Stephen Cheung is the president of World Trade Center Los Angeles. Before taking part in a panel discussion entitled “What Does Trump Mean for Immigrant L.A.?” for a Zócalo/The California Wellness Foundation event at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles, he spoke in the green room about immigrating to the United States, the Getty Villa, and a memorable chemistry teacher.
You’re originally from Hong Kong. How did you end up in L.A.?
My mother is ethnically Chinese but she was born in Indonesia. So she went to China to learn Mandarin when she was young, and she met my father in China and they immigrated to Hong Kong. And as 1997 was approaching and China was going to take back Hong Kong [from the British] there was a lot of uncertainty, and so my mother wanted to find other options for her children. And so she used her immigration status, her passport, from Indonesia to apply for the diversity lottery, and we got it. So we immigrated to the United States.
Where in L.A. do you like to take out-of-town visitors?
The typical spots: Disney Concert Hall, the Hollywood Bowl. But we actually like to bring them to the Getty Villa, because it’s a bit of a hidden gem and no one really knows about it all that well. When they think about the Getty, they think about the Getty Center.
Do you have a happiest childhood memory?
We lived in Hacienda Heights, by this hillside. And my two dogs dug under the fence and escaped. And we knew that there were coyotes out there, and so went looking, just expecting the worst. And we found them! When we were reunited, that was pretty memorable, and that just kind of seared in the back of my brain. I think I was nine. Unfortunately, they escaped again and did not return. I’ll keep the happy moment and try to ignore the bad part!
Was there a teacher or professor who particularly influenced you?
My chemistry teacher in high school. I was a competitive person in high school, and I think I was one of two or three sophomores that got into this chemistry class; most of them were seniors. So to do well, there was a lot of pressure, and I cheated on one of the assignments [and got caught]. He was disappointed, and then he just basically said, “We’re going to throw this whole thing away.” But then he said, “Just so you know, Stephen, even without [cheating] you had the highest score in the class.” And that has always stuck with me, that you should always do things fairly and there are no shortcuts.
If you could time travel anywhere, what would be your destination?
I would love to go to Easter Island. Like, what happened to those folks? There are all these theories about them over-logging and destroying their environment, and eventually they just kind of ran out of food and became competitive and turned to warfare. Is that what human nature is? Is that what we’re going to become? I think this island is a microcosm.