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A 'Made in China' US Entrepreneur

Profiles of Confluence: People drawing US and China Closer

By Ann Scott TysonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 28, 1997



HYATTSVILLE, MD.

When you think of toy monster trucks, frilly costumes for little girls, and three-foot-tall pink pandas with "Love You" on the front, Richard Deng hopes you'll think of him.

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Indeed, think of any number of the Chinese-made novelties cramming the shelves in American stores these days - twisting soda pop cans called "Swing Can" ("Cans That Can Swing!"), Diana T-shirts, bead doors, and yin-yang signs - and Deng's Trading, Inc., probably carries them.

"I just try everything, and if it is [a] good sell, I keep doing it," says Mr. Deng, sitting in his cluttered office with the Chinese god of wealth peering down from a poster on the door.

The story of Deng, who owns two retail stores and a cash-and-carry warehouse in Hyattsville, Md., is about penny-pinching Chinese entrepreneurship, the unquenchable American thirst for new things, and how they add up to a record $40 billion US trade deficit with China.

Yet as American retailers pile their aisles with Chinese toys and Christmas decorations, nudging China's surplus up toward that of Japan, Deng also has some heartening thoughts for United States trade representatives.

At the moment, though, Deng is busy, very busy.

"We have one design, only one," he shouts into the phone, and hangs up. It is 9:30 p.m. and people are still calling. Two days before the Million Woman March in Philadelphia, everyone in town seems to want some of Deng's special event T-shirts.

Wearing a navy-blue hooded sweatshirt and matching pants, Deng looks as if he needs a vacation. He does. He's never taken one. "People said in this country you have to work very hard," he explains. "So I work hard."

A middle-aged electrical engineering professor from Chengdu, Sichuan Province, Deng never planned to start an import business when he arrived here in 1983 with his $100 life savings in his pocket.

But after earning a master's degree in his field at the University of Maryland, he grew frustrated watching Americans 10 years his junior land jobs he couldn't get, he says, due to his accented English.

"My golden time for research was over," says Deng, who had already sacrificed 10 years to Mao's radical 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. "I think I'm not too young. Maybe in this country I [can] do some business."

Deng had seen "yard sale" signs around his neighborhood and got an idea. He ordered a couple hundred dollars worth of Chinese female-figurine lamps, set them out near the road, and was amazed to earn $900 on a Saturday afternoon.

"It was so easy!" he says, still chuckling at the thought. "Most Americans didn't see too many Chinese things. Looks very good, but so cheap! So, I had some confidence."

It was 1987, and Deng was in the right place at the right time: The curve of the US trade deficit with China had just topped $3 billion and was starting a steep climb. That Christmas, Deng rented a stall in a local shopping mall, using a shoe box for a cash register. He earned $3,000 in a month. Next came a retail store in Ocean City, Md., and, two years later, his 18,000-square-foot warehouse in Hyattsville.

TODAY, Deng grosses a few million dollars in sales each year, enough to provide a comfortable life for his wife and daughter. Two years ago, he became a US citizen. But, he says, times are changing.

"There is too much competition," he sighs. "I am a Chinese-American, and even I go into the stores now and say `Ah, everything is made in China!'"

Deng has also seen his profit margins shrink in recent years as rising wages in China push up the cost of the goods he imports. Quality, meanwhile, does not always keep pace. "What China needs now is some quality, some name-brands," he says, "not just this cheap stuff."

For the time being, Deng has tried to compensate by diversifying, adding some American-made picture frames and other goods to his inventory. This also allows him to hedge his bets against a political downturn in US-China relations that he fears could hike tariffs on Chinese imports. "We can't put all the eggs in one basket."

Down the road, though, Deng envisions an altogether different kind of opportunity.

"You know, even though most Chinese are poor, a few are getting rich," he smiles. "My sister is a representative for name-brand American merchandise in China. I think this is a good future for me."

He laughs, holding up his hands as if framing the title on an imaginary door: "Exclusive representative to open the China market!"

* Second of several profiles running this week.