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Made At Sac State

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At Sacramento State, Baldwin Chiu laid the groundwork for an eclectic and successful career

Baldwin Chiu’s resume doesn’t make for a tidy and concise LinkedIn profile.

Engineer. Musician. Filmmaker. Martial artist. Rapper. Stunt artist. Motivational speaker.

Chiu’s disparate interests, however, have one very important thing in common.

“The theme of everything that I've done, whether it be creatively or in engineering, is, ‘Can I do something to make this world a better place?’ ” he said.

Chiu’s eclectic talents and occupations also share a foundation laid at Sacramento State, where he earned his degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1998 while fostering skills and hobbies that would later become hallmarks of his professional life.

That foundation, he said, was critical to everything that followed.

“You're not going to be able to go out there and change the world, you're not going to change somebody's life and make something better, (if) you don't have a strong foundation,” he said.

Chiu’s broad array of interests was evident while growing up in Rancho Cordova, where he played multiple sports, joined the school orchestra and choir, and began rapping. When he enrolled at Sac State he decided to major in engineering because he saw that career path as more promising than music.

“Sac State was just a great place for me to build a foundation. It gave me an opportunity to expand and have a better understanding of who I am as a person.” -- Baldwin Chiu

Sac State was attractive, he said, not just because going to college locally saved him money, but because of the caliber of its Engineering program. In particular, Chiu appreciated its focus on hands-on, not just theoretical, learning.

“We actually got our hands dirty. It was not just research or theoretical,” Chiu said. “Labs were really the best part of engineering because you could read and study and all that, but I didn’t really get it until I started building it.”

When not in the engineering classroom or mentoring other students through the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society, there were two places on campus Chiu frequented. One was the studio at Sac State’s student radio station KSSU, where he was a DJ for “The Holy Hip-Hop Hour,” which featured gospel and rap music without profanity.

The other was the gym, where he had taken a martial arts class and fallen in love with the sport. He trained frequently in the evenings, practicing karate and tai chi and “was one the founders of the very first martial arts clubs at Sac State,” he said.

Engineering remained his focus, however, and through the College of Engineering and Computer Science’s Career Co-op program, he was able to take time off from school to complete two paid internships. The Army ROTC even offered him an engineering scholarship, but after completing basic training he ultimately decided that wasn’t the path for him.

Thanks to all that experience, however, he had multiple job offers. He spent the next 18 years working in the engineering industry, ending as a senior project manager and senior mechanical engineer at Barry-Wehmiller Design Group.

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Baldwin Chiu and his wife Larissa Lam smile at each other on campus.
Utilizing his education from Sacramento State, accomplished alumnus Baldwin Chiu, pictured with his wife, singer Larissa Lam, has had the opportunity to pursue an eclectic and varied list of interests, including filmmaking, music, martial arts, a career in engineering and more. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

At the same time, he continued rapping, acting and producing music for his wife, singer Larissa Lam.

“Engineering at its original core was a very creative thing, and I think we kind of lost some of that in a lot of the schools where engineers got this bad rap about being boring, overly analytical, overly logical,” he said. “I always felt like that's really is a disservice to what engineering really is, and so I've always enjoyed the other part of my life, which was artistic and creative.”

Under the rap name Only Won, he became known as the “lyrical engineer.” His music video “I Wanna Be an Engineer” not only blew up on YouTube, it attracted the attention of the Obama administration, which recruited him for the “Stay With It” campaign to motivate engineering students to persist to graduation.

He continued to branch out in his career. His Army ROTC connections led to a job on the stunt team for Marvel’s first “Incredible Hulk” movie. And he worked as a motivational speaker, including at Sac State.

Chiu credits the University for helping him succeed in such varied fields.

“Sac State was just a great place for me to build a foundation,” he said. “It gave me an opportunity to expand and have a better understanding of who I am as a person.”

In 2016, Chiu quit his engineering job to focus full-time on his burgeoning entertainment career. Now based in Los Angeles, he continues to write and produce music, act, and speak as the COO of Giant Flashlight Media.

Even though his past work drew on his life and experiences, his most recent project is his most personal – and a little bit accidental. While researching his family history, Chiu made a shocking discovery: His family roots traced back not to a remote village in China, but to a rural community in the Mississippi Delta. His great-grandfather, in fact, was born in the United States.

For Chiu, who had been bullied as a child and told he was not an American, it was a life-altering revelation.

“It changed me as a person because all of a sudden I realized my story has been in America,” he said. “We found out my daughter is actually sixth-generation American.”

Chiu and Lam traveled to Cleveland, Miss., where they learned not only about Chiu’s family background but also the community of early Chinese Americans who settled in the Deep South and, in the shadow of Black-white racial tension, had their own struggles with racism and segregation.

In 2015, they released the short documentary “Finding Cleveland,” and the popularity of that film allowed them to raise funds for a full-length feature, “Far East Deep South,” released in 2020 and broadcast on PBS in May 2021.

Chiu hopes everyone who sees the documentary realizes how much unknown history there is in the U.S., and the implications of that on who we consider “American.”

That, in turn, calls back to the driving motivation behind everything Chiu has done: Make the world a better place.

“We're trying to say, this is a piece of history, just one piece of our history, that may have been dark, but can we learn from it?” he said. “If we saw that we had a past together, can that give us a better opportunity to see us with a future together? And I think the answer is yes.”

“I feel like all my life was preparing me for this moment.”

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About Jonathan Morales

Jonathan Morales joined the Sac State communications team in 2017 as a writer and editor. He previously worked at San Francisco State University and as a newspaper reporter and editor. He enjoys local beer, Bay Area sports teams, and spending time outdoors with his family and dog.

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