Pick Up Stix founder Charlie Zhang helps youths achieve music dreams
When he was working for seven years in the rice paddies of rural China, digging trenches and seeding soil, and eating grass to fill his empty stomach, young Charlie Zhang possessed a single treasure: his brother’s old clarinet. He taught himself a few Chinese songs – “the classical Western music you weren’t allowed to play,” he says – and he stole away to the fields at night so he wouldn’t bother the other workers. He played for hours, contemplating little but the melody.
“We were young. We didn’t know what else life had for us,” he says. “This field was our life. We had no other choice.”
Part of China’s so-called lost generation, Zhang was one of 17 million urban youth sent to work in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. The communist government promoted the journeys of the “sent-down youths” as ones of adventure and education, missions that would bind them to rural peasants and sharpen their skills. Yet the work amounted to forced hard labor, subjecting many youths to privations and loneliness that lingered with them the rest of their lives.
Zhang likes to say he had one friend in those days: his clarinet. Its melody reverberates to this day.
“We own this whole building,” Zhang tells a photographer who has arrived to take his picture in his offices at Zion Enterprises, a real estate and development company in Laguna Niguel. He waves his hand. “You can go anywhere you want.”
Zhang, now 60, was sitting in the board room. He started the company – upcoming projects include a 299-unit condominium complex in downtown Los Angeles – after making his fortune in the restaurant and beverage-manufacturing industries. He started, and later sold, the Pick Up Stix chain and Aseptic Solutions, a beverage-manufacturing company in Corona.
Zhang relishes talking about that which can be summed up in a series of matter-of-fact details. He discusses the aesthetics of the bamboo screen walls in a conference room, the size of the fish in the koi pond downstairs, the heavy table imported from Asia – “It took seven men to get that up here!” He is particularly proud of his office desk, modeled on the one in the Oval Office. “Same size as the one in the White House,” he says. “Exact replica.”
The distant past is a more difficult subject. “Honestly, the past is the past,” he says. “You have to focus on the present and what you can do now. Don’t let the past put chips on your shoulders.”
But it’s his past that inspired the rest of his life. Before he was sent to the countryside to work, Zhang’s family of nine children had already suffered under the Communist regime. When Zhang was 2 years old, his father, who owned a successful coffee-roasting company in Shanghai, was tossed into prison for 20 years. “He was a businessman who was not fully cooperating with the Communist system,” explains Zhang. His mother and older siblings kept multiple jobs to survive; they ate little and recycled one another’s clothes. “I even wore my sisters’ clothes at times,” says Zhang.
With two small suitcases, Zhang reported to the countryside rice paddies at age 17. Seven years later, he returned to Shanghai, where he faced few prospects. But he had his passion – music – and that offered an escape. Across the world, in Los Angeles, a tiny music academy on Wilshire Boulevard had offered him a scholarship. His uncle was already living in the U.S. and could pay for his airfare. Zhang remembers his mother’s face, damp with tears. But he got on the plane, with his clarinet and about $20 in his pocket.
Music school, however, didn’t last; he ran out of cash and needed a job. He applied for nearly 20 before he finally found afternoon work as a busboy at a Chinese restaurant and night work as a gas station attendant. “Music, you need a lot of money,” he says. “I didn’t have money. And also, you come to the United States and you have to make a living. Music wasn’t going to make you money. It was leisure. I realized that, and I went to the restaurant with no other choice.”
He holds up a finger bearing a long scar. “I tell you, when you’re cutting chicken and almost cut your finger off? A musician with no finger? How are you going to do that?” he says. “So I realized it’s not going to happen.”
So he worked long hours. He saved his money. He observed what plates came back empty and what lay untouched. A neighbor suggested he change his Chinese name – Xianghua – to something Americans could pronounce: Charlie? Zhang shrugged and went with it.
In 1984, he met the person who would support him in the decades to come, Ling, whom he married the next year.
Zhang first saw Ling, a Taiwanese immigrant, at a Chinese-language Christian church that he visited with a waiter friend. He recalls her as a pretty missionary, someone who had studied the Bible in great detail. “I become a believer because of my wife,” says Zhang, who remains active in his San Clemente church.
Ling recalls how Charlie spoke fondly about his mother and how he treated the elderly in their church with great respect. “That’s why I married him,” she says.
Meanwhile, Zhang and a partner saved up money to start Shanghai Charlie’s in San Juan Capistrano, a popular restaurant that would stay in his family for more than 30 years. But in 1989, realizing that most people wanted their Chinese food to go, he started Pick Up Stix.
Enter Richard Alessandro, a businessman whose late wife, a real estate agent, had worked with Zhang to find property. The two men became friendly, and Zhang asked for his help getting Pick Up Stix off the ground. “Charlie Zhang can outwork anybody,” says Alessandro. “If he needs to work eight days a week because somebody else is working seven, he will.”
Zhang was always working, even when he wasn’t. Alessandro recalls how the Zhang family – which by then included two boys – went on a vacation to San Diego. Zhang kept calling Alessandro because he saw good potential locations.
Alessandro says Zhang was sometimes shy about leading meetings because of his accent. He’d ask Alessandro to do the talking, but Alessandro would demur. “I’d say ‘Charlie, you’re far more endearing than I am,’” he says. Employees liked Zhang. Alessandro recalls Zhang paid the funeral costs for a worker who died unexpectedly. “And that wasn’t when he was wealthy,” he says. “He was a guy who had everything on the line, mortgaged to the hilt.”
Eventually, they grew the chain to 100 locations before selling to the Carlson Co., owner of TGI Friday’s, in 2001 for $50 million. Three years later, a restless Zhang started Aseptic Solutions, which has a technology and bottling process to extend the shelf life of organic beverages. In 2012, Aseptic sold for $60 million to a European conglomerate.
Zhang kept playing clarinet over the years, occasionally for events at his church. Three years ago, he joined the board of the Pacific Symphony. Gregory P. Cox, the symphony’s vice president for development, said he was struck not only by Zhang’s story but by his passion.
“Really he is a musician at heart,” Cox says. “He didn’t have an opportunity in his home country. This is for him a work of passion, and he’s able to give back, especially for the children in our community.”
Zhang speaks up routinely at board meetings about the importance of music education for local children, Cox says. He attends every youth orchestra program and often brings friends.
“It’s like he’s on a mission,” he says. “He wants everyone to know about the Pacific Symphony.”
Earlier this summer, Zhang financed nearly the entire trip to China for the symphony’s young musicians and chaperones, a total of about 100 people. They played with young Chinese musicians, visited sites like the Great Wall and even got tickets to the new Shanghai Disneyland.
Zhang says, “I feel it’s a great idea not only for them to play music but also to see culture.”
As development director, Cox works with a lot of donors. But Zhang’s humility and good nature have made him stand out. “He doesn’t really care for a high level of recognition,” Cox says.
What has driven Charlie Zhang all these years? His up-by-the-bootstraps story can come across as too good to be true. And yet, here is Zhang, who came here with little and sold two companies for more than $100 million.
His sons – 27-year-old Ben and 29-year-old Joshua – credit his relentless drive and the support of their mother. “I can remember her saying, ‘Charlie, you can do it!’” says Ben, who lives in the Bay Area and works in the tech industry.
Their father rarely went into great detail about the more difficult parts of his life. But a story here and there would come out – on a long drive to school, a quiet weekend morning at a doughnut shop – and they would understand why he so often told them to appreciate their education and their country, why he hovered over them when they practiced piano or did their homework. Once he was invited to speak at their high school, and he sang “God Bless America” – an embarrassing, but endearing, moment for his sons.
A few years ago, Zhang spoke at a TEDx event at La Sierra University and tried to explain his success. “Have you ever thought about what you can change in a single moment?” he said at that event.
He said at each moment of potential heartbreak – his time at the farm, his early years in the U.S. – he was overcome with a feeling that things would turn out OK. “I had this overwhelming sense that I could make it, I would make it, I had to make it,” he said.
He did, of course. As for that old clarinet? Zhang still has it. These days, it’s packed away, a treasured antique.