Yuet-fung Ho made Hong Kong’s first television soap opera. Now she works for Michael Bloomberg.
She started on the first day of the transit strike last year. She walked across Central Park to the Upper East Side to hitch a ride with her new co-workers in an S.U.V.
“On my first day, I was given a list of companies and told to call them all and ask them what they wanted from the city,” she said. “It was a very bonding experience.”
Ten months later, Ms. Ho, a vice president for international business development at the city’s Economic Development Corporation, has landed her first deal: a 128,000-square foot exhibition center in East Elmhurst, Queens, for Chinese home-furnishing companies to show off their wares to U.S. retailers. It is expected to open in June.
Modest though it is—1,000 jobs by the second year—the Grandland New York Expo is supposed to be the harbinger of all the Chinese investment that could come into the city as the world’s fastest-growing economy seeks toeholds in the world’s largest one. The Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking Ms. Ho acts as Mayor Bloomberg’s foot soldier, warding off London, the West Coast and New Jersey to get as much capitalism as the People’s Republic will offer.
New York is starting at what seems to be a disadvantage: Despite a large immigrant community, the city hosts just about 60 Chinese companies, while 250 have chosen the British capital, with more than half putting their European sales and marketing headquarters there, according to official counts by the respective cities. Think London, a 12-year-old private-public partnership, has had a Chinese speaker on staff for six years and opened a three-person bureau in Beijing in the spring. Ms. Ho is the first person ever to lobby exclusively in Asia for New York City.
New York officials wouldn’t comment on the city’s apparently trailing position, saying they didn’t know how London came up with its figure of 250. But they said that the competition, if it can be called that, is just beginning.
“In terms of Chinese companies, I would argue that there are more than enough to go around,” said Laure Aubuchon, who is Ms. Ho’s boss at the Economic Development Corporation. “Eventually, any major Chinese company is going to want to have a presence in both cities. At this stage in Chinese economic development, where they can go only one place, it may be an either/or proposition, and maybe they will get to the other city in the next phase.”
But New York’s confidence in retaining the title of the world’s financial capital has waned since last year, when London had four initial public offerings worth more than $1 billion. New York, by contrast, hosted just one. In September, the E.D.C. awarded McKinsey & Co. a contract of up to $600,000 to study the competitive position of New York versus London.
“Certainly London has been very aggressive in terms of setting up an office in China, but New York has a built-in advantage in terms of its brand that will eventually pay off,” said Kathryn Wylde, the president and chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, a business group that has sponsored China-U.S. trade initiatives. “The biggest concern we have has to do with federal policy as it relates to visas and intellectual-property concerns that discourage the next generation of Chinese graduate students from locating in the U.S.”
Mayor Bloomberg himself echoed those concerns about London’s regulatory superiority in a Nov. 1 op-ed penned with Senator Charles Schumer. “Unless we improve our corporate climate,” they wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “we risk allowing New York to lose its pre-eminence in the global financial-services sector. This would be devastating both for our city and nation.”
It was back in 2002 when Mayor Bloomberg first announced plans to advertise New York as “the world’s second home.” While the bid for the Olympics failed to do that, Ms. Ho, Ms. Aubuchon and two other E.D.C. representatives make regular trips to different points on the globe, pitching the city as a second headquarters location for firms from Latin America, Europe and Asia.
Ms. Aubuchon, who started the international business-development desk in 2003, came from Ernst & Young and W.R. Grace & Co., where she worked a stint in Asia. Ms. Ho started out her professional career writing scripts for Hong Kong’s first soap opera, the title of which can be loosely translated as Strong Current.
“It was a knockoff of American soap operas about a hotel,” Ms. Ho said. “There was the owner, his wife and mistress, the daughters. We did 108 episodes. Now when I go back to Hong Kong, I tell people about it and they say, ‘Oh, I remember that show.’”
What an icebreaker!
Ms. Ho moved to New York in 1977 to work in the city’s independent-film world, producing two shorts about the Asian-American experience and working on numerous other productions. In 1985, CBS drafted her to help select and translate programs to sell to the Chinese national television network. Eventually, the network sent her back to her birthplace to set up an office in Hong Kong. She became the managing director of CBS Broadcast International and counts among her accomplishments introducing millions of Asian viewers to Everybody Loves Raymond. (She sold nine seasons of the series.)
When she heard about the E.D.C. job from a friend, Ms. Ho, who won’t give her age, had been thinking about returning to New York.
“It was doing something for the city, which at this point in my career was something that I wanted to do,” Ms. Ho, a petite woman with straight black hair and glasses, explained. “Being a Chinese-American, I understand both cultures and can introduce them to each other.”
For the Grandland deal, Ms. Ho took the owners on about 10 scouting trips to see different properties. “Grandland will need anywhere from 800 to 1,000 bilingual people to work in this merchandise mart,” said Ms. Aubuchon. “In terms of a Chinese labor market, Queens is second to none. It took them half an hour driving around Queens to realize that.”
Other Chinese companies that have opened offices in the region include Haier America, a household-goods maker; the Bank of China; and the China Ocean Shipping Co., or Cosco, which operates out of New Jersey. The E.D.C., along with their upstate counterparts, tried to keep Lenovo’s global headquarters in Westchester County after the Beijing consumer-products company bought I.B.M.’s personal-computer division. Lenovo located its North American headquarters in North Carolina instead.
A Chinese real-estate venture, Beijing Vantone, has been looking for a space for more than a year in which to locate a business center for visiting companies and also a China Club where American executives could mingle with their Chinese counterparts. Vantone had its lease cancelled at 7 World Trade Center after developer Larry Silverstein said it was taking the company too long to present a letter of credit. Xue Ya, Vantone’s development director, told The Observer that she hopes to sign a lease elsewhere in lower Manhattan “within the next few months.”
New York City is now trying to recruit the Shanghai Media Group and China Life, the national life-insurance company, to open offices here. Executives from the latter company met with Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff when they were in town and received follow-up visits in China from E.D.C. staff. But so far neither company has made any decisions about overseas headquarters, Ms. Aubuchon said.
Ms. Aubuchon said that she has had to adjust her expectations concerning what kinds of overseas business the city can attract. “Before, we were looking at who will come here and bring jobs, and that still is a focus,” she said. “I have learned that you have to be very open-minded to different opportunities, so that if a real-estate company comes here looking to make an investment, you can help them with that.”
“The most important thing is to break the myths,” Ms. Ho said. “They always think that New York is too expensive, New York is too big, and that the crime rate is too high. Basically, those three points we always have to talk to them about. And the other thing is, they actually are pretty surprised why New York City, an international city, has to come to them.”