Yue-Sai Kan takes the mystery out of the East


May 23, 1991|By Michael Hill

JUDGED ON A per capita basis, she might have the most recognizable TV face in the world. At least she's probably up there with J.R. Ewing.

But, on this afternoon, Yue-Sai Kan sat completely unrecognized in a Washington restaurant, with none of the points and stares and polite greetings her presence would set off were she in China where some 400 million people are said to have watched her show "One World."

LTC Kan is a Chinese-born, Hong Kong-raised, Hawaii-schooled entrepreneur who came to New York in 1972 at 23 and, with her sister, opened a business importing mundane goods from China.

With trade with China just opening up, she was on the ground floor of that business. But then she found another one that appeared even more lucrative though it was also in its start-up throes -- cable television. Kan began hosting and producing a show for the Asian community on Manhattan's cable system. "Looking East" eventually went to the Discovery Channel.

It also brought Kan to the attention of PBS in 1984 when the public network was conducting a last-minute search for a host to narrate its pickup of Chinese Central Television's coverage of the 35th anniversary celebrations of the communist revolution.

The Chinese TV people were so impressed by Kan's work that they asked her to do a show that would introduce the outside world to its viewers. She produced more than 100 episodes of "One World," documentaries about various aspects of countries

around the globe.

"The Chinese people were so curious about the rest of the world," Kan said. "They all watched. The scripts were printed in their weekly TV guide so everyone could study them before the shows were broadcast."

Kan believes that the Chinese found her attractive because she provided a role model that they did not have -- someone of Chinese descent who had made it in the outside world.

"I was told that if I went on Chinese TV, I should dress plainly, so that's what I did for the first few shows," she said. "Then they told me to just be myself. So I put on my makeup and my Ungaros, and they loved it."

Kan's latest assignment is hosting the Maryland Public Television series "Mini-Dragons," a four-parter that looks at the emerging economic power of four smaller countries -- South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Co-produced with Japan's NHK and Film Australia, it begins its national run Monday night at 9 o'clock on PBS and MPT, channels 22 and 67.

"I think these programs will be appealing because they do not show the Hollywood stereotypes, they show real people," Kan said. "And when you see them, you realize that they have the same wishes and desires of people all over the world."

Kan also thinks that "Mini-Dragons" can teach Americans a lot of lessons, many of them coming from the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who has suffered his own stereotyping by Hollywood.

"When people hear Confucius, they think of Charlie Chan, number one son, all that," she said. "But just as China is so important all throughout the East, so is Confucianism. Its lessons form the basis of the success of these countries.

"Number one is to honor the family, that's the source of support for everything in Asia. Second is hard work. You don't believe how hard these people work. It's standard for them to go to work at 8 in the morning and come home at 11 at night. They think nothing of that.

"Third is to put the benefit to the country ahead of your own needs. That's something that's disappearing in America. When was the last time you heard a politician say 'Let's pay more taxes'? Or use the word 'sacrifice'? You never hear that word any more.

"And the fourth principal is education. In Korea after the war in 1953, the country was devastated. Seoul was leveled. The first thing they did was start working on education. By the '60s they were already talking about universal primary education. And now they, like all these countries, are one of the most literate countries in the world. Education is fundamental. We have to invest more in that in this country."

Indeed, Kan finds that her study of the East leads her to question one of the basic tenets of American foreign policy, the ++ unconditional support of democracy.

"I wonder when is a country ready for democracy? And how much democracy? When I go to countries like India and the Philippines, they are democracies, but I see people dying in the streets, others living off garbage dumps, taking any job for 25 cents or 50 cents. It makes me wonder how valuable is the right to vote?

"In Singapore, the media was controlled by the state. They had no free speech. But they had housing they could afford, good jobs, plenty of food to eat. It's only when people have education and some economic stability that democracy can flourish.

"Indeed the leaders of a country like Korea should take the riots for more democracy as a compliment. Because that means the people's bellies are full and now they are looking for something more."

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