There being no Nielsens in China, it is impossible to say precisely how large an audience watches the program One World. Its star, Yue-Sai Kan, has a pretty good idea though. Every Sunday at 5:45 p.m. an estimated average of five people—sometimes as many as 50—crowd around almost every one of the country’s 80 million TV sets to watch her show, a quarter-hour documentary about life in other countries. That translates into about 400 million viewers, which gives One World the largest TV audience on the planet. It also makes the diminutive, 38-year-old Yue-Sai Kan by far the most famous woman in China—an achievement that is doubly extraordinary since she is an American.
The China-born Kan, a U.S. citizen since 1975 and a resident of New York, is China’s first media celeb. Her hairstyle, known as the Yue-Sai cut, is copied from Shanghai to Sinkiang. When she visits China she is mobbed by adoring fans; when she’s in the U.S. they send her flowery poems. “Walking down the street with Yue-Sai is like walking down the street with Johnny Carson,” says a friend, stage director George White, “only bigger, because there’s nothing like her in China.” Her unmarried state is talked of in neighborhood noodle shops. And Chinese newspapers outdo each other with ardent headlines: “Welcome, Ambassador of TV,” and “Intelligence, Wisdom, Brilliance, Grace, Warmth and Humor—An Interview With Yue-Sai Kan.”
These perfervid outpourings stem in part from China’s fascination with the seldom-seen world beyond its borders. One World has taken Chinese viewers to New York, Egypt, Greece and Australia and has exposed them to the Muppets, baseball and the state of women’s rights in Denmark. The program is even broadcast twice—at 5:45 p.m. in English (a TV guide runs partial scripts in Chinese so viewers can follow) and again at 9:30 p.m. in Mandarin. Says former New York Times China hand Fox Butterfield: “The Chinese for years were starved for information from the outside world. They really craved it. She’s filling an important need. She’s also charming—and they’re not beyond being charmed.”
With a staff of four assistants, Kan shoots the shows on location and transmits them to China on tape. She picks subjects with care. “I thought the first thing they should know about America is not how rich we are or how advanced our technology is, but the combination of people in our society,” she says. So her first segment showcased the successes of Korean grocers and Polish butchers, among others, and most programs are similarly upbeat. “Yet we have no censorship problems at all,” she reports. “It is amazing.” Still, Kan asserts her beliefs diplomatically: “Communism is not for me, but that does not mean it’s not a good system for China. I’m a real entrepreneur.”
She clearly is, and her current venture is risky. Her sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Xerox and General Foods, seem mainly interested in exposure for the future. Although her deal with Chinese Central Television (CCTV) in Peking gives her a 50-50 split of the profits, she hasn’t yet broken even. If the vast Chinese market opens up to American business, however, she could make a small fortune.
Yue-Sai was born into an upper-middle-class family in the Chinese city of Guilin in 1948. Two years later her father, Wing-Lin Kan, a well-known artist, fled to Hong Kong with his family. Kan studied piano at a branch of Brigham Young University in Hawaii, rejoined her family in Hong Kong, worked for Hyatt Hotels, then moved to New York City in 1971. There, she and her sister Vickie began importing silk from China and thrived, but after nine years she says, “I was ready for a change.” She developed a cable-TV show on life in Asia, Looking East, and sold it to syndication. It now runs on 640 U.S. cable systems. In 1984, when CCTV and PBS broadcast the 35th anniversary celebrations of the People’s Republic, Kan was brought in as the English translator and dazzled everyone. She simultaneously translated Premier Deng’s speech, read the colorful banners for viewers and tossed in explanations of the history behind the 250,000-strong parade. Shortly after, CCTV suggested she do a show for China about the West.
Yue-Sai went to Peking to celebrate her first show on Feb. 23, 1986. “I was in my hotel room,” she recalls, “and I saw myself greeting the Chinese people. That was the most elating moment of my life. I just jumped up and said, ‘I did it! I did it!’ ” She still uses the same opener—”Hello. I’m Yue-Sai Kan. Welcome to One World.”—but by now she really needs no introduction.