‘So what’s legacy?’, he asks me.
Ronnie Chan is just back from Honduras and sipping his usual very strong coffee with hot milk to stave off the jet lag, though he’s used to a punishing travel schedule.
We’re sitting in his tight 6ft x 6ft cubicle, tucked in an open-plan corner at the Asian Society’s Hong Kong headquarters. It’s all the office he needs.
Over the desk there’s a shelf of books – among them Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I remember Ronnie’s brother Gerald mentioning this on the announcement of the family’s donation to Harvard School of Public Health a couple of years ago.
Behind him there’s a selection of photos in Perspex stands, featuring Chan with friends. The great and the good from all over the world.
Prominent among these is a picture with Tung Chee Hwa, the first Chief Executive of Hong Kong after the 1997 handover from the British. Taken on the occasion of the Pre-Opening Gala Dinner of the Hong Kong centre. (A great picture by Nik Mak.)
Clearly Hong Kong is important for him.
Chan is Chairman of the Executive Committee of the One Country Two Systems Research Institute and of the Better Hong Kong Foundation. He’s also Convenor of the Hong Kong Development Forum.
And now there’s this cultural centre at the Asia Society in Hong Kong. This means a lot to him, too. ‘My baby,’ he calls it.
How to describe Chan’s baby is difficult. It ranges along a hillside in the Admiralty district in the heart of the city. It perches on the edge of Hong Kong Park, in lush rainforest, home to an important population of fruit bats that the architects and construction teams had to work round carefully.
The site is surrounded by the skyscrapers of the business district. Here are the rival towers of HSBC and Standard Chartered. There, you can see the fluorescent light show that is the Bank of China.
This long-disused site was built by the colonial British military in the 19th century. As an explosives store. You can see the rails where the munitions were trollied from laboratory to storehouse still embedded in the paths around the centre.
The New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien – a husband and wife team known for their work on museums and cultural buildings – converted the existing structures to hold new offices, a theatre and an art gallery. All connected in a scheme that is about a horizontal procession through the site and the spaces in it.
‘How do you make a strong statement in a totally vertical city?’ says Billie Tsien. ‘Well, it can’t be by being vertical.’[i]
In the lobby their words leap off the screens of the interactive displays.
‘Good architecture begins by listening very intently. The search is for questions not answers,’ they say. ‘The result is a place that feels deeply rooted to what was said, yet could never have been envisioned at the start.’
On another screen they explain how architecture evolves.
‘Although we carry the history of our own architectural past, we try as much as we can to start with a blank slate. So the design is incremental: steps made in response to the site, the client, the building and our own intuitions. We must listen, forget and reinvent.’
And I’m stunned. They are talking about legacy.
And I love this idea. That architecture – read ‘legacy building’ – is an act of profound optimism.
‘Its foundation lies in believing that it is possible to make places on earth that can give a sense of grace to life – and believing that that matters. It is what we have to give and what we leave behind.’
There it is. Legacy.
Don’t get me wrong, though. The building is not the legacy. It is the impact the building achieves.
Brought into life two centuries ago to take life and destroy, the venue now is an incubator for creativity and inspiration.
Although the Asia Society Hong Kong Center was founded in 1990, the new Center, opening in 2012, quickly became an active complex for lectures, seminars, conferences, cultural programs, art exhibitions, performances and films. On business and policy as well as culture
‘In the 1950s, when John D Rockefeller 3rd founded the Asia Society, there was no question a need for Americans to understand Asia better,’ says Chan[ii].
‘The amazing thing is that 55 years later, that lack — that need — is probably no less than 55 years ago. I’m not saying that we did nothing, we did a lot in the last 55 years. But the need is perhaps greater than some 55 years ago.’
And he’s clear why.
‘Because of the rise of Asia. Asia is now more or less an equal partner to the United States, to the EU, to the other major power blocs in the world economically, politically and what have you. And so as Asia rises, the need for communication, for understanding between the two sides of the Pacific, has increased substantially. And so I think we have contributed tremendously over the last 50 some years, but the need is still greater ahead of us.’
Ronnie Chan is the first Asian Vice Chair of the Asian Society since its foundation in 1950. And this Hong Kong center is the Society’s first headquarters outside the US.
I can see this is a big deal.
And the place and the stories it contains are framed with optimism
But Ronnie Chan is not so optimistic about the world.
On his desk the paper is open at an op-ed piece describing the challenge that Brexit poses to the world economy. While I believe Britain will embrace Europe again, though it may take a generation, Chan is not so sure.
‘Maybe there won’t be a Europe to return to,’ he says.
Won’t there be a world body, I ask him? A world council?
‘Well, I wrote about it and argued for it 20 years ago,’ he says. ‘But the United Nations? That hasn’t worked.’
He sighs and looks me full in the face. It’s a way he has of challenging you. That look.
As I leave he hands me a brochure on the work of the China Heritage Fund. Its inaugural project in the Forbidden City is the first outside project ever to begin there.
Backed by Chan, the Fund helped reconstruct the Garden of the Palace of Established Happiness. Its second project, to reconstruct the Hall of Rectitude, began in 2006. The Centre of Buddhist activity in the Forbidden City.
Chan is nothing if not non-partisan, and on every dimension you care to think of.
Inside the brochure he has slipped the transcript of his address on the award his family made to the Harvard School of Public Health in 2014. Remember the news? A sudden, unannounced donation of $350m. On behalf of his father, TH Chan, a very private man.
And I read. ‘There are many in this world who have wealth and many others who have virtues,’ he says[iii]. ‘Usually those with the latter do not have much of the former. The reverse is also, sadly, more often than not true. There are however a few who have both and my father Mr TH Chan was one of them.’
As I leave the Hong Kong Asia Center at the end of the evening I reflect on something Chan said. ‘I have no legacy.’
I have to disagree.
What I’ve learned is that you don’t have to brag or shout about what you do. But you do have to do something. And you have to share it with others. If you have the means, the desire and the energy to change the world you’re a role model. You have to be. It’s a long process. But worthwhile.
Ronnie Chan evidently thinks so. Maybe not by his words. But very definitely by his actions.
[i] Launching Heritage Revealed press release.
[ii] Interview on Asia Society site at the time of the launch
[iii] Harvard Speech at the unveiling of TH Chan portrait.