Thursday, November 26, 2015   

The Iron Lady with a soft centre

Vanessa Gould

Saturday, January 13, 2001

SHE is "The Iron Lady"

renowned for her smile and dimples, the person most identified by

international media as the post-handover "conscience of Hong Kong",

a tough bureaucrat ready to defend the government at all costs and a

big-hearted boss who buys teddy-bear ties for juniors.

A shooting star and women's rights advocate who has always denied

personal ambition and said she would have been happy as a housewife.

However retiring Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan is

remembered, the woman appointed as Hong Kong's top civil servant by

former governor Chris Patten and a stand-in for him as acting


governor, was often said to have carried the post-handover hopes of

Hong Kong's six million residents on her shoulders.

Her perfectly manicured hand has remained firmly on the tiller of Hong

Kong's social and economic development and the civil service.

Her resignation announcement came only days before her 61st birthday,

and after almost 40 years as a pioneering spirit for female civil

servants the past seven as head of the civil service.

She wants to spend more time with her family, particularly her

grandchildren Rachel and Adrienne.

Mrs Chan has often credited the strength and support of her husband,

Caltex Oil consultant Archibald Chan Tai-wing, and the love of her two

children Michelle and Andrew, for her success.

In 1989, then a 49-year old Secretary for Economic Services, she said:

"There's no contest: I value my family more than my work."

Mrs Chan experienced tragedy early. She was only 10 when her father

Fang Shin-hau, a successful Shanghai textile businessman, died in 1950

at the age of 36 after hospital treatment for headaches.

They had fled to Hong Kong only two years earlier to escape the

brewing revolution. She, with her twin sister Ninson and her six

brothers, was brought up by her mother, grandmother and uncle, Sir

Harry Fang Sin-yang, a prominent orthopaedic surgeon and former

legislator and Executive Councillor who was named International Man of

the Year for his work with handicapped children around the world. He

once treated Deng Xiaoping for heart disease and is reputed to have

close personal links with many Beijing leaders.

And her lineage hints at the origin of her leadership skills: her

grandfather Fang Zhen-wu, was a famous Kuomintang general who switched

sides to join the communists in the war against Japan.

"I don't think anyone can deny it is useful that members of my family

have links with Chinese leaders . . . but obviously my relationship

with the Chinese will have to be built at my level," she said in

early 1994, after the first 100 days into her appointment as Chief

Secretary. Ironically, many from the Chinese side thought her links

with the British administration, notably Mr Patten, were uncomfortably

close, despite local enthusiasm that she might become the territory's

first Chief Executive.

Her mother is Fang Zhaoling, a traditional Chinese artist of

international renown. The two shared a stage at Hong Kong University

in 1992 when Mrs Chan was awarded a Doctor of Laws and her 82-year-old

mother an honorary Doctor of Letters.

"We were a middle-class family, but we weren't born with silver

spoons in our mouths," Mrs Chan said in 1989. "My sister and I put

ourselves through university. I worked part-time as a private tutor,

and spent a year as a clerk at Queen Mary Hospital before I went to


Her grandmother, she once said, "was illiterate but had such an iron

will", encouraging the children to care about family and study hard.

One of her six brothers took American citizenship and was working at

the United Nations in Geneva. One brother, David Fang Jin-sheng, was a

former orthopaedics lecturer and Hong Kong Academy of Medicine chief,

twin sister Ninson ran a travel agency, and another brother, John Fang

Meng-sang, became a lawyer. Sir Harry's daughter, Mrs Chan's cousin

Christine Fang Meng-sang, was recently appointed Hong Kong Council of

Social Service chief.

The young Anson Maria Elizabeth Chan met Archie at university through

a shared love of amateur dramatics and they married in 1963. He became

a science teacher at St Joseph's School while she was one of only two

women who joined the civil service at that time. The Sacred Heart

Canossian College student and Hong Kong University English literature

honours graduate started work on a social work diploma before applying

for the civil service. When she entered the service, she was paid a

quarter of a man's salary.

The woman who would become the first woman director of Social Welfare,

was a force behind the Association of Female Senior Government

Officers, which was instrumental in pushing for wage parity.

After a cadetship, she quickly moved to the economics section of the

finance branch in 1962, followed by stints in Agriculture and

Fisheries, then back to the department of commerce and industry, and

later back to finance.

As early as 1970, she was assistant financial secretary in the finance

branch of the Colonial Secretary, the first woman to attain that post,

and later became the first female civil service director when

appointed Director of Social Welfare in 1984.

There she was severely criticised for her handling of the Kwok Ah-nui

"lonely girl" case, in which she authorised social welfare staff to

forcibly enter a flat where a mother was keeping her five-year-old

daughter isolated. The mother was kept in hospital for psychiatric

care. The calls for her resignation left her bruised and media shy.

In 1989, she admitted: "I got very upset with the lampooning. My

defence was not to read about the case and about me personally. Some

of the attacks in the press were very personal and I was bound to do a

great deal of soul-searching."

But it didn't hurt her career, and, in 1987, she became the first

female policy secretary as head of the Economic Services Branch. Only

recently it was revealed that in this role she over-estimated growth

in power demand when approving expansion plans for a China Light and

Power power station, which cost consumers an extra $3.3 billion from

1996 to 1998.

In the early '90s, she was a well-travelled international voice trying

to calm foreign investors about pre-1997 jitters and brain-drain

problems. In 1992, she received the insignia of Commander of the Most

Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) from the then-governor,

Sir David Wilson.

It was with her appointment to the position of Chief Secretary in 1994

that she made an effort to be more accessible to news media.

Mrs Chan was assigned to head the Airport Development Steering

Committee to oversee the construction of Chek Lap Kok airport, but in

1998, she was summoned by the legislature to testify on the airport's

chaotic opening.

Last June, she was assigned by Mr Tung to head a committee to revamp

the housing bureaucracy after a series of scandals hit public housing


"I've never been very ambitious anyway. Success has just happened,"

she once said. Now she may have time to pursue her hobbies: music,

reading, mahjong and ballroom dancing.

All rights reserved.


© 2015 The Standard, The Standard Newspapers Publishing Ltd.
Contact Us | About Us | Newsfeeds | Subscriptions | Print Ad. | Online Ad. | Street Pts


Home | Top News | Local | Business | China | ViewPoint | CityTalk | World | Sports | People | Central Station | Spree | Features

The Standard

Trademark and Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015, The Standard Newspaper Publishing Ltd., and its related entities. All rights reserved.  Use in whole or part of this site's content is prohibited.   Use of this Web site assumes acceptance of the
Terms of Use, Privacy Policy Statement and Copyright Policy.  Please also read our Ethics Statement.