by Marlene C. Piturro
“I don’t regard Mrs. Chan as a woman. She’s far too forceful and inflexible in her ways,” said one member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, reacting to the governing style of Anson Chan Fang On-sang, the colony’s first female and first Chinese chief secretary. Mrs. Chan could have stayed home as a to’ tai (housewife), enjoying the perks – chauffeured car, private schools, private clubs, fancy house, unbeatable shopping and restaurants – that keep a top executive’s wife amused in Hong Kong. She is married to Archibald Chan, an executive at Caltex, a joint venture of Chevron and Texaco, and the largest Western oil company in Asia. Instead, with two young children, she fiercely launched herself a career.
Described variously by colleagues, rivals, and underlings as “aggressive, forthright, cold, and tough,” she beat back all rivals in a mercilessly competitive “old boy” organization, the Hong Kong Civil Service. Compared to the position’s former incumbent, the genial Sir David Ford, whose term ended in 1993, Chan marches through 14-hour workdays like an invading army.
The 54-year-old grandmother with perfectly coiffed hair, deep dimples, impeccable suits with color-coordinated lipstick and nail polish, archly answered her critics: “Not that it bothers me, but I think that some men, not all men, feel that certain attributes that they find attractive in a man are very unattractive and sometimes unacceptable in a woman. Qualities like being aggressive and ambitious seem to be negative qualities in a woman. However, I’m not being paid to win a popularity contest. I don’t flinch from making difficult decisions.”
Andrea King, a New York-based video producer who accompanied Chan on a whirlwind Washington lobbying campaign in May 1994 to protect China’s most-favored-nation trading status, describes her as “extremely intelligent and absolutely comfortable with power. She took charge of situations in a businesslike yet diplomatic way.”
Now second in command to Chris Patten, probably the colony’s last British governor, Chan has a chance to be the first Chinese governor in 1997, when Hong Kong reverts to Chinese sovereignty. That would be the ultimate “first” to add to Chan’s staggering list of “firsts.” During a relentless 32-year climb to the top, she was the first women assistant finance secretary, the first female department head (Social Welfare), the first female policy secretary (Economic Services), the first woman secretary of the Civil Service, and now, the first female and first Chinese chief secretary after 150 years of British predecessors.
Chan’s climb through the Civil Service ranks was not easy. Joining the Service as an administrative assistant in 1962, she chucked her intended social work career in favor of greater opportunities in the Hong Kong government. Discrimination against women was overt when Chan started working. “Women’s pay was 75 percent of men’s pay and there were no fringe benefits,” she explains. “They assumed that all women were earning pin money and that it was the man’s responsibility to keep a roof over the family’s head. That could not go unchallenged.”
To combat the blatant bigotry, Chan joined the Association of Female Senior Government Officers, chaired the group for three years, and campaigned ceaselessly for equal pay for equal work. In 1980, the Civil Service knuckled under; women achieved pay parity and won fringe benefits. As chief secretary and head of the 80,000-member Civil Service, Chan’s current perks are impressive: a $4,100 monthly entertainment budget, a Hong Kong mansion, household servants, and a chauffeured Lexus.
AS IN AMERICA, a woman who has gone as far as Anson Chan is ripe for feminist criticism that she hasn’t done enough to promote women’s rights. Some see her as a token, angry that she has not lobbied to repeal ancient laws that prevent women in the New Territories from inheriting property, or given a proper speech highlighting women’s issues. Chan’s pat answer is this: “My getting to the top of the Civil Service should encourage all women.”
Dr. Geraldine Forbes, a history professor at State University of New York, Oswego, and editor of a book series on prominent women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, positions Chan culturally: “China is highly patriarchal. There’s no way an ordinary woman could come to power on her own… . The patriarch has to want this to happen, and to see the power his offspring can wield as gender-neutral. It’s understandable that Anson Chan and famous Asian women don’t identify themselves as feminists. That would weaken their identification with their prominent families. Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, and Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto both inherited power and have been big disappointments to Western feminists. But their failures are not surprising, in their cultural context…. Chan’s route, through the Civil Service, was actually a brave one. Although she faced discrimination and corruption, at least she had a chance to succeed through merit.”
A member of a prominent clan, Chan nonetheless faced daunting obstacles. She and an identical twin, Ming-son, who now runs a travel agency and a dance academy, were born in 1940 in an achingly poor village of mud brick houses in China’s Anhui province. Her father, a textile industrialist, moved the family to Shanghai, China’s most westernized city, where their fortunes improved. In 1948, sensing the impending Communist juggernaut, the Fangs, who now had eight children, fled to Hong Kong. In 1950, complaining of a headache, Chan’s father checked into a local hospital, where a botched injection killed him.
Deciding the fate of the Fang brood fell to Chan’s mother, a contemporary Chinese painter. She took her two sons to England, leaving the six girls in their grandmother’s and uncle’s care. Chan’s caregivers were strict disciplinarians. Children with less than ideal report cards knelt with the offending document over their heads until told to rise. Later, Chan graduated from the University of Hong Kong with a degree in English literature, decided to become a social worker, then answered the auspicious newspaper ad for an entry-level position in the Civil Service that began her career.
WHILE CHAN’S RISE may seem like a Horatio Alger story to Western readers, the realities of Asian culture intrude. Although Chan’s family fortunes waxed and waned, the clan is prominent. Chan’s paternal grandfather, General Fang Zhenwu, helped revolutionize China by wresting control from the oppressive Manchu-controlled Qings. During World War I he spoke out against the Germans and Japanese, and led Chinese troops against the Japanese occupation in 1923. Her uncle, Dr. Harry Fang, is a prominent Hong Kong rehabilitation doctor. Her mother is now regarded as one of Hong Kong’s premier contemporary artists. Although the Fangs fell out of favor during Mao’s Cultural Revolution – their tombs were ransacked – the family honor was restored by the Chinese government in 1991.
Professor Forbes interprets Chan’s public pronouncements about her housewife role and her husband “wearing the pants in the family” as publicly reinforcing a culturally defined archetype of herself as a latter day goddess of mercy, Kwan Yin. Chan’s underlying message is: “I still shop for groceries, but I’m tough.” Nonetheless, Chan’s grip on power is legitimate. Forbes contrasts her with Hillary Clinton, who is “now figuratively chained up in the White House basement since the health care fiasco. Hillary lacks the legitimate power that Chan possesses.”
However, some Hong Kong insiders raise questions about how Chan rose to power and how she has handled it. They see a calculating mind putting Chan in the right place at the right time, then making her ascent appear lucky to disarm critics. Certainly Chan is wary of the media, talking only grudgingly to reporters in sessions in which there’s little chance of the real Anson Chan showing through. She may still be chaffing from the intense media-generated hostility that arose from an incident in 1984, when she was head of the Social Welfare Department. Chan forcibly removed a five-year-old child from a mentally unstable mother. The media branded her a “heartless bureaucrat” and the ensuing public outcry almost ended her career. Chan fought back: “I believe we did the right thing in terms of the child’s welfare, but this is an experience I will never forget.”
All of Chan’s accomplishments pale before what lies ahead. Although she is slated to retire in 2000, three years after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, if she plays her cards right she could be appointed Hong Kong’s first Chinese governor. However, Machiavelli himself would be hard pressed to emerge victorious from this tricultural power struggle. Economics professor Laurence Moss of Babson College in Massachusetts, is bearish: “Chinese leaders have historically been against strong women, from powerful empresses through Mao’s wife. They do not celebrate women for high achievement
For Chan, it’s all or nothing.” Moss suggests that how she uses guanxi (connections) with People’s Republic of China politicians, both honest and corrupt, will determine the outcome. She had such a test recently, with mixed results. Chan’s office publicized a private dinner with Zhou Nan, a Beijing politician, before it happened. The Chinese accused Chan of using the meeting as a propaganda vehicle rather than working quietly with them.
Another example of Chan’s subtle moves took place during a May 1994 U.S. lobbying effort with Vice President Gore and members of Congress for renewal of China’s most-favored-nation status. Chan abandoned her Chanel suits in favor of one with a Mandarin coat and slitted skirt. It’s not clear whether the chief secretary felt she was making a fashion statement or was catering to Western men’s notions of Oriental femininity to promote her agenda. SUNY’s Forbes is optimistic that Chan’s prestigious lineage will ensure her future electability. “Since women didn’t put her where she is or keep her there, men will determine her fate. If her dealings with the Chinese are okay and the status of her kin stay high, she has a chance to be Governor,” Forbes concludes.
SENSING THAT HER PROFESSIONAL fate hangs on her ability to manage Hong Kong through its transition from British to Chinese rule, Chan says, “My main tasks as chief secretary are handling the many transitional issues that arise, including major issues such as the new airport, maintaining morale in the Civil Service, stamping out corruption, being a liaison to the United States and China, and ensuring press and personal freedoms.”
To succeed, Chan will need every ounce of fortitude she possesses in abundance. She says she looks to two role models, Margaret Thatcher and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, for inspiration. Professor Moss ponders Chan’s choice for a female model: “Thatcher’s priorities puzzle me. She fought in a war in the Falklands, then played dead on Hong Kong. When Chan deals with China she faces politicians and bureaucrats, each with complex and conflicting needs. Chan’s skill at managing those needs in the aggregate will seal the fate of one of Asia’s most powerful women.”
Marlene C. Piturro, who lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, covers Asia for American and Asian publications. She is a special correspondent for a Hong Kong magazine, and traveled to Vietnam as a journalist before the trade embargo was lifted.