THE MEDIA MAVEN, PHILANTHROPIST AND PART-TIME HAWAI‘I RESIDENT FORGES ‘ONE WORLD’ THROUGH FASHION,
All her life, Yue-Sai Kan has been bridging the gap between East and West. So, it’s not surprising that even from an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean during a global pandemic, the international fashion icon was able to unite the world in the most beautiful way through a virtual fashion show gala.
Called One World in Beauty, the hour- long event served as a benefit for China Institute and featured some of the big- gest names in music, beauty, fashion and entertainment.
“I called on every one of my contacts to get it done,” notes Kan, co-chair of China Institute and founder/chairwoman of China Beauty Charity Fund. “The coronavirus brought us the opportunity to promote China Institute worldwide. If we can do a virtual gala like this, that means it gives a lot of charities a lot of hope.”
The program kicked off with a melodic rendition of the popular Chinese folk song Jasmine Flower performed by a sextet of world-renowned musicians— jazz saxophonist Kenny G in the U.S., violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing in Norway, pianist Rosey Chan in the United Kingdom, virtuoso cellist Anna Hu in France, singer/songwriter Reewa Rathod in India and concert pianist Lang Lang in China.
Among the celebrities lending their support were Bette Midler, Maggie Q, Joan Chen, Lisa Ling, South Korean singer Rain and designer Christian Louboutin, who personally handpicked a handbag for the event’s online auction. Viewers also heard from honorees like designer Phillip Lim, philanthropist Wendy Yu, actress Lucy Liu and Stephane de La Faverie of beauty brand Estée Lauder; and saw the latest fashions by Chinese designer Xiong Ying of Heaven Gaia.
“Today, the world is changing so fast,” says Kan, as she reflects on the production of One World in Beauty, which was released July 23. “I thought I needed a cameraman, but it turned out I didn’t. I just did Zoom on my computer.
“For years, I wanted to promote China Institute, and this virtual event allowed us to go all over China. So, I cannot say that this is something bad. It is like God gave us lemon, and we make it into delicious lemonade. It’s a very exciting time.”
Born in Guilin, China, and raised in Hong Kong, Kan moved to Hawai‘i at age 16 to attend Brigham Young University-Hawaii where she earned a degree in music. While at BYUH, she entered the Narcissus Festival Queen Pageant and was crowned second princess. It was her first time participating in a beauty pageant, but the experience changed her life and marked the beginning of an illustrious career in fashion and beauty. From the little town of Lā‘ie, she made her way to The Big Apple, fell in love with the city and never left.
“To me, New York is an extraordinary city—the greatest city in the world—because of the things it offers,” explains Kan, who also has homes in Shanghai, Beijing and Hawai‘i. “It’s the fashion center of the world, the financial center of the world, the music center of the world and the cultural center of the world. Every night in New York, you can attend probably 100 things, including even a lecture at YMCA.”
Kan admits she didn’t really have a plan when she landed in New York 50 years ago, but she would go on to be- come someone who People magazine describes as “the most famous woman in China.” It all started when a friend asked her for help on his TV show, which she did “just for fun.” Eventually, she realized the impact media can have on others, and decided to take the job more to heart, focusing on culturally serious programming.
She created a weekly cable television series Looking East (1978-1990), which introduced Asian culture and customs to Americans. In 1984, she was hired for the historic PBS and CCTV (Chinese Central Television) broadcast of the 35th anniversary celebration of the People’s Republic of China, which then led to her show One World debuting on CCTV in 1986, and reaching nearly 400 million viewers each week.
For the Chinese, One World served as a window beyond their borders, as Kan took viewers across the globe to destinations like Brazil, Denmark, Greece, Egypt, Australia, Sweden, Thailand and the U.S.
With two national shows airing simultaneously—one in America and the other in China—it’s possible Kan was the most- watched human in the world at that time.
“I can still walk on the street and somebody will come up to me and say I’m here in America because I was inspired by you,” says Kan on the impact One World has had on a generation of Chinese.
In 1992, Kan transitioned into the beauty business with Yue-Sai Cosmetics and the mission to change the face of China one lipstick at a time. The company, which was later bought by L’Oreal, became a leading brand in China, and Kan was looked to as a symbol of beauty and entrepreneurship.
“It was not just a cosmetics com- pany, it was really this bigger idea that if you can change the way you look, you can change anything,” she says. “Individualism didn’t exist in China before. Everybody wore the same dress, the same hairdo. I came along and said, no, no, no, you can be an individual. I’m very sure that at that time I was very inspirational to a lot of woman.”
In 2011, Kan added national director for Miss China Universe to her resumé, which she quickly points out, is no fluff. Beyond the glitz and glamour, it’s about teaching young women to promote positive social change.
Being able to impact others, especially in the areas of cultural exchange, education and sustainability, is what keeps Kan going. Her next big project is a two-month event called centered around environmental protection, set to take place in Shanghai in April, featuring a massive life-sized blue whale art installation made of plastic trash.
“We hope all the school children will come to see it,” says Kan. “There will be a lot of activities—films about the harm of plastic, concerts, painting competitions for kids and lectures.
“I’m very interested in sustainability. I want to see what we can do to help the planet. Already, we have ruined our economy. We are so in debt. What is this generation of baby boomers leaving their children and grandchildren? We’re leaving them nothing. What we have done to the environment and what we have done to the economy is really sad.”
Of all her homes, Kan usually spends most of her time in New York, but expects to be in China much of next year. Hawai‘i is where she escapes to during the coldest two months of the year, but the ongoing COVID-19 crisis extended her stay in the islands for most of 2020. She’s kept herself busy swimming, cooking, learning hula, playing on her new digital grand piano, taking online courses and working remotely, including finishing her biography (she hopes to release the Chinese version early next year) and continuing her work in making the world a more beautiful place.
“You want to choose to do things that gives you the best impact, the best return,” says Kan. “Of course, for charity, when I say return, I don’t mean for yourself or money. You want to make sure it affects a lot of people and it does some good for the world.”