Michele Hewitson Interview: Jack Yan

By Michele Hewitson

Mayoralty contender is a Christian Confucianist and beauty pageant boss who's obsessed with typefaces

Jack Yan is big on brands and likes a serious challenge. His slogan for his mayoralty campaign is 'You can't beat Wellington'. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Jack Yan is big on brands and likes a serious challenge. His slogan for his mayoralty campaign is 'You can't beat Wellington'. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Jack Yan, a Wellington mayoral candidate and director of Miss Universe New Zealand - which is a sentence you are unlikely to write more than once in a lifetime - was in Auckland on swimsuit business.

He had been at TVNZ to announce on Breakfast that the 20 contestants were off to Thailand for a swimsuit shoot. Yes, all right, let's get right to it. What is a Wellington mayoral candidate doing getting involved with a beauty pageant?

Actually, there's another way of putting it. What is a former judge and now director of a beauty pageant doing getting involved with a mayoral race?

I may have used the words tacky and outdated to describe one of these contests - there are no prizes for guessing which. I may also have described Miss Universe as a bikini-babe contest, just, you know, to get a mayoral-style debate going.

Really of course I was partly winding him up. He can appear, on paper at least, to be a very earnest and serious youngish chap of 40 and of course he is that - you don't run for mayor unless you are earnest and serious about it. So a beauty pageant does seem a rather frivolous bit of nonsense. He said, very seriously, the pageant is simply a business and that he wants to modernise it and make it "progressive". It still has swimsuits and sheilas.

"But that's the thing. We got rid of the bikinis and high heels on stage because I thought that was rather old-fashioned and 20th century. That's why we're filming it on a beach in Thailand." It's still old-fashioned and tacky. "We couldn't get rid of the swimwear, unfortunately. Due to the international rules we have to leave it in there."

I still have no certain idea about why he wanted such a business, but perhaps it appeals to him simply as a challenge. He does like a serious challenge.

He is certainly serious about the mayoralty. He ran last time, in 2010, and got 7,426 votes, 12 per cent of the vote, which he reckons was pretty good for a first-timer. A mate of mine in Wellington (who emailed that he'd heard I was going to interview Yan - about three minutes after I knew I was going to interview him) - who knows about these things said he doesn't think "false hope is an expression he's familiar with".

He might be a bit cocky in the way that go-getters tend to be. He is given to saying that he has been "ahead of the curve" in all of his endeavours, which are many.

I couldn't figure out from his CV just what it was that he did. He publishes a magazine called Lucire, which began as an online publication, and which is a sort of fashion mag with an eco-conscience (whatever that means). He's a member of a think-tanky branding thing based in Sweden, called The Medinge Group, which involves itself in "humanistic branding".

He has a company called Jack Yan & Associates, which boasts on its website: "Many of the concepts in today's business world were realised early at JY&A, including virtual companies (1987), online magazines (1994), moral global brands (2000), spirituality in business strategy (2003)."

He is big on brands and said, about his friend Lorraine Downes, that "she is very true to her brand". Obviously we live in different universes because we had a ridiculous, if affable, row about whether people could be brands. I said it was a ghastly thing to say and he said, no, it wasn't and that Lorraine, for example, was "very true to her brand" which meant "being natural and not putting crazy things into your system" and so on.

Well, if he insists people are brands, what's his? "One who's authentic, one who says what he means and will deliver, one that is internationally minded."

I said I couldn't see how that was a brand and he said: "I think that everyone can be distilled into a brand." And so can a city. His slogan for his campaign is: You can't beat Wellington - because people say "you can't beat Wellington on a good day".

The gist of his campaign seems to be about global connections and how not having politicians as mayors is a good thing.

Does he really think he's going to be mayor? "I darn well hope so. Thanks for the plug!"

I'm glad he reminded me. Miss Universe NZ is at SkyCity on October 5; the mayoral campaign is already on.

He's on optimist and something of an obsessive. He's obsessed with car design - he has a very old Opel and a Renault Megane - and has been since he was a little boy.

He became obsessed with fonts when he was about 7 and says he is perhaps best known for his invention of new fonts. "I was the first digital typeface designer in New Zealand." He must have been a strange little boy. His parents came to New Zealand from Hong Kong when he was almost 4 and he seems a bit posh - although perhaps that was simply because he sticks his pinky out when he drinks from a cup. He doesn't know why. But he's not posh and not from money. His mother (who died of cancer when he was 22) was a nurse; his father was an electronics technician. He said: "No, I'm from a solid working-class family. I mean, I knew we were poor. I knew we couldn't afford the same sorts of toys or books that my contemporaries had, so I would never ask for them." He hankered after a book on fonts (fonts seem to have been a bit of a fad with boys when he was 7 or so) but it cost $4.99. "Which was a lot of money. I knew we'd never be able to afford it, so I simply never asked for it."

This was a good thing, the not having the font book, because "it meant I had to develop my own styles. So in fact it was wonderful."

There were two things about that story that tell you quite a lot about him: that he remembers the price of the book, and that he had such restraint to not ask for it at such an early age.

He says his parents were "fantastic" and never talked down to him and when he was 6 they asked if he'd like a brother or a sister and he said no, and so they didn't have another child. That makes him sound like a bit of a control freak of a kid, but he says his parents always consulted him about things - that's simply the way their family worked.

Also, he didn't want to introduce "any discord" into the family: "What's the water-cooler conversation in the morning at school? 'I had a fight with my brother last night; last night I had a fight with my sister.' Who wants that?" I thought he might now regret not having a sibling but he said "not always", because when his mother died "that would have been twice the grief. So why put someone through that shit?"

The perceived poshness may also come from his time at private St Mark's Church School in Wellington. He was the scholarship boy who became dux. He works 80-100 hours a week. He speaks English, obviously, Cantonese, Taishanese, French and, badly, Swedish, which he learned from listening to the music of Swedish jazz singer Monica Zetterlund.

He is a romantic who doesn't have much time for romance. The longest relationship he's been in lasted about a year. He is currently "courting" a woman about whom I know nothing except that she's as busy as he is, doing what I don't know because he refused to tell me.

His father, whom he lives with, hasn't met her. He is oddly old-fashioned and cautious for an ahead-of-the-curve chap. He doesn't believe in rushing into things. He has seen the woman he is courting possibly half a dozen times this year. "That's what you sign up to if the person in your life is an over-achiever."

Well, touche. I had earlier accused him of being an over-achiever, to which he responded: "I like achieving well."

So there you are. He is an entirely serious young man who wants to be the mayor of Wellington. But he's only 40, which seems very young to me to be so focused and po-faced. Hasn't he ever done anything rebellious or naughty? "Well, isn't running for mayor a little bit naughty, in terms of that I'm anti-establishment? I'm not a puppet of the rich. I don't give a shit what they say."

He once stood for the Alliance Party because a mate of his, Victor Billot, was co-leader and asked him to; he voted Greens in the last election but says that if he's anything he's probably a Confucianist. I have no idea what a Confucianist is and neither it seems do most people because he always has to explain it.

"Of course there's no equivalent of that in the Occidental world. A Confucianist believes in the reciprocal relationship between government and governed, and that people should self-regulate." So of course people say he's a Libertarian.

Did I say he was entirely serious? My Wellington friend warned me not to ask him to do his Scottish accent: "Of course you will, and he will." So I can't say I wasn't warned. He did his Scottish accent for so long I thought he'd never stop.

He has no idea why he started doing this: "I have nae idea." I do have to admit that it is quite something to watch a Chinese New Zealander in a cafe doing a Scottish accent. For a while.

He has a fondness for bad puns and ancient English comedy, in particular Morecambe and Wise, which he says is very similar to Cantonese humour. "If you're the subject of a joke you'll leave going, 'Did I just get complimented or did I just get insulted?'."

He was raised in what he says was a "dignified" way so the nearest he comes to being insulting about the incumbent mayor, Celia Wade-Brown, is that she prefers Dick Emery to Morecambe and Wise. (On reflection, coming from him, that might be really quite insulting.)

I have no idea what chance he has. He's certainly an interesting addition to the list of mayoral hopefuls around the country. A mayor who is the director of a beauty pageant who is a Christian Confucianist who believes people are brands and whose party trick is doing a Scottish accent? Stranger things have happened in local body politics.

- NZ Herald

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