When Tanya Chan entered Hong Kong politics full time in 2008, many were surprised by the decision of the seasoned barrister and theatre actress. But while her career change may have been stark, like her stage days, it has not lacked drama.
Chan, 49, Civic Party vice-chairwoman and convenor of the opposition bloc, on Tuesday announced that she would quit as a lawmaker, citing family and health reasons.
Nineteen out of 22 pan-democrats will serve out their extended term on the Legislative Council after supporters narrowly backed the move in an opinion poll.
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Chan became a barrister in 2003 when Hong Kong was hit by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak. In the same year, she starred in the political satire series East Wing West Wing, produced by theatre group Zuni Icosahedron, in which she and other actors poked fun at political figures such as then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.
Comic theatre rarely serves as a launch pad for a career in politics, but Chan, who developed an interest in stage and comedy as a child, proved an exception.
Her performance in the satirical 2004 production Mic On/Mic Off caught the eye of two key members of the audience: lawmakers Audrey Eu Yuet-mee and Ronny Tong Ka-wah, who co-founded the Civic Party two years later.
Eu, impressed by Chan’s talent for drama and political potential, wooed her to join the party.
Chan’s energetic, all-round skills have become one of the Civic Party’s greatest assets, especially amid Hong Kong’s increasingly polarised political landscape, where publicity stunts by parties have become common.
She emerged as a rising star in the pan-democratic camp in 2007 after defeating incumbent district councillor Mark Lin from the Liberal Party, in The Peak constituency of Central and Western district.
Months before the 2008 Legco elections, the barrister stopped accepting court cases so she could focus on her political ambitions.
“This is a life decision. You can walk offstage after a play. But with politics, it is a long-term promise,” Chan said ahead of that year’s polls. She went on to win a seat in the Hong Kong Island constituency.
In January 2010, she and four other pan-democratic lawmakers – Alan Leong Kah-kit, Albert Chan Wai-yip, Leung Kwok-hung and Wong Yuk-man – resigned from Legco, triggering a by-election or so-called de facto referendum on the city’s electoral reform. In May that year, she was re-elected as a lawmaker in the by-election.
But Chan failed to keep her seat in 2012 when she ran in Hong Kong Island on a slate led by fellow Civic Party member Kenneth Chan Ka-lok. Kenneth Chan was returned but Tanya Chan failed to gain enough votes.
She staged a comeback four years later and won a seat in the constituency.
In April last year, Chan was convicted of public nuisance charges after trial along with eight others, including the Occupy movement’s co-founders, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming.
While the court jailed four of the nine, Tanya Chan was spared prison and handed an eight-month suspended term, after a medical check conducted while she awaited sentencing found a benign tumour in her brain.
She underwent surgery, but it was not possible to remove the tumour completely. She was left with side-effects affecting her vision and balance, and required further treatment.
The 79-day Occupy protests, which began on September 28, 2014, in Admiralty, were sparked by frustration with a restrictive framework Beijing had set for the election of Hong Kong’s leader.
On Tuesday, flanked by fellow opposition lawmakers at a press conference, an emotional Chan announced the end of her political career.
She will not serve out the extended term and will quit the Civic Party. Another four lawmakers from the party have opted to stay on in the legislature.
The past 10 years in my 40s have been rewarding. But now I’ll ask myself what else I want to do to leave no regrets in the other half of my life
Choking back tears in front of the media, Chan said: “It’s a very difficult decision. I hope my allies won’t regard me as a deserter … I have to take good care of myself before taking care of others.
“The past 10 years in my 40s have been rewarding. But now I’ll ask myself what else I want to do to leave no regrets in the other half of my life,” she declared.
Chan said she sometimes felt helpless as she had failed to press the government even on a bill to protect urban heritage trees, a proposal she thought was simple and would benefit all Hongkongers.
After her time in politics, she said she yearned for a thorough rest so she would not let her mother, now in her 70s, down.
“I owe my mother a lot as her only daughter … It’s very hard to learn last year that she stayed outside the operating theatre for five hours while I had my surgery, and she cried the whole time,” Chan said.
For an actress who poked fun at those in the corridors of power to finally being on a stage where she could challenge or be one of them, it has been a dramatic 13-year ride for Chan, who can finally call down the curtains on her political career.
Additional reporting by Natalie Wong
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This article Who is Tanya Chan? Hong Kong opposition lawmaker’s curtain call on career shifts spotlight to her past first appeared on South China Morning Post