The Chinese invented paper, gunpowder, the compass.

But these days, if you want to be innovative, you've got to have state-of-the-art technology. And that's where modern-day China lags far behind, says Tai Chan, president of the Detroit Chinese Engineers Assn. (DCEA).

Mr. Chan, an environmental engineer who works at General Motors Corp. as Executive Secretary of the GM-China Advisory Board, says when he conducts experiments for GM - he currently is studying China's air pollution problem - his researchers, who are collecting samples in China's big cities, can't even access clean, distilled water.

Because China and its universities lack engineering technology and know-how in fundamental areas, many of China's top engineering minds get an undergraduate degree, board a plane destined for a top U.S. graduate program, and never look back. "No one has an urgency to finish their degree and move back to China," Mr. Chan says.

In the U.S., there are about 160,000 Chinese university students - by far the largest ethnic group among foreign students. Detroit's Wayne State University has 2,500 students from Asia, most of whom are Chinese and entering technical fields.

Those with automotive inclinations appropriately land themselves in Detroit. GM has about 2,000 Chinese engineers, and Ford Motor Co. has even more, Mr. Chan says. Those who don't settle here swing through in March for the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress.

DCEA takes full advantage of this congregation of engineers from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, American engineers of Chinese descent and interested delegations from around the globe, by holding its annual meeting on March 4 - the Saturday before SAE.

The DCEA meeting, 2000 Detroit Automotive Technology Conference & Exposition, will be like many seminars during SAE week: candidates will present papers on the latest issues in engineering technology. This year will focus on e-technology, emerging vehicle technology, and high-performance and light-weight materials.

Though similar in format, the DCEA meeting not only serves as a tool to promote new technologies but also as a forum for exchange among Detroit's Chinese engineers. It also serves as a terrific networking tool to discuss other commonalities, such as immigration issues, or how to invest their new American salaries, Mr. Chan says.

The non-profit professional organization, which has about 300 members, was formed in 1980 but only picked up steam five years ago, when Mr. Chan insisted that English be made the organization's official language. There are a handful of non-Chinese members: people interested in doing business in China or those recruiting Chinese to their workforce.

DCEA's 12-member board represents a broad cross-section, including those born in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the U.S. Many board members when in China will guest lecture at some of the country's technical schools, such as Tsingua University, Tongji University, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The organization, however, focuses not on China, but on Detroit, with an eye on Chinese graduate students and young engineers preparing to enter the workforce. To increase student involvement, DCEA's student membership rate is $10, while professional membership is $25.

As a group, Chinese automotive engineers have plenty to offer Detroit's workforce, Mr. Chan says. Most of the students have highly sophisticated mathematical and analytical skills. Plus, they have studied diligently and are prepared to work hard.

Why such talent? Of China's 1.3 billion people, only the top 2% are allowed to go to university there. Of that group, those pursuing graduate degrees are allowedto come to the U.S. to further their education in top institutions. And of that group, some of the finest are engineers - a highly esteemed field in China. "You're picking from the cream of the crop," Mr. Chan says.

A problem right now, however, is that many of these students and new professionals don't feel compelled to join DCEA. "The job market is so hot," Mr. Chan says. "We expected more students to join, but they say 'I don't need you. I have five jobs already.'"

DCEA's networking forte, however, does not emphasize job connections. Rather, it helps these new immigrants find success in their new jobs. These engineers often need communication skills, especially if they have plans to advance to executive levels. "Otherwise, people will treat you as someone who just puts their nose to the grindstone," Mr. Chan says. "They will put you in a corner and say, 'Now work on this gadget.'"

And whether these young engineers like it or not, the automotive world is getting fonder and fonder of China, as many automotive firms seek joint-venture opportunities on the mainland. And these engineers very well may serve as their company's liaison to China - similar to Mr. Chan's role at GM.

While they're there, DCEA hopes they visit a university as a DCEA ambassador, and give a little talk about engineering developments in Detroit. After all, there's a good chance those engineering students are packing their bags to come on over.

For more information about DCEA, visit www.detroitengineer.org.