The shortest distance between China and the Eastside is roughly 6,000 miles and separated by a vast expanse of open water. But the influence of Asia’s largest nation can be felt close to home. China-based tech giants such as Alibaba, Huawei, and ZTE have opened branch offices on the Eastside, and Far East investors have put their money into local real estate (case in point: Hong Kong-based Gemini Investments, which paid just over $200 million for the three-building, nearly-500,000-square-foot One Twelfth @ Twelfth office campus in downtown Bellevue).
Equally as interesting is the mosaic of local entrepreneurs forging the Eastside’s connection to China — whether it’s a veteran importer/exporter who connects manufacturers, suppliers, and distributors on both sides of the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea; a home-builder tapping a niche and profitable market created by the Eastside’s changing demographics; or local business groups who advocate for stronger relations with our state’s largest trading partner. Here’s a look at some of the people who are closing the distance between China and the Eastside.
As the Eastside’s Chinese-American population grows, Aegis Living CEO Dwayne Clark has tapped into a market that is in high demand and highly profitable.
One recent weekday afternoon, Aegis Living founder and CEO Dwayne Clark walked through the construction site of his company’s more recent developments, Aegis Gardens in Newcastle, when he stopped to consider the project’s significance. Aegis Gardens — a $50 million, 110-unit upscale residential community for seniors that occupies a 7.47-acre wooded expanse in the middle of downtown Newcastle and stretches to the Lake Boren shoreline — looks a lot like the other facilities that comprise the Aegis Living empire: 28 high-end assisted living and memory care communities in Washington, California, and Nevada. But when Aegis Gardens opens in October, it will represent only the second community of its kind in Aegis Living’s portfolio — namely, a retirement community offering luxury living that appeals to the Eastside’s wealthy Chinese-American seniors.
“We are the only private Chinese senior housing company in the United States,” said Clark, 58, who led a private tour of the new facility while it was still under construction this spring. “There are other (Asian senior housing communities) with religious affiliations and so on. But we have something here that is pretty rare.”
Clark has watched Chinese natives increasingly invest in, and move to, certain areas of the U.S., including the Eastside, in recent years. Approximately 92,000 Chinese Americans live within 25 miles of Aegis Gardens, and approximately 5,000 of those residents are over the age of 75. Of those, approximately 22,000 are between the ages of 45 and 65 — the average age of the adult children who place their elder relatives in any other Aegis Living community. And many of those adult children are wealthy, which fits seamlessly into Aegis Living’s business model and demographic — namely families whose combined home value and annual household income exceed $550,000, and who have money to spend on high-quality, luxury living for their relatives. According to Clark, within a 10-mile radius of Aegis Gardens, the median combined home value is $585,000; within a five-mile radius, the amount is $727,000.
Clark is confident that opening a retirement home for Chinese-American seniors in Newcastle is a risk-free business move.
A Learning Curve in California
The roots of Aegis Gardens in Newcastle can be traced more than 15 years and 800 miles south, to the city of Fremont, California. It was there, in 2001, Aegis Living opened its first community specifically targeted toward the area’s wealthy Chinese-American seniors. It was a smaller project, 64 units on 3 acres, in the overall portfolio of Aegis Living’s communities. But it was one of the most difficult communities to build.
“We paid a lot of stupid tax on that building because we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” said Clark.
The stories of naiveté are abundant, and Clark recounts them without a trace of embarrassment. They are all learning experiences that led him to this point.
The beautiful and ornate concrete fountain that served as the courtyard’s centerpiece also included a series of stars whose points were aimed in the wrong direction, according to a Feng Shui expert hired after the fountain was constructed. The building was set to open in a couple weeks, but the Feng Shui expert insisted the fountain would need to be torn out (instead, a contractor shaved off the stars’ points, which sufficed).
The building’s address contained numbers that were unlucky in Chinese culture, according to San Francisco community leaders who comprised the project’s advisory board. Clark’s team successfully petitioned the City of Fremont for an address change.
“All these things were hugely significant in terms of learning,” said Clark.
And then there was just the aura of uncertainty that followed Clark, who is Caucasian and could be viewed by some as an archetypal outsider as he explained the project to the area’s Chinese-American community.
“The biggest thing, especially as a non-Chinese person, is that you have to develop a strong element of trust,” said Clark. “Even after we did all those things right, (the building) took about 36 months to fill. If that was one of our ‘normal’ Caucasian buildings, we would have filled it in about 18 months. The trust element wasn’t there. Chinese people are very cautious: Is this for real? Is this really happening? You have to really gain their trust with your operations and the fact that you are going to do what you say.”
It wasn’t until after the project was completed that Clark achieved some level of certainty that the Chinese-American community would embrace the concept.
The assurance came from an Asian-American woman and Stanford graduate who advised him on the project. “She told me, ‘I didn’t spend $200,000 on my education to stay home and take care of Mom,’” said Clark. “‘Here’s the challenge, Dwayne. What you have to do is you have to do a better job than we could ever possibly do at home. Then people will say, ‘I have to send my parents there because that is the best option for them. Then I’m not doing them a service if I don’t send them there.’
“That was a paradigm shift for me,” added Clark. “I think that’s why our building has done so well in Fremont.”
Today, vacancies at Aegis Gardens in Fremont are rare. A majority of Aegis Gardens residents in Fremont migrated from China and have been living in the United States for 20 years or more, according to an Aegis Living spokesperson. In addition, the senior-living community also counts Japanese-, Korean-, and Taiwanese-American residents, along with a small population of Anglo- and African-American descent. It’s possible that the Newcastle location may see a similar demographic mix.
“It has been the highest sustained occupancy of all of the 30-some buildings in the entire company,” said Clark. “We gained their trust. It’s been 97 percent occupied since the day that it opened. It’s often 100 percent occupied for months on end. It’s been very, very successful.”
Building a Community in Newcastle
Still, it took Clark more than a decade to move forward on the next Chinese-American senior-living community.
A synergistic combination of things contributed to his decision to purchase the Newcastle property in 2012 and build a community. As he had in Fremont, he hired a Feng Shui expert, and she approved of the site. He formed an advisory council of local Chinese-American leaders (including Gary Locke, former Washington governor and U.S. ambassador to China) to build support for the project. And even the history of the site played a key factor. According to the Newcastle Historical Society, Chinese workers arrived at Old Newcastle in the early 1870s, first to work on railroads, then to work in coal mines. In 1885, buildings occupied by Chinese workers were burned to the ground by locals competing for jobs. The Chinese workers moved into huts and makeshift camps along a creek that is known today as China Creek. Today, China Creek flows through the Aegis Gardens site.
“I thought, ‘I think this is destiny. This is going to be our building,’” said Clark. “How ironic is it now that it’s going to be a luxury Chinese living center?”
More than 300 people turned out on July 30, 2015, to watch Clark, Locke, and King County Executive Dow Constantine turn dirt during a ground-breaking ceremony that included a ceremonial lion dance and Chinese music.
Clark is pleased he waited more than a decade to open Aegis’ next community center for Chinese-American seniors because it gave his staff in Fremont the opportunity to hone best practices and bring that knowledge if and when they opened a similar facility.
“We didn’t want to go four or five years later and open another one,” he said. “We wanted (Aegis Gardens in Fremont) to be a laboratory. We really wanted to get it right. We wanted to make sure that if we were going to do another one, it had to be the perfect site. We wanted it to be bigger than 64 units. We wanted it to have really great elements that fit into the Chinese culture.”
When Aegis Gardens opens later this year, most of its staff will be fluent in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Residents will be able to play mahjong, practice tai chi, and sharpen their calligraphy-writing skills. A wellness suite will offer a salon, barber, and spa with massage and acupuncture services, as well as a saltwater therapy pool. A movie theater will resemble the ornate, Chinese-themed Fifth Avenue Theatre in downtown Seattle. The dining area will feature a Peking duck oven, noodle bar, and private tea rooms. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus will include steamed buns, porridge, Dim Sum, dumplings, pan-fried shrimp, roasted duck, barbecue pork, and noodle soup.
Aegis Living staff have made several trips to China to comb Shanghai shops for antiques, furniture, statues, and other art to furnish Aegis Gardens. Hallways will be designed to resemble ornate, 19th-century Shikumen architecture that populates so many neighborhoods in China. Aegis Living imported from China a half-ton, 5-foot-tall meditation scholar stone to be installed (and backlit) in a center courtyard’s reflection pond. Aegis Gardens also will house a preschool and daycare center so that, ideally, senior residents can enjoy watching young people (even some of their own grandchildren) play and learn.
Living at Aegis Gardens won’t be cheap. Entrance fees start at $15,000 per resident and increase according to level of luxury. Monthly rent ranges between $4,400
and $12,600 for studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments. Units are as large as 1,200 square feet. The five-story building is absent a fourth floor, which is a very unlucky number in Chinese culture. Instead, each floor has been given significant symbols and names. The first floor is the garden level; the top floor is the penthouse level.
Aegis Gardens’ operations will be overseen by Meng Lo, a hotel and hospitality industry veteran who spent 13 years opening hotels in Asia before he moved to the U.S. in 2014 and was hired as the director of hotel operations at the Marriott Hotel on the downtown Seattle waterfront.
Lo sees Aegis Gardens as providing a much-needed service for a younger generation of Chinese-American families living on the Eastside, raising their own families, and enjoying successful careers while also trying to take care of an aging parent or grandparent. “It’s hard to juggle, and they feel like it’s time for them to find something that is more meaningful for their parents. Coming over and staying with us at Aegis Gardens opens up a whole new set of lifestyle options with programmed activities from (morning to evening).”
Aegis Gardens in Newcastle already secured deposits on nearly 20 percent of the units by mid-June, and Clark is confident the building will be fully occupied before long.
Clark envisioned opening more Chinese-American senior-living communities in other West Coast cities – Portland; Los Angeles; Vancouver, B.C. – where large swaths of the population are comprised of Chinese-American residents. The company’s Asian culture-centered communities could even be whole separate successful businesses, according to Clark. This could complement an already expanding portfolio of Aegis Living properties: Another seven Aegis Living communities are in development in the Greater Seattle area; one is scheduled to open on Mercer Island in fall 2018.
“Between our Newcastle property and our Fremont property, those two alone (equal) $20 million per year in revenue,” he said. “That’s a pretty good company on its own.”