It is all about the money for TVB's star presenter
Nat Chan Pak-cheung has placed his faith in hard work and pragmatism on his journey from struggling schoolboy to television host
Nat Chan Pak-cheung is not shy about his beliefs. "I believe all acts are triggered by the pursuit of personal interests," says the flamboyant TVB television presenter. "Money is like air - although it is not a panacea, one will die if he or she doesn't have any."
Chan, who turns 63 tomorrow, recently attracted media attention by promising that TVB would donate HK$3 million to charity if the ratings of its 46th anniversary gala show last month reached 30 points.
The gamble was made following an earlier promise that he would crawl home on his knees if the annual show achieved just a three-point rating, which triggered a call on Facebook for viewers to boycott the show.
Chan's pledges followed on from the row sparked by the government's decision on October 15 to deny Hong Kong Television Network a free-to-air broadcast licence. Public dissatisfaction at the decision eventually snowballed to engulf TVB, the city's largest broadcaster.
Protesters denounced the station's "hegemony", which they said stemmed from lack of competition and had led to a deterioration of programme quality.
Although Chan won his bet - the show's ratings peaked at 31 points, with an average of 29 points - his gung-ho defence of his employer only spurred the row further.
Chan makes no secret of his love of money and belief in hard work. They are beliefs that have carried him through an extremely varied career.
"My aspiration in the early days was simple. I didn't just want to get rich, I wanted to get very rich," says Chan, who is perhaps best known for his song I Am The Smartest.
While cultural critics, including late Canto-pop lyricist Richard Lam Chun-keung, have labelled him a symbol of superficiality, Chan is ever the pragmatist.
"I always get the most expensive clothes in the most expensive shop. They may not always be the most stylish, but you can't go wrong if you go to the most expensive shop in Europe - the heart of fashion - and get the most expensive and exclusive items," he says. "I never manage to earn much from hosting TVB's Miss Hong Kong programme - my outfits are more expensive than my pay from the show!"
The annual beauty pageant is the only show he has signed up for every year, "as that is the most expensive production of the year, which all artistes aspire to host", he says.
Born into a struggling family with six siblings, Chan earned his first bucket of gold at just 20 by running a garment manufacturing business.
"When I was in high school, I earned HK$400 per month by playing in bands at bars," he says. "I was street smart but did not do well with books.
"I started with six sewing machines. Three years later, I had three factories with 3,000 workers, and had earned millions of dollars," says Chan. He secured a German partner for his venture, which took off in the early 1970s, when "a flat in Kwun Tong cost just HK$20,000".
But the speedy expansion reached its limit within three years, and soon Chan found himself bankrupt at just 25.
"I sold my final batch of stock - 300 raincoats - by co-operating with armed pirates in Bahrain. You know it never rains in Middle Eastern countries - I packaged them as fashion coats and they sold out in no time."
Chan spent several years living in the Middle East.
But bankruptcy did not stand in his way for long, and he was soon on his way up again but with a different venture. Chan claims to have introduced the first Chinese-language electronic pager to Hong Kong in the 1980s. He rode the dotcom bubble, and had his television artiste agency Star East listed on the stock exchange in the late 1990s.
"It is all about one's intelligence. If you put in the effort, it is very easy to get rich."
His belief in the value of hard work was why he was so against the rhetoric being thrown at TVB and its supposed "hegemony".
"It is very wrong to stereotype the rich as being evil and hegemonic," he says. "We live in an open and free society. If you have the ability, there are opportunities everywhere … Have you exhausted all avenues yet?"
He blames the Apple Daily newspaper for inciting hatred of TVB, saying the paper was the first to use the terms "evil" and "hegemonic" against the station.
"TVB dramas have never changed. The creativity is still there. But the problems, flaws and fallacies in the dramas are due to a brain drain in the company. There are no seniors to guide the newcomers now.
"Nowadays people have greater expectations of television, while other countries - with the support of their governments - have improved drastically. But we are not lagging."
In accounting for his success, Chan says he relies on ability, and not luck. "It cannot be luck that I won 3T [Triple Trio] bets six times in two months," Chan says, referring to his exploits betting on horses, which he says is one of his major sources of income. To win a 3T bet, you must successfully predict the top three horses in three races. "People call it gambling, but there is only a one in 48 million chance of winning a 3T. I study the background and pedigree of the horses extensively. I do not even have to read the racing news - I could be writing it!"
Chan says many provocative remarks he made defending TVB were simply a case of sticking up for his employer. Since starting his television career with supporting roles in variety shows in the 1980s, Chan has become a television heavyweight under the influence of TVB, and says he felt he had to speak up for the company regarding the licence saga because other people in the industry were too scared to.
"I spoke up on the licence saga because I could not bear the fact that others did not dare to. There was only Law Kwan-moon, a very junior artiste, who risked his prospects in the industry to speak up for TVB."
Chan's colourful life has not only brought him a huge fortune, but also many influential friends in the entertainment industry. One of his closest is Canto-pop superstar Alan Tam Wing-lun.
"Alan Tam is my friend for life. When I went bankrupt, Alan lent me all his savings so that I could clear the remaining processes involved in the bankruptcy application and compensate my workers," Chan says. "That was why, when Alan was competing fiercely with Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, I attacked Leslie without hesitation."
Though many of his attitudes to life border on utilitarianism, Chan also believes that "all religions lead to good", which explains his subtle belief in fate.
"Three months before Leslie's death," Chan says, recalling the Canto-pop superstar's suicide in 2003, "he had put the row between himself, Alan and me to one side and he gave all his carp to me. Soon after Leslie passed away, all the fish died. The carp died because of a blackout at my home, which was unprecedented over the past 20 years. I believe these incidents were all related."
As for what the future holds, Chan's outlook on life these days is clear. "For the last 15 years, my aspiration in life has been simply to enjoy it."
Nat Chan Pak-cheung
Age: 63 tomorrow
Education: St Joseph's College
1970s: Ran garment factories
1979: Joined TVB
1980s: Introduced first Chinese-language electronic pager to Hong Kong
1999: Established artiste agency Star East
2002: Appointed executive director of Wing On Travel