Attorney James Wang’s face is a familiar sight in the San Gabriel Valley for those who traverse its tangle of freeways or dine out in its bountiful Chinese restaurants. Wang’s ubiquity for the past 15 years — his eternally youthful portrait livening dull commutes down the 10, the 60, the 57 on billboards; his piercing eyes peeking through a mess of dishes at hundreds of area restaurants on paper placemats — have built and sustained a thriving legal practice and even made the lawyer a household name.
Now in his mid-40s and living in Newport Beach, Wang can’t help but be amused by it all. The way he remembers it, the idea to advertise on restaurant placemats came to him like an “epiphany” when he was a young lawyer needing to differentiate his services in a crowded market. Wang’s advertising budget wasn’t much when he founded his eponymous legal practice back in 2006. And with the cost of billboard advertising completely out of reach and less expensive social media ads still in their infancy, Wang knew that he needed a different approach to place his business on the map.
With hundreds of restaurants filling the San Gabriel Valley’s strip malls and lining its lively thoroughfares — and attracting crowds at all hours — Wang honed in on the humble placemat to deliver his message. He understood that dining out in this predominantly Chinese community meant more than just filling up on good food; meals taken outside the home offered a hard-earned respite and an opportunity to catch up with close friends and family. And with everyone’s gaze naturally gravitating toward the table in these moments, it made sense to use this untapped real estate to his advantage. “You’re looking down at [the table] and people are going to see ads of me and they’re gonna discuss, ‘Hey I’ve seen this guy everywhere.’ Kind of like a snowball effect, so then they’re going to start talking about me during their discussions,” Wang says.
William Kwan, the owner of Delicious Food Corner, uses Wang’s placemats in all five locations of his popular all-day Cantonese restaurants. He overhears customers chatting about Wang every few weeks, with some even inquiring if the attorney owns the restaurant due to his pervasive presence. It’s not every day that a placemat can influence a table’s topic of conversation, but when it comes to Wang’s ads, it happens often enough.
Wang also recognized the value that his placemats offered both to restaurants and their clientele. Measuring nearly a foot tall and 17 inches wide, the placemats easily fit a plate, small bowl, utensils, a napkin, and even a cell phone. Wang’s free-of-charge, door-to-door placemat delivery appealed to restaurateurs operating on thin margins who no longer needed to purchase any sort of table covering or spring for pricey tablecloths that require constant laundering. For diners, the generously sized placemats signaled a more hygienic environment and reduced visible tabletop streaking and grease. Wang believes that the novelty of providing a tactile print experience in an overwhelmingly digital world has further increased his placemats’ popularity, especially among the older set.
Wang bankrolled the first run of 30,000 placemats in 2006 and distributed them to highly trafficked community stalwarts that operated from morning through late night, serving hundreds of diners daily. The now-closed MJ Cafe & Tea House in City of Industry was the first restaurant to use Wang’s branded placemats. He also approached Hong Kong-style diners like ABC Cafe and JJ Hong Kong Cafe in Monterey Park and U2 Cafe in Alhambra early on. He estimates that 1 million placemats were handed out by the end of 2007. The steady stream of referrals that came in as the result of these placements provided the feedback that Wang needed to continue with his unorthodox marketing strategy.
It takes a great deal of confidence to plaster one’s face on every conceivable corner of the San Gabriel Valley. Wang acknowledges that his tenacious dining table marketing approach may be rooted in his parachute kid upbringing. “I’ve been living here by myself since I was 14,” he says. Wang immigrated to Los Angeles in 1987 at the age of 10. When his parents returned to Taiwan in 1991, he continued to pursue an education while living alone in the city of Walnut. Without any family to lean on, Wang sought camaraderie through gang memberships with notorious groups Wah Ching and United Bamboo. Though Wang admits he floundered in his adolescent years, struggling to find his place without parental guidance and support, he managed to keep his grades up and was accepted to UC Irvine for college. He transferred to UCLA following his freshman year and worked in several high-powered accounting jobs after graduation.
The hardships Wang overcame in his younger years fostered the resilience, optimism, and creativity that’s made him who he is today: the most recognizable lawyer in the San Gabriel Valley. The initial run of 30,000 placemats gradually inflated over the years as demand grew among restaurants for the product. These days, each print job numbers at least a million, with a total of 10 million placemats delivered annually to 250 area restaurants (the number of restaurants was closer to 300 prior to the pandemic). Wang prints two versions of each placemat — one in Chinese for those who can read it and another in English for American-born Chinese and everyone else. His dimpled grin almost always appears in the left-hand column of each one. Wang estimates that he receives around 100 calls monthly from potential clients who see his ads while dining out.
The success of Wang’s marketing strategy has attracted other businesses wanting a piece of the tabletop advertising pie. Starting in 2008, local real estate agents, high-end jewelers, insurance hawkers, and even other attorneys have paid a pretty penny to appear alongside Wang on the placemats, with rates currently going for $2,500 for 100,000 sheets. The advertising fees that Wang collects covers the cost of designing, printing, storing, and delivering the placemats with money to spare. “A lot of [non-Asian] people are still not too familiar with restaurant placemat advertising, so they don’t really know the conversion rates or if it’s worth it for them,” he says. “But the Asian community has been largely receptive to advertising here because they know. You go to the cafes, you go to these restaurants, you know how many people are there, talking and looking down at their tables. So what better place to get exposure than busy restaurants, right?” Though the placemats were initially born out of necessity, they have grown to become a formidable advertising arm and a consistent source of revenue for Wang’s firm.
Placemats, along with freeway billboards and social media advertising, are all a part of Wang’s “long-term branding” strategy, which is essential when it comes to personal injury legal services. “It’s not every day that somebody gets in an accident, and they happen to be eating, and they see me [on a placemat], and they call me,” he says. Wang is committed to keeping his law firm top-of-mind and is in on the joke when it comes to the everywhereness of his brand. He’s read and saved all of his mentions on snarky Reddit threads and still gets a kick out of the popularity of a post he was featured in on the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group. There have only been a few negative incidents that resulted from his advertisements, including stalkers who required restraining orders and a social media fall out with an allegedly racist dental hygienist.
“It’s worked out pretty well for the past 15 years for the business,” says Wang. Looking toward the future, he is considering expanding his placemats into restaurants beyond the San Gabriel Valley; Wang thinks there’s an opportunity given heightened sanitation concerns due to the pandemic. “A lot of mainstream restaurants don’t have the habit of putting any type of placemats on their tables,” he says. “They just place your utensils on the table, maybe it’s wrapped up in your napkin.” Wang foresees scaling back on the number of advertisers featured on the placemats provided to “mainstream American restaurants” to streamline the design for an audience unaccustomed to being advertised to while dining out. “We thought about easing into the restaurants by giving them white paper with the logo of their company or their restaurant — sponsored by our law office — so they’re not overwhelmed.” As diners warm up to the placemats over time, Wang plans to populate them with more and more advertisements — it’s his business model, after all.
Even after all these years of bombarding the region with his mug, people are still delighted to encounter it. “You either want to be him or to sleep with him,” my friend Louise said while out to lunch at a newly opened Xianese restaurant in Monterey Park where Wang’s face appeared atop every table. “He’s so androgynous, ageless, air brushed. But his dimples say that he’s approachable.” It’s in these moments where Wang moves from an ambient advertisement to the subject of conversation that makes his brand so sticky. As long as people keep talking about his name, face, and firm, he’ll keep showing up at every meal.