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The Printer's Son

Charlie Chan worked to give his children every opportunity. His son, Hamilton, became a banker, a lawyer, and a studio executive—but he was not happy. How he found joy is a modern parable

Hamilton Chan was the smartest person I knew at Harvard. He was maddening. When I stayed up all night because a paper was due the next day, I worked on the paper. Too often I got a B. When Hamilton pulled an all-nighter, he played computer games, chatted with girls in the dorm, beat all comers at foosball, and napped. At dawn he began to write, and inevitably he got an A. Hamilton graduated with highest honors, was accepted at Harvard Law School, then deferred admission and joined J.P. Morgan in Hong Kong as an investment banker. He chose Hong Kong because he wanted to learn more about where his family had come from. Using the flawless Cantonese and Mandarin he had absorbed by watching Chinese soap operas, he worked 130 hours a week creating financial projections, jetting around Asia, and negotiating deals. Before he was 23, he was making more than $125,000 a year. “He could have made millions,” then-colleague Gary Cheng says. But Hamilton Chan was not happy.

I followed his success from afar, usually by way of conversations with mutual friends. When we were both at home in Los Angeles, we would meet for lunch or a game of pickup basketball. He was slow and stocky, but he was good. He would surprise me with a running hook shot and then flash an easy smile.

Like my mother and father before me, I had become a newspaper reporter, and I thought I was doing pretty well. Hamilton, though, decided to use his deferred law school admission and return to Harvard. By the second year, I’d heard that he was ducking law classes, sleeping in, and spending a lot of time perfecting his left-handed layup.

It didn’t matter. He excelled anyway. In his final year, he interviewed at 26 top law firms and got 26 callbacks. The 12 he chose for final interviews all offered him a position. It was scalp collecting—“a bit psychotic,” Hamilton would tell me. “I applied to all those places to prove myself.” He chose Munger, Tolles & Olson so he could come back to L.A. “They were the most prestigious firm in the western United States,” he said. “More than half the people in that firm graduated summa cum laude. I knew because I counted.” Hamilton, who practiced corporate law, fit right in. He joined the Munger Tolles recruiting committee, even took charge of doling out Laker tickets. His clients included Kobe Bryant. Hamilton helped him buy a basketball team in Italy. But still, Hamilton Chan was not happy.

In 1962, Hamilton’s father had emigrated from Hong Kong to Los Angeles because he wanted success and happiness, especially for his family. His name was Hamilton Charlie Chan. Hamilton seemed harder to say, so he became Charlie. “People started making fun of me,” Charlie recalls. He knew nothing of Charlie Chan, the Chinese American film detective from the 1930s and ’40s who spoke in Confucian aphorisms and raised 14 children, the eldest known as “Number One Son.” By the time the real Charlie Chan became a student at Los Angeles City College, the movie Charlie Chan was seen as a disgraceful stereotype.

The name Charlie Chan also didn’t help much when he applied for jobs. Finally he answered an ad placed by the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, which needed agents. A manager handed him the Yellow Pages. “There are your clients,” the manager said. The phone book revealed Charlie’s talent. He could sell insurance to anyone, and now his name seemed to help. When Charlie Chan called, people asked, Is that your real name? It was the opening he needed. Equitable sponsored him for permanent residency, and Charlie Chan was put in charge of an Equitable branch office in the 3400 block of Wilshire Boulevard. He invested in the stock market and lost his savings. But he married a Vietnamese woman of Chinese descent named Christine, and they were happy.

Christine suggested he start a business. He thought of printing. Printers had done well for 500 years, and he figured they would do well for another 500. An Equitable executive tried to talk him out of it; Charlie had 900 regular insurance customers, a solid base for a long and comfortable career. Nonetheless, Charlie and two partners, including a college roommate, opened Chop Chop Printing. The name meant their work would be done quickly and well—chop-chop. But it made introductions difficult: “This is Charlie Chan from Chop Chop Printing.” One partner quit, and in 1971, Charlie reincorporated with the other as Charlie Chan Printing. They reopened just up the street from Equitable. Months in, they had little equipment and no customers, and they were about to shut down when Charlie knocked on the door of another insurance company, a former competitor. Its printer had failed to finish an order of documents. Could Charlie produce thousands of pages in 48 hours? Christine, pregnant with their daughter, helped. They made mistakes collating the order, but they met the deadline and won the account. Word got around, and other insurers followed.

Charlie Chan opened a second shop. Tax credits were so generous that he added others. He considered going national, but a chain of Southern California copy shops called Kinko’s beat him to it. So he catered instead to small businesses and immigrants, along with occasional celebrities: Actor Peter Falk and former Richard Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman were regular customers. Before long Christine was pregnant with Hamilton. The family grew to include employees. “I can’t fire people,” Charlie would say. “I treat everyone like they were my son and daughter.” No boss was a softer touch. Charlie once gave a saleswoman the only cash he happened to have—a hundred dollar bill—and asked her to buy him a Coke. She returned with the drink and said she had given his change to a homeless man out front. Charlie was delighted.

Hamilton worked at the print shops as soon as he was old enough, which turned out to be five. He began by making copies. When Hamilton was six, his parents enrolled him in a community college typing course so he could help with more complex printing jobs. At eight, he took classes at Xerox and became the digital equivalent of a typesetter. It was fun. Ever enterprising, he pressed customers for tips, which his parents let him keep. Jobs at the print shops meant that the Chan children didn’t need a baby-sitter or day care. “We saved our money for their education,” Christine says.

Education became a passion. The best schools were essential for success and happiness. His sister, Julie, went to Marlborough. Hamilton attended the Lycée Français through sixth grade, then switched to the Harvard School, now Harvard-Westlake. The Chans paid for private tutors, debate camp in Texas, summer school physics at Caltech, tennis lessons, piano lessons, gymnastics lessons, even ice skating lessons. If Hamilton didn’t do his homework, his parents said he could always work at Charlie Chan Printing for the rest of his life. “No thanks,” he said. He had bigger things in mind.

Paying for schools required Charlie to make a profit, even during hard times. “I always felt a little desperation,” he recalls. “Three bad days and we were behind.” During the 1990s recession, he came close to bankruptcy. He had bought too many buildings when he expanded. Now short on cash, he could no longer afford the mortgages. Worse, Charlie suffered a stroke while he was talking to a customer on the phone. The customer thought his voice sounded strange, so he summoned help. Charlie recovered, but he lost his largest property. “We had no savings because it all went to education,” he says. “I was barely able to sustain.”

By then Hamilton was at Harvard College, and Julie had finished Princeton (she went on to medical school and became a doctor). Hamilton knew nothing about his father’s financial problems. “He shouldn’t have had to worry,” Charlie says. “How can you study when you have to think about your parents?” Hamilton’s only clue came when Harvard informed him that his senior year tuition was past due. “It seemed odd to me,” he says, “but even then it didn’t raise much of an eyebrow. I just thought, ‘Business up, business down.’ ” He used financial aid to complete the year.

“My parents would say they invested more than half a million dollars in our educations,” he says. “I later did the math—it’s accurate.”

Munger Tolles was Harvard without foosball. As a lawyer, Hamilton turned in a first-rate performance without working very long or very hard. “If I had an asset purchase agreement due Thursday and a merger agreement due Friday,” he says, “that meant I had nothing to do Tuesday and Wednesday.” He was in his late twenties, still athletic if a bit heavier than he’d been in college, and he had a steady girlfriend. Her name was Angela Chen, and she was an attorney in Irvine. On many afternoons he slipped out of his office at three and drove to Orange County to see her. When he arrived before she finished her day, he would find a video game parlor, a batting cage, or a pool table. “Don’t you think you should be working?” she asked. His firm paid little attention to his absences. “He was a rising star,” says fellow lawyer Steve Kim.

As had happened at J.P. Morgan, though, Hamilton’s unhappiness grew until he quit. “It was a real loss,” says Ruth Fisher, then the managing partner at Munger. “He’s a great lawyer. He has good judgment about people, good sense of risk and rewards, and a good ability to communicate.” Maybe, Hamilton thought, he was unhappy at J.P. Morgan and then at Munger because he was bored. Maybe he could cure the boredom with a more entertaining job, so he searched for one. Finally he thought he’d found it—in entertainment.

Hamilton became an executive at MGM. He enjoyed negotiating and drafting contracts with studio talent, but it was too easy. Moreover, Hollywood was cutthroat. His colleagues fought over where they sat at meetings and where they parked in the studio lot. Because of internal politics, Hamilton had to pitch his ideas surreptitiously. On a shelf in a library, he hid a suit and tie, which he put on for secret meetings with executives who outranked his boss. He was “brilliant and innovative,” says Patricia Laucella, then an executive at MGM. But he was not happy. He would take a long lunch break, go to a Carl’s Jr., buy a hamburger, and head home for an hour-long nap. It was the best part of his day.

At Christmas in 2001, his family found it impossible to have a conversation with Hamilton that did not end with his job complaints. He was worried. “I was thinking, ‘Where’s the end going to be? When am I going to find a job I’m going to be happy with? I’m starting to get older. I need to find something I enjoy.’?” His sister heard his grousing. Their father and his business partner were not getting along. She knew the economy was turning down again. Charlie Chan was losing money—about $600,000 in the previous year.

“If you hate your job so much,” she told Hamilton, “why don’t you just quit?”

“To do what?”

“I can see you being a salesman.”

That was beneath him. After everything he’d done—investment banking, working for Kobe Bryant, Hollywood—how could she say such a thing? He paused. “Where should I be a salesman?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “You could be a salesman at Charlie Chan Printing.”

The family laughed. Hamilton started thinking. He was 29. He had earned two degrees and won top jobs. The world would call him a success, but he didn’t feel like a success. He felt lost.

His father had none of his education or credentials, but he had built a business that, despite everything, had lasted 30 years. Charlie Chan Printing had given Hamilton and Julie every opportunity that America could offer, and his father had created a wonderful family. If that wasn’t success, then what was?

One Friday in February 2002, Hamilton quit. MGM executives begged him not to go. When he insisted, they threatened to sue him. Then they threatened to sue his next employer, assuming he would reveal MGM’s secrets to a competitor. He wouldn’t tell them where he was headed.

The following Monday he showed up at Charlie Chan Printing.

His father wasn’t altogether sure about this. He had not worked all those hours, gotten all that ink on his hands, and sacrificed all those years so his son could be a printer. If Hamilton went to work at Charlie Chan Printing, wouldn’t Charlie Chan’s career have been in vain?

Hamilton and Angela were to be married later that year, and her parents were concerned, too. Their daughter had gotten engaged to a hotshot lawyer and Hollywood executive, but now…

Maybe, Charlie suggested, the arrangement could be temporary until Hamilton started a business of his own—perhaps a Cheesecake Factory. Charlie Chan was a fan of the Cheesecake Factory chain. To start a business, Hamilton might have to go without a salary for a while, but he could have the family house; his parents would make it a wedding gift.

Hamilton said no. He was not about to drive them out of their home. He just wanted a job.

Finally his father hired him. Angela married him anyway.

One day in the spring of 2007, “Charlie Chan” flashed on my caller ID.

I let it go to voice mail. I was busy finding stories and reporting and writing them for the Los Angeles Times. After going to the right schools, getting good grades, and meeting the right people, I was determined to be a big success.

The next day my cell phone rang, and again the caller ID said “Charlie Chan.” This time I picked up. It was Hamilton. How many years had it been?

He was at his father’s business. “I’m helping out my dad,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

Too long a story for the phone, he said. Come by, and we’ll grab lunch.

I waited to set a date. I canceled, then rescheduled. My career, with its constant deadlines, kept interrupting. At last I dropped in. To get to the front door of Charlie Chan Printing on Sunset Boulevard, I had to step over dog dung and walk around a sleeping man who appeared to be homeless. As I entered, I smelled ink.

What, I wondered, was the smartest guy I knew at Harvard doing here?

Hamilton was in his office, surrounded by Laker memorabilia, a shock of hair over his brow. He looked as young as he had in college, his face unlined. He was very busy. He told me that his father needed him more than he knew. “I think I failed in my dream,” Charlie Chan had said to his son. “This company can’t survive unless someone carries it forward.” Even so, Hamilton said he was stunned at what he had found. His father was a great salesman, and his employees were loyal. The average worker at Charlie Chan Printing had been there more than 15 years. But sales ability and loyalty alone were not enough to produce profits.

His father was a poor manager. He couldn’t even keep his bank accounts in order. The company was millions of dollars in debt. Suppliers were getting away with charging Charlie Chan Printing higher rates than competitors. Much of its copying and printing equipment was out of date. The telephones were in such disrepair that they cut off customers mid-conversation. The business needed fresh investment, but there was very little cash. The Charlie Chan brochures seemed amateurish—especially bad for a printer. Even the name of the corporation sounded strange. When Hamilton had looked into renting more space, he told me, real estate agents grew cool as soon as they learned it was for a firm called Charlie Chan. “There were so many things that needed to be fixed,” he said. “I was completely overwhelmed.”

Hamilton had various titles but no single duty. He stepped in wherever he could. He told me he had decided against changing the company name. “I think the Charlie Chan stereotype wasn’t all negative,” he said. “It was a portrait of an Asian playing a dominant role as a detective, intelligent and capable. And the name is very, very memorable.” He had hung his Harvard degrees on his office wall. “Yeah, a lot of people said, ‘How in the world did you sink into this hole?’ ” But it gave him an opportunity to explain how he had given up better jobs to help the family business—and to convey that this was not an ordinary print shop.

He assumed the delicate task of dissolving his father’s partnership, which had grown even unhappier. To conserve cash, Hamilton closed one of the three stores remaining from the original 14. Then, to give his father space, Hamilton took over the Sunset store and left him to tend the one on Wilshire, where he served local businesspeople and immigrants in Koreatown. The Wilshire shop stayed mostly dusty, cluttered, and dark. 

In time, Hamilton turned the Sunset location into a showcase. He redesigned its offices and built new ones for the sales staff so that they could pitch customers without having to shout over the din of presses and copiers. He stripped out the battered linoleum floors, painted over the pink walls, and borrowed funds to invest in top-of-the-line equipment. To save money, he did much of the work himself. He installed carpeting, lighting, and ceiling tiles. He plastered—and barely escaped injury when several hundred pounds of drywall fell on him. He threaded telephone and Ethernet wires, created a Web site, and wrote all the marketing copy. He even went back to school, attending a class at UCLA Extension on graphic design.

He learned how to repair all of the printing machines in the shop. To do this, he visited Fullerton Community College, one of the last places in Southern California to offer a class in printing, and hired the best student in the program to teach him. He kept most of his father’s longtime employees, many of them immigrants and some hardly able to speak English. As revenue increased, he hired younger workers, many the children of immigrants, nearly all with college degrees. Among the first was a UCLA graduate who started as his assistant and eventually became a senior project manager. Hamilton recruited designers and programmers from Disney, Paramount, Fox, and Pricewaterhouse Coopers. He gave them a lot of responsibility and varied their duties so they would not grow bored. “My own employment experiences,” he told me, “really color what I’m trying to do.”

He used his new equipment and new staff to seek printing jobs from top corporate clients: studios, newspapers, and magazines. He handled the financial chores that his father had no interest in, and he changed the Charlie Chan logo to represent his father and himself—family partners. He said he was going to “brandify” his father and use his reputation as a funny, loose salesman to personify the company.

Charlie Chan was indeed the firm’s best and most dependable salesman, responsible for much of its business. Charlie, for his part, encouraged Hamilton to be a better salesman. Hamilton’s brains, education, and professionalism didn’t always help. “My dad doesn’t have all of those things, but he has likability,” Hamilton told me. “That’s his talent. In sales, there is no better way to go.”

As partners, father and son were an odd fit. On Friday nights, when they played poker with friends, Hamilton bet quietly and conservatively. Charlie bet big and bluffed 80 percent of the time. At the office, it was Charlie who was more cautious. He worried about Hamilton’s purchases, hires, and desire to expand, and how he would chase down customers to make them pay their bills.

“I’m a big believer in charity and philanthropy,” Charlie said to me one day.

“Yeah,” said Hamilton, “particularly when it comes to clients.”

He persuaded his father to give up three-piece suits and wear shirts and slacks. He didn’t do so well, however, in winning him over to computers. Hamilton bought a new model with extra memory, a DVD player, and a fancy screen. Charlie couldn’t master it. He threw it in a trash can.

“Most of the time my strategy when we disagree is unconditional surrender,” Charlie told me.

“I’m definitely the more domineering person,” Hamilton said.

“Just like his mother,” said Charlie.

They laughed. “I would rather have him do what he wants and make the mistake first,” Charlie said. “So I can point finger.”

By 2009, there was not much finger-pointing. Hamilton had cut the debt at Charlie Chan Printing in half. It was still at $1 million—high for a business with single-digit profit margins and annual revenues of only $3 million, but it was an improvement. Income was way up. Hamilton’s connections to law firms and Hollywood were attracting enough high-end business that he could pay himself a salary of more than $100,000. He was getting good notices as well. “He’s the kind of guy,” says Matt Toledo, publisher of the Los Angeles Business Journal, “who could have 300 stores in a couple years.”

At least once a month, Hamilton’s father would ask him, “Are you happy?”

Hamilton Chan was happy. “It’s definitely the best career decision I’ve ever made,” he told me. “It’s the job I’m happiest at. This is what I’m doing when I grow up. Not lawyer, not investment banker, not school bus driver. Charlie Chan Printing man.”

I said that I was doing pretty well myself.

I’d had a book published to good reviews and decent sales. I seemed to have a secure job at the Times and was moving to its Washington bureau to cover the upcoming presidential campaign. I was optimistic about the future. My wife and I were looking for a house to buy; we were going to start a family.

Hamilton and I talked about how we were on different ends of the printing business. We both loved print.

Neither of us saw what was coming.

In late 2007, Charlie Chan Printing lost its largest and most important client, the county Department of Children and Family Services, which had helped save the company when Hamilton’s father had fallen short on his son’s Harvard tuition. Now a county procurement scandal was causing the cancellation of dozens of contracts.

The Chans had done nothing wrong. Hamilton was building the business as fast as he could. Nonetheless, the company’s annual revenue dropped 13 percent. Hamilton thought he could borrow money to buy time.

The following summer, the nation fell into economic crisis. Hamilton was out of time and money. A bank where Charlie Chan Printing had a $300,000 line of credit found itself in financial trouble and refused to renew. No other banks would loan the firm that much money. In late 2008, Hamilton told me on the phone, “If things keep going like this, we’ll have a business failure in six months.”

I was having my own troubles. The Times, owned by the Tribune Company, was in decline. Chicago billionaire Sam Zell had bought Tribune, and it was headed for bankruptcy. The Times was buying out some of my colleagues and laying off others. It was too hard to watch, so I took one of the buyouts. I felt as if I’d wasted my young, productive years working for a place that had no future.

Hamilton said he understood exactly.

He was determined, however, not to give up. He had decided he could not lay off any workers, neither his new hires nor the old-timers who had been with his family since the beginning. His ability to generate revenue depended on his staff. “Anyway,” he said, “I would be laying off people I knew as a child. If you don’t have these people, you don’t have Charlie Chan Printing.”

He cut his own pay by 60 percent.

At home, Angela, his wife, grew so worried that she said, “You don’t have to tell me what’s happening at work.” For Hamilton it was his worst and most desperate time. What surprised him, though, was that he was still happy. I drove out to the YMCA near his home in Porter Ranch to play basketball. “As bad as things are,” he  said, “this job is still a 4.5 on a scale of 0 to 5.”

I took heart. I, too, would not give up. I had moved back to L.A. and joined the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy think tank. Maybe, I thought, I could build a career as an independent writer.

Hamilton Chan began 2009 looking for cash. Just as newspapers were losing revenue to the Internet, so were printers. He decided to use the Internet to create more business. He started headshotbox
.com, a Web site that enables people to load and edit their own photos. He would print the pictures on high-resolution machines and mail them to customers.

He established paperspring.com, a Web site on which people design and order holiday cards, wedding invitations, and birth announcements. Charlie Chan would print and mail them, too. Other Internet sites offered design and ordering services, but Hamilton boasted that only Paperspring was attached to a high-end commercial printer.

Each of Hamilton’s Web sites produced new revenue. His e-commerce was growing more than 30 percent a month, but it was not enough to save the company. He needed a loan. Calling banks didn’t work, so he began visiting them personally. By the end of January, he had found a friendly face at Bank of America. Just as Charlie Chan Printing came close to running out of cash, Bank of America approved a $300,000 line of credit. Hamilton paid his bills and his employees, and he began refinancing and consolidating loans.

In March and April, overall revenue increased for the first time in eight months. Hamilton Chan could breathe again. “I feel like we’ve taken the economy’s worst punch,” he told me in May. “I feel like we’re on our way back.”

We talked again the other day. My wife, Anna, had given birth to our son, Ben, and Angela had presented Hamilton with their second daughter, Emmeline, three months earlier.

Hamilton’s father had reduced his hours and was preparing to retire. He could not entirely understand his son’s decision to return to Charlie Chan Printing, but he had come to terms with it.

“I feel anxiety,” Hamilton said. I wasn’t exactly at ease myself. We were reinventing ourselves and our work. Hamilton said he might push Charlie Chan further into Internet commerce and digital design. But he said he would never abandon printing.

Neither, I replied, would I. After all, I was writing this story for a magazine.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I think, ‘Maybe you should have stayed in banking. Maybe you should have stayed at Munger Tolles. You’d be making more.’?” But Hamilton Chan said he was happy. Credentials and prestige and success are temporary; they come and go. The smartest guy I knew at Harvard was telling me this.

Even now, he said, printing, when done well and beautifully, is valuable. Best of all, he added, it gives you something a little bit timeless, something you can touch and hold and squeeze. Like family.

Author of The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy, Joe Mathews is the Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. This is his first piece for the magazine.

Photographs by Michael Kelley