Lure of China proves strong for USC grad Allen Wu

After a decade in southern California, an HK software engineer finds the chance to start a business in his homeland impossible to resist

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 August, 2013, 7:14am

Allen Wu, 33, a Hong Kong native, has lived like an American for the past decade. He went to the University of Southern California to pursue computer engineering; he then found a job in Los Angeles as a software engineer; he drove a BMW 530 and lived in a two-storey home in a private community. But Wu was not happy and was tired of being an outsider. He missed staying in his grandmother's cage-size flat and eating her cooking. The US way of life, however, did teach him one thing: he longed for his own business. As he approached his 30s, Wu decided to return to China and is using Shenzhen and Beijing as bases as he develops a news aggregation application for mobile devices.

Why is China more attractive to start a business compared with the United States?

I am eager to spend time with my family after living in the United States for 13 years. My grandma, especially, is ageing and I'm grateful that I can be close to her. I spent some of my happiest moments as a teenager with her. I still remember that she brought me rice crackers every day after work. I grew up in Hong Kong, but I view China as my home country; it's the fastest growing market in the world and full of opportunities. The number of smartphone users is increasing substantially, while the price of smartphones is becoming more affordable each day. Recently, domestic smartphone brand Xiaomi launched its latest product, which costs as low as 799 yuan [HK$1,005]. The conditions are ripe to get a mobile app widely distributed. I'm also excited about the vibrant Chinese IT communities here.

What are the potential challenges of working in China?

Compared with China, the US market focuses more on creativity. When you come up with new ideas, others will try to create something newer to compete. In China, when you make something new, people start to copy it. Many software engineers are concerned about the copyright issue, but I am fine with it because if my technology is always six months ahead of others, it will be hard for people to copy. It is also challenging to get used to the lifestyle in China. The population is so large that getting things done takes time. I try not to let small things affect me; for example, people may get too close to you in a queue and even jump the line. I also have to find alternative activities to do in my spare time. I used to enjoy surfing, skiing and scuba diving in southern California. Now my hobby is roller skating.

What has inspired you in your work?

I am an adventurer. Ever since university, I have wanted to succeed in my own business. I did all kinds of work to save money to buy advanced computer equipment. I waited tables and I worked at a port transferring cargoes of clothes from 12-metre-deep shipping containers. Oddly, I enjoyed seeing the empty container after hours of digging through the cargo. It gave me a fulfilled feeling that I had completed something. The boss used to invite my friends and me to his large house, which has an impressive garden. From then on I realised that when you are rich you have more privilege to do things that others may not be able to do. In 2000, my good friend and classmate Johnny Li, also from Hong Kong, and I started to really work on software development and built a social network called Mooku. If we had understood the market better, we might have established a "Facebook" much earlier. It was an important time for us. In fact, we are now working on developing the application together.

What's new that your app can offer?

We plan to launch the magazine application in September. Funded by seed money, it takes a different approach as a smart aggregator to bring you the news that you want. The inspiration came from a previous experimental project.

What keeps your mind sharp?

I watch movies. A recent favourite is Americans Dreams in China directed by Peter Chan. The story of three men struggling to make their dreams come true is reminiscent of my own experiences in the States. I almost cried at the ending when they finally became successful after many ups and downs. It is also inspiring to see successful Chinese appearing at the end of the film. Also, reading, hanging out with people who are smarter, being a good listener and watching TED Talks all keep me sharp.

Do you have an idol?

When you are rich, you can have influence and help more people. From that aspect, I truly admire Taiwanese businessman Dai Sheng-yi, founder of Wowprime, a food giant that makes Wang Steaks. Dai will donate 80 per cent of his wealth to Taiwan welfare organisations after he dies. He started a charity years ago after an employee died in a car accident as she was trying to earn extra money recycling bottles after work. His goal has been to improve the lives of others. I want to become like him.