Face to Face with Fred Kan

The Hong Kong Law Society maintains a Roll of Honour, which consists of the names of solicitors who have distinguished themselves through their service to the Law Society or its Council, by their contributions to the development of the legal profession in Hong Kong or to the practice of law. To be nominated for admission, a three-quarters majority of the Council must agree that the contributions of the solicitor warrant special recognition.

This year’s honouree, Fred Kan, speaks about his nomination and admission, while reflecting on his legal career and participation in the work of the Law Society.

The last three lines of Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken, capture Mr. Kan’s own thinking and feelings about his near half-century career in law and his accomplishments along the way:

Two roads diverged in the wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

“Perhaps, like the traveller, my thinking and feelings about choosing to pursue a path less travelled are based upon a deception brought on by age and vanity. But I like the poem and its imagery of the yellow wood, of way leading on to way and its depiction of the unpredictability and challenges of life,” Mr. Kan explained.

While reflecting on his appointment by the Council to the Roll of Honour, he said that he was greatly humbled and that it was a great way to cap his career. “My only regret is that it came too late for my parents. How I wish they were alive and here today.”

No More Dancing

Mr. Kan graduated from the University of Toronto in 1964 with a Bachelor of Applied Science in mechanical engineering. His graduation thesis was on solar energy. He also recalls being very active in extracurricular activities during this time and attributes his interest in law to his involvement with the International Student Council, where he acted as the Council’s president.

However, after completing his Bachelor’s degree, he was torn between pursuing two different graduate level programmes – the first, an LL.B. programme at the University of Toronto and the second, a masters’ level engineering programme offered through McGill University at its Barbados campus that focused on solar energy. Unable to decide between the two, he applied to both and then set out on an expedition around the world at the behest of his father, who funded the international jaunt to reward Mr. Kan for excelling academically at a prestigious university. The only condition imposed on Mr. Kan was to return home with a travelogue written in Chinese.

After months of gallivanting, Mr. Kan returned to Hong Kong to find that he had received two letters of acceptance – one to study law at the University of Toronto and the other to study solar energy at McGill’s research centre in Barbados. Given the lack of sunlight in Canada during the winter months, McGill’s programme was not based in Montreal.

Unbeknownst to Mr. Kan, as soon as his acceptance letters arrived, his father started asking friends and family members questions to determine the relative prestige of each programme. But he was indirect about it, Mr. Kan recalls. “He never asked direct questions, as others would anticipate the answer that he wanted and then give him that answer.”

Never having heard of Barbados or the programme at McGill, Mr. Kan’s father went to one of his favourite hangouts in Wan Chai and asked if anyone could tell him more about the eastern Caribbean island under the ruse that he was interested in travelling there. “Of course, none of my father’s friends knew anything  about Barbados,” Mr. Kan said, “except for one smart aleck who said ‘Oh, Mr. Kan. That’s where they do the calypso!’”

“So on my first night back in Hong Kong after travelling the world, my father took me to a famous steakhouse. Midway through the meal, he asked me with a serious look on his face, ‘Son, do you know how to do the calypso?’ At the time, everyone knew how to do the calypso. So I said, ‘Father, I have to be honest. I do.’ He shook his head and said ‘No more dancing, son. Be serious.’”

After that, Mr. Kan said it was clear what path he had to take. He enrolled at the University of Toronto, and in 1967 became the first Chinese student to complete their LL.B. programme.

Always in Flux

At the time Mr. Kan completed his LL.B. programme, the majority of the Chinese population in Canada were working in restaurants or laundries. They were not working in law, he explained.

“I had a tough time getting an articles position because I was Chinese. While all of my friends got three or four job offers, I couldn’t even get one,” he said. “Finally, I got an offer from a small Jewish firm. I will always remember my first day at work. There were other law firms on the same floor as my firm. I went to the common men’s room and someone had written on the wall above the urinal, “Chink drinks here.”

“While you may think that this was terrible,” Mr. Kan continued, “this experience taught me an important lesson – never look at anything in life in still frame.” Even though the ethos wasn’t welcoming then, Mr. Kan explained that articling at this firm enabled him to qualify and be called to the bar in Ontario in two years’ time. Just eight years later, he was the first Chinese person to run for political office in Ontario for the provincial parliament. “I was even close to winning,” he said with a grin.

“These experiences taught me to look at the direction things are going. If I had become discouraged in 1967, I would have never gone on to qualify nor had a good practice or run for parliament. I also wouldn’t currently be the oldest living Chinese Canadian lawyer in Ontario. Nothing is perfect, but you must do your best in your current situation.”

Mr. Kan maintained his law practice in Toronto until 1984.

A Life in Service

When asked what prompted him to pursue public service work in 1975, Mr. Kan said the reason was very simple. “I was pushed into a position that I could not extricate myself from.”

In September 1974, Dr. Bette Stephenson, the then President of the Canadian Medical Association, made a public  statement that there were too many Chinese in Canadian medical schools. This statement disregarded the fact that almost all of them were landed immigrants or Canadian citizens, Mr. Kan explained.

These statements were made during a period of rapidly increasing immigration – with the number of migrants climbing from around 122,000 in 1972 to over 218,000 in 1974 – while the Canadian economy struggled. At the time, Canada sorely needed to overhaul its immigration policy, as its modern-day realities had long overtaken the legislation then in force. Issues came to a head when the Canadian government tabled a green paper in February 1975 in the House of Commons, which sparked an unprecedented nation-wide debate on immigration policy.

“Of course, the Chinese Canadian medical community was up in arms about Dr. Stephenson’s statement,” Mr. Kan said. “They wanted to form an organisation, but were not sure how to run a meeting. They thought a lawyer should know how to do it. I was the only visible Chinese Canadian lawyer in Toronto in those days, so they asked me to chair the meetings.” Seeing similarities between the issues faced by the Chinese Canadian medical community and other Chinese Canadian professionals, Mr. Kan suggested a cross-professional organisation be formed.

His suggestion was embraced, and in 1975, the Federation of Chinese Canadian Professionals (Ontario) was established; the first section formed was the Medical Section. The Federation’s membership now includes accountants, architects, biomedical professionals, chiropractors, dentists, engineers, information technology professionals, lawyers, medical doctors, pharmacists and physiotherapists.

His work with the Federation, which also led him to run for political office in 1975 in Ontario, was the first among many public service roles Mr. Kan has held throughout his distinguished career.

Practice in Hong Kong

After gaining admission as a Hong Kong solicitor in 1978, Mr. Kan returned to Hong Kong in 1984 to practise. He is the founder and currently a Senior Partner at Fred Kan & Co., a commercial law firm based in Central Plaza off Harbour Road in Wan Chai.

Mr. Kan’s principal areas of practice include dispute resolution, real estate and urban planning and environmental protection. He is an accredited arbitrator and mediator, as well as a Council Member of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (“HKIAC”) and a Member of the Board of Directors of the Financial Dispute Resolution Centre (“FDRC”). Mr. Kan explained that the FDRC was established by the Government to manage an independent and impartial dispute resolution scheme by way of “mediation first, arbitration next.” He also serves as the Chairman of the FDRC’s Appointment Committee.

In 2008, Mr. Kan served as the Chairman of the Public Education and Publicity Sub-Group under the Secretary for Justice’s Working Group on Mediation. The work of the Mediation Working Group and its three Sub-Groups prepared for the eventual passing of the Mediation Ordinance in 2013 and the establishment of the current mediator-accreditation regime.

He was also for six years a Member of the Macau Law Reform Advisory Committee and a co-author of its position paper on establishing an arbitration and mediation regime in Macau.

Contributions to the Law Society

Mr. Kan has also contributed to the Law Society’s work in a variety of capacities throughout his career. He was a Council Member of the Law Society from 1997 to 2002. He is the past Chairman of its External Affairs Standing Committee, Annual Convention Committee, Law Week Committee, Member Benefits Committee and Teen Talk Committee. He is currently the Chairman of the Belt and Road Committee.

Under his chairmanship, the Member Benefits Committee brought about free disability insurance coverage for all Law Society members.

In 2010, Mr. Kan initiated Teen Talk (青Teen講場), an annual Law Society event that brings together at its peak around 2,000 senior secondary school students to discuss and express their views on various communal and legal topics. Mr. Kan recalls everyone having to pull themselves up with their bootstraps for the first Teen Talk.

“No one had ever done something like this before. There was so much to plan, and so much that could have gone wrong,” Mr. Kan said. “I even appointed my friend who was a former military officer to be the Event Crisis Manager in case of any disaster. When it came to the end with all participants joining hands and singing 我的驕傲 – We Can Fly, I had tears in my eyes, quietly thanking God everything went smoothly,” he said. Mr. Kan is hopeful that Teen Talk will continue to evolve and will become a training ground for future leaders of Hong Kong.

As the Chairman of the Belt and Road Committee, Mr. Kan believes Hong Kong lawyers are well positioned to assist the central government in pursuing the Belt and Road initiative and has been promoting Hong Kong’s legal services industry. “We are a centre for finance and centre for connection to the rest of the world, among many other things. Hong Kong should not be complacent, but should capitalise on our advantages. We have a dispute resolution system and centre – the HKIAC – that is rated third best in the world. I am also pushing for all contracts signed in Belt and Road countries and all AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) contracts to have a clause designating Hong Kong as its venue or alternative venue for resolving any contract-related disputes.” However, to seize the opportunities, Hong Kong solicitors have to prepare themselves.

Mr. Kan has been advocating that a compulsory CPD course on cross-border legal matters be put in place so that Hong Kong solicitors may be branded as the only legal community in the world to have been trained as cross-border legal practitioners. “Success in business depends on proper branding,” explained Mr. Kan.

A Sporting Fellow

Mr. Kan has leveraged his interest in sports to bring members of the profession together and promote awareness of the rule of law. He initiated the Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau Lawyers’ Sports Meet and was the Chairman of the Organising Committee twice (2009 and 2015), when Hong Kong was the host. It was at the 2009 sports meet that the Guinness World Record for “Largest three-legged race – most pairs” was broken. He was also the Chairman of the Organising Committee of the sports meet celebrating the centenary of the Law Society. He also initiated the Rule of Law Marathon to promote public awareness of the rule of law which saw lawyer-athletes running with the Rule of Law Flag from Macau to Zhuhai, to Shenzhen and finally to Hong Kong to start the opening ceremony of the 6th Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau Lawyers’ Sports Meet in November 2015.

And with his true passion being golf, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Kan is also the current Captain of the Law Society Golf Team. In 2005, he initiated the Cross Strait Lawyers’ Golf Tournament (兩岸三地律師高球友誼賽). This was during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency, when cross-strait relations were at a low. It was a good example of Hong Kong playing its traditional role of an honest middle-man. The tournament is now an annual event drawing over 150 lawyers from the Mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

His dream now is to host the Lawyers’ World Cup of Golf and Forum on Tomorrow’s World, which he hopes to bring about in April 2017 in Mission Hills, Haikou.


Editor, Hong Kong Lawyer
Legal Media Group
Thomson Reuters