Former executive relearning lesson in Chinese humility

Tung Chan moved from banking world to lead community group SUCCESS

Daphne Bramham
Vancouver Sun
Friday, February 01, 2008

A framed sheet of faded paper sits next to Tung Chan’s computer. Written in Chinese characters is the advice that his father gave him nearly 40 years ago when he immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong.

Don’t say anything about others’ shortcomings. Don’t boast of your strengths. Don’t remember when you help people, but never forget those who help you.

Fame is not something to strive for; being generous, gentle and fair is.

Touch your heart and think clearly before you move. Don’t feel hurt by rumours and gossip.

Never allow your reputation to be exaggerated. Appear to be less intelligent than you are, it will suit you well.

Do not let even the darkest moments or the worst company influence or change you.

Hold your light and warmth inside. Be gentle and weak; it will increase longevity.

Be careful with your words and with what you eat and drink.

Early on, Chan realized the aphorisms handed down through his family of scholars and rooted in Chinese culture about being humble and self-effacing don’t translate well in Canada.

“In Western culture, if you want to be successful, you have to brag about yourself,” Chan said. “You have to let people know what you can do. … You have to show strength or people will walk all over you.”

Having bumped into the glass ceiling so familiar to immigrants and women, Chan read how-to books aimed at women, put aside his father’s exhortations to be humble, quiet and gentle. He became more assertive at business meetings.

Two years after arriving, Chan wrote in his diary (in English): “This is hopeless. I’ll never be able to express myself in this stupid language.”

But he learned all the lessons well. He now speaks fluent, idiomatic English, dreams in English and even speaks a bit of French. He rose to vice-president of Asian banking at the TD Bank. He was elected to Vancouver council.

But a year and a half ago, he acted with his heart and left the corporate world behind to become chief executive of SUCCESS, one of the province’s largest immigrant settlement societies and one of its biggest Chinese organizations.

He did it without doing the usual due diligence. So he was surprised by just how big and complex SUCCESS really is.

It has an annual budget of $22 million. It spends $11 million on health care related programs and $10 million on other social services, which are mainly targeted at helping all immigrants — not only Chinese and other Asians — get settled.

There are 350 employees (a third are part-time) working out of 14 different locations in Metro Vancouver, with another one opening soon.

Its programs range from airport reception to employment help, language classes, a Chinese help line, gambling counselling, early-childhood development programs and even a program for at-risk youth in Port Coquitlam that teaches keyboarding skills and public speaking.

Looking for efficiencies, Chan suggested closing some of the offices and dropping some of its programs. That was quickly quashed. The government funding dictated both the programs and even the office locations.

It was Chan’s first brush with the byzantine world of getting and keeping government grants.

But that wasn’t the only thing that was very different from working at the bank. When he tried to race through the first staff meeting in under an hour, his staff balked. They told him he needed to slow down, listen more. Chan started listening more and rethinking his father’s advice. He’s relearning how to be gentle and weak. He’s relearning the importance of relationships and finding ways to be critical without the other person losing face.

That said, he’s accomplished a lot. One of his goals is to make SUCCESS a truly multicultural organization, moving it away from being primarily an organization helping Chinese people to one that helps Chinese and other immigrant communities.

That’s reflected in the new mission statement: To be an innovative change agent for integrating society in the spirit of multiculturalism.

At Chan’s urging, the board has diversifed. For the first time, it has three non-Chinese directors. There have been non-Chinese directors before, but only occasionally and never more than one at a time.

Chan is forging closer ties with other ethnic communities. SUCCESS already provides services to Korean, Taiwanese, Mainland Chinese, Hong Kong, Japanese and even Iranian immigrants. By marshalling resources, Chan believes more and better services could be provided for all immigrants — services such as a multilingual crisis line.

It was his idea to work with the Vancouver Foundation, replicate its survey and come up with a report card for Metro Vancouver graded by people in the Chinese community. The results largely mirrored that of the mainstream society. But there were a few exceptions. Crime, gambling addictions, loan-sharking and a frustration about professional credentials not being accepted here are high on their list of concerns.

Even though SUCCESS is one of the largest immigrant settlement services, there is still much more that Chan and the board believe it can and should be doing. They have set up a company that will earn revenue for the social services it provides and make SUCCESS less dependent on getting those elusive government grants.

Chan wants SUCCESS to be known outside the immigrant community as something more than just the sponsor of the annual high-profile gala that showcases performers Hong Kong, Taiwan and China.

He believes it can be the bridge linking immigrants to the mainstream society, but also the link that offers Canadians a way to reach and understand newcomers. One of his dreams is to eventually turn the SUCCESS gala into a truly multicultural extravaganza with the best performers from around the world and from Canada.

Because what Chan is passionate about is building on what Canadians have already achieved — equality rights, the rule of law, free speech and democracy — and creating an integrated, respectful society.

If we do that, Chan believes Canada will be immune to the kind of racial and ethnic fissures that nearly destroyed the Balkans and that are currently ripping Kenya apart.

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