Chinese tech pioneers look back at their USC years

The house at 1175 29th St. in Los Angeles served as ground zero for scores of Chinese engineering students who came to USC seeking a better future.

The two story house at 1175 29th St. looks little different than most around it in Los Angeles’ West Adams neighborhood. But this unexceptional dwelling north of the USC University Park Campus has an exceptional past.

More than 30 years ago, in 1984–1985, this Craftsman housed scores of students from China—most of them engineers—who came to America with hopes of parlaying a USC degree into a passport for success.

The students occupied the 800-square-foot second floor: two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room and a tiny kitchen. Despite the home’s decided lack of amenities, it seemed like the height of luxury to many of them, coming as they did from rural Chinese villages and even cities often with no indoor plumbing or running water. Unofficially, as many as eight students sometimes crammed into the place during the summer.

From these beginnings born of necessity, the Chinese students at the 29th Street house and elsewhere near campus went on to become titans of industry, billionaires and respected scientists.

The First Wave

Aspiring electrical engineer Ming Hsieh ’83, MS ’84 and geology student An Yin PhD ’87 shared one of the rooms upstairs. Jincai Chang MS ’86, PhD ’91, who was studying petroleum engineering, took the living room until a bedroom came available.

Hsieh, now a USC trustee and namesake of USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, went on to found Pasadena, California-based Cogent Inc., which revolutionized automated fingerprint identification. The billionaire now heads Fulgent Therapeutics LLC, which focuses on cancer drug research and personalized cancer treatments.

Yin joined UCLA’s geology faculty and made international headlines a few years ago when he discovered plate tectonics on Mars. Chang developed GasPal, a gas reservoir simulator used by Indonesian, Dutch and Japanese firms that can forecast gas production.

They were a part of the first wave of Chinese students who moved halfway around the world for the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to attend a topflight American university in sunny Southern California to learn from some of the world’s leading engineering researchers. The students, among the first Chinese to come to USC, blazed a trail for thousands who would follow. Today, there are nearly 4,400 Chinese students at USC.

In the 1980s, Chinese students who won government scholarships needed to score at the top of competitive state exams and receive permission to go overseas. The few students lucky enough to have affluent relatives pay their way felt intense pressure to make every penny count.

“I believe every unit cost $230, and most classes were four units, or more than $900,” says Yin, whose uncle, a businessman in Indonesia, covered his tuition. “My father earned about $25 a month in China. “I felt like I had no choice. I had to study really hard and do something spectacular.”

The engineering students toiled 12 to 14 hours a day to master their material. They studied, studied and studied some more.

They also struggled to understand and speak English, which initially proved a great handicap. To avoid falling behind, some read and reread textbooks because they couldn’t comprehend their professors’ lectures. Many, including Yin, enrolled in remedial English classes, which gobbled up valuable studying time.

They had few complaints, though. The students felt fortunate for the chance to remake their lives in a country that, for many, symbolized scientific advancement and cutting-edge technology. At USC, they acquired the knowledge, gained the confidence and forged the connections that would later propel them to the top of their respective professions.

“When we came here, we saw how you could build your own life, a better life, if you really worked hard and studied hard,” Hsieh says. “We had incredible drive and a strong work ethic from our upbringing.”

Says Chang, the petroleum engineer: “USC has all this talent from all over the world, the professors, the students. It provides a good place to study and all the hardware and software to get ahead. USC changed my life.”

The Chinese Vanguard

The first wave of USC Viterbi students from China contains a list of luminaries. These are just a few:

  • Entrepreneur Jeff Zhao MS ’87 became a successful real estate developer and the president of High Power Holdings Ltd. and Shanghai Tianziang Industrial Inc.
  • Xiaofan “Simon” Cao MS ’87, chairman of the Taiwanese-based investment fund Tripine Capital, holds 38 U.S. and international patents, with another 64 pending.
  • USC Viterbi Professor Shang-Hua Teng ’88 went twice won the Gödel Prize, an award for outstanding papers in theoretical computer science.
  • USC Trustee Chengyu Fu MS ’86 became chairman of Sinopec Group, Asia’s biggest oil refinery and petrochemical company, and was named him one of Harvard Business Review’s 50 “Best-Performing CEOs in the World.”

A U.S.–China Thaw

Hard work and intellectual prowess brought them to USC—but there was also an element of luck, or at least good timing. That first group of students would likely never have come to USC if not for a dramatic improvement in the U.S.-China relationship and the end of China’s decade-long Cultural Revolution in 1976.

Until President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, U.S.-Sino relations were marred by mutual suspicion and hostility. Nixon’s visit, preceded by a secret trip by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, set into motion a thaw in which both nations pledged to work toward full normalization of diplomatic relations. That restoration happened in late 1978 under President Jimmy Carter, ending nearly three decades of official estrangement.

At the same time, in China, many were recovering from hard times they had endured during the Cultural Revolution. Yin, the UCLA geology professor, describes his family’s predicament as “quite a bit of problems.” His parents, both university professors in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, were sent for “reeducation” to a farm with no running water or electricity. In 1969, when he was only 9 years old, he joined them – but within a year, he was so malnourished that authorities sent him back to his parents’ university apartment to recuperate. He lived alone and ate meals at the university café. Older residents watched out for him.

When the Cultural Revolution ended, universities reopened and Yin’s parents resumed teaching. Two years later, Yin gained admission to Beijing University.

Shang-Hua Teng ’88, a professor in USC Viterbi’s Department of Computer Science—and part of the first wave—remembers it this way: “All of us who went to university within a few years of the reopening had an opportunity that no one had just five years before. We were in college, while my neighbor who was just a few years older worked on a farm.”

Giving Back

For the Chinese students who came to USC, the university forever changed their lives and expanded their horizons intellectually, culturally and commercially. As a group, they look back fondly at the friendships they made, the skills and knowledge they acquired.

Though the decades have passed, their connection to their alma mater has only strengthened. This relatively small cohort of engineering students has made outsized contributions to USC, helping the university in general and USC Viterbi in particular to join the ranks of world-class institutions of higher learning.

In 2006, Hsieh made a $35 million gift to USC Viterbi’s electrical engineering department, the largest ever to name an engineering department in the United States. Hsieh’s generosity helped transformed the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering into one of the strongest such departments in the country.

Seven years ago, Hsieh made a $50 million gift establishing the USC Ming Hsieh Institute for Research on Engineering-Medicine for Cancer. The institute promises to make USC a national and international leader in translational cancer research that bridges basic science, engineered devices, synthesized molecules and materials, and medicine.

Hsieh says he gives back because of all the school has done for him.

“The best way to give back is to the place where you were educated,” Hsieh says. “Giving back to USC will continue to make it strong and one of the world’s top research institutes.”

Another graduate is Feng Deng MS ’93, who co-founded Netscreen Technologies Inc., which Juniper Networks acquired for $4.2 billion. Today he’s founding managing director of Beijing-based Northern Light Venture Capital. Deng created the USC Viterbi–Tsinghua University (THU) research symposium, now in its 11th year. The annual meeting has resulted in some strong research collaborations and a student exchange program. This fall, USC Viterbi and Tsinghua will launch a dual-degree Master of Science program.

“I’m an alumnus of both schools,” says Deng, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from THU, one of China’s most prestigious universities. “I think both schools can benefit a lot from the partnership.

“In China, USC probably has the largest alumni circle among all U.S. universities, and we alumni help each other,” adds Deng, who chairs USC Viterbi’s China & East Asia Advisory Board. “Today, USC has become one of the top brands in China for American universities.”

Teng, the USC Viterbi computer science professor and former department chair, says his USC professors made an indelible impression on him, inspiring him to have a similar influence on his Trojan students. Teng emulates his beloved former professor Len Adleman’s teaching style by asking students lots of questions and encouraging them to push themselves.

Like Teng, Jincai Chang has come home to USC Viterbi. After earning his doctorate, he worked as a USC postdoctoral researcher and pursued a successful career as a consultant in petroleum engineering. After 25 years in the petroleum industry, Chang became an associate professor of engineering in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. He enjoys teaching students from all backgrounds, and marvels at how life has come full circle.

“I’ve never left USC,” Chang says with a laugh. “I can still remember the lessons my former mentor, Professor Lyman Handy, taught me many years ago. It has been truly rewarding to pass on that knowledge to the next generation of engineers and scientists.

“As a former international student myself, I understand that by sending their children to USC parents are placing a high degree of trust and confidence in our faculty,” he adds. “I feel that I have a responsibility to ensure that all of my students receive the best education possible.”

By Marc Ballon (Trojan Family Magazine, Spring 2017)

Allison Engel contributed to this report.
Calligraphy: Yi-Hsien Liu