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Nearly 80 Taiwanese Entrepreneurs in Houston Own Small, Independent
 Hotels or Franchises of Hotel Chains; Challenging the Indians
By Jenalia Moreno, Houston ChronicleMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Dec. 28, 2006 - Taiwanese immigrant William Yeh is proud of his Best Western hotel with its granite floor in the lobby, pool-side waterfall and fitness center.

"It's a small hotel, but we've got everything," Yeh says about his 70-room hotel on Richmond Avenue.

Yeh, who built his hotel four years ago, is one of nearly 80 other Taiwanese entrepreneurs in Houston who own small, independent hotels or franchises of major hotel chains.

As an immigrant group, the Taiwanese are increasingly becoming an important force in the local hospitality industry, owning more hotels than any other except for Indians, according to C.Y. Ling, director of the commercial division of Houston's Taipei Economic and Cultural Office.

"It could be a small mom and pop operation to a Hilton with 150 people on the payroll," said attorney Andy Lai, whose wife owns three hotels in Texas, in describing the range of ownership among Taiwanese immigrants.

To give them more buying power, the Taiwanese hoteliers formed the Taiwanese Innkeeper Association in Greater Houston about 15 years ago. Every month, they meet at Chinese restaurants or hotels to hear vendors pitch their products and services.

Shu-Ying Hsu is the organization's president, and she and her husband now own five hotels in Texas, including three in the Houston area.

In 1981, Hsu moved to Houston so her husband could earn his second master's degree. He later worked for an oil company, and in 1988, the couple started buying hotels and then gradually sold some to buy better establishments.

At first, Hsu ran the hotels while her husband worked, but as their empire grew the couple decided to devote themselves full-time to the hospitality business.

"Every year we bought a hotel, and he had to quit," Hsu said.

Originally, they purchased existing hotels, but two years ago they built their first new hotel -- a 120-room Hilton Garden Inn along Sam Houston Parkway and Bellaire Boulevard. "Business is very good," Hsu said.

Taiwanese immigrants are also buying and building more hotels off busy avenues, alongside highways and near tourism attractions across the country.

Last year, local Taiwanese innkeepers joined forces with their counterparts in California, New York and Florida to form the North American Taiwanese Hotel Motel Owner Association.

Mei-Fen Chen, who owns three Houston-area hotels, is the president of that group.

After moving from an island that's only slightly larger than Maryland, Taiwanese entrepreneurs are interested in real estate investments.

"In Taiwan, all the property is very expensive, particularly in the big city. In Taipei, one parking lot can be worth $200,000," said Yeh, who moved to Houston a quarter century ago. "Houston is very reasonable in price."

They invest in hotels after seeing their countrymen succeed in the venture.

"When you see one person doing well, you copy his step," said Yeh, who worked as a geophysicist at a local energy company until he decided to work for himself in several types of businesses including operating a hotel.

Like Yeh, many Taiwanese hotel owners are professionals who save their money and are looking for stable investments, said John Keeling, senior vice president of the Houston office of PKF Consulting, a hotel consulting firm.

"These guys are true entrepreneurs, and they're looking for the American dream and a lot of them end up very wealthy," said Keeling.

Such niches in ethnic enclaves can be seen across Houston's business landscape -- from its Vietnamese-owned nail salons to its Mexican-owned landscaping.

"You go to a place where people speak your language and they help you navigate in this new world," said Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University.

jenalia.moreno@chron.com

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Copyright (c) 2006, Houston Chronicle

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