It is 9am on Thursday morning in Cyberport, and the city is just getting ready for a new day of work. Outside the recording studio, Tanya Chan is going through piles of news clippings in preparation for her regular political talk show in the local broadcaster D100.
In the show, the vice-chairperson of the Civic Party would be giving off her signature loud laughter, reminding people that there is value in keeping a sense of humour even in a time of political discord.
And Chan’s playfulness is well known, as the multitalented barrister has tried many side projects during her nine years of career in politics. The list includes: performing in stand-up comedies, publishing books, teaching cooking on TV, and standing up for social and environmental causes as an ambassador for NGO campaigns.
Comedian turned politician
Trained in law at the University of Hong Kong and having worked at Australia and New Zealand Banking Group before becoming a barrister, Chan’s early career choice was typical of a young professional in Hong Kong.
“I used to think that politics was extremely boring,” confessed the 43-year-old former legislator. “It would be unimaginable for me to accept an invitation to join a political party, let alone volunteering myself to participate politically in any way.”
But Chan’s career took an unexpected turn in 2003, when she accepted the opportunity to perform in “East Wing West Wing”, a political satire produced by the experimental theatre group Zuni Icosahedron.
Among Chan’s more memorable performances were her monologues. In “West Kowloon Side Story”, the fourth production of “East Wing West Wing”, Chan wowed the audience with a five-minute monologue mocking the government’s pretence of listening to public opinion on the controversial West Kowloon development project and ensuring a competitive bidding process.
Chan said her scripts were penned by a writer, and she usually spent one to two weeks memorising them. “I prefer instructions, just so that I can then break out of the box.”
Through the show, Chan met Audrey Eu, co-founder and chairperson of the Civic Party. “I told Audrey to contact me if she needed help with setting up a political party.”
“Then one day I received a phone call inviting me to found the Civic Party. I almost dropped the phone,” Chan jested with a straight face, much like the way she performs a monologue. “I asked, how did that happen? I thought I would just be running errands as a volunteer. That was how I became a founding member of the Civic Party.”
Just two years after the establishment of the Civic Party, Chan, along with Audrey Eu, was elected to the Legislative Council after winning the highest number of votes in the Hong Kong Island geographical constituency.
Despite losing in the following Legislative Council and District Council elections, Chan continues to serve as a core member within her party. She was also actively involved in the Occupy Central campaign. A month before the proposed occupation of Central – which became the “Umbrella Revolution” – Chan was one of two women who volunteered to shave their heads as a media stunt.
“I’m lucky to be free from the burdens of wearing multiple hats. I’m only my mom’s daughter, not someone’s wife or mother.” said Chan. “Take the head shaving event for example, I only needed to notify my mom; I didn’t have to inform 200 people. Imagine if I had a son, he would be asking, wow, mom, why are you hairless? Already I can’t think of how to explain it.”
‘Know your principles, and the risks involved’
Chan’s single status does not always save her from hassles. As an outspoken female public figure known for her good humour and adventurous spirit, Chan’s relationship status has attracted a lot of media attention in the past.
Chan, who believes that one of the basic requirements for a politician is a sense of humour, said that she is not bothered by media gossip. “Honestly, it would be my honour if you said the same thing about me for three years. Even if it is an insult or personal attack, as a politician you need to stay cool about it.”
But lawmakers today did not seem to meet Chan’s standards. She is disappointed by the confusion of vulgarity and insults with humour in the political circle.
“Back then when I was a legislator, I thought my colleagues were of high quality and relatively polite. But today, I don’t think many in the legislature respect the rules or even know what they’re doing.”
Chan argued that many lawmakers have a tendency to quote anonymous sources and use them as an excuse for not doing their own research or thinking independently.
So what word of advice would she give to aspiring politicians? “First of all, you must know your principles and what you stand for,” said Chan. “And do your homework before meetings.”
Chan added words of caution: “Never underestimate the power of the United Front. Your career will definitely affect your significant other and his/her family. Make sure you talk to them about it. You need to expect the worst.”
“You must be able to handle the stress, because for pro-democracy politicians, the career path will only become more difficult.”
The way forward
Pan-democrats not only have to worry about infiltration and increasing suppression from the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, but in recent years the camp also faces tremendous challenges in maintaining their support base. In particular, young voters are turning to new pressure groups and pro-localism organizations such as Civic Passion.
A structural reason for the unhealthy competition among the pro-democracy camp is the proportional representation voting system, argued Chan. Pan-democrats are forced to compete for a limited number of seats within a confined territory, making it difficult for different parties to act in unity.
“But the Civic Party does not intend nor is able to ‘unite’ the pro-democracy activists’ circle,” said Chan. “My expectations of the Civic Party lie elsewhere: First and foremost, I hope Hong Kongers will remain firmly confident in us and will never suspect that the Civic Party would sell out the people of Hong Kong.”
“Second, the Civic Party will work to build a strong foundation within, so that we will be strong enough to fight the battle outside.”
Given the public’s growing dissatisfaction with the legislature, Chan believes that while the system is broken, “some things must still be voted on or passed.”
“The question is, how can lawmakers take back the rights of the people using the existing resources?” The solution? “Only through mutual support can the pro-democracy base be consolidated,” said Chan. “With CY Leung having a firm grip over the legislature and [various parts of society] such as the Independent Police Complaints Council and boards of trustees in local universities, he is destroying Hong Kong’s existing rules and organizations.”
For now, Chan is “actively considering” running for the upcoming District Council election this November. Asked if there is anything the tireless politician wants to try outside her legal and political career, Chan replied after giving a few seconds of thought, “I’d like to act in movies someday.”