Interview

Tsering Lhundup poser for a photo after an interview in McLeod Ganj, India, on 22 November 2015.

Tsering Lhundup poser for a photo after an interview in McLeod Ganj, India, on 22 November 2015.

MCLEOD GANJ, India, 27 November 2015

Tibetan-American Tsering Lhundup is one of the few Tibetan real estate agents in the United States. He was born and raised during the early difficult times for Tibetan refugees in India. He lost both his parents when he was very young, and was taken care of by Tibetan Homes Foundation in Mussoorie. After leaving his school, he went through India’s elite training to become a bodyguard of the Dalai Lama. On his arrival in the US, he started his life again from the bottom. Today he is a successful real estate agent, and is actively involved in Tibetan society in New York. He spoke to Lobsang Wangyal about his life, and about one of his biggest services to the New York and New Jersey Tibetan community.

Tsering Lhundup la, please introduce yourself: About your childhood and schooling, living in India and then going to live in the United States, and what you are doing there.

Both my parents died when I was very young. I don’t have any memories of my mum, she died when I was only nine months old, when my younger brother was born. Within an hour or so my mom passed away. So I only have memories of my dad. He used to be a cook for Tibetan Homes Foundation (THF) dispensary in Mussoorie. When I was four, my dad passed away. I still remember that.

So me and my younger brother were orphans. THF took care of us, we were brought up there. We were in Home 25.

In 1986 I left Mussoorie and went to Shimla. During that time one of my older brothers was already there. In 1989 I joined the Tibetan military force which is called SFF, the Special Frontier Force. I served there seven years. My last year there, I was selected for the training to become His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s bodyguard. This was the first Tibetan group to be sent to commando training, in NSG, the National Security Guard — the Black Cat Commandos of India. I was part of that. I went there, finished my training, and came back. And right after that I went for two months’ vacation.

While I was on vacation, my discharge application was accepted — I had applied for discharge a long time back. So I never got a chance to serve as bodyguard to His Holiness. But I did complete the course for it.

Then in 1998 I went to the United States.

So since going to America, what have you been doing for a living? I heard that you are one of the few Tibetan American real estate agents in the US. How did it all start?

Yes, I’ve been doing real estate for the last 12 or 13 years. It is very competitive and very tough. But I didn’t start in real estate right away.

When I first got to the US, I didn’t have the proper papers, so I was not legal there. So I had to do all different kinds of jobs. It would be too long to mention all the jobs I had. There’s pretty much no job I haven’t done.

My last job before coming to real estate. There was one job that I was doing in the morning, food delivery, at a small restaurant. It was a three-hour job, 11 to 1 in the afternoon. The salary was very small, one dollar an hour, plus whatever tips you could make, and they served you a free lunch. In the evening I would go to a Korean laundromat and take care of the laundromat, from six until I close the store about 10. If people were still inside I would remain until 11 or 12.

Then I got another, better job as accountant at a travel agency. While I was there I was also doing sales for AT&T mobile phone. While I was doing that I met my previous boss, the Korean lady Mrs. Grease, and I was able to sell phone service to her and also to her husband. And she suggested that I was pretty good at sales, and why don’t I become a real estate agent.

I didn’t know anything about real estate. I asked her what is real estate? She said in the Tibetan community there are no real estate agents, and she thought I could do good in that. She explained to me everything about becoming a real estate agent.

The real estate course was only 40 hours. When you complete the course, you have to give a school-level test, and once you pass that you proceed to the state-level test. Once you pass that then you get your license.

So I did that, but I didn’t jump into real estate immediately, because there’s no salary, you go by commission. You negotiate with the owner or with your customers. So I didn’t jump into it full time right away. So while I was doing it part time, I was also doing the accountant and phone sales jobs.

After a while I was able to rent a couple of apartments, and got commissions, and that gave me confidence to do it full time, and I’ve been doing real estate ever since.

Do you know of any other Tibetans who are doing real estate? Probably you are the first?

In New York there are a few other Tibetan agents; I don’t know all of them but I know one other guy called Sonam Gyatso.

When I started I thought there were no Tibetan real estate agents at all. But once I got my license, and I joined a franchise company called Century 21, during that time I learned there was another Tibetan real estate agent, and I called him up and we started working together.

I’m not really sure if Sonam Gyatso was first or me, but we were the only two Tibetan guys in New York doing real estate. But these days there are a few in the US.

The Tibetan community in the US has grown a bit over the years, and there are many Tibetan organisations. They organise events, and I think they purchased a community hall in New York a few years ago. I believe you have helped to purchase the New York Tibetan Community Hall. Tell us about that.

Yes. In New York there are a lot of Tibetan people. Every time we had an event, the challenge was always that we didn’t have a hall. We would have to rent some church hall, and it’s not big enough for all the Tibetans. So buying a community hall was a priority for us.

So yes I was the real estate agent for them, and helped them to get that hall. And not only that, I brought the price down for them, by donating my own commission.

I was the only agent involved in this transaction. I contacted the seller directly, and then I sold to the Tibetan community.

When I first made the deal, the purchase price was 4 million 650 thousand dollars ($4,650,000). On that price, as the real estate agent, I was getting some commission, and this is negotiable. I was able to negotiate a 5% commission from the seller. $232,500 would have been my commission.

The community was looking to buy a hall from some other agent, not Tibetan. But that agent wasn’t giving them anything. I pledged to them that if they buy through me, I would give them something from my 5% commission from the transaction.

They suggested, what if I take no commission at all, they would give me something as a token, a gift. So I thought about it, and I didn’t want to have people saying later, oh Tsering took commission from our community. So I pledged that I will make the transaction, and from my commission, I will give 4% back to the community.

So I made the deal happen and instead of pulling the contract for the full purchase price of $4,650,000 I deducted my 5% commission of $232,500 and I put in the sale contract for $4,415,000 (actually it should have been $4,417,500 but I was again able to reduce $2,500 more from the seller just to make it a round figure). So on the final sales contract we have the price $4,415,000. From my commission of $232,500 I donated $188,350 to the community, and I accepted only $44,150. The reason for doing that is because it was difficult to get a mortgage on that full purchase price. So I deducted my commission to make the sales price lower. Had I not done that, the Tibetan community would have had to pay more tax, because the purchase price was higher.

In the purchase of the community hall, officially it is showing the price as $4,415,000 as the deal price, but according to what you said the deal price was higher. So why is it showing this much?

Why the Tibetan community is not showing the real purchase price and why they’re not mentioning my name and my contribution, I have no idea. The only reason that I can think of is when I was working on this transaction, we had a board member who I was working with. By the time we were closing the deal, the board members had changed, and we had new board members. The new President of the board Kunga Thinley, he himself was a real estate agent. Possibly he didn’t want to bring this issue up, possibly he had his own interests. I don’t know. But nevertheless they never mentioned my name, they never gave me credit. And I was very upset about that.

I believe that if our community keeps on doing these sort of things, in the future it will be difficult to find people who want to help them. It’s not like if they give me credit, I’m going to be some sort of politician, asking for votes, something like that. To me it is important as a businessman, to bring my name out to the public. And that’s why I’m spending money to put advertisements, in newspapers, magazines, and on the Internet, on websites. And that’s part of the deal.

To be honest, there was one time that I said, I don’t want to deal with this any more, I wanted to drop it.

I’ll tell you the whole story. Initially when the Tibetan community was looking to buy this property, they offered $4,500,000 to the seller. The seller was asking $4,600,000, and the deal didn’t work out.

At that time there was another community, the Sikh community, Punjabi, in New York, who would buy it for a higher price, $4,650,000. And the seller was asking for more money. And our community was willing to pay $4,700,000. I believe that they had some argument, and then the seller kept asking for more money.

So they voted, and the majority of the board members voted to skip it, they didn’t want to buy it. Then the Tibetan Community found another property, and they did an environmental inspection and there were some issues, and that one didn’t go through.

In the meantime I was contacted by a board member, and asked if the hall was still available. So I worked hard to make sure that we wouldn’t lose this property. And finally the Sikh community wasn’t able to buy it, because of some mortgage contingency, and the property was back on the market. It wasn’t publicised, but I came to know that it was available. So I contacted the seller.

The seller was again asking for more money, but I was able to negotiate the price to $4,600,000. So I told the Tibetan Community to sign the offer binder for $4,370,000, based on deducting my 5% commission on that price of $4,600,000. But that night, they didn’t sign the binder, they said they had to have a meeting.

And after the meeting, one of the board members called some other agent, and they tried to go direct to the seller. And then the price went up. Our community ended up having to pay $50,000 more than they were supposed to. That’s what happened.

So to go back to your question, yes the Tibetan Community is only showing $4,415,000, but the actual price is $4,650,000. Why don’t they tell the whole thing, that I contributed money, I have no idea. But whatever it is, it is right now.

Thank you. You made it very clear about the purchase of the community hall. So has the Community Hall been inaugurated? Is it being used now or is it still under renovation?

It hasn’t been inaugurated yet. Right after the hall was purchased, after closing, on one occasion His Holiness visited New York City — I believe it was in 2011 or 2012. And at that time the board members had changed, and the new President, Kunga Thinley, got the chance to present the audit of the purchase price to His Holiness. Basically he was saying, here is the Hall that the New York and New Jersey Tibetan Community has bought. He was thanking the people who were involved. And I was kind of expecting … since I was the one who made this happen.

Even all the board members, they also knew. At the closing, the seller of the property himself, stood up and told all the new board members, if it was not for Tsering, the Tibetan Community would not have gotten this property. And they all clapped and acknowledged this. So they knew it. The seller said Tsering was very instrumental, very persistent, and he gave his commission up, that’s why the purchase price went down. So the whole board and the president himself knew about it.

And more shockingly … I’ve been involved in this project for a long time and all Tibetan officials in New York, such as Ku-ngo Lobsang Nyandak and Ku-ngo Rinchen Dharlo, they all know what I have contributed.

But during the visit of His Holiness Dalai Lama, the new president thanked the board members and everyone, but he did not mention my name at all. And neither did he mention the money that I contributed. Not only the money part, but the time and hard work that I put in. So I was very discouraged. I feel like I was betrayed. I was a little disheartened.

So no, the renovation has not been done yet. They still need funds for renovations. They have been collecting donations, and they have been asking people to lend them money, if possible $5,000 each without interest. I believe they have now collected enough money. I saw on Facebook that the renovation has been started, I saw pictures. I believe now the work has started.

I have nothing else to say, I wish them all the best. I am a part of the community also. I really want the Hall to come up nicely and be utilised by all the Tibetan Community.

Every Sunday children can go there to learn Tibetan and preserve our culture and language. Before that they would have to move from one place to another, a church, a school, to have those classes.

So I hope the project will finish fast, and it will benefit all the Tibetan Community.

I think there are more than 10,000 Tibetans in New York City. There are lots of activities. How involved are you in these activities — political, social, religious?

I’m not much involved in political activities, I’m not much interested in political things at all. I’m more interested in social work and community things. That’s why I really worked hard on this Community Hall, and I donated back.

As you know, in Mussoorie we have two schools, Tibetan Homes Foundation (THF), and Central School for Tibetans (CST). We have an ex-Mussoorie — CST, and THF members — alumni association in New York. In that I’m involved; at present I am the Vice-President.

Every year we donate some money to help the needy kids in Mussoorie. This year we took our budget of $5,000. Out of that, $2,500 was given to THF, and $2,500 to CST.

Our main objective is to help the needy kids, but this year the CST requested us, that since they have built a new boys’ hostel and girls’ hostel, they needed a television for the kids. So recently I went to Mussoorie, and I was able to bring them a 48″ LED television, and presented it to them on their Children’s Day. And the remaining Rs 80,050, I was able to give to the Director of Central Schools for Tibetans.

In that kind of work I am very involved.