Gordon Tang and Huaidan Chen have cultivated ties to American politicians through campaign contributions and other investments.
The husband-and-wife team of Gordon Tang and Huaidan Chen have used their wealth to forge ties with an array of American politicians — including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee; former Ambassador to China Gary Locke; and two prominent members of the Bush family clan, Neil and Jeb. Tang and Chen, both in their late 40s, are Chinese citizens living in Singapore, where they have permanent resident status.
One of the couple’s companies, a California corporation called American Pacific International Capital, cultivated close ties to U.S. politicians as the firm amassed a growing real estate portfolio over the last seven years, snapping up commercial property from Oregon to Ohio to seize upon opportunities following the 2008 financial crisis.
As The Intercept is reporting today, APIC last year made a $1.3 million donation to Right to Rise USA, a Super PAC supporting Jeb Bush — brother of APIC board member Neil Bush. And just two years prior to the Bush contribution, Chen purchased Locke’s Bethesda, Maryland, home while Locke was still in office as ambassador to China.
These financial transactions are part of a strategy for maintaining “our friends,” said Wilson Chen, Huaidan’s brother, a naturalized U.S. citizen who also serves on APIC’s board.
“The politicians, they always want to ask for help, that’s the natural politician,” Chen explained over dinner in a new restaurant he opened in San Francisco’s SoMa district serving food from his native Chaozhou, a city in southeastern China. He emphasized that the campaign donations were legal and reviewed by attorneys.
Chen said his company has contributed to politicians from both parties and has long admired the Bush family, especially for its history with China — going back to George H.W. Bush’s service as the chief U.S. diplomat in Beijing in the 1970s.
Asked if his brother-in-law Gordon Tang viewed the seven-figure donation to Right to Rise as a waste, given Jeb Bush’s failed bid for the Republican nomination, Chen shook his head and said Tang did not because it involved “helping a friend.”
Tang himself expressed similar views on money and friendship during a remarkable telephone interview with The Intercept’s Elaine Yu — a Hong Kong-based freelancer and co-author of this article — in which he offered her cash not to report on online rumors about his past.
The rumors are related to smuggling investigations in the early 2000s in the southeastern Chinese city of Shantou. The fact that Tang was entangled in the Shantou probe is disclosed in corporate filings by SingHaiyi, a Singapore corporation of which Tang and his wife are majority shareholders. The Singapore stock exchange requires listed companies to report if an executive or board member has managed “any corporation which has been investigated for a breach of any law” in any country.
A 2013 SingHaiyi announcement says that in 2001 and 2002, a “sector wide” investigation of “custom duties matters” was conducted into all leading importers in Shantou, including Tang and a previous company he owned. According to the SingHaiyi statement, “many in Shantou” were convicted, including individuals who “were staff in Mr. Tang’s import and export business,” and assets of Tang’s business were seized, but in the end, Chinese courts imposed “no penalties or convictions” on Tang personally.
(Since Neil Bush serves on SingHaiyi’s board as well as APIC’s, the same disclosure notes the ugly fallout from Bush’s 1980s stint on the board of Silverado Savings & Loan in Colorado.)
Tang strongly averred his innocence during a multiparty conference call with The Intercept and provided an official 2014 Shantou government document stating that he has no criminal record. “The Singapore Stock Exchange is very stringent,” said Tang. “When they saw some nonsense on the internet they asked about it. So I showed them the [Shantou document], and they have verified its authenticity.”
James Mei, Tang’s U.S. lawyer, characterized the rumors as “grossly inaccurate” and said Tang “passed very high-level security background checks by the U.S. including the State Department, the USCIS [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] and the FBI” when Mei represented him for recent visa applications.
Following that call, Tang telephoned Yu directly in Hong Kong. Speaking with her in Cantonese, Tang was alternately threatening and cajoling, asking Yu to prevent The Intercept from referencing unverified claims on Chinese-language websites that he had been accused of smuggling, tax evasion, and bribery in Shantou. If she did, Tang said, when he came to Hong Kong the following week he would give her “a red packet of 200,000 dollars, so we can be friends,” adding, “I don’t even know why you want to be a reporter, reporters make so little money.”
Gifts of money in red packets are a Chinese tradition on holidays and special occasions. Tang did not specify whether his offer was denominated in Hong Kong, Singapore, or U.S. dollars; at current exchanges rates, HK$200,000 would be worth about US$25,000.
Tang subsequently contacted Yu on his arrival in Hong Kong, saying he had a “little gift” for her, and asked her to meet him at the city’s Four Seasons luxury hotel. She declined.
Around that same time, Huaidan Chen and two other executives from APIC donated $1,320 to help defray the costs of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s eight-day visit to China. The mayor used that trip as an opportunity to secure real estate investments for his city.
In November 2013, APIC helped underwrite a second trip for Mayor Lee to China, this time to Chaozhou, where the Chens are from and where Tang’s investment company owns a hotel. Wilson Chen accompanied Mayor Lee and appeared next to him for a sister-city ceremony between Chaozhou and San Francisco.
Campaign finance records show that APIC gave $2,500 to Portland, Oregon, Mayor Charlie Hales’s 2012 election campaign, $9,500 to former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s campaign account, as well as corporate donations to local candidates throughout the state.
Executives associated with APIC have also made individual campaign contributions to San Francisco Mayor Lee’s campaign and provided $41,100 in funds to state and federal campaign accounts, including the Republican Party of Kentucky and the Democratic National Committee. In January, Wilson Chen donated $2,700 to the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Tang has also found ways to court high-profile politicians other than money. The 2008 ribbon-cutting ceremony for his soybean processing plant featured an array of local Chinese politicians and Chinese-American dignitaries, including Locke. A similar ribbon cutting the following year, to dedicate the construction of three residential office and condominium towers in Shantou, featured Elaine Chao, former secretary of labor during the George W. Bush administration, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In an interview, Victoria Yu, APIC’s director of public relations, said that like any other major company, APIC engages in politics to “influence in some way good or bad policies” and to “create a better environment” for doing business.
Tang’s first notable business endeavor began in 1994 when he invested 80 million renminbi — approximately $16.5 million in U.S dollars adjusted for inflation — to form the Shantou Haiyi Group, a holding company that he used to buy stakes in construction materials, real estate, health supplements, and air purifiers, among other interests.
Tang went on to found Tang Dynasty in 1995 and Haiyi Holdings in 2003. Tang used Haiyi Holdings to conduct a 2012 friendly takeover of SingExpress Land, an already-existing Singapore company, and rename it SingHaiyi.
Tang’s initial significant investment in U.S. real estate was APIC’s purchase of the iconic KOIN Tower in downtown Portland, Oregon, in 2009 for reportedly close to $50 million. APIC subsequently sold it in 2015 for $88 million. In 2013, SingHaiyi purchased two American shopping malls. Vietnam Town, a condominium and commercial mall under development near San Jose, California, was bought for $33.1 million. Tri-County Mall, the other investment property, is a major shopping destination serving the Cincinnati region that boasts a Macy’s, PacSun, and Forever 21, among other popular stores. In 2014, APIC moved its offices to San Francisco, where it has steadily acquired real estate, including several hotels and condominium towers.
APIC also has holdings outside the U.S., including two luxury hotels in Shantou as well as “multiple high-rise residential development projects.”
Today, the future of Tang’s businesses looks bright. SingHaiyi raised $226.5 million to develop luxury and public housing in Singapore and began investing in what executives described as “undervalued” real estate opportunities in the U.S., as well as real estate projects in Malaysia.
In a 2013 message to SingHaiyi investors not long after he was named the company’s nonexecutive chairman, Neil Bush said, “The real estate market in the U.S. is underestimated, with the U.S. economy in a recovery phase,” which presented “attractive real estate investment opportunities for both distressed and non-distressed U.S. real estate assets.”
Last year, RHB Bank, one of the largest financial services companies in Malaysia, issued a “buy” rating for SingHayi. SingHaiyi, RHB noted, not only snapped up “savvy investments in undervalued assets in the U.S. at attractive costs,” but maintains “well-affiliated backing,” listing the names of prominent American politicians, such as Neil Bush and Gary Locke, who have signed on to work with the company.
The website for APIC serves as a testament to Tang’s business success, with visitors greeted by a carousel of photos flashing gleaming properties from southern China to San Francisco. Below the building pictures are two other trophy images: Tang posing with his American friends Bush and Locke.
A series exploring how money from abroad has entered the 2016 presidential election thanks to Citizens United.