Is there anyone of note in the world whom broadcaster James Chau doesn’t know? That thought certainly crosses my mind during a wide-ranging conversation that takes us from his birth and upbringing in the suburbs of West London and culminates with his latest venture, the independent news platform The China Current, and is liberally sprinkled with the names of the great, the good and, occasionally, the not so good.
Not that one can begrudge Chau his high-profile friends and acquaintances, because he really is the most generous and engaging of people – the very qualities, in fact, that have made him such a successful and sympathetic listener. In almost 15 years of working as a news anchor with China Central Television (CCTV), he’s interviewed the likes of Jimmy Carter, Bill Gates, Christine Lagarde, David Cameron, Muhammad Yunus and Elton John, and it’s easy to imagine him reaching for his phone and calling any one of those individuals at any time he feels like it.
Not that he was destined for a life in front of the TV camera. In his teens, Chau – whose father was born in Hong Kong and whose mother hails from the Indonesian island of Sumatra – studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music and seemed headed in that direction, until that path was cut short by a severe car accident. “I was 16,” he explains in his plummy Oxbridge accent, “and we were driving down Langham Place, just past All Souls Church and the BBC, and just before the Chinese Embassy. It was right at the centre of that apex between religion, journalism and China, so maybe that was a sign of things to come.
“It was a very bad accident and obviously I went to hospital for quite a while. It’s a bit of a wake-up call at 16, because you start to wonder what path lies ahead and the choices that you have to make. Physically [the accident] was very damaging, so it limited my options, but at the same time it was this huge injection of ‘get on with your life and do it now’.”
The musical career forcibly abandoned, Chau soon found himself at Cambridge University, which he claims came as something of a surprise. “I grew up in a family where my father was very concerned about my education and my mother had no interest whatsoever in how hard we studied, which is not very Asian,” he says with a laugh. “When I was 18 and applying to universities, I think my parents were very, very worried that I wouldn’t get in anywhere, let alone a university that someone had ever heard of.” While a student at Cambridge, he dabbled in journalism as features editor of Varsity magazine, and received a further push towards his eventual calling when he interviewed Lord Snowdon, the famous photographer who was also known as the former husband of Britain’s Princess Margaret.
“How I got into journalism was partly through Snowdon’s great generosity,” Chau says. “I wrote to him, and the Varsity photographer and I took a train down to London. He’d built this little extension at the back of his house with a corrugated plastic roof so that the sun could come through, so as grand as he was, he was a man who really understood materials.
“He asked me, ‘What do you want to do?” and I said, “I want to be a writer – how do I become a writer?’ And he said, ‘Well, you just get up and write, and if you do that and if you want to do that every day, then you are that.’ And I said, ‘Well there’s a gap between that and becoming a professional writer, a writer of credibility and substance.’ And he said, ‘Well you find anybody and anything who will publish your work, and you do anything for it.’”
Internships at the Sunday Mirror newspaper and British Vogue followed later, but before those, Chau was given another nudge towards journalism when he visited Hong Kong in 1997. “I’d never seen anything like it,” he says “It was mesmerising – I saw my background passing over to the other, the British withdrawing and the return of Hong Kong to China, which we are, of course, ethnically. It had a tremendous impact on me personally – and later on Tung Chee-hwa happened to be the first politician I interviewed.”
The experience also helped the young British-born Chinese to begin working out who, exactly, he was. “For a long time, I thought you had to be one or the other,” Chau explains. “I always smiled when I heard people describing themselves as global citizens. But now I know that you don’t need to make that choice. The interconnectedness by which we live today presents itself as an opportunity to live in your way, so I always say I’m 100 percent British and I’m 100 percent Chinese and I’m 100 percent happy about it, and I hope I can use my life to do something that’s meaningful or has some purpose to it.”
Chau moved to Hong Kong in 2001 and worked for three years with TVB, which he readily admits wasn’t the happiest time of his life – in fact, he says, “it was very, very difficult. Hong Kong can be a very difficult place. When things are going well it reveals itself in all these wonderful spectrums but as soon as that shifts a great darkness can take over. I don’t think that’s unique to Hong Kong, but it’s what I experienced here for three years.
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before he decided to move on. “I wanted to be part of a global political centre – and that was Beijing,” says Chau. “It wasn’t about any fascination with China. I always felt a bit of a fraud when other people – and especially European friends – said they knew growing up that their life would be in China and that their work would take them to China. I never experienced this myself. If I’m honest, China – and being Asian – was initially part of the background rather than at the forefront. It was part of our lives, but not the whole part. My mother was a community social worker, my father was an engineer, we spoke English at home and we went to church, and this wasn’t typical of an immigrant Chinese family in London at that time.”
In spite of the fact that he spoke limited Mandarin and had next to no experience of living and working in the mainland, the move quickly turned into what he calls the time of his life. CCTV is, he says, “a vast human organisation. It was so different, because I was just one of 10,000 people. And at the same time, I was on camera and helping to present the news from China to the rest of the world. And that’s a huge responsibility. It was also incredible – over 10 years in the studio and interviewing outside globally.”
Perhaps even more important, Chau got to meet the world, interviewing political leaders and elder statesmen, businesspeople, humanitarians and entertainers for the Chinese broadcaster’s English- language viewers. Asked which of these extraordinary individuals impressed him most, the answer isn’t necessarily one that you’d expect.
“Most obviously,” Chau says, “I think of President Jimmy Carter, now because he’s so ill. I went to the house that his parents built in Plains in Georgia, the small town where he grew up. It was extraordinary to see this house, a simple, modest American home. It was Christmastime, and there was a very small tree standing on a hallway table, which was also in the front window – that’s how small the house was. And it really spoke to this family’s values – family, solidarity, loyalty, simplicity and a certain humility.
“I interviewed Carter twice and both times it was very moving, and I’ll tell you why. Because you’re talking about a 95-year-old person who’s enormously progressive and pushed the front lines of social and human progress far forward. He broke away from the Southern Baptist Church because of its stance on human rights and almost single- handedly he’s helped to eliminate guinea-worm disease, a neglected tropical disease that’s one of the most physically and mentally debilitating conditions impacting some of the world’s most fragile communities. How many people can say that?
“Carter has refocussed the fight against poverty, the income disparity between rich and poor. What more noble person can there be? And he’s so funny. He has this real glint in his eye, and he’s an extraordinary person. He still teaches Sunday school in the church across from the grocery store which his family once owned. He taught me how to be a good person.”
Unlike some TV interviewers, Chau won’t bludgeon his subjects into submission. “Whenever I do an interview,” he explains, “I always try to approach the subject as a person, to a person, and that’s how you extract the very best of them. It’s a very artificial environment because this is someone that you may have just met 30 seconds before, yet you’re somehow in a position with a mandate very gently to draw out personal and private aspects of their life. You’re able to do that because you give something of yourself.
“You can grill, but you grill in a certain way,” he adds. “It doesn’t need to be in a direct volley of questions. You go into an interview to listen as much as to ask questions.”
Now he’s embarked on The China Current with James Chau, which is described on its website as “a dynamic storytelling experience that brings you up close to the fascinating people who are shaping our shared global future”, Chau has the opportunity to concentrate on the subjects and the causes that are close to his heart. He’s passionate about the environment and is closely involved with the UNAids programme – and he was also appointed the first global ambassador for Tiffany & Co.
“The China Current is still very new,” he says, “and I was ‘terrified’ at the beginning, because in the first few weeks we had about 12 followers – and I knew 11 of them – but now after eight months we’ve over 300,000 followers on social media. For me that’s unbelievable, only it is believable because the stories and the people that we feature are really interesting. We just did a month about climate change with [supermodel] Doutzen Kroes, [former Irish president] Mary Robinson, [Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian] Muhammad Yunus and [conservationist and primatologist] Jane Goodall. They talked about climate change with linkages to migration, refugees, poverty and to the social upheaval that’s created by the enormous division that’s created in our society. Doutzen talked about elephant conservation, while Jane and Muhammad are able to unify those subjects and unpack them so that complex ideas become understandable realities. I occasionally spend time with him – I’m able to join him at different events during the year and it’s so interesting to see a Nobel Peace Prize-winner in motion. That prize was really the unleashing of a new chapter in his life and he’s as young as ever in his ideas and as innovative as ever.”
Chau is a Goodwill Ambassador for both UNAids and the World Health Organization. He sees a linkage between the response to HIV and Aids and that towards the more recent outbreak of Sars. “As a reporter,” he says, “I saw first-hand how quickly the fear of the unknown can grip an entire city and hold it hostage, because we didn’t know very much about it. And there were absolute parallels with HIV and Aids, where the first cases were out of San Francisco and New York in June 1981 … [The experience of Sars] shows that HIV and Aids is not about the outcast, it’s about the centres of population, it speaks to mobility, because it crossed borders – and when I worked on Sars I saw how it had taken over not only Hong Kong but then began travelling because of mobility.”
Initially cautious about aligning himself with the fight against HIV and Aids in the relative conservatism of mainland China, Chau sought guidance from Betty Tung, wife of Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive, who encouraged him to be transparent about his work in global health. “Mrs Tung said, ‘In life, don’t hide anything, because people will wonder what else you’re hiding.’ She said I was doing nothing ‘wrong’, that there should be no secret nor shame, and she reminded me that the Aids response required the involvement of as many people as possible. This support encouraged me towards a life in public service.
“So, Sars led me to Aids and Aids opened up the whole world to me,” says Chau. “It shaped everything for me. I went to San Francisco when I started my global Aids work, because that’s where the global outbreak began in some ways, and I began meeting the people who were in the hospitals. I think more than anything it saved my life, because I’d been going through acute depression for years and Aids, which for so long had been seen as the disease of the dying, gave me an extraordinary new purpose in life, which was to join a coalition of people who were contributing to a fuller world. Aids liberated me, it allowed me to cultivate new friendships and it began to open the most unlikely doors. And, you know, if Peng Liyuan [the First Lady of China] can work as actively as she does in the global health response, then the future is really for us to shape.”
Chau waxes equally lyrical when talking about his relationship with Tiffany & Co. “I’d just interviewed President Carter,” he says, “and when the plane landed, I got a message on my phone asking if I would like to be considered becoming Tiffany’s first global ambassador. The fog of a very long flight suddenly lifted. I couldn’t believe it! It’s a house that I’d been working with, on and off, for say 15 years, mostly as a friend – I love the brand, but I particularly love the people and friendships within.
“Tiffany isn’t just about a big stone or a major high-jewellery piece. It’s also about art, design and innovation – you know, they discovered Tanzanite – and it’s about the humour of their window displays. As much as it’s about craftsmanship, important stones and exquisite designs, it’s even more about the social context, that people get excited by a blue box. It’s about love, and not just in terms of a Tiffany-cut diamond or engagement ring – they came out very gently but effectively on climate change at a very challenging time, and now there’s a very big move on sustainability, so that every stone you acquire from a Tiffany store can be traced right back to its source.
“As much as I love talking about the designs and the stones, because I have a great artistic interest, it’s also equally about where this fits into the map of humanity and is it just about luxury? It’s not. You know, Audrey Hepburn walked into a store and bought a telephone dialler – and I bet that you can walk on to their main floor on Fifth Avenue today and say, ‘I’ve got $60 and I’d like to buy a gift for my granny,’ and anyone there would take you by the arm and extract enormous joy from bringing you round to the counter. And I don’t think there are many brands like that, which are truly democratic, truly inclusive and really take joy from making your day the best it can possibly be.”
And Chau’s own goals, both through The China Current and his increasing involvement in humanitarian and environmental issues? “With the United Nations this year, we worked with Bill Gates, Angela Merkel – extraordinary people, and I’m not on their level,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “But I think that somewhere within that mix of work I may sometimes have something to say and maybe sometimes it has a little value to offer somebody else. I’d like to work more with youth, which I do mainly through [the UK-based non-profit organisation] One Young World, through UNAids and through the World Health Organisation, and I love working with and for the ageing community, but more listening to and learning from them. There’s no replacement for the experience and wisdom our elders offer us.
“But what I think I’d like to do with The China Current is to create a coalition of individuals who believe that the world must improve and are participants and not only observers in the solution. The human condition is what I think about all the time and I think that I was given an opportunity to do this through my work. And if I don’t take advantage of that I’d be very disappointed.”