Yue-Sai Kan has successfully advanced business and people-to-people ties between China and the world for nearly five decades. A fashion icon and media celebrity in China, Chinese-American Kan hosted the Emmy-winning series “China Walls and Bridges” in 1989; she’s interviewed global influencers ranging from Mother Teresa to former Chinese Communist Party Secretary Jiang Zemin, who died last month. Kan in 1992 created the cosmetics brand “Yue-Sai,” which was acquired by L’Oréal in 2004. She was honorary vice chairman of L’Oréal China, and is currently co-chair of the China Institute and a board member of Imax China. The graduate of Brigham Young University in Hawaii has authored nine best-selling books and is an active philanthropist.
Kan’s 10th book – an autobiography called “Be A Pioneer” — will be published in Chinese in China in January. The title was inspired in part by her father. “Don’t be the second person to walk on the moon,” he told his daughter. “Be the first.”
Kan talked about her book and shared life lessons in an interview while visiting Taipei on Monday. Edited excerpts follow.
Flannery: How did the new book come about?
Kan: I’ve been approached to write my autobiography. People think I’m a witness and participant in an epochal era for China, and it would be a kind of historical record for others. This is the reason why I decided to write it.
This book has taken me three years – a long time. The process for publishing a book in China is getting more complicated and difficult. Also, a lot has happened in the past three years. Our lives have changed, as has the way we look at things. It has allowed me time to think about what’s happened in my life. I don’t think my life is so outstanding, but – in success or failure – I’ve learned a lot in my life.
A lot of people say that I’m very lucky because I happen to be working in a special era, and being in this kind of era gives me a special chance to have good results. But I don’t really believe that only luck has helped me to overcome all the difficulties in life I’ve encountered. If I wasn’t determined to do a lot of the things I’ve done, I’m very sure many wouldn’t have happened.
Flannery: What has been the key thing that’s helped with your success?
Kan: I insist. Insistence for me is very important.
Flannery: How did you go about putting together the book?
Kan: You may think when you’re writing an autobiography, you’re writing down you everything you remember. But, in fact, there are many things you don’t really remember. To help with this book, I asked my friends and colleagues over the years to please write something from an earlier era. So besides seeing my own words, you’ll be seeing those of my friends. I found it very interesting. During the time when I was divorcing, for instance, my assistant wrote that I was crying every day, still working very hard, and running out of cash. People remember these kind of things.
Another interesting point about this book is that it is interactive. You see a lot of early pictures and, through the QR code, you’re also able to see videos. I’m a video and a television person, and you can actually see a lot of wonderful, even engaging videos.
This book is called “Be a Pioneer.” My father used to say to us: “Be the first one to walk on the moon because nobody remembers the second.” This is the kind of attitude I want to impart about life.
There are things you may think that you cannot do but if you do it, it can be valuable for yourself but also for history. Pioneers create an era, though it’s timing allows for pioneers. If China wasn’t in its reform era, all of those things I did probably wouldn’t have happened. But if I didn’t take the opportunity to do what I have done, I don’t think they would have been done.
At the same time, without the support of many others – such as supportive friends in media and government who for complicated reasons in China I can’t name in the book – I wouldn’t have succeeded.
Flannery: Who’s the most inspiring person that you have interviewed?
Kan: Mother Teresa. I spent a whole day with her in Rome. It’s not because she’s a nun that she was inspiring. Mother Teresa was a very spiritual, very dedicated person. She was dedicated to a point that when I left her, I was glowing and my head was spinning. She is definitely a godlike figure.
Flannery: What was the most impressive thing about her?
Kan: It was her purity in her dedication for one goal in her life, which was for the glory of God. She did everything for the glory of God. She took me through her orphanages in Rome, and her houses for the unwed mothers, the sick and the poor. I said, “Mother, you’re doing so many things. How did you get the money for it?” She said, “I never think about money. I never think about money because when I decide to do something, somehow money comes.”
At another point, I asked where she lives. You have to drive up a hill. Obviously, they knew we were coming. As we were arriving, sisters in robes came to our car. They were singing. We were in tears. My cameraman was crying.
That trip in 1985 was also very special because we went to hear the Pope at St. Peter’s Basilica. There’s an outdoor of mass and it was full of people. All of a sudden, I heard him say he would like to welcome a television crew from China who are here to do a television series. I saw my cameraman swung his camera around.
It was like, excuse me, what am I hearing? It was really amazing. Everybody thought that the Vatican believed there were two Chinas — one in Taiwan and one in mainland China. He made it clear that there was only one. That was really something, because the mainland even today has never had diplomatic relations with the mainland.
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