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Expected Nominee for US Ambassador to China Came from Humble Origins

President Barack Obama (l) and Gary Locke (file photo)
President Barack Obama (l) and Gary Locke (file photo)

President Barack Obama is expected to nominate a Chinese-American as ambassador to Beijing for the first time. Gary Locke, who is now secretary of commerce, has been an influential figure on both sides of the Pacific.

Gary Locke has come a long way since his Chinese grandparents arrived in America on a steamship.

His grandfather got a job as a domestic servant in Olympia, the capital of Washington State. After Locke was elected governor in 1996 - and moved into the governor's mansion not far from where his grandfather had worked - he joked that it had taken his family 100 years to travel one mile.

Locke himself didn't learn English until he was five years old. But he worked his way through college at Yale University - one of the best in the United States. And in 1982, he was elected to the Washington State House of Representatives.

Washington State Senator Karen Fraser served in the house with Locke and remembers him this way: "Brilliant, competent, hard-working, very pleasant to interact with, very, very able," she said.

Locke's political career advanced quickly, and when he won the Washington gubernatorial race, he became first U.S. state governor of Chinese ancestry.

Washington state is dependant on trade across the Pacific and during his two terms as governor, Locke's trade missions are credited with doubling the state's exports to China to more than $5 billion per year.

Fraser says that as governor, Locke also visited his ancentral home in China - a village of about 150 people in Guangdong province with no running water. "And people in China were so excited to have a Chinese American who was in such a senior public position to come there. And so he already begins his tenure as ambassador with a wonderful friendly start," she said.

But his prominance has not always been easy. In 2003, a man was arrested in Olympia on firearms charges after an informant said he was planning to assassinate Locke. And when he gave the Democratic response to President George W. Bush's State of the Union address in 2003, he reportedly received emails telling him and his family to get on a boat and go back to China.

Locke, who is now 61, would need Senate confirmation for his appointment. But that is not expected to be a problem since he already got the Senate's approval two years ago when the president named him commerce secretary.