HK Magazine Archive

Anson Chan

Anson Chan is one of the most influential women in Hong Kong. She has held a number of major posts in government, including Chief Secretary from 1993 until her retirement in 2001 and continues to play an active part on the political scene. Having taken part in the TEDxWanChaiWomen talk last month, she tells Andrea Lo about her beliefs, women’s rights and her thoughts on happiness.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 June, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:43pm

I was born in Shanghai. I came with my family to Hong Kong in 1948.

My father died when I was very young.

My twin sister and I are the only two girls in a family of six boys. The two of us felt we had to stick together to fight off the boys.

I spent a year working as a clerk at Queen Mary Hospital before going to university.

One day I opened the newspaper and saw an advertisement for an administrative officer in government. In those days, a starting salary of $12,000 was very attractive—despite being 75 percent of a man’s pay.

I joined the Hong Kong government and have not looked back since.

In those days, you always felt you had to work doubly hard just to prove yourself.

When I got married, I was required to resign from my post and apply to be re-employed on temporary terms.

A dozen of us decided to establish a trade union. We achieved parity of pay in five annual installments starting from 1970 and we got fringe benefits in 1982.

There are some very deeply rooted prejudices. There is still exploitation of girls and women. These are issues that need addressing if we are talking about allowing girls and women to realize their full potential.

Women with influence and power can do a great deal to move the issue forward.

I was approached to participate in the TEDxWanChaiWomen conference. I’m attracted to their objective: to spread ideas and spark change that will lead to better lives for people all over the world.

Hopefully, the audience learned something from each of the speakers, particularly about how to make the world better and empower women through sharing our experiences.

I’m too old to run for Chief Executive— even if I was acceptable to Beijing.

I feel that I am doing my bit to protect the home that we all love.

Hong Kong people are ready for genuine universal suffrage. If we don’t resolve this problem, I think Hong Kong is going to become increasingly difficult to govern.

In a speech, John Tsang said that if the constitutional package is not passed, then Martin [Lee] and Anson Chan cannot retire.

My reply to John is: “If you want to see us enjoying retirement, it’s easy—give us a set of genuine universal suffrage proposals.”

I can’t say that there was one turning point that helped shape who I am.

If I had to mention one, I suppose it was the problem I got into with the press and the community when I was Director of Social Welfare [over the “Daughter of Kwok-A” incident].

For months, the press hounded me. I was compared to the world’s four worst dictators!

For married women, it is difficult to juggle different hats. You want a reasonably satisfying career; you are somebody’s wife; you are a mother. You need to have a sense of priorities.

I wanted to go to Tuscany and learn to cook. One of these days, I will get there.

Throughout my career, I’ve been called many things—”Hong Kong’s Conscience”; “Iron Butterfly”; “Canary in the Mine.” I like the nickname “Chan Sei Man” [meaning 40,000, the nickname refers to the mahjong tile that resembles a grin] best. It’s something that reflects my personality.

Most people think that I’m such a strong character and everything in life has been plain sailing, apart from the fact that my father died when I was young.

I remember crying because I did not achieve the degree status that I thought I deserved from HKU. When I was passed over for a promotion, I also cried.

Happiness is realizing your potential. Ultimately, it is the capacity to love and be loved. You’re not going to be loved unless you do right by the people around you.


Need to Know…

Anson Chan began her career in government in 1962. Over the years she has been behind numerous developments in Hong Kong, including the construction of the Chek Lap Kok Airport. The “Daughter of Kwok-A” incident in 1986 was a widely debated case that saw Chan authorize the Social Welfare Department to break into a home to liberate a child suspected of being abused. In April 2013, she launched Hong Kong 2020, a political group advocating for universal suffrage by 2017. The TEDxWanChaiWomen conference took place on May 31 and included distinguished personalities including Women’s Foundation CEO Su-Mei Thompson. Visit for more info.