1989-01-09 | The New Yorker
The most popular television personality in the world is a New York woman named Yue-Sai Kan, who is the narrator and executive producer of a series of travelogues that have captivated China's entire viewing population. Her program, One World, shows her audiences places they are unlikely to visit, such as the pyramids, the Parthenon, and New York's Chinatown, and interviews foreigners they are unlikely to meet, including the Queen of Denmark, a student taxi-driver in London, and the Steenhoek family who farm twenty-two hundred mu (three hundred and forty acres) in Iowa.
We called on Miss Kan in her apartment, on Sutton Place, recently, and asked her if she had ever dreamed of someday owning the best-known face on earth. She is a fragile beauty in her late thirties who talks animatedly and with a slight- and to our ear implacable- accent. She smiled, and told us that her earliest ambition had been to be a concert pianist. She grew up in Hong Kong, where her parents had settled after feeling from the Chinese Communists, and spent her childhood playing in school concerts and winning local piano competitions. But although later, in New York, she studied with a Juilliard professor, Jacob Latiner, she came to doubt she was good enough. There's only one Rubisntein in a generation, and I could see it wasn't going to be me, she said. I still play the piano, though. Alone. Just for myself.
Miss Kan started out in television by forming a company to produce Looking East, a program about Asia for Americans, which she is till producing, and which ash been running on cable stations around this country for the past nine years. I had no idea how complicated television is, she said. With the piano, it's between you and the music. The composer is usually dead. In television, you depend on so many other people- cameramen, film editors. If you're doing an interview and your guest if terrible, you're terrible. You could say I went into television out of ignorance and idealism. When you're doing something you think is right, you don't worry if you can do it. Today, it's not strange to talk about Asia. Everybody here is convinced that Asia influences our daily lives. But nine years ago, when I started Looking East, it was strange. Asia was just a bunch of poor yellow people. She added that this year Looking East will be syndicated in Asia. Until now, the peoples of Asia haven't known much about each other, she said. But they're very interested in each other these days.
In 1984, Miss Kan narrated the celebrations of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the revolution for PBS, where-upon China Central Television, the state monopoly, invited her to do something for it. The bureaucracy didnt tell me what they wanted, and they didn't tell me what they didn't want, she said. They wanted to make sure that they wouldn't take the blame if I failed. Since I'd been doing a program showing Asia to Westerners, I thought I'd turn it around and show the Chinese the rest of the world. We filmed in eighteen countries in eighteen months. I learned how to find what I need anywhere. I have a dentist in Hong Kong and a dentist in New York. By the time the first show was ready, I had worked myself down to ninety-five pounds, and I was exhausted. I remember sitting in my hotel room in Peking and watching the television when I cam e on and said that I was an adopted American, that New York City was my home, and that for my first program I would like to show my home. Four hundred million people were watching. You can't grasp such figures- those numbers are phantoms. That day, in February of 1986, happened to be the seventh day of the Chinese New Year, and firecrackers were going off all over, and I thought, how marvelous, theyre celebrating my program. Then I went to sleep for fourteen hours. The next day, the newspapers said, Yue-Sai Kan stunned China, and Hu Qi Li, who is one of the five member of the Central Committee, sent over two secretaries to carry his handwritten letter of congratulations and a gift of a painting. When the secretaries finished the formal presentation, they asked me if I would show them my program again- the on they'd just seen- on my VCR.
One of the greatest worries I had- everybody had- was that CCTV's hosts speak only the purest Mandarin, and my mandarin wasn't very good. All the time I was filming, I was also trying to polish my Mandarin, but still it was clear that I was a foreigner. Curiously, that worked out fine. In China today, it's very chic to speak like Yue-Sai Kan. My Mandarin has got better as I've kept going to China and kept practicing, but they still think of me as an American. To them I'm very exotic. The adulation just grows and grows. This haircut- Miss Kan raised a hand to her hair, which she wears in what Westerners call a Dutch bob- is called the Yue-Sai cut. You can go into any Chinese salon and get a Yue-Sai cut. Everywhere I go, I'm mobbed. In Shanghai, there's a street of shops for private entrepreneurs, and just recently I wanted to film a sequence showing me going from store to store. The moment I arrived, my car was swamped. There were at least fifty hands stuck through the car windows to get my autograph. There was no way I could even open the door.
We asked Miss Kan if she ever feels deflated when she returns to New York and anonymity.
It's not a letdown, she said. It's almost a relief. In the West, there are many celebrities, and a lot of TV that nobody takes seriously. In China, there are very few celebrities, and people study every word I say. My TV scripts have been published as a book, and it's used in schools. The government made me an honorary citizen, and when my mother, who now lives in New York, was ill recently, they sent one of their greatest doctors over here to treat her with acupuncture and herbal medicine. When Im in China, there are many demands on my time, and I feel I have to do everything I'm asked to, because I feel responsible to all those people who adore me. I don't have that feeling of responsibility in New York. Or anywhere else in the world.