ONE OF HONG KONG’S best-known businessman-politicians, Bernard Chan, revealed how a chronic health problem hit him as a teenager—and how learning to paint with a tiny bottle of correction fluid got him back on track.
The convenor of the Executive Council, Hong Kong’s top governing body, told a TV interviewer that he was hit by a serious disease when he was just 18, causing him to have three major heart surgeries, spending months in hospital over several years.
The gentle and serious young man went through stages of denial and blame, and was frustrated at being unable to study at the school he was attending in California, where he had been intending to go into economics, like many Hong Kong students.
But he picked up a bottle of correction fluid, generally used by students to keep their homework neat, and made a dot with it. And then another one. And another. He began to distract himself from his serious problems – he had been diagnosed with a chronic disease of inflammation of the blood vessels—by expressing himself through a type of art known as pontillism. He decided to change direction.
“I took one, two, three art classes and it came to a point where I said, you know, I actually like this,” he said during a TV interview on Friday Beyond Spotlights, a business show on Cable TV in Hong Kong.
Chan discovered that the human spirit was strong, creative, and ultimately able to overcome the biggest challenges. “So I graduated in five years. I took an extra year because of the time spent in hospital and I changed my major to Studio Art,” he said. But the experience had changed him. After a brush with death, he knew he had to make full use of the years ahead of him.
ODD MAN OUT
But he arrived back in Hong Kong to find himself the odd man out. His peers were ambitious career-focused individuals who were carrying qualifications in “proper” subjects like business, medicine and engineering.
And here was soft-hearted Bernard with an arts degree and a do-good, nice-guy attitude. But he realized that his particular skill-set, though odd, was “what makes me different from everyone else,” he said. Realistic enough to know that he wasn’t going to be a “Tipp-ex artist” as a job, he went into finance and civic service, keeping up his interest in art as a hobby, and looking for opportunities to fix some of Hong Kong’s many problems in other ways.
HONG KONG’S MR NICE GUY
The irony was that his differences turned out to be his big advantage. He was added to a large number of statutory bodies helping Hong Kong people in various ways. He quickly became known as the bridge-builder of Hong Kong’s tumultuous political scene. With good relationships on all sides, and an ability to side-step harsh party politics to get things done, his reputation for fairness took him steadily up the ladder and made him into a natural leader for the Executive Council.
He also became a walking example that proved that the harmful division of everyone in Hong Kong into one of only two boxes, pro-China or pro-democracy, was false and unhelpful. In truth, the Hong Kong people have a wide range of views, yet overwhelmingly want a good relationship with the rest of the country.
On the business side, Bernard Chan went into “the family business” and rose over the years to become President of Asia Financial Holdings and its key subsidiary, Asia Insurance.
But he has used the job security he gets as the boss of a successful financial firm to allow him to spend some of his time and energy working in other areas, helping to run Oxfam Hong Kong, Lingnan University and the Hong Kong Council of Social Service. His wife runs a small school called Grace Christian Academy which has small classes and is known for its particular skill in helping special needs children.
In fact, his civic service to Hong Kong would fill an article by itself. He has worked on everything from preserving old buildings to chairing a committee to gently reduce the amount of salt and sugar citizens eat.
THAT THAI MIDDLE NAME
And what about that Thai middle name that is used in many media, where he is named Bernard Charnwut Chan? Is he from a Hong Kong family or a Thailand family?
The answer is both and neither. His family roots, like those of most Hong Kong people, are north of the border. His family came from Chaoyang in Guangdong. His grandfather started his working life in humble circumstances, running a small company selling construction materials in Thailand, but he had extraordinary business skills which took him far, and eventually led him to join a group which started a bank. It grew into Bangkok Bank, the largest banking corporation in the country.
Thailand was often unstable, and the family spread to several places of necessity. Bernard was born in Hong Kong. Today he carries two main names, known as Bernard Chan in the southern Chinese city, and as Charnwut Sophonpanich in Thailand. But considers himself a Hongkonger.
ARTS ON THE RISE
And what about his other life, as an artist making dot-paintings with correction fluid?
Fate had a place for that in his life too. As a young man, he had thought: “Hong Kong is a very business world, what to do with this?”
Now it has all become clear. “Twenty years on, today, I’m the chairman of the Palace Museum, I’m on the board of the West Kowloon Culture District, and I deal with a lot of arts and culture,” he said.
Furthermore, with the opening of M+ and the Museum of Modern Art, Hong Kong is well positioned to become the number one place for culture and arts in Asia. The city recently overtook London to become the second largest art investment hub in the world.
BLESSING IN DISGUISE
The biggest irony of Bernard Chan’s life is that the serious illness that hit him when he was young appeared to be one of the worst things that could happen to a child. Yet today, he sees it as a blessing, inspiring him to pack his days with work in service of his community.
The blood inflammation issue is still with him – sufferers normally have to maintain treatment for the whole of their lives – but Chan says that dealing with it is all about attitude.
“I’m fine,” he says. What is important is not the challenges you face, but the way you choose to deal with them. “If I didn’t tell you I was a sick person, you couldn’t tell.”
Everyone has a choice of seeing things in a negative or a positive way. “It’s like Hong Kong,” he said. “Today in Hong Kong we are faced with a lot of challenges. So, of course, you can look at it in a very negative way, but we can also look at the positive.”
The relentlessly bad press that Hong Kong has received since it passed out of British hands means that people around the world only hear the negative about the city.
But the positives are very real—and Bernard Chan is quietly confident that the other side of the story will also be told one day.
Bernard Chan was taking to Nick Chan in Friday Beyond Spotlights. The full episode can be seen at the links below;
Bernard Chan was interviewed for Friday Beyond Spotlights. Season One of the show is hosted by Patrick Tsang On-yip, Vice-Chairman and Executive Director of i-Cable Communications and CEO and Director of Chow Tai Fook Enterprises; and Nick Chan Hiu-fung, a lawyer and elected lawmaker serving on the National People’s Congress.
Image at the top from Bernardchan.com