Family of Voices
John J. Sie
John J. Sie, founder of Starz Entertainment Group; from an interview with the National Museum of American History, March 18, 2016.
I was born in Nanjing China in 1936. My father, who was working in the diplomatic service of the Republic of China (ROC), left for assignment in Europe in 1937 at the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War to garner support from the West. My mother, my older brother Charlie, and I went to Shanghai in 1937 to live at my maternal grandmother's house. We were not really welcomed there, because we sort of intruded into their lives. They had some wealth, so we lived in a nice house, but I always felt more comfortable with the common folks living down the street.
My father was in the Vatican all during World War II, so we didn’t know him growing up, and I don't think he really wanted two kids. During the Civil War in 1949, we left on one of the last boats from Shanghai to Taiwan, fleeing the coming of the Chinese Communist Army. And then a year later in 1950, my father received an assignment to Belgium. He was in America and asked my mother, Charlie, and I to come join him [and then] go to Belgium. We boarded a cargo ship, the S.S. Lightning, and reached San Francisco and then flew to New York City.
My father lived in a pretty fancy apartment there, and it was expensive. About two months after we arrived, my father called Charlie and I in and said, “Well, we have two choices, the job in Belgium is gone, but we can go to Europe where it's a lot cheaper or you can stay in America. But if you stay in America, you have to stay at a Catholic orphanage.”
I was 14, and Charlie was 16. We sort of cried and talked it over with each other. The sea trip coming to America was horrible, and we didn’t want to take another ship to Europe, so we decided to stay in the orphanage. The irony of it was that my father, mother, and Francis [who had been born when my father briefly returned to China in 1948/1949] moved to Queens; they didn’t go to Belgium. [Charlie and I] could have stayed in their apartment, but my father wanted to socialize with his friends. We were in the orphanage for three years. We were allowed to go home three days a month, so every weekend, Charlie and I would alternate [going] to Long Island to babysit so my mother and father could socialize in New York.
The orphanage was a rough place, and we didn't speak any English at all. We were lucky we had each other. We learned to speak English through immersion. My uncle told me something which was horrible, but it helped me when I came to America. He said two things, “You cannot lose face for the Sie family,” and “All Americans are dumb.” Prejudicial idea, but I couldn’t lose face, so I studied hard and was near the top of the class when I graduated and got a full scholarship to Manhattan College.
I majored in electrical engineering at Manhattan College, and when I graduated, I got a research fellowship at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, which [became] the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, and one year later, got my master’s degree in ElectroPhysics.
I started to work at RCA, the Radio Corporation of America at its Defense Electronics Division. I did not have immigration status, but I was working on government contracts, so they couldn't show me any documents that were marked Classified or Secret, but I was able to contribute to the technology side.
In 1960, my boss [at RCA], Dr. Sam Weisbaum, and I founded the company Micro State Electronics Corp. I wanted to [do this] against the odds. Chinese students always complained that they could only be engineers; they never got into management. So I [wanted] to be a manager and prove that Chinese could do that too. At Micro State, we were pioneering semi-conductor integrated circuitry into the microwave frequency spectrum. After Sam untimely passed away, I became President and CEO.
(Sie then met his wife, Anna, in 1963, and at the time already had three children from a previous marriage. Anna babysat for the children and they fell in love. The couple was married in 1966 and had two more children.)
[Micro State] was then acquired by Raytheon. For the next two years, from `70 to `72, I started looking for funding to start another new business without success. Telecommunications interested me, and I got a job at Jerrold Electronics in Philadelphia as head of Jerrold’s cable television division. Around that time, there was only one national pay TV service, HBO. Showtime interviewed me to figure out how to put their service on satellite to compete with HBO. In 1977, I joined Showtime as the Senior Vice President of marketing, sales, and technology.
In 1984 [Showtime’s] largest customer, John Malone from TCI, said to me, “Why don't you come to Denver and make some real money?” I loved the idea and took a 50% pay cut and moved to Colorado. At TCI, I was in charge of technology, public policy, and marketing. I wrote a paper saying that, for America to be the leader in the next century, the new high definition television (HDTV) standard must be digital, not analog, as Japan, who was very advanced in HDTV were proposing. I was laughed out of the country.
There were thirteen submissions [to FCC for the new standard], all analog. On the last day, General Instruments, the parent of Jerrold Electronics, which I had some influence on, put in an all-digital standard, and the rest is history. That was probably my biggest contribution—single handedly turning America and the rest of the world into all digital TV systems.
At TCI, I was also in charge of programming, and one of the things we did quite successfully was funding a channel called American Movie Classics, AMC, which showed old movies from the `30s, `40s and `50s. I asked Showtime whether they could create the next three decades. AMC had been super successful, but Showtime wouldn’t do it, because it would not work at the price that they would charge. So, I went to my boss, John Malone and said, “Give me $5 million, and I'll do the thing.” And that's how we started Encore. Encore was hit movies from the `60s, `70s, and `80s, and then we started Starz with exclusive first run new movies to compete directly with HBO.
I don't associate with Chinese communities except Chinese food, so therefore I'm much more integrated as an American. I love my heritage, and I'm grateful, and I speak the language, but my thought process is really American. I'm proud of my heritage but only on an ephemeral basis, not as part of my psyche. One of my daughters, Michelle, is the Sinophile. She was in China for eleven years, and she established the first programming relationship with China Central Television. We went back to China for the first time since 1949 [to visit] because of her in 1987.
I feel very blessed that in my waning years I have wonderful children and grandchildren and a great life. My wife and I wanted to do as much as we could to improve the lives of others and leave a positive imprint. We are the major donor of the Sie FilmCenter in Denver and the Josef Korbel School of International Studies [at the University of Denver]. Another program we fund is CEMMP, Chinese Executive Media Management Program, which brings middle level up-and-comers in China’s media industry to America for a thirteen week mini MBA program to learn about media and business practices in America. In 2003, our daughter Michelle, gave birth to Sophia, who was born with Down syndrome; we were the founding donor of the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome. It’s the only institute of its kind for Down syndrome; from basic research to clinical care.
Immigrant or not, the fact is that you should always work the hardest you can, doesn’t matter where you are, what kind of job it is, what kind of environment it is. If you work hard, you overcome difficulties, and you succeed. It truly exists, the American dream. I'm the example. I think America's the greatest country in the world, and I feel very lucky that, by accident, I came to this country.
An unedited transcript of this oral history is available for scholarly research through the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History.