ToneToneFebruary 9, 201013min1150

Lancaster says ‘ni hao’ to Chinese investors

The Antelope Valley city is going all out to woo Chinese businesses, including having officials take basic Mandarin lessons to greet potential investors.

Lancaster says ‘ni hao’ to Chinese investors –,0,7072335.story

When the eight-minute promotional video wrapped up, Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris’ review wasn’t entirely flattering.

The movie-making seemed amateurish in spots, and, in some shots, he and others would have benefited from a little makeup. Most important, the mayor told his staff, there weren’t enough Asians in the video.

“If we’re going to try to attract members of the Asian business community, we need to have more Asians in there,” Parris told staffers.

The promotional video, which Parris requested be re-shot before being dubbed in Mandarin, is part of a larger strategy that Lancaster hopes will help it attract Chinese investment and create jobs in a region where unemployed is pegged at 17%.

The city is sending business delegations to China, partnering with a Chinese sister city, and using a language tutor to teach bureaucrats Mandarin.

It may seem odd that this frontier desert town, where many residents relish the separation and distance from downtown L.A., is actively courting the language and culture of a far-flung land. But city leaders say they’re on a mission.

“We have to recognize it’s a global economy,” said Parris, who has been studying Mandarin using the language-learning software Rosetta Stone, and plans to send his two adult sons on a year-long language-study trip to China. “The Chinese have trillions of American dollars. We want them to reinvest those dollars back into America.”

In recent years, other Los Angeles County cities have proved to be a bigger draw for foreign-owned or -affiliated business enterprises. According to data published by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. last spring, there are 4,521 foreign-owned and -affiliated businesses in Los Angeles County — most of them Japanese. Los Angeles topped the list with the most foreign enterprises, while Antelope Valley placed last.

City leaders are eager to change their standing by promoting Lancaster as a destination with foreign investment appeal.

In recent months, Lancaster has hosted several delegations of potential Chinese investors. The visitors arrive to a city defined more by sprawling malls and landscapes dotted with Joshua trees than by the park-perfect industrial districts of Silicon Valley or the bustle and neon of Los Angeles.

But they are welcomed in Mandarin by staff and officials who attended 2 1/2 -hour Mandarin classes every other week for about four months last year.

The greetings typically amount to “Hello. How are you? How was your trip? Welcome to Lancaster,” said Luis Garibay, a senior redevelopment project coordinator for the city, described by colleagues as one of the most proficient Mandarin students. The classes are to resume sometime this year.

“We never expected to become experts,” Garibay said. “The goal was to get some fundamentals, to help break down barriers.”

“What’s important is the understanding that we care enough to try to understand their culture and language, and to try to communicate, even on a small level, that their investment is important to us,” said Deputy City Manager Jason Caudle, who also took the Mandarin lessons.

The strategy might be paying off.

Parris said Lancaster was “leading the pack” to become the location for a new car-making plant owned by the Chinese manufacturer BYD Co. Ltd, a giant in the rechargeable battery industry.

A delegation of Lancaster businesspeople, clergy and city staff will travel to China before spring to meet with potential investors, Parris said. Lancaster is also pursuing a sister-city relationship with Huainan, in China’s central Anhui province. And Lancaster is considering establishing a bilingual English-Mandarin charter school in an effort to entice more Asians to move to the city, Parris said.

Asians make up only 3.8% of Lancaster’s population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data; city officials say about a dozen Chinese-owned businesses — most of them commercial enterprises such as restaurants and retail stores — call Lancaster home.

“You can’t just say you’re a comfortable place for Chinese to do business, you have to be a comfortable place for Chinese to do business,” Parris said.