Episode 120 – Charlie Zhang

Famed restaurant chain founder on giving away his fortune
By LA Stories Staff El Segundo
PUBLISHED 5:00 AM PT May. 09, 2022

At 17 years old, Charlie Zhang was forced into working in the rice paddies as part of China’s cultural revolution.

His father was arrested years prior for going against the communist rules, and his mother was left working multiple jobs in order to make ends meet.

While the situation was dire, Zhang remained hopeful — all with the help of his clarinet. Self-taught, he would sneak away with his instrument and practice. His love of music got him through the most difficult times.

“The music brings me the joy, brings me my peace,” he said. “I feel that [every] time I play [the] instrument, this is the best moment…in my life.”

In this episode of “LA Stories,” Zhang explains to host Giselle Fernandez how a chance to attend school in the U.S. changed his life forever. With just a suitcase, his clarinet and $20 in his pocket, he made his way to Los Angeles.

There, Zhang worked in restaurants while pursuing his dream of playing music. The dream was quickly ruined when he injured his hand — ending his chance to play professionally.

Not to be deterred, Zhang threw himself into his restaurant work, studying what Asian foods Americans liked best. Armed with this knowledge, he opened up a chain of successful restaurants, including the famed Pick Up Stix, which brought him his fortune.

“It’s a people business,” said Zhang. “I think everything [that’s] successful [depends on] the people.”

Zhang is well known for his many philanthropic endeavors, but he is most proud of creating OC Music & Dance, a nonprofit performing arts school that aims to make the arts accessible to every child.

For Zhang, being able to share his love of music with children is his greatest achievement, and he hopes to leave this earth some day with only the same $20 he came into America with.

“My next career in life is to give back anything I can give back to the country that loves me.”


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