley and an MBA from Santa Clara University.

In Austin, Hsing met Margaret Mok, a fellow Taiwanese student earning her MBA, and soon fell in love. They married in 1971 and had a daughter, Angela.

Hsing came to Silicon Valley and joined HP in 1974 where he worked for nearly a decade, and was deeply influenced by “the HP Way.”

He says, “I really benefited—all of Silicon Valley benefited from HP. They taught us how to innovate, how to care about communities.”

When Hsing arrived, Asians were only beginning to trickle in. Today, Asians make up one-third of Silicon Valley and over a third of the high-tech work force. Still, they only represent 6 percent of board members and 10 percent of corporate officers of the Bay Area’s 25 largest companies. A phenomenon some call the “bamboo ceiling.”

Entrepreneurs like Hsing continue bursting the myth that Asians are just engineers incapable of leadership.

He eventually ventured out on his own to found several fiber optics startups. Hsing started Pine Photonics and Luxnet around the time of the dot-com bubble, but says because they were hardware companies they were able to survive. Pine Photonics was later acquired by Opnext, and Luxnet has moved to Taiwan where they expect an IPO this year.

Hsing then became interested in helping younger teams start companies, and established a venture fund at Acorn Campus Ventures in 2006.

But all this, Hsing says, “is just my professional career. Then,” he says with emphasis, “there is community service.”

And here is where we see Hsing Kung as a bridge builder, whether passionately boosting Asian civic participation, or through being active on the boards of organizations like United Way, Rotary, and American Leadership Forum.

Asians grew faster than any race in the U.S. from 2000 to 2010, rising by 43.3 percent – more than four times the total growth rate. Silicon Valley has felt this impact deeply, but this growth has not been reflected in the political leadership.

In Santa Clara County, Caucasians make up about a third of the population but hold three-fourths of city council seats. Only three of the county’s 15 cities have non-white mayors.

When Hsing first came to the South Bay in 1974, however, there were none at all. In the 80s, Hsing began working in the community through Chinese American groups and teaching Chinese school.

In 1985 when Tommy Shwe became the first Asian to run for a school board, something changed.

Both Hsing and Albert Wang, a longtime friend and collaborator, recall a new urgency to get Asians to vote.

Ultimately, Hsing says, “Immigrants have to get into the mainstream. Everyone knows that in order to get to the mainstream, you have to register to vote.”

Hsing and his circle campaigned hard to overcome the view among many Asians that politics is dirty, and to get more people to run for office.

They had to bridge other cultural differences. Hsing says, “People don’t know what the school board is because the system is not like in China or Taiwan where the government takes care of it.”

His leadership caught the eye of mainstream groups who recruited him to their boards.

One was the Fremont Union High School Board, where he served in 1996 during a contentious time with concerns of “white flight” from the region’s increasingly Asian top schools.

Chris Block, CEO of American Leadership Forum, where Hsing was selected as a fellow and board member says, there are two types of leaders: bonded leaders, who stick to those who look like them, and bridging leaders, who bridge different groups believing that “we’re all sharing in a common endeavor.” He and many others say Hsing is a natural bridge-builder.

Like in his work with Rotary. Hsing has shared his culture with fellow members during Chinese New Year celebrations, and organized four trips in the last five years to China to build schools with his Shin Shin Foundation.

In January of this year, Hsing took on his most demanding public service job when he accepted an appointment by Governor Schwarzenegger to the Board of Trustees of Cal State University, a system of over 400,000 students across 23 campuses. As the largest and most diverse university system in the nation, this is no resume-padding extracurricular.

Dr. Horace Mitchell, president of Cal State Bakersfield, says that as one of 24 Senate-confirmed trustees, Hsing has a lot on his plate. Perhaps the biggest challenge they face is the reduction of their budget by $750 million this year —nearly a third of the total. It’s a time-intensive position that requires dense reading, long meetings and heated public discussion. All for a hundred dollar per diem.

Maybe this is part of Hsing’s identity as a Rotarian. Their credo, after all, is service above self.

Finally, with an eye to cultivating future Asian leadership, his work with Vision New America is what state Assemblyman Paul Fong calls “pipeline development”, which also involves recruiting and training minority candidates on local boards as a pipeline to the City Council, and beyond.

Hsing says, “Now we can see the work is bearing fruit. Evan Lowe is running for state assembly and we can see the momentum. We feel very happy. The younger generation – Evan and Otto Lee – politics will be their career. We can see the whole Asian American movement now.”

When Mike Honda got to Congress, Hsing partnered with him to boost the Asian American community nationally. Mike says, “Traditionally, politicians saw Asian-Americans in general as a place to tap for money. But the issue for local groups and Hsing Kung is we don't want to be the people you just come to for money. We have resources for policy.”

His father’s faith in government is clearly evident in Hsing today. He has even passed this on to his daughter, Angela, who interned for public officials through high school and is now Assessor Phil Ting’s chief of staff.  

Hsing says, “I do have some politics in my blood.”

Mike Honda, incidentally, gives Hsing credit for helping him become vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. Of course, Hsing will only admit to a small part of that.

All this makes one wonder, how does he do it?

One way Hsing stays grounded is his calligraphy practice, a traditional East Asian art form, and elegant medium of self-expression and revelation.

Perhaps most revealing of Hsing as a bridge builder are the calligraphy bookmarks he made for guests of his daughter’s wedding celebration held at home last year. He shared three of the proverbs with us.

From left to right, they mean:

- Combining two parts of a perfect fit

- The harmonious songs of love birds

- Respect and help each other

Love birds aside, these Chinese proverbs also apply to the Asian community and the mainstream: two parts of a larger whole that must work together in harmony if this marriage is to thrive. And Hsing has played a crucial role getting these two parts to fit together.

Yet, he remains ever humble. “From experience I can say if you don't want credit, you get more credit than you deserve,” Hsing says. “I often feel I get more credit than I deserve.”

On that point, Hsing, we’d have to disagree.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Asian Pacific Fund’s honoree, Hsing Kung.


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