Michael He

May 24, 2021

Better Than Ten Years of School

A classic Chinese saying goes, "A conversation with a gentleman is worth more than ten years of school."

It's not an exaggeration. You should try to have these conversations early and often. I know I have.

I had a privileged year living with one of my role models. A true rags-to-riches millionaire. A humble man that speaks worldly wisdom and detests vanity. I call him Uncle Simon. He would tell me all kinds of stories when we were buying ingredients wholesale and loading cargo for his restaurants. They were raw, but rich in emotions, insights, and the fighting spirit. I could still think back to those moments with fondness.

Learning from great people like Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger is wonderful, but it's even better to have a mentor near you

Here are some of his great lessons in his own words.

Noodles with Bean Sprout and Pork
I was working a menial office job. It was so bad that I couldn't afford a bowl of noodles with pork toppings. Bean sprouts with pork! Now how am I supposed to live for the rest of my life, when this is me at twenty-five years old?

When I had the chance to leave China, I did everything possible. I borrowed money from my relatives and my friends. My cousin was so skeptical of me, he thought I could not last one day there. I was ninety pounds back in the days, all bones and no muscle. I must've looked like a drug addict to these people...

You know what my life was like before leaving China? I could literally see myself at seventy years old doing nothing and living like a lazy pig. That wasn't what I had in mind. When I was detained at New York Airport (common among Chinese immigrants back then), I kept telling myself, "now don't fuck this up, you came all the way here, don't fuck it up." Of course, I was let go in the end. It was part of the process for us immigrants during that time.

I had so much debt. Tens of thousands of dollars. This was an insane amount back in the days. I swore to the middle man that I would pay him back in three years or he could take my pinky finger. He thought I was high on drugs - no one had done it that quickly before.

But you know what? What I was making in the kitchen was 80 times my wage in China. EIGHTY times! I was sweating eighteen hours a day, but I was so happy. Every night I would go back to my apartment, thinking how I made another three months of salary in one day. Fuck that stupid office job, I would rather die during work.

Guess what? I paid off my debt in two and a half years.

Crabs and Beer
A dozen fresh crabs used to cost two dollars, so I would buy a dozen from a Chinatown guy, grab a six-pack from the bodega, and head to the rooftop. New York summers were humid and hot, but the cold beer and tasty crabs made everything better. I thought to myself, I could make it. You know I still buy crabs whenever possible. It's become a habit now.

I first started in the back kitchen. Soon I started to deliver takeout meals. The front manager was from another province and she was mean to people from my area. She looked down on people from my town and she mocked us all the time. I thought to myself, just so you wait, I will be more successful than you ever will. Five years later, I returned to the same restaurant, now owning my own place in Connecticut. She was still there, suddenly so nice. It wasn't a revenge or anything, but I felt great. 

A few years after I landed in America, I had my first Maine lobster. It was unlike anything I've ever eaten before. Seafood is really the pinnacle of life's enjoyment...

When you put your mind to it, nothing could stop you.

Common Sense Are Hard to Come By
I grew up in a poor town in China. Fujian Province was not known for abundant resources, so people had to make ends meet in whatever way possible. As you know, tens of millions of people went to foreign countries for many years. Plantations, railroads, restaurants, laundry shops, you name it. Many successful merchants in Southeast Asia were from Fujian. They started with nothing, worked hard, and used their acumen to build fortunes. Then they often plowed the money back to their hometowns, building roads and hospitals and schools.

But I also saw the other side of the coin. Many people broke their backs and scraped pennies, just so they could come back to their hometown, buy a decent plot of land, get married, and enjoy life as a peasant farmer. And that wasn't even that bad.

Of course, much of that hard-earned wealth got wiped away during the Mao years. Even during the early time of the Reopening, seeing other immigrants wiring money back home always felt weird. No one thought this was stupid, but I knew. Why would you send back all your hard-earned money for people to splurge on basic things that cost a shit ton of money, when you could accumulate that money in a capitalist society and grow rich over time? Then you could do whatever you want with the money.

I guess common sense is uncommon. Working with other immigrants and cooking food for upper middle class white people taught me a lot. When you are around a certain income range, your cost of living is pretty much the same: rent, utilities, food, and car. For many years our entertainment was smoking cigarettes, drinking cheap beer, and just window shopping. We couldn't understand the TV or movies. Us immigrants never spent money on frivolous stuff, but we still weren't that rich. After some time, I knew something else had to happen for me to live that middle class life or even better.

When you accumulate enough assets, suddenly your leftover interests and rent income could be more than poor people's annual income. I was a village fool, yet I understood enough math to know it worked. I knew I had to own cash-producing businesses and real estate. That was the only way to make wealth as a low-class immigrant in America. If I wanted to eat anything, I had to make that work. 

When I visited Hong Kong in the 80s, I was so jealous of people feasting on abalones and sea cucumbers. I wanted that privilege. Now I have enough money for that, but I'm too old to eat those because my cholesterol is too high...

Bet Right and Heavy
Remember when I told you how that basic restaurant job paid 80 to 1, compared to my stupid office job in China? Well, asset appreciation made this gap go even wider. You will never believe in socialism after seeing this capitalist shit working like magic in person. Yet no one I knew at the time understood this. They worked just as hard as I did, but they somehow just didn't get it.

I knew early on to spot land bargains and pool money from friends and family to buy those acres. I also knew New England and New York were already too expensive to make any splash, so I moved. Where could I live an okay life and make plenty of money? I only had three choices: California, Texas, and Hawaii. In the end, selling my stuff in New England and moving to Hawaii was my second best choice ever made. The best choice was coming to America and bust my ass to escape poverty.

Once again, people thought I was crazy. I was no longer skinny like a drug addict after all the beer, crabs, and Chinese fast food I ate during work. These people just couldn't understand the power of thinking differently and being right. What do you call it? Yes, contrarian. I guess I am always a contrarian. I love saying "fuck you" inside whenever people try to lecture me with their stupid and shallow ideas. If they actually put their brains to use, they would do much better in life. 

After coming to Hawaii, the rest was history. You know pretty much everything I did here. I only did seven out of every ten things right and that was enough to make life pretty damn sweet. What's much harder is staying the course when no one supports you. You have to keep going and get to work everyday. I may not be religious, but I had faith in this process. I knew it would be worth it.

So stop thinking about how others think about you. It's your life. Why do you care so much about other people? 

Realize You Are The Frog In The Well
I met a guy who came to San Francisco after Vietnam War. He had nothing. Then he started working in Chinatown with the local grocery stores. He started to buy food that were almost expired really cheap and sell them even cheaper. Soon he had enough money to buy a corner stand.

One day he found a local grocery chain closing down. He bought the store immediately, but told the manager to not throw away the racks and fridges. Of course they were happy with saving some disposal money. Guess what he used the fixture money to buy? He went to a wholesaler and spent every penny, filled up the store to the brim, and sold everything at cost. You are asking why did he do that. I'll tell you. Now everyone in China goes to buy from him, even the other store owners. He could raise a cent on a bag here and there, and soon that money grew way more than a ten cent profit on a bag of noodles.

And the thing is, he kept finding these opportunities, locations that were on clearance and businesses that used whatever advertising and discounting methods to succeed. Once those got started, they pretty much run themselves. So he used all that extra cash from the business to buy land and buildings. And he's been doing that for forty years.

I drank tea with him a few weeks ago. Guess how much money he has. Something like $200 million in real estate and probably $30 million in cash. I like to spend time with people like him, because they make me realize I am no big deal. I'm just that frog in the well, but at least I know that and do my best to live an okay life.

You Win Some You Lose Some
You've lived with me for a while now. I'm telling you, all this money isn't easy to make. But you already know that. What you don't know is the costs i had to pay otherwise.

You know I get up at four everyday. Not because I sleep little. You know I sleep at ten every night. I had to do the first shift at the restaurant. People started buying breakfast at seven, so I had to prepare all the ingredients. How are you going to make other people work for you, if you don't work as the owner? I'm there with them for a whole shift. Then I spend the day haul my ass around Honolulu to buy things and do business stuff. Do you ever see me stay home, watch TV, and do nothing? No. These people may not have any degrees, but they are still the bread earners for their families. I had to take care of them.

But you do lose some things big time. I'm already old, but I'm still hauling fifty pound bags of rice, sugar, flour, and salt. I'm still filling this one-ton truck to the brim, even if no one came to help me. Twice or three times a week. I never got enough time to spend with my kid. He didn't take after me with this work ethic. But some of it is just how things are. I can't force him to live my life, nor will he ever work as hard as me even if he had no money. People are just born different. If my life in China wasn't so miserable and destitute, I probably wouldn't have that much drive to just bust my ass everyday. I had no other path anyways, so I went all-in. Young people nowadays are too soft and indecisive. Don't be like them.

About Michael He

Trying to get better every single day.