The March 6, 2017, Issue of New York Magazine
One World, Many Facets of a Charmed Life
Businesswoman and author Yue-Sai Kan believes many in the West still fail to understand the Chinese.
The Emmy award-winner who can also lay claim to once being the most famous woman in China insists many of the negative perceptions are just wrong.
"I think Americans, in particular, have this view that the Chinese are going to take them over. What they don't realize that unlike the Americans, the Chinese have no interest in being the savior or policeman of the world," she says.
"The Chinese leadership would be the first to tell you they have enormous problems of their own, from poverty to inequality of education to just about everything."
Kan, 65, who divides her time between homes in New York, Beijing and Shanghai, was in the Chinese capital to launch her new book, 99 Ways to Live a Charmed Life.
She remains hugely famous in her native country to anyone over 40, largely because she used to present a weekly TV show, One World, on China Central Television in the 1980s when there was only one TV channel in the country. It once attracted a peak audience of 400 million.
She also launched a cosmetic brand, Yue-Sai, that meant her face was on virtually every advertising billboard in the country.
"There was a saying that even a dog can become famous if it were on CCTV at that time," she laughs. "I really didn't know how famous I was because I wasn't in China when I was making the show but filming all around the world."
When she came back to China after the series was first aired to launch her first book, 150 police officers had to be on hand when she did a signing at a Tianjin bookstore.
"People had to wait for three hours to have their book signed. I think some glass cabinets were broken in the bookstore as the crowd swelled. I didn't feel I was in any danger though," she recalls.
Kan was born just five days after Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed New China in Tian'anmen Square in October 1949.
This famously ended the so-called century of humiliation and Kan believes it is this history that Westerners fail to understand.
"They don't know much about the history of foreigners coming in and taking over parts of the country, the British, the Germans, the French and then the Japanese. As late as the 20th century, China was a spent country," she says.
"What you have now is the Chinese getting this independence of spirit back, which they lost during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in the 19th century. There is now a tremendous pride in their psyche. It is a new self confidence but it doesn't translate into wanting to take over the world. Foreigners just don't get this."
Kan admits, however, there is a danger that this self-confidence might turn into hubris as the Chinese begin to make investments around the world.
"I remember when the Japanese started buying things in the 1970s and 1980s such as the Rockefeller Center and every goddamn thing under the sun. There was this idea the Japanese were a new super race and then it ends in disaster. You have a situation now of the Chinese buying up film studios in Hollywood. I am not saying China will be the same but I would say the jury is out."
All Kan's books are aimed at a Chinese readership and often deal with etiquette, beauty and lifestyle issues.
Her latest book begs the question as to whether she herself has had a charmed life, being born in Guilin in Guangxi, one of the poorest provinces in China, to go on to become a media star and successful entrepreneur.
"Yes, I consider my life pretty charmed. Luck is always part of it but they say the harder you work, the luckier you get.
"The luckiest part of my life was having wonderful educated parents who made sacrifices and gave me the right values."
99 Ways is typical Kan, mixing beauty tips such as successful tanning and wearing the right accessories to how to achieve happiness, cope with jealousy, find a successful marriage partner and play a musical instrument (Kan is an accomplished pianist).
"I think one of the best ways to lead a charmed life is to have a lot of wonderful friends. You actually have to find the right friends, people with the same energy and values but also learn how to be a friend. This is something you have to work on. You always have to have time for your friends."
She also believes a charmed life also comes from investing any money you have well.
"It is not about how much you earn but about earning money from the money you earn. If you don't know how to do this you miss out on a lot of what you can do with your life with having that financial independence."
Kan, who was largely brought up in Hong Kong but studied music at Brigham Young University in Hawaii before moving to New York in her early 20s, went on to win an Emmy award for a documentary she did for ABC, China Walls and Bridges.
She perhaps had her biggest financial breakthrough when she launched her cosmetics brand in China in the 1990s. The country was largely a virgin market and the major foreign brands did not tend to target those with Asian skin tones.
"There was clearly a huge potential market of 500 million women but no one knew how to enter. Chinese women tended to think smearing something on your face was really gross so there was huge amount of education to be done."
Within a decade the company had sales of $50 million (46 million euros) a year before being sold to L'Oreal in 2004.
Apart from being chairman of the Invitation Committee of the Shanghai International Film Festival, Kan has been national director of Miss Universe China since 2011.
She is aware than many see beauty pageants as a very dated concept but says it attracts big audiences around the world.
"There is a negative view of them in China, too. I don't think it is something we necessarily have to overcome. The fact of the matter is that there are good and bad teachers, good and bad contestants and good and bad beauty pageants," she says.
Last year's contest, which resulted in 24-year-old Beijing-based photographer and model Hu Yanliang eventually taking the title after the original winner resigned, was the subject of a six-part documentary Finding Miss China which in itself was a major hit with audiences.
"The reason why I got involved was that the organizers felt that a very big country like China should not have such bad contestants and should have people who prepared them better.
"Everyone does it differently in my case, the final is a charity event and we make a huge amount of money for Operation Smile (which helps children with cleft palates)."
Kan remains impressed by the huge transformation in her own country and puts a lot of this down to the strength of leadership in the Chinese government.
"There is no comparison with the United States. Someone like Xi Jinping has run cities and provinces just to be on the politburo itself, never mind president. Just look at the rain and storms he has had to go though. Someone like Obama has never run a city and never even run a company."
She believes China's transformation over the past 30 years is a phenomenon greater than the rise of the US in the 19th century.
"It has never happened before. It is vibrant, extraordinary and just an explosion of commerce. Because of the Internet and the way that it facilitates business, it is all gigantically faster."