The Barbara Walters of China. Yue-Sai Kan, seen weekly by millions of Chinese, has US TV special too
New York — ``I have 1 billion friends in China and America, but I want a few million more in the USA,'' says Yue-Sai Kan. The petite and stylish Miss Kan (whose name is pronounced ``YOU-sigh Con'') is an exotic beauty who was educated at the University of Hawaii and brings to television a sophisticated knowledge of world cultures.
In China, she is host of ``One World,'' a weekly program that reaches an estimated 400 to 600 million Chinese in its English and Mandarin versions on CCTV (Central China Television), the official People's Republic station. In the United States, she is host of ``Looking East,'' a program on more than 900 UHF and cable stations.
Kan is explaining why, in addition to ``One World,'' which has made her a major figure throughout China, and ``Looking East,'' which isn't yet well known, she has made an hour-long special, ``Journey Through a Changing China'' (see preview below) for American viewers.
``Journey'' came about when an American Express official traveling in China became impressed with Kan's enormous popularity there and decided she would make the ideal host for a show introducing potential travelers to contemporary China. Kan says she envisions the special as a pilot for a series about other parts of the world, Asian and otherwise.
Born in Guilin, China, and raised in Hong Kong and Hawaii, Kan came to America in 1972 (``I have been moving east all the time''). Her ``Looking East'' program, like ``One World'' in China, is provided free to stations in return for about three minutes of commercial time. Some of her advertisers: Coca-Cola, General Foods, Procter & Gamble, and Xerox.
While the mission of ``Looking East'' is explaining all of Asia - not just China - to American viewers, ``One World'' attempts to explain the rest of the world to the Chinese.
Kan is somewhat defensive about her birthplace. In an interview at her chic Sutton Place apartment here, hung with paintings by her father, the celebrated painter Kan Wing-lin, she said, ``People here tend to forget that China has had its own glasnost, which they call kai feng, since 1979. And too often they forget that China has made enormous strides economically: It is a country that was plagued by drought and famine for millenniums, and for the first time now they have sufficient food to feed themselves. Farmers have their own land and can cultivate whatever they want - after the quota for the government is set aside, of course.''
``Looking East,'' a half-hour magazine show, is aired seven times a week on some public-access stations. Kan started it in 1980 and has continued against heavy financial odds. Making the program has meant constant travel all over Asia, where she and her film crew have covered everything from Angkor Wat to Hong Kong restaurants.
``One World'' is not only used as a classroom teaching device in many Chinese schools, but has become a cult show among adult Chinese, according to Kan. Wherever she goes in China, she attracts crowds of people who want her autograph. Her clothing and hair style are copied throughout the continent. ``You can go to a beauty salon and ask for a Yue-Sai cut,'' she says amusedly.
How much freedom does she have in her ``One World'' show?
``I have never been told what not to produce. Of course, the philosophy is that, if I do something wrong, then I cannot point at them [the Chinese government or TV system] and say they told me to do it. So I must set my own rules and test the system. But, you know, there is an old Chinese proverb: `Little do, little wrong; big do, big wrong; no do, no wrong.'
``I have to give credit to the Chinese officials - they took a great risk with my program. Of course, they have snipped bits here and there, but never anything major.''
Kan is proud of a review of ``One World'' in the China Daily News: ``She provides the Chinese audience a unique series of truthful, objective, entertaining and interesting shows.'' And China Daily International said: ```One World' audiences ... are gaining a global consciousness indispensable for the country's modernization.''
She observes, ``Gradually it has dawned on me that the fact that I am an American [she was naturalized] makes a difference to the Chinese. They are impressed by the fact that I am one of them but I am also an American. I am a success symbol for them. From my humble beginnings I have become sophisticated and have made it in a foreign world.''
What next for Yue-Sai Kan?
``When I do something else, it will have to be new and different. My father always says, `Be the first to walk on the moon, because nobody ever remembers the second.' I've walked on the moon ... in China. It has been a historic adventure. But for everything I put in, the Chinese have reciprocated. Not in money, because this has not been a moneymaking project, but in kindness and friendship. I have gained a billion friends.
``If I do another show, it will have to be about people, life styles, cultures. Maybe about Asia, too....''
Already, Miss Kan is thinking about her next moon walk.