The city of Lancaster has few Chinese restaurants. Its mayor cannot use chopsticks. And he has tried and failed to learn Mandarin.
But that doesn't stop R. Rex Parris from dreaming of creating an oasis for Chinese investment in this Mojave Desert town.
The mayor has taken numerous trips to China, wooing corporate leaders and government officials with his business-friendly ways. He talks boldly of opening a trade
office in Beijing just for Lancaster, much like the one that California opened this year in Shanghai. And he even hopes to build a Buddhist temple in town to attract Chinese residents.
This might sound a little ambitious for a city tucked into a dusty corner of Los Angeles County not exactly known as a beacon for international commerce. But Parris' plan might just be working.
"Hopefully, Lancaster will become the largest Chinese corporation area in California," Parris, 61, said during an interview at an Italian restaurant in town. "How cool is that? The little town of Lancaster."
The city scored its first victory this year by persuading Chinese automaker Build Your Dreams to open an electric bus factory and a plant for building batteries. City officials hope that it could bring 1,000 jobs and millions of dollars in sales taxes in the next few years.
The company, known as BYD, has won contracts to build 10 buses for the Long Beach transit agency and as many as 25 for the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It is pursuing other contracts in the U.S., Canada and South America, and already plans on adding dozens of workers to sustain the ramp-up in production.
But the company has already run into issues with its California operations, including a state investigation of its labor practices and quality issues with its buses.
The state's Department of Industrial Relations opened an investigation into workplace issues last month, and on Oct. 10 issued five citations, ordering the company to pay $79,250 in fines and nearly $20,000 in back wages for violations involving 22 employees.
The agency found BYD had failed to pay minimum wage to some employees at its Los Angeles headquarters and Lancaster factory and had failed to give Lancaster workers a second rest break during their shifts as required by California law. The company was also cited for issuing itemized wage statements containing "inaccurate or incomplete" information and for failing to give some employees statements twice a month.
A spokeswoman for the industrial relations department said the investigation is ongoing.
BYD Vice President Micheal Austin declined to comment on the investigation. Parris said there had been questions as to whether BYD's Chinese employees were subject to Chinese or U.S. labor laws. He said BYD hired a labor lawyer who will audit the company's practices to make sure they comply with all state and federal laws.
"It's really minor, the problem," said Parris, who owns a law firm that handles employment cases, among others. "My understanding is these are easy fixes."
BYD's Long Beach contract drew fire from critics who thought it should have gone to a U.S. company, or at least one that had built buses in the United States before. The project ran into issues in July when a bus developed cracks while going through federal safety testing; Long Beach transit inspectors subsequently found welding issues in frames built at a BYD factory in China.
Austin said that testing is intended to find problems in order to fix them before any buses actually hit the road.
"It's a process. Everything is solvable," he said. "None of their audit findings are showstoppers."
Despite the issues, Parris remains upbeat about BYD, and hints at negotiations with another Chinese company that he said is "much bigger in scope" compared with BYD. A deal could be announced within the next year, he said.
A lot of money is up for grabs: Last year, Chinese firms invested $6.5 billion in the U.S., up 12% from 2010, according to Rhodium Group. That figure is expected to rise again this year. From 2000 to 2011, California ranked fifth in total investment behind New York, Texas, Illinois and Virginia.
"The smart mayors and governors will do what they did and try to attract the Chinese investment, which is going to grow dramatically in the U.S. in general and in California," said Richard Drobnick, a business professor at USC.