When 50-year-old Chinese billionaire Chen Tianqiao purchased nearly 200,000 acres of timberland in rural Oregon back in 2015, it likely didn’t make headlines across America. But the quiet $85 million deal has had lasting ripple effects, elevating Chen to become the second largest foreign landowner in the U.S.
It’s a title Chen holds rather inconspicuously, despite his pioneering work in the online video gaming industry overseas. His purchase has only just garnered wider attention this week upon his addition to the 2023 Land Report 100, an annual list compiling America’s largest private landowners. Chen trails only Canada’s prominent Irving family when it comes to foreign-held U.S. soil.
The son of factory workers turned self-made tech tycoon is in good company on the elite list, rubbing elbows with other luminaries like Ted Turner, John Malone, and Stan Kroenke. But his journey to amassing vast American timberlands has taken twists and turns far different from the more familiar domestic moguls.
Chen’s rise began in 1999 within China’s fledgling internet landscape when he founded online gaming company Shanda Interactive Entertainment Limited. It proved fortuitous timing, as Shanda soon became one of China’s largest internet companies on the back of popular gaming titles like The World of Legend, Dungeons & Dragons Online, and Final Fantasy XIV.
The company’s success continued with an initial U.S. public offering on Nasdaq in 2004, marking what was then the largest IPO ever for a Chinese internet firm. Chen ultimately took Shanda private again in 2012 before pivoting the core business and relocating headquarters abroad.
Throughout Shanda’s boom years last decade, Chen amassed a net worth upwards of $1.5 billion. While it has since dropped back closer to $1 billion per Forbes’ 2024 estimate, timely U.S. investments in land and luxury real estate continue paying dividends.
Beyond ranking among the leading individual landowners nationwide, Chen has been busily assembling an enviable portfolio of lavish homes from coast to coast. He bought Manhattan’s historic Vanderbilt mansion on East 69th Street for $39 million in 2018 alongside wife Chrissy Luo. In 2021, the power couple was linked to the $25 million purchase of the prominent Seeley Mudd Estate in suburban Los Angeles.
It appears Chen has taken quite a liking to the West Coast lifestyle overall. Yet his Oregon tree farm purchase constituting the bulk of U.S acreage remains most intriguing, begging the question — why are foreign investors increasingly flocking to buy American rural land?
Recent years have seen a surge of wealthy investors snapping up domestic cropland and timber farms. The average per-acre value of U.S. cropland jumped 8.1% in 2023 alone according to USDA data, rising over a third since 2020.
Several motivations seem to be driving the scramble for American soil spanning food security concerns, climate change pressures on agriculture, anticipation of strengthened environmental policies impacting land uses, and simple market betting on continued upward land valuation.
The broader global phenomenon raises important quandaries around balancing welcoming foreign investment flows while also monitoring domestic economic and national security considerations. Further pressures between land development priorities, conservation efforts, and community access will likely continue mounting around foreign ownership gains.
Chen appears cognizant of stirring greater discussion as the scope of his U.S. landholdings comes further into public light. Yet the press-shy gaming entrepreneur remains difficult to pin down, without much trace of him emerging to provide perspective on plans for the sprawling Oregon forests.
Attempts to reach Chen’s representatives at Shanda’s global investment group have been unreturned as focus likely remains fixed overseas across his other ventures. However, his earlier philanthropic initiatives like founding a prominent neuroscience institute at Caltech with wife Luo in 2016 provide hints of his values and long-term aims.
The Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute departed from Shanda’s core technology orientation to more deeply study the human mind in service of advancing mental health. Perhaps the fruits of Chen’s American land harvest may someday also contribute to related scientific discovery or public benefit domestically just as his video game innovations broadly impacted digital entertainment abroad.
For now Chen’s place among this elite cohort of U.S. land barons is secured. It places him shoulder to shoulder with not only high-powered business luminaries but also iconic family dynasties like the Emmersons of Sierra Pacific Industries and the famously private Irving clan of Canada.
Only time will tell what full vision Chen holds for stewarding his growing American real estate empire spanning glittering coastal mansions and sprawling inward timber farms. But like any savvy investor, diversification has always been a key survival strategy during times of volatility.