Media pioneer keen to tell an optimistic story

Updated: Jan 9, 2023 Print
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Emmy-winning television producer, best-selling author and entrepreneur Yue-Sai Kan has witnessed the rapid development of China and profound changes in its social life. She has been dedicated to bridging the cultural gap between East and West.[Photo provided to China Daily]

When she was a child, Yue-Sai Kan was told by her father that she should always aim to be the first to walk on the moon because no one remembers the second.

What her father said has been a driving inspiration over the years for her to become an Emmy-winning television producer, bestselling author and successful entrepreneur.

Her new book Be a Pioneer, which is the tenth she has penned and her first Chinese-language autobiography, was released after three years in the making. It was also inspired in part by her father's words.

"Actually many people have asked me to write an autobiography. I have been asked numerous times already but I always felt that it was not the right time for me to sit down and give thanks for my life and also I did not think my life was so exciting anyway," says Kan.

However, her publisher thought otherwise, telling her that since she lived through interesting times in China, and was both witness and participant, she should write the book as a historical record.

"All the things I have done — my successes and my failures — can be a good example to young people in particular. I think that's the main reason why I wrote the book," says Kan, adding that the COVID-19 lockdown gave her the unexpected opportunity to do some thinking about her life.

In the book, Kan included a lot of pictures taken from her early life. By scanning a QR code, readers are also able to see video clips from the period. "I am a television person, so I thought these videos were a great way to connect with my readers," she says.

When writing an autobiography, the biggest challenges are not only how to present one's life, but also remembering it in the first place. To help with reconstructing her story, Kan asked the many friends and colleagues she made over the years to write down their memories of her from earlier times. So besides featuring Kan's own words, the new book is also filled with those of her friends, which gave Kan new insight into herself.

"My assistant Stephanie wrote about my marriage. I was getting a divorce. She mentioned that I was crying every day, which I did not remember, and she said that I was frantic because we were running out of cash for the company. My housekeeper reminded me that before the launch of one of my events she found that I had fainted in the bathroom. I was so exhausted that I was getting sick. They know more about me than myself," Kan says.

Television personality

Kan was born in 1946 in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, and grew up in Hong Kong. In 1968, while majoring in piano at the Hawaii campus of Brigham Young University, Kan entered a beauty pageant sponsored by the local Chinese Chamber of Commerce. She won second place, and as a result got to travel around the world. The life-changing experience marked the beginning of her career in fashion, beauty, communication and cultural exchange.

In 1972, she moved to New York and created the weekly television series Looking East, the first of its kind to introduce Asian cultures and customs to a growing US audience. It aired for over a decade, garnering critical acclaim and winning dozens of awards, making her one of the first TV journalists to connect East and West.

In 1986, Kan returned to China, producing and hosting the television series One World, which aired on State-owned China Central Television. It was the first show ever hosted by a Chinese-American on the television network, and was a national sensation. With a weekly viewership of 300 million, Kan embarked on journeys to every corner of the globe, giving a new generation of Chinese a transformative glimpse of the outside world. The TV show made her a household name in China. Even her trademark haircut and fashion style fascinated people at the time.

Other important projects of hers include the ABC documentary China: Walls and Bridges, which explored different forms of spirituality in the country over the ages, earning her a coveted Emmy Award.

"Television is a good business to be in, not so much to make money but to grow your brain. Through this work I've had the fortune to meet a lot of very interesting people and learn a great deal from them," says Kan, adding that one special program she made in 1988 and still loves is Journey through a Changing China, which aired in the United States. Starting from her hometown Guilin, she traveled across the country, ending in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province, documenting how the daily lives of people had changed over the course of the country's reform and opening-up since 1978.

She also mentions that her interview with Mother Teresa, winner of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, was "truly an amazing moment" in her career.

"I worked in China for almost 40 years, a period coinciding with China's opening-up. I was there to witness and contribute to the country's breakneck pace of change. This rare experience has given me a unique vision. As I say all the time, if I stay away from China for six months, I already miss so much of what is happening there! The Chinese saying 'a year — small change, three years — big change' has held true all this time," Kan says.

Author and fashionista

In 1992, Kan successfully transformed herself from a TV personality to an entrepreneur by creating the Yue Sai cosmetics brand, which became the market leader in China and was purchased by French cosmetics company L'Oreal Group in 2004.

Besides the new book, she has written nine others that have become bestsellers in China. These include Yue-Sai's Guide to Asian Beauty, which teaches basic makeup and personal styling techniques, Life is a Competition, a motivational book drawn from her experience directing Miss Universe China, and 99 Ways to Live a Charmed Life, which provides young Chinese advice for their careers, relationships and all-around development.

"I am by nature very optimistic. I work hard, study hard, and the most important thing is that I feel a sense of mission. I believe in what I do, believe that I am meant to do it and that what I do will benefit the world," says Kan. "When I am under stress and difficulty in my life, I always go back to my original reasons for doing this work in the first place. Persistence, for me, is important."

Throughout her life, Kan has also been deeply involved in charity. On Jan 26, she is planning to host a major charity event in San Francisco, in which she will honor 12 of the most outstanding Chinese-American women, who have "contributed so much to US communities and the future of the world," she says.

Kan has never stopped doing what she loves. She is currently planning to do a 10-part television series exploring and highlighting the most interesting aspects of 10 Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Chengdu.

"I firmly believe that a TV series featuring these major Chinese cities is not only timely, but also necessary to educate, enlighten and entertain by showcasing the Chinese people as they live today. This will help dispel some of the misunderstandings about China in the world," Kan says.


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