Ex-TVB boss Stephen Chan puts legal battle behind him as he stars in play about ‘China’s William Shakespeare’
Chief adviser to Commercial Radio set for stint on stage at Sunbeam Theatre next month, and despite the arduous fight to clear his name says he has no enemies
Rising like a phoenix from the ashes, media boss Stephen Chan Chi-wan has moved on from a tortuous six-year court battle in which he overturned a corruption conviction, to now try his hand at theatre.
Next month Chan and other local celebrities will take part in a production combining two plays by Chinese writer Cao Yu, titled Thunderstorm vs Sunrise, at Sunbeam Theatre in North Point. The production focuses on Cao’s early life as well as a story about a high-class party girl supported by her banker lover.
Chan, 58, is currently chief adviser to Commercial Radio. He shot to fame in 2006 when he began hosting TVB talk show Be My Guest, interviewing celebrities and politicians including former Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. He was then a general manager of TVB.
In 2009, Chan and his assistant Edthancy Tseng Pei-kun pocketed HK$112,000 and HK$28,000 respectively from a shopping mall without notifying TVB, for an appearance on a programme co-produced by the station at Olympian City in Tai Kok Tsui.
The two were originally acquitted of corruption charges at trial in 2011, but were later convicted when prosecutors appealed against the judge’s decision. In March this year, the duo were finally found not guilty by Hong Kong’s top court. The Court of Final Appeal on Friday also ruled in favour of Chan, ordering the government to pay his legal costs incurred during the six-year battle.
Amid the legal wrangling, Chan quit TVB in 2011 and headed to the United States to study. A year later he became chief executive officer at Commercial Radio and later its chief adviser.
City Weekend spoke to Chan about his legal troubles, disagreements with former Commercial Radio talk show host Li Wei-ling, who was sacked on Chan’s watch, and his views on broadcasting policies.
Tell us about the day when officers from the Independent Commission Against Corruption came to your home and arrested you. I was sleeping at the time. They came to my place very early, at around 6am. I opened the door and saw them, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was all about. I just let them do their job.
My mind was blank at the time. The only thing I could think of was whether they would give me enough time to freshen up. I often need quite a long time to get ready in the morning. At that time I was also trying to remember whom I was going to meet that day and how I should explain to them my situation if I couldn’t meet them. But, of course, the officers wouldn’t let me make any phone calls, and eventually my friends saw me on the news.
You have said that you felt both kindness and coldness from people during your six-year court battle. How has the court case affected your life? I was afraid to go out when the case first broke because reporters would ambush me in the street. I was very anxious. But many of my friends and supporters helped me continue to live a normal life.
I remember I was going down an escalator while a middle-aged man was going up. I didn’t know him. He held my hand and told me not to worry and that he would support me all the time. I was really touched. Since then I have tried not to care much about the harsh criticism. I think enduring the court case has served as a valuable experience for me, otherwise I wouldn’t have known there were so many people who supported me.
You said you were prepared to go to jail when you decided to go ahead with the final appeal. What was on your mind when the judge was reading out the verdict that day? I did not have much confidence when I decided to go for the final appeal. I’m not a legal expert. But my team said there was a chance, so I thought it was worth trying.
I was surprisingly calm. I actually managed to sleep the night before. I don’t know how I could be that calm. Maybe it’s because I knew that no matter what the result was, the case would finally come to an end after six years. I had thought I might end up in jail, because I’m the kind of person who often prepares for the worst, especially when the situation is beyond my control.
You’ve said that you have no enemies. In 2014, Commercial Radio terminated its contract with programme host Li Wei-ling, who claimed it was a political decision because she had been outspoken on current affairs. At the time you said she did not agree with the change of programme schedule, and you dismissed her allegations as nonsense. You also said she had defamed you. Has Li become your enemy? No, she’s not my enemy. We just have different perspectives. I sent her a birthday text after she left the station. She left me voice messages saying she would support me when I was dealing with the court case.
At that time she had some points of view I didn’t agree with, so I needed to speak up and clarify my opinions. That’s nothing to do with being enemies. I still treat her as a friend and I hope the feeling is mutual. I think she is an outstanding media professional.
You have blamed the government for allowing TVB to become a dominating force in the industry, which you think is not a good thing for the station or the business environment. Now we have two more free-to-air stations, Viu TV and Fantastic TV, do you think the situation has improved? I wouldn’t say it has improved, and I don’t think there will be any significant changes in the near future, because they don’t produce television dramas. I have always said that dramas can serve as soft power in the region and help to grow tourism. South Korea is a good example. Most of its tourist spots are shooting scenes for Korean television dramas. These shows also help promote a city’s culture. You can see many people are now learning Korean.
But producing dramas is a big investment compared to other productions, which makes some investors hesitate because the local market is not big enough. It would be great if the government could help develop the mainland China market.
I think the current administration is not very proactive when it comes to developing the creative industries, and its policies are not that comprehensive. The industry is overregulated, which is not a good thing, especially when different aspects of new media are emerging. The government should lower the entry requirements to encourage more competition. If you ask me why it is so hard to get a broadcasting licence, it’s because our policies are not up to date.
You have interviewed lots of celebrities and politicians. Who do you think were the most unforgettable? The most recent, I would say, was Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee. She suddenly put her legs on the desk while I was interviewing her on my morning radio talk show On A Clear Day. She was actually trying to show me her shoes, because I had said the colour of her shoes matched her dress. Initially I thought she would just stand up and show her outfit to the press. What she did was a big surprise. Some thought it was my idea to get people’s attention, but honestly, I didn’t expect her to do that. That really showed her true personality and that she was able to let her guard down.
Local media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying has said you are very good at manipulating people’s emotions during interviews, and on one occasion he almost cried while being interviewed by you. How did you acquire such skills? I am surprised he said that. I think I am just a good listener. I tend not to dominate the conversation, and just let interviewees say whatever they want. I think being a good listener is important, especially nowadays as we try to find an effective way to communicate with young people. The problem is, we sometimes seem to focus only on how to put across our views and overlook the importance of listening.
Who in the current administration do you think is not a very good listener when it comes to communicating with young people? I don’t think the education minister, Eddie Ng Hak-kim, has been very receptive in terms of listening to the public’s views. For example, the Basic Competency Assessment was launched despite growing opposition from many parents who say it will put a lot of academic pressure on their children. Maybe it’s because he is far too busy travelling around and reading books, since, according to him, he needs to read 30 books a month.
Can you tell us more about your character in the stage production Thunderstorm vs Sunrise?
I will be playing the main character, Cao Yu, who was known as China’s William Shakespeare. Both Thunderstorm and Sunrise are his best-known plays. We didn’t want to follow the old acting style, and so to surprise the audience we decided to combine and reinterpret the two plays. The first play, Thunderstorm, is mainly about his early life and how he developed an interest in Chinese opera because of his stepmother. There is a scene with Cao singing a song by his stepmother’s favourite singer, which I think is a very challenging scene for me.
Thunderstorm vs Sunrise runs from June 22 to 27 at Sunbeam Theatre in North Point. Tickets are available from the theatre, Cityline and Tom Lee Music