“The Luxury of Home: From Shanghai to China Beach”

HaLong-postcardDa Nang, Vietnam, 27 November 2013

… My laptop screensaver has a similar view of Ha Long Bay, from my last visit to Vietnam in 2007. 

Years, locations and career transitions have flown by, and this image has reminded me to keep a worldly perspective on whatever I do — and wherever I go.

Whether as a memory of a visit to my origins — like this moment in writing from a cafe at my birthplace in Da Nang — or as I renew my ventures abroad after six rather domestic years as an entrepreneur in my Western home in Los Angeles.

I must sail on like these ships in the South China Sea.  We are restless, driven by the rising Sun in the East, and in pursuit of the setting sun out West.  MDN”

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Da Nang, Vietnam, November 26, 2013

“Peeezzzz….” Swat!  Within a minute of laying my head down on the lumpy yellow pillow, a mosquito flew directly within striking distance of my left ear.  I knew more were en route as I used a thin worn sheet as a barrier – which barely covered my feet to neck and left my head exposed to their nightly feeding rituals.

Prior to arriving in Vietnam, I had spent two weeks as part of the UCLA-NUS Executive MBA program in the luxurious confines of the Royal Le Meridien in Shanghai.  The hotel upgraded me to a deluxe room on the 40th floor as a lifetime Starwood Gold Member, a status earned from 384 nights with that chain alone since my globetrotting began after receiving my first degree from UCLA in 1994.

But, every time I’ve returned to my birthplace in Da Nang (also known as “China Beach” the infamous military retreat and setting for the TV show from the 1990s) since the U.S. and Vietnam normalized relations about two decades ago – I have always stayed with my relatives in the center of the bustling city.  No screened windows to keep out the thirsty bugs, few creature comforts in the bathless bathroom and the communal bedrooms, and the occasional rat scurrying across the kitchen floor.  On the faded walls, they displayed pictures of me and my younger brother, cousins and family – and most prominently our graduation pictures which they are especially proud.

Graduation-Family

My aunts cooked the same meal this evening to welcome me, as they did the first time the saw me since my family and I left the country in 1975 at the end of the war – marinated beef with lemongrass, fried potato wedges, salad and tomatoes.  On the first visit back in 1995, accompanied by two fellow Americans and Fulbright Fellows who traveled with me during our year abroad in Singapore – we chuckled as we were served the same meal every night, but politely ate as they insisted we were all too thin, and were quite pleased to offer us meat and potatoes given the hardships they’ve faced.

… Earlier in the day, I had an appointment at the Hyatt Regency Resort in Da Nang Beach, one of the newest and most posh seaside resorts in the country, if not all of Asia.  It has an enviable location along a stretch of white sand, and reminded me of beachfront properties I’ve stayed in from Bali to Maui, the Mayan Riviera and the Venetian Lido.

Hyatt-DaNang

There I had an appointment with an American businessman who my long-time friend the Deputy U.S. Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) thought I should meet while visiting Da Nang.   This admirable gentleman served during the War, then returned to Vietnam a decade ago to help train entrepreneurs on modern management techniques.  We spoke of how local businesses were transforming their communities with innovative tapioca farms and sustainable fishing, while multinational companies continued to expand their presence by mining for gold and growing lumber for wood chips.

As we were leaving, we met the Director of Rooms who was previously at the Hyatt’s notorious property on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, where I have been for entertainment industry events.

“You went from Guns ‘N Roses throwing TVs out their windows to this…” I remarked with subtle surprise.

“Yeah, no rock stars riding Harleys down the hallways here!”  he smiled, as we breezed through the pristine marble lobby. “Let me know next time you visit.  We would love to have you stay with us.”

Actually, I had checked the Hyatt’s rates the week prior and was quite tempted to book a room there – which was under $200/night given the off season – a steal for such a gorgeous property (and cheaper than the nightly rate I paid in Shanghai), but extravagant in the eyes of my relatives and most locals.  Moreover, staying there or anywhere but their place would probably have offended their sensibilities.

… The smell of the menthol-infused Tiger Balm wafted in the air; my aunt handed it to me with a reminder it would alleviate mosquito bites.  I looked more closely at the opaque little hexagon canister, which dated back to the mid-1990s when I first visited my relatives, and brought a box as a gift from Singapore.  Amazing they have kept these remedies for so long and perhaps held on to some for safekeeping for my future stays – since they knew I would return and stay at “home” – and therefore would be in greater need of it.

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Hitting the Re-Start Button in L.A. and Singapore

Singapore-2013-Front 4 June 2013, Singapore

“… Déjà vu, nearly twenty years later as I have returned as a student at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

And, coincidentally it is also linked to UCLA Anderson School’s MBA program — so it’s time (again) to learn and re-learn in two familiar settings and institutions.

I didn’t think I’d have to hit the restart button at the age of 40 — but life is full of irony and wonder, surprises at every turn of fate and circular path… MDN”

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23 June 2013, Los Angeles, California

A year ago, I celebrated my 40th birthday on a glorious Saturday evening while enjoying performances by many artists my label has showcased since 2009, surrounded by family and friends from my creative and diplomatic worlds.  Though, the celebration was tinged by uncertainty after a challenging and ultimately, impoverished three years as an passionate entrepreneur.  My former business partner and I were about to close the offices of Planet LA Records on June 30, 2012.  Nevertheless, the foundation of what we had built among our artists and brand partners would continue and strengthen (and later manifest into wonderful collaborations this year during Grammy week and the annual SXSW festival).

My birthday wish a year ago was for a fresh start, a re-start — as I knew the course I was following at the time was unsustainable, and heading in the wrong direction.  Too much risk was taken while navigating unchartered waters of the music industry’s rocky business models.  Like a ship that had veered off course, I had to re-gain control of the wayward enterprise and my own destiny.  At that pivotal juncture, I decided it was time to re-invent and re-invest in my skills through new academic and professional pursuits.

For the rest of the year, I re-connected with my professional network about career options while considering leading M.B.A. programs.  I interviewed for positions that would have taken me to Africa or Asia, and also applied to graduate programs back East, in Madrid and Singapore.  There was a diminishing possibility that I would stay in L.A. beyond last year.  In any event, I was confident I would still be able to turn the ship around and away from the undertow…

“Peach blossoms during Lunar New Year… the orchid from last year has re-bloomed with eight yellow stems,” my mother pointed out while I helped her in the garden this Spring.

“These are auspicious signs!”PeachBlossom she insisted.

For the past three years, I kept saying I would help her re-plant and fertilize the flowers, trees and succulents — however, I was entirely driven on launching my start-up business, and didn’t stop to do so, or re-gain my footing… until this season.

By April, after sowing many seeds last year — some fantastic options appeared.  Last month, I accepted an offer to work with MNET/CJ E&M, an Asian entertainment conglomerate to support their brand partnerships.  Weeks later, I embarked on a flight to Singapore to begin my Executive M.B.A. with the UCLA Anderson School of Management and its partner program, the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.  Coincidentally enough, I attended both academic institutions in the mid-1990s — and two decades later, have hit the re-start button.  This time around, the settings may be familiar, but the situations are decidedly better.

Spore-City1There is a Buddhist expression in Sanskrit known as “Saṃsāra” or the “cycle of existence” and how one may be caught in a vicious pattern due to ignorance, anxiety and dissatisfaction.

Buddhist philosophies encourage individuals to recognize and attempt to break free from Saṃsāra and suffering in order to reach enlightenment.  This is not necessarily religious dogma, but does provide useful guidance in life — whether to learn from past mistakes, achieve a heightened awareness of the present, or gain greater focus for the future.

I tend to get a bit self-reflective on days like this — and grateful that I can look back upon the year with much satisfaction, more knowledge and higher hopes that I am on a better path.

Nevertheless, there is still much distance left at sea on this exciting journey… and before I will reach the stability of land and more promising territory.

Today, it has been a happier birthday!

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Déjà Vu in Singapore and Los Angeles: Re-Learning and Renewed Opportunities

Singapore-FrontMar2013

17 December 2000, Singapore

“…  yet another déjà vu along the Equator — and another return to the self-proclaimed Switzerland of Asia.  Since my last trip over two years ago — the city has become more affordable owing to both the strength of the dollar and my own rising income.

And, new additions — malls, of course — and the first child of my friends Ron and Annemie — Otis!

Now, as he ran barefoot in the grass while gurgling his first phrases of Dutch and English — he will soon grow, and quickly.

Singapore-BackMar2013

As the Millenium marches on — we are all bound to evolve… MDN”

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March 21, 2013, Los Angeles, California

We like entrepreneurs.  They add a lot to the peer learning of the program.”  One of the professors in the interview committee said over a speakerphone from Singapore.

Based on your credentials and our discussion today, we intend to grant you admission,” another professor added.  “Congratulations, you will receive a confirmation shortly.  We hope to see you when the program starts in May in Singapore!”

As the call with the UCLA-NUS (University of California, Los Angeles and National University of Singapore) Executive MBA committee ended, it felt like déjà vu — though not in a circular and redundant sense, but rather as if being lifted up a spiral path, which would finally allow me to move upward and forward after a challenging three years as an entrepreneur.

Over two decades ago, I began my university education at UCLA and graduated in 1994, then went on to do a Fulbright Fellowship at the National University of Singapore from 1994-1995 before my graduate studies.  I find it rather coincidental these two institutions have linked their renown MBA programs, and that I would be returning to both soon, for a second round of training.

In fact, the start of Spring had been particularly eventful, and earlier the same day I was offered a job with a global media company I had been interviewing with over the past month.  I had more meetings with their executive team, who told me they were ready to welcome me on board starting May 1.

After an incredibly difficult year in 2012, in which I had to reassess my career and life ambitions (coincidentally upon turning 40) — I actively took steps towards re-learning and re-focusing.

Last year, my business partner and I closed the offices of our start-up Planet LA Records in June 2012 (a week after I turned 40; something about that milestone…).  I then applied for new positions and with MBA programs in L.A., as well as the Midwest, East Coast and options abroad — which might have taken me back to Asia or Europe, where I had lived and spent much time in my previous profession.

Many who I encountered were often intrigued or perplexed by my background and transition from a decade-long career in international trade and at global law firms in Washington D.C. and Geneva, Switzerland — to working with musical artists and events in L.A. and cultural hubs like Austin, Texas.

“Why Music?” was a common question I was asked by interviewers.

Music icons and independents alike in the industry would find that a challenging question in the digital age.  As I have learned firsthand, it is extremely tough to be profitable, or even sustainable in pursuit of a musical career.  Many artists and their supporters do it out of passion and to establish a creative legacy, and not because of any predictable or financial returns.

So, how did I answer this question?  And what does my future look like in 2013 and beyond?  At least, according to my Facebook post today about the pending career and academic changes, 111 friends “like” the news and are curious to find out.

… The answer is, as expressed in the postcard I wrote above from Singapore in 2000:  “We are all bound to evolve.”

As I or we age, grow from pitfalls and progress, learn and re-learn from classrooms and life lessons, and take second chances and seize new opportunities — we must constantly evolve in our perspectives and through our actions.

For instance, a week ago, my team from Planet LA and I returned from Austin, Texas after our fourth consecutive year of showcasing artists during the annual SXSW festival (a leading music and branded-entertainment event).  On the first trip in 2010 after Planet LA started, we brought on tour three bands from L.A. and showcased them at local venues and a suburban Whole Foods Market cafe I reached out to weeks prior, and with no sponsors involved.  On the second trip in 2011, we showcased a dozen artists in front of the same Whole Foods Market and had two in-kind partners offering free snack bars and drinks.  While in town, we saw the posh Gibson tour bus pass by and had joked how cool it would be to go on tour with the bus someday.  A year ago in 2012, we partnered with a collective group to showcase over three dozen artists (including now well-known bands The Lumineers and Imagine Dragons) at the Whole Foods global headquarters in downtown Austin with dozens of brand partners and sponsors.  This year, our showcase with the Whole Planet Foundation on March 10, 2013 attracted a record-breaking, capacity crowd on the main rooftop plaza as we featured leading artists and sponsors in support of Whole Planet’s annual prosperity campaign.  Also this year, our brand partners at Gibson Guitar reserved their national touring bus for the event which was parked next to the Whole Foods Market the entire day.

We are all bound to evolve.

wpf-sx2013-finalflyer

Gibson-WholeFoods

Honestly, I don’t know whether that means I have figured out the answer to: “Why Music?”

Given the challenges and despite the progress, perhaps the time is near to suspend Planet LA after three years, and hope that its innovative business model will transform and live on in a renewed capacity.   I do know that I have gained valuable skills and brand networks that I intend to leverage in a new position soon.   Moreover, I recognize that I have additional and critical tools left to gather and sharpen in my toolbox, and must go back to school.

Interestingly enough, it may well be déjà vu academically and professionally — as I prepare to return to the classrooms of two familiar institutions with UCLA near home and NUS in Singapore, and reinforce my abilities to lead in a global setting and creative environment.

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