Interview: Ronnie Chan on the Opening of Asia Society's Hong Kong Center

On the eve of its grand opening, Asia Society Co-Chair and Hong Kong-native Ronnie Chan discusses the new Asia Society Hong Kong Center and its significance to the Asia Society and the city of Hong Kong.

In just a few hours, the Asia Society Hong Kong Center will celebrate its grand opening (learn how to watch the ceremonies live here). This is a historic moment for the Asia Society — for the first time in the organization's 56-year history, it will have a physical location outside of New York City.

Located at 9 Justice Drive, in the city's Admiralty district, the impressive Asia Society Hong Kong Center occupies a special heritage site that combines new construction with four former military buildings. You can learn more about the restoration and transformation of the Former Explosives Magazine here. We've also embedded an introductory video below.

Last month, Geoff Spencer, Asia Society's Vice President of Communications and Marketing, sat down with Asia Society Co-Chair and Hong Kong-native Ronnie Chan (bio) in New York to talk about the opening of the Hong Kong Center and its signifcance to the Asia Society and the city of Hong Kong.

The following is a portion of their conversation. 

GS: What is the future of Asia Society?

RC: Well I think as the world evolves, as the importance of Asia rises, it’s wonderful that the Asia Society — which is an organization that is 50-something years old that has been working on U.S.-Asia relations for a long time — that we should spread our wings. It is very convenient, right at this time, that we have our Hong Kong Center, our own facility opening in February. That enables the organization to do a lot more on a cross-Pacific basis.

The Asia Society has traditionally been regarded as a U.S.-centric organization. This is a quantum leap now.

Well, Asia Society has been in Hong Kong for 21 years. We’re not new to the place. Just that we don’t have the public profile because we didn’t have a permanent home. So now with a permanent home there, it really helps us achieve the objective of the Asia Society, which is really a trans-Pacific platform for dialogue, for education, for arts and culture.

And in my mind, it’s a direct acknowledgement of the real world, which is the rise of Asia.

Well the way I see it is this. Some say this is the “Asian Century.” I say no, I don’t believe so. I believe this is the Asia-Pacific century, where both sides of the Pacific will be major players in world affairs. The United States has been so for decades, almost a century, and Asia is rising. So Asia Society is an organization that from day one bridges that gap of understanding between the two sides of the Pacific. If there was no Asia Society — if our forefathers did not have the foresight to found this organization in 1956, someone would have had to create one. And how much the better when there is already an organization — just so happens that it was founded in New York. But particularly over the last decade or two, I think we have already been gradually shifting our center of gravity from one side of the Pacific to both sides of the Pacific. And it’s truly exciting in the coming years as the rise of Asia becomes more and more important to the world that there should be an organization to bridge the understanding between the two sides.

What does the opening of the Hong Kong Center symbolize for the territory?

Well I think in many levels, Hong Kong is the best place to have a second headquarters, if you will, of the Asia Society. Hong Kong is still one of the most open cities in the whole of Asia. It has a tradition of being international more so than any other city I can think of. And now, with the rise of China and with Hong Kong under the structure of one-country-two-systems, it still plays a useful role as a bridge between the East and the West. And the fact that our forefathers at the Asia Society 20-some years ago chose Hong Kong and that there was a group of local leaders at the time who were foresighted to accept that invitation and to set up the center in Hong Kong, that gave Asia Society a foothold, a Hong Kong Center that over 20 years has grown very well. I mean now we do probably as many programs, good educational public programs, than almost anybody, in the whole of Hong Kong. We regularly do about 100 programs a year, and now with the physical headquarters, especially one that is as spectacular as the one we have been able to obtain through the good grace of the Hong Kong government, I think that everything is ready for Hong Kong to play a much bigger role as Asia’s world city.

What are your feelings about the restoration of this historic site, the Former Explosives Magazine?

First of all, this may be one of the biggest restoration projects in Hong Kong. And it’s good that it’s done as a three-way collaboration: Hong Kong government granting us the land, Asia Society, obviously providing us the intellectual substance to restore it, as well as the funding, which is a big part, and the Hong Kong Jockey Club came in with about 26 percent of the funding. And we are very thankful to them. I think this collaboration is going to enrich Hong Kong very much. I think all the experts who have seen the place, and there’s quite a few of them, were all very impressed by the quality of the restoration. And the restoration itself is an education to the Hong Kong populace. I mean personally, I learned a lot in the process of the last 10 years, 12 years. 

And it’s bringing Hong Kong — sort of like fulfilling their promise, which is their aspiration, which is to be the global city of Asia.

Absolutely. We are Asia’s world city, and it cannot be just an empty slogan. It must have substance. And we, in some small way, are contributing to the substance of maintaining — we didn’t make Hong Kong the world city, it already is — but in order to keep it, maintain it, competition is always lurking. I think this will, no question in my mind, add tremendously to maintaining Hong Kong’s existing leadership position as Asia’s world city. 

How do you gauge America’s attitude towards Asia nowadays? Compared to John D. Rockefeller 3rd’s original vision?

Well, in the 1950s, when John D. Rockefeller 3rd founded the Asia Society, there was no question a need for Americans to understand Asia better. The amazing thing is that 55 years later, that lack — that need — is probably no less than 55 years ago. I’m not saying that we did nothing, we did a lot in the last 55 years. But the need is perhaps greater than some 55 years ago.


Because of the rise of Asia. Asia is now more or less an equal partner to the United States, to the E.U., to the other major power blocs in the world economically, politically and what have you. And so as Asia rises, the need for communication, for understanding between the two sides of the Pacific has increased substantially. And so I think we have contributed tremendously over the last 50 some years, the need is still greater ahead of us.

And what about the Asians, how do they feel about their rise? Do they understand the implications?

I think increasingly so. I mean take Japan — they obviously realized it a long time ago. I think Korea and Singapore have gone through the process. And now the “biggies” are China and India. And as China and India begin to rise in the global scene, it is an inevitable phenomenon with 2.4- 2.5 billion people between China and India rising, having a higher standard of living, more economically vibrant economies, improving the livelihood of so many people, how can anyone say no to it, right? I think everybody accepts that is a good thing. But that creates different dynamics in the world. 

And Asia has to be more of a global player. They can’t just take on the economic benefit. They have to take some of the responsibility.

Well, 10 years ago I described it this way. I said, America is like an elephant on stage — on a world stage. It’s the biggest, any way you look at it almost. And even population-wise, it is still one of the biggest countries in the world. And China is like a farm girl, suddenly finding herself on the world stage. The elephant is not used to having someone else on stage, and the farm girl is not used to the bright light. Both have to find a way to coexist peacefully with one another. And I believe there’s no reason why they shouldn’t, or why they couldn’t. In my mind, there’s every reason under the sun why the two should be able to live peacefully and indeed together contribute to the peace and prosperity of the world.

About the Author

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Dan Washburn is Asia Society's Chief Content Officer. The Financial Times named his book, The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream, one of the best of 2014.