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Humans of SOAS: Stephen Chan

Professor, Martial Arts Master, Former Student Activist.

Interviewer: Ali Mitib, BA Law and Politics


What is your background?

I was born in New Zealand to refugee parents. Because of the war, New Zealand was a very poor country and there was also racial discrimination, including laws against Chinese people. I was the first born so I certainly remember those bad years. But it became very clear at an early stage that the only way to come out of poverty was education. When I went to school I couldn’t speak any English, with the added disadvantage that my parents weren’t schooled themselves. It was pretty much make one’s own way – an ethos that has stuck with me.


What was your involvement in student politics?

The Vietnam War, Apartheid, liberation movements, the renaissance of the Maori indigenous population; all these things exploded at the same time. It was a time of great activism and idealism and the students were very much at the heart of it. The real accomplishment of that year was that we fundamentally changed the immigration laws for overseas students.. It taught me that working within the system can achieve results. They’ve never changed the laws back.

My family hated my involvement. I was meant to be the respectable next generation of Chinese integration.


You were involved with a sit-in?

The political protests had been quite polite up to the beginning of 1969, when we held the sit in. As something like this had never been done before and it was completely non-violent, the police didn’t know what to do. They issued warnings that we would be charged with trespass and they dragged us out. Our lawyers advised us to plead guilty to trespass, but I was friends with lecturers in the law school so we made a case based on civil liberties. The prosecution had never had an argument of this sort. The judge did find against us but we raised awareness for the rights of people using forms of civil disobedience. I got fined slightly more for being an obnoxious person.


What actions did you take regarding the South African rugby tour?

There was a generation wide revulsion against what was happening in South Africa. People realised that there was a deep symbolism in playing an all white team.  So although people didn’t want to mix up politics and sport – the mantra of conservative people – we encountered little real resistance and were able to mount many successful demonstrations – in my time as president, we got the rugby tour cancelled. By the time I’d left, the consciousness of people had been mobilised.


Is SOAS activism similar to what you saw in New Zealand?

In some ways it is. The difference is that the issues are much more blurred than they used to be. There is often a recourse to dogma and ideology rather than a more modern search for ways forward. You can even see this in the Labour party, of which I am a member. You can’t live in the past. The proletariat of today is different to Marx’s. The left have to rethink a lot of its foundation premises and it hasn’t.  I think if you want to change our complex society you have to do a lot more thinking. It disappoints me that the left has not adequately engaged with what I think is a foundational intellectual project.


What work have you done as a journalist?

For a while, I ran my own literary publishing house. We aimed to publish a younger, more radical prose with a new design sense. I was also the editor of the student newspaper at Auckland University which had a weekly circulation of 10,000, and it was free distribution. Learning the business side as well as the editorial side was very important for me, and I took it into my later work. The most important lesson in my career as a journalist? The ability to keep to a deadline.


How did you get into martial arts?

I blame my grandmother. She was a militia leader in the warlord era of China in the first part of the 20th century. It was anarchy: warlords and gangsters, Japanese encroachment, interior divisions. Villages had their own militias for self protection – you couldn’t depend on the authorities. My grandmother was a swordswoman so we all blame her for everything!

Hard to say which is my favourite martial art, as they are all fantastically creatively destructive. I never intended to keep doing it this long, but it became a huge philanthropic project. We had schools in the slums of different cities. We run a parallel charity to help with education and health issues: if you can get a black belt, you have the discipline to succeed at school.


What was it like to be awarded an OBE?

The Foreign Office alerted the then Director of SOAS, Paul Webley, of my nomination. He said ‘you are going to accept this aren’t you?’ My wife and I had been discussing this and were of two minds. He just said ‘you are going to accept this’ so I went home to my wife and said we are going to Buckingham Palace. The ceremony was a lovely occasion. Everything you see in the picture books is there. It did open some doors – at a Lord Mayor function, a serious business friend of mine introduced me by saying ‘This is Stephen. He might look like a musician but…’ because I refuse to cut my hair. Handing over a card saying I have an OBE makes a huge difference. My objection is that it is called Officer of the British Empire. They should rename the honours in this country.

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