Alumni Bonding
22 Feb 2023

Professor Chan Wai Yee and CUHK: A Bond Running Deep

Student Translator: Charlotte Ip (TRAN/4)

Professor Chan Wai Yee, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), joined United College in 1970. Looking back, he has already forged ties with the College for more than five decades. At the 28th Alumni Talk of United College held on 22 February 2023, Professor Chan shared with our staff and students life in his days, through his speech entitled “A Long Journey to Come Home”.

The Beginning: Professor Ma Lin’s Words

Professor Chan Wai Yee, after graduating from Queen’s College in 1970, applied to study at the Department of Chemistry, CUHK, where he was interviewed by none other than Professor Ma Lin, the second Vice-Chancellor of CUHK. The academic said to him, “If you can join CUHK, you are going to be our rock.” The young secondary school student, having heard such a heartfelt compliment, could not have been happier. Immediately he resolved to get into CUHK and conduct research under the supervision of Professor Ma Lin. From there he laid down his roots at CUHK.

When he was admitted, the campus of United College was located at Bonham Road, Hong Kong Island. The College borrowed the Government Laboratory at Caine Lane, which the to-be university student felt very excited about despite its underequipped state. He confided that he never had the chance to conduct experiments during secondary school, so experimentation has been his primary learning motivation. In fact, the opportunity to experiment might be considered a milestone for the Department then. He recalled Professor Ma’s words, “I hope that with more lab opportunities, we can drive CUHK’s Department of Chemistry to excellence”. Professor Chan was also immensely grateful for his teacher’s trust and recognition, which allowed him to fully unleash his potential.

Fruitful School Life

In the spring of 1972, United College moved to the current Ma Liu Shui campus. Sitting atop the scenic summit that boasts a wonderful panoramic view of the Tolo Harbour whilst being surrounded by hills and greens, the expanded campus plot generated huge anticipation. Apart from diligence, Professor Chan also valued playing hard — his freshman year, like many, was overflown with fond memories. Since his timetable was more flexible, he could engage in various activities. The then Chemistry student once represented the Department to compete in ball games and joined the choir and orientation activities. Life was colourful and fruitful.

Professor Chan is among the first generation of residents of Adam Schall Residence (ASR). He remarked that ASR’s design today was more or less similar to his times — the front door still faces a luscious lawn, where he used to spend time chatting with friends, more so than visiting the library. He remembered staring outside his room window into a charming Tolo Harbour scene, sighing at how precious this experience was since he did not come from a wealthy background. Staying at a hostel gave him a different life. During his time there he even wrote a limerick:

No longer at clubs and brothels I linger

Nor do chilly winds and night rains hit me with melancholy

Instead I lounge on the bed of lush greens and enjoy the shelter of clouds

I set sight at the bright sky and belt out songs of freedom!

Home is Where the Heart is

When graduation neared, Professor Ma Lin introduced Professor Chan to Professor Walter Ho, who then taught at the Radioisotope Unit of The University of Hong Kong (HKU). Professor Ma specifically urged him to look after the graduate-to-be, “Treat Chan Wai Yes better. Teach him slowly.” Professor Chan felt exceptionally thankful for having crossed paths with Professor Ma and Professor Ho. Most of all, he lived up to their expectations and pulled through the hectic schedule. In the morning, he attended classes at CUHK; after class, he carried out experiments at the Science Park; during the weekends and holidays, he joined Professor Ho at HKU for research – shuttling back and forth between school and the lab diligently on ordinary days was now part of his memories. He gave his all and even graduated from the Department of Chemistry with first-class honours.

Later, both Professors suggested he seek further studies abroad to enrich himself. The scholar was quite reluctant at first, but upon Professor Ma’s repeated encouragements, eventually decided to embark on his journey to the University of Florida, U.S. in July 1974. There he began his stripped-down life of commuting to and fro the hostel and laboratory. Since there were but few overseas Chinese, homesickness struck particularly hard.

In 1977, Professor Chan earned his Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Florida. After that, he taught respectively at the University of Oklahoma and Georgetown University, both of which he obtained a tenure. In 2001, he founded the Laboratory of Clinical Genomics at the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Despite an incredible profile in the U.S., he made the call to return to CUHK in 2009.

Return to CUHK and UC

In 2008, the Faculty of Medicine, CUHK invited Professor Chan Wai Yee to assist in its assessments and reviews. After close examination, the professor proposed strengthening subjects in the preclinical stage and in particular favoured the idea of establishing the School of Biomedical Sciences. His suggestion was accepted by the Faculty, and everything was ready, except that no one could afford to take up the Director’s role. The reigning Faculty Dean Professor Fok Tai Fai thus hoped Professor Chan could claim the top job as an act of kindness. Empowered by his wife’s support and encouragement, the scholar also felt compelled to contribute to CUHK and Hong Kong. He lamented, “Hong Kong suffered tons to witness a transformation — SARS in 2003 was an example. Yet I had been abroad and thus could not play a part in making a difference. I felt quite helpless and upset.” Therefore, he was determined to come home, in hopes of serving CUHK and Hong Kong before retirement. After his return, Professor Chan set up the School of Biomedical Sciences and became Chair Professor and Founding Director of the School till 2019. In May 2020, he was appointed as Li Ka Shing Professor of Biomedical Sciences.

After a decade of hard work, as Professor Chan proudly declared, the School of Biomedical Sciences, CUHK, while drawing on practices from different medical faculties overseas, have also incorporated plentiful innovative elements such as Open Kernel Labs, which benefits efficient communication between medical practitioners. The accomplished scholar has also assumed as Master of C.W. Chu College and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of CUHK. “From being admitted to United College, CUHK, pursuing studies overseas to serving at the CUHK, I have journeyed round the world, but landed right back at CUHK,” Professor Chan concluded with a testament to his profound relationship with CUHK.