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Civics & Democracy

Prominent LA Chinese Americans Are Fighting Disloyalty Claims From The Right

A Chinese American man in a suit stands in an office looking out the window. The room features plants, a sculpture on a table and wall art.
Dominic Ng, the CEO of East West Bank, has been targeted by right-wing media and politicians since he was appointed as an APEC business advisor.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez
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East West Bank’s CEO Dominic Ng may lead one of the larger banks in the country, but for most of his career he stayed out of the national limelight and — very deliberately — out of national politics.

“I never got involved,” Ng said in an interview from the bank’s Pasadena headquarters. “I just thought that it was beyond my scope.”

But after four years of a Trump White House and its racist rhetoric, Ng decided to step up. A longtime registered Republican, Ng generously supported Biden's presidential bid. And when the Biden administration came calling last year to ask him to advise U.S. officials for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Ng said yes.

Dominic Ng, a Chinese American man, looks at the camera. He is wearing a dark jacket and white shirt.
Dominic Ng, CEO of East West Bank, which was founded in Los Angeles to serve Chinese Americans.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez
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It’s a plum assignment for Ng, who sees his bank as a financial and cultural bridge between the U.S. and Asia. With the U.S. hosting the APEC summit this year, Ng has assumed the chairmanship of APEC's business advisory council. The role puts Ng front and center, along with the bank he helped build from its modest beginnings in L.A.’s Chinatown into an institution holding more than $60 billion in assets.

But this career highlight has come with unexpected attacks from the right.

Last month, six Republican House members, led by Texas Rep. Lance Gooden, called for an FBI investigation into Ng for possible violations of the Espionage Act.

The upcoming APEC summit in San Francisco “will expose Mr. Ng and potentially our nation’s secrets to numerous [Chinese Communist Party] officials and possible intelligence operatives,” the representatives wrote in a Feb. 15 letter to the FBI.

Their demand came after the conservative outlet The Daily Caller claimed that Ng, who's originally from Hong Kong, led organizations that are allegedly front groups for Chinese intelligence.

The allegations have been met with fierce pushback from Democrats and civic and business leaders who have known Ng for decades.

'Disheartening to see'

Ng, a U.S. citizen for 35 years who is well-known in L.A. philanthropic circles for his support of the arts and Asian American initiatives, called the allegations baseless.

“It was disheartening to see [that after] many years that I've been actively engaged in American society that there will still be people out there who are questioning my loyalty,” Ng said in his first English-language interview about the allegations.

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It wasn’t just Ng whose loyalty was challenged. When Democratic Rep. Judy Chu led House Democrats in defending Ng, who is a constituent in her San Gabriel Valley district, Gooden came after her as well.

On Jesse Watters Primetime on Fox News, the host asked Gooden if he thought Chu should be investigated.

“I think everyone that’s standing up for the Chinese Communist Party should be looked into. Yes. I question her either loyalty or competence,” Gooden said.

A Chinese American woman in a purple blazer speaks at a podium marked with a "#StopAsianHate" sign. Dozens of people in suits stand behind her.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) speaks at an event to mark the one-year anniversary of the 2021 deadly attacks at Atlanta-area spas that left eight people dead, including six Asian women.
(Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Getty Images North America)

Gooden, who has not responded to LAist’s requests for comment, asserted on Fox News that Chu should not have security clearance or access to classified briefings "until this is figured out."

Chu and Ng are boldfaced names on a growing list of Southern California Chinese Americans targeted by right-wing media and politicians.

The Daily Caller has also tried to pin Communist ties on a former mayor of Alhambra; the chief executive of an L.A.-based plastics company; and a leader in the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Los Angeles.

Chu, the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress, demanded an apology from Gooden. In an op-ed piece in MSNBC, she wrote she and Ng were having their loyalty challenged because they are of Chinese descent.

She told LAist the allegations against them are "downright dangerous" and have put targets on their backs.

“I am being even more careful in terms of where I go and more aware of my surroundings,” Chu said.

Chinese 'influence campaigns'

These attacks on high-profile Chinese Americans come amid rising economic and geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China, only heightened of late by flashpoints such as the Ukraine war, TikTok, the status of Taiwan, and the Chinese surveillance balloon.

U.S. political leaders from both parties — as well as the FBI — have increasingly sounded the alarm about Chinese espionage and influence operations. Part of the drive to ban TikTok, for example, is driven by fears that the wildly popular social media app owned by Chinese company ByteDance could be co-opted by the Chinese government to mine Americans’ data and spread misinformation.

An Chinese man sits at a table in a congressional hearing room speaking into a microphone as men and women in suits sit in the rows of seats behind him.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on March 23.
(Olivier Douliery
AFP via Getty Images)

The allegations against Ng are more analog in nature. The Daily Caller claimed Ng was a leader in two overseas Chinese organizations that are allegedly front groups for the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department. The Chinese agency tries to advance China’s foreign policy interests abroad through influence campaigns, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which reports to Congress on the national security implications of U.S-China trade and economic relations.

Ng counters that he never belonged to one of the groups, the China Overseas Friendship Association, having declined an offer to join because he didn’t have the time.

Ng said he did once belong to the other group cited, the China Overseas Exchange Association, as a member, not a leader. He described joining after he became chair of the U.S.-based Committee of 100 — a group of Chinese American industry leaders whose mission is to promote civic participation by Chinese Americans and advance “constructive dialogue” on U.S. and China.

As chair of the Committee of 100, Ng said he led delegations to China that needed to be coordinated through the Chinese government’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office. He understood the China Overseas Exchange Association to be connected to that office and agreed to take on an “honorary position” in the association after he was invited in 2013, he said.

“Not only have I never attended any meetings, I never paid dues,” Ng said. “I never received any remuneration. So I basically have no participation.”

East West Bank was founded 50 years ago in Los Angeles to serve Chinese immigrants.
East West Bank was founded 50 years ago in Los Angeles to serve Chinese immigrants.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez

Ng said he withdrew from the China Overseas Exchange Association after his tenure as chair of the Committee of 100 ended in 2014. He remains a member of the Committee of 100.

The Biden administration has stayed largely silent on the allegations against Ng. The White House did not respond to a request for comment. The FBI would not comment on whether it has opened an investigation into Ng.

A State Department spokesperson noted in an email that members of APEC’s business advisory council are not government employees and do not have access to national security information.

The spokesperson added that Ng “has done significant work in his brief time” with APEC and “we look forward to his continued leadership this year.”

Swell of support

The defense of Ng by influential friends across Southern California has been more full-throated. Organizations including the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce issued statements in support of Ng, while well-known leaders in L.A. lined up to sing his praises.

“There could not be a more loyal American than Dominic Ng,” said former Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, whose decades-long friendship with the banker was built on shared interests in economic and foreign policy.

“They’re accusing him of working for China against the U.S., and it is just disgusting,” said Elise Buik, president of the United Way of Greater LA. “I hope that others will be outraged as they learn the story of who Dominic is as a person and a CEO.”

The lobby of a bank where seats are lined up in front of service counters with glass dividers.
The East West Bank business center in Pasadena is next to the bank's U.S. headquarters. Ng, a supporter of the arts, has decorated the walls with works by contemporary Chinese American artists.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez

From Shanghai to Hong Kong to Deloitte & Touche

Ng’s family story began in Shanghai, which his parents fled for Hong Kong after the Communists took control of China in 1949. His mother became a tailor, specializing in Catholic school uniforms and helped Ng’s father land a job as a school bus driver.

The couple strived to send their children to university overseas. Ng, the youngest of six, came to the U.S. in 1977 to study at the University of Houston, where he tutored other students in math and science. But his eagerness to immerse himself in American culture drew him to communications courses, where he studied radio and television and religiously watched the Mary Tyler Moore Show and All In The Family.

When his oldest brother chastised Ng for devoting himself to an area of study that would get him nowhere (“Like, what are you going to do as a weatherman in Corpus Christi?”), Ng dutifully switched to studying accounting.

Ng was recruited by Deloitte & Touche, and after several years of working in the firm’s Houston office, he was transferred to L.A. where he was to manage the account for defense manufacturer Northrop Grumman. But because he was not a U.S. citizen at the time, he could not get the security clearance to take over the account — a situation Ng said he accepted and stressed is very different from the right-wing protests over his APEC appointment.

Ng moved over to the banking side of Deloitte & Touche and was asked by a Singapore-based client to lead their investment arm in the U.S. One of the acquisitions Ng oversaw was East West Bank in 1991. The next year, the shareholders asked the then 32-year-old Ng to step in as the bank’s CEO — a role he’s held for more than 30 years.

As a young CEO, Ng quickly recognized the need to engage with the local community. One of his most enduring civic engagements has been with the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. In 2000, he served as the first Asian American chair of its annual fundraising campaign. He also chaired a United Way education summit, and helped develop a quality of life index to evaluate which areas of L.A. County needed more investment.

“That's Dominic,” Buik said. “He doesn't do anything for the ceremony or the title. When he commits to something, he commits.”

Forever foreigners

Ng’s active role in the United Way was among the reasons Chu recommended that he be commerce secretary in a Biden cabinet, which does not have any Asian American secretaries.

Chu’s endorsement of Ng was cited in the congressional letter calling for an FBI investigation, which doubled as a broadside against Chu. The letter alleged Chu — and Ng — had served as an “honorary president” of the All-America Chinese Youth Federation. The Daily Caller claims the federation has members linked to Chinese intelligence.

Chu and Ng say they were never members.

Chu said this is the first time her patriotism has been challenged like this in 37 years as an elected official.

"No matter how long we've lived in this country, we're considered foreigners in our own land," said Chu, the L.A.-born daughter of a Chinese American World War II veteran.

Chu sees echoes of the past in the attacks she's facing. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. while those already in the country were not allowed to naturalized. Sixty years later during WWII, the U.S. government incarcerated more than 125,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were citizens.

“This decision was justified by accusations of espionage by Japanese Americans,” Chu said. “But to this day, not a single case was ever found.”

Today it’s China — not Japan — that’s in the crosshairs of the U.S. government.  And it’s bringing people of Chinese heritage — everyone from scientists to community leaders — under scrutiny.

“Asian Americans are seen as extensions of Asia, regardless of nationality, regardless of nativity and most importantly, regardless of how they self-identify,” said Jane Hong, an immigration history professor at Occidental College.

Hong said bringing up the threat of Communist China is an easy way for politicians, especially Republicans, to score points. She noted how during the 2022 midterms, Orange County Republican Congressmember Michelle Steel accused Democratic challenger Jay Chen, a Taiwanese American, of being a Communist sympathizer. Steel won the election.

“As long as the specter of China remains politically effective in terms of rallying a particular base, particularly a Republican base, you're going to continue to see these kinds of red-baiting attempts,” Hong said.

Speaking up for the next generation

Though disturbed by the attacks on her patriotism, Chu says she's been heartened by the outpouring of support from Democratic colleagues and community organizations. That the Republican chair of a new House select committee on China criticized Gooden's comments was, to Chu, a "sign that we've moved one step forward" from the xenophobia of the past.

Chu said anti-Chinese rhetoric has ramifications for all Asian Americans. Former President Trump’s blaming China for the COVID-19 pandemic — calling it the “China plague” and “kung flu” — coincided with a rise in attacks on Asian Americans regardless of ethnicity.

As the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Chu successfully fought for a bill to prevent such racial violence.

Meanwhile, over at his bank, Ng worked to shore up security at his branches to protect his predominantly Asian customers and staff, and tried initiatives to discourage attacks on seniors.

The challenging time Asian Americans faced during the pandemic motivated Ng to speak up more for the AAPI community and call for a more inclusive society. It's something he said he will keep doing as he continues his work at APEC, undeterred by the allegations.

“We cannot let our younger generation to have this despair, to feel that, ‘Oh, because of the color of my skin, there's certain jobs I will never be able to get simply because of my heritage," Ng said. "That to me, that's totally wrong.”

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.

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