Portrait of James Wah Kong Chan

“The night before I was to leave Hong Kong, I dreamed of being chased after by vampires in Chicago.”

 James Wah Kong Chan is an export marketing consultant.

52. James Chan High ResolutionI was an illegal immigrant for five years. From 1977 to 1982, the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service sent me to three deportation hearings. I hired three lawyers to defend me until one day I broke down and prayed to God for help.

I came to America as a shy, clueless foreign student with a B.A. degree from the University of Hong Kong. I was on a student visa to study geography at the University of Chicago, where I got my M.A. degree in 1973 and at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where I got my Ph.D. degree in 1977.

By then, I had grown fond of the American culture and way of life and I wanted to stay. Boston University offered me a one-year job as an assistant professor. I accepted the job but my student (F-1) visa was about to expire. When I stayed to continue to teach, I “over stayed” and became by law an illegal immigrant.

One day, near despair, I found myself wandering nervously next to the Basilica Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Center City. I saw the Cross and I realized that there was one last resort—to ask for divine intervention.

I walked into the Cathedral and prayed to Saint John Neumann for guidance. After that, I went down on my knees and prayed to God. In silence, I made a vow to God: “If you could help me get a green card, I would promise to pull China and America closer.” I created a story of which I could be the hero. I forged my own myth. I left the church and typed 500 more job search letters.

A few months later, a Fortune 500 company hired me and proved that I could do a job that no American citizen could qualify to do. The company wanted my help to export scientific, technical, medical, and scholarly books and journals to China and other Asian markets. On my birthday in August 1982, the U.S. Consular Office in Hong Kong gave me my permanent residency card and said to me: “James, Happy Birthday!”

From being a shy, clueless foreign student from Hong Kong, I’ve transformed myself into a management consultant advising Fortune 500 companies on how to sell their products in China. My five-year herculean task taught me a lot about how to succeed in America and how to be an assertive public speaker and independent export marketing consultant. I set up my own consultancy in 1983 and I’ve advised more than 100 U.S. firms on how to promote and export their products and services to Asia.

I left Hong Kong in 1971 because I wanted to get a doctoral degree and see the world. I remember the night before I was to leave Hong Kong, I dreamed of being chased after by vampires in Chicago. I cried quietly on my first plane ride from Hong Kong to Chicago. I was afraid of failure but secretly I was excited. A friend from Hong Kong at Chicago let me sleep in his bed because he had noticed that I was physically exhausted and emotionally drained. He slept in his own sofa instead.

My mother saw me off at the Hong Kong Airport in 1971. A few months later, she borrowed money from a loan shark to help me pay for Chicago graduate school tuition. I cried uncontrollably in the basement of The Joseph Regenstein Library that evening when I read the Western Union cable about the money. Luckily, from that year on, I was either on scholarship or teaching assistantships throughout my entire graduate school years. I sent money home to my mother every month until she told me to stop decades later.

All of my degrees are in regional and cultural geography. I was fascinated by how countries behave like individuals with their respective unique, quirky personalities and psyche. I love to study them and predict their conduct. It is no coincidence that my clients value my expertise in helping them to read the character of people in China and decode their feelings and motivation.

Even before I forged my own myth at the Cathedral Basilica, I had felt strongly that China and America have very different personalities and value systems. They would need cultural go-betweens like me.

My personal myth and my role as a mediator in business between China and America are documented in my book, Spare Room Tycoon, Succeeding Independently, The 70 Lessons of Sane Self-Employment.

Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.


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