Immigrant-Entrepreneur Charlie Zhang Provides a New Home to the Pacific Symphony and Other Arts Groups

Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi

Ask Charlie Zhang to show you his hand, and he’ll do it gladly, just like everything else he does. There’s a scar on his left index finger, running diagonally across the top, a little thicker than a hair. It doesn’t look like much, but it changed his life. Working in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, he was cutting frozen chicken—and then his finger—when his hand holding the meat cleaver slipped. It was 1980, and his music career ended that day.

It was his first week in this country.

Sitting recently in the expansive corporate offices of his Laguna Niguel investment and real estate development firm, Zion Enterprises, Zhang—everyone calls him Charlie, he’s a Charlie kind of guy—recounted his early days here. He is slight and trim, fashionably bespectacled, wearing a coat but no tie, a remarkably youthful-looking 61. His desk is a replica of the one in the Oval Office; an American flag hangs nearby. He listens attentively to questions before answering in a thickly accented, syntactically challenged English that nevertheless conveys unstinting energy and enthusiasm.

His back story bears repeating. He arrived in the U.S. from China with $20, intending to study clarinet at Pasadena City College. He soon realized he needed more money and got that job in the Chinese restaurant. Because of the deep cut in his finger, he quit the clarinet.

“Well, with the injury, you can’t play,” he explains. “After that you’re out of shape. Also, there was so much going on in my life at the time, so I decided that’s not for me.” He quickly changed course and dropped out of college. “Yeah, I couldn’t even pay for the second month (of school).”

You know where this is going, right? Living in a cramped apartment with three others, Zhang scrimped and saved for 27 months, socked away $7,200—he has a keen memory for exact figures—and, going into business for himself, founded Shanghai Charlie’s restaurant in Capistrano Beach in 1984. In quick succession, he opened New Shanghai in Laguna Niguel and Mandarin King in Laguna Beach (both in 1985), then a Thai restaurant and a Japanese restaurant. In 1989 he launched the fast-casual restaurant Pick Up Stix in Rancho Santa Margarita, which took off like fire and grew rapidly to 100 locations. In 2001, he sold the chain for $50 million.

Through the years, his love of music never left him. But he was a businessman. The clarinet was rarely taken out of the case. He married and raised two sons. When a friend on the board of the Pacific Symphony approached him about joining, he did some reading, had some meetings, and signed up. Music became central to his life again.

Recently, he stepped up in a dramatic way, buying a new building for the Pacific Symphony, kind of out of the blue. He had been quietly alert to discussions that the symphony’s lease was up in a few years. When his colleague Rick Scatterday told him that the old Western Growers Association building on MacArthur Boulevard was for sale at a reasonable price, Zhang swung by to take a look. He snapped a photo and texted it with a message to Pacific Symphony president John Forsyte: “Future home of the Pacific Symphony?”

Forsyte describes Zhang’s style at the orchestra’s board meetings this way: “He waits until a lot of voices are heard and then at a moment I think where he can say something that inspires positive action, he says it. He’s not a big verbal guy in the room.”

“That’s me, because my personality, first of all, it’s always observation,” Zhang later says, agreeing with Forsyte. “I want to be every day a dry sponge, learning. I don’t have an ego, I just want to learn.” The other board members, he says, “They are veterans, they are leaders, those are smart teachers.” 

Then he springs into action. “I don’t want to talk about it, but there may be a key area people are missing, a crack maybe I can fill in and become a team player. That’s pretty much what I want to be.”

He quickly set about gutting the new building, turning it into a suitable space for the orchestra’s administration, overseeing the work himself, sometimes doing it himself. Forsyte recalls the day he was sitting in his new office and Zhang opened the door, a drill in his hand. He had heard Forsyte needed a hook on the closet door to hang his coat. While a dumbfounded Forsyte held the hook, the multimillionaire landlord drilled in the screws. “He says, ‘Done!’ ” Forsyte recalls, chuckling.

In the other half of the building, Zhang set about realizing another of the orchestra’s long-discussed goals, creating a nonprofit community music school. It opened in February and is called OC Music and Dance. The day I visited, as Forsyte gave me a tour, we came upon Zhang in one of the rooms, printing some fliers. He quickly joined the tour, espousing the new school’s amenities. It has eight music/rehearsal rooms, two classrooms, three dance studios, a recording studio, and a 120-seat black box theater. The Pacific Symphony plans to use the school for many of its education activities. There’s also a restaurant on-site, run by Monkey Business Café of Fullerton, a benefit corporation and training program for at-risk teens and young adults.

“It’s a passion,” Zhang says of the school. “There’s no money here.” The contemporary dance troupe, Backhausdance, has its headquarters in the building, as does Arts Orange County.

Meanwhile, across the hall, the orchestra’s new digs are 15,000 square feet, giving the group about 55 percent more space, but Zhang charges the same rent. On the front of the building, the orchestra’s logo is displayed prominently to a busy street, a healthy dose of branding for the group, which is important to him.

Born in Shanghai, Zhang was sent to the countryside to work on a farm Jan. 3, 1973—he mentions the exact date—as part of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. He brought his clarinet with him and practiced in the forest so as not to disturb the other laborers who were tired after a day’s work. Every few months, he’d return to Shanghai for lessons and bring back music to practice on the farm. Asked how good he was before he cut his finger, he says, “I was pretty good. I was able to play ‘(Flight of the) Bumble Bee.’ ”

Forsyte describes him as incredibly positive and never critical. “(He’ll) find a way to have a solution, to makes things better for people.” In addition to becoming one of the board’s top donors, he “picked weaknesses that we needed to address” and started working on them.

Zhang recognizes his own work ethic. “I’m an extremely effective, productive person,” he says, without sounding boastful. “Every day I do more things than other people do. I can multitask. Also, I love people.” 

He is deeply interested in the Pacific Symphony’s youth ensembles, and he sponsored the youth orchestra’s trip to China last summer, going along with them. He got so involved with the Pacific Symphony’s recent annual Chinese New Year concert, which enlisted hundreds from the community—many of them amateurs—that Forsyte credits him with curating it.

Zhang rarely picks up the clarinet these days; during the holidays at his church, perhaps. He gets his boost from listening. His favorite composers aren’t surprising choices: Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. But he is responsive to all classical music and gets close to rapturous talking about it. On listening to music in the car: “I feel just beauty in there. Also, music gives you motivation. Some of the music—honestly, Beethoven 9, the last movement, when you finish and you get in a meeting, you are so pumped up.”

He says sometimes after hearing a piece, he feels compelled to call his wife and say, “ ‘Ling, I just want to tell you, I love you!’ This is why I listen to beautiful music.”

SEE IT! Pacific Symphony and OC Music and Dance will host an open house May 17.

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