Pop Star With a PhD

Courtesy Agnes Chan

She's a pop singer with her own line of clothing, a children's advocate who leads Japan's UNICEF committee and a Stanford PhD who has co-authored a new scholarly book with education professor Myra Strober. But on this rainy afternoon, Agnes Chan is keeping up with a different facet of her career: she's on her way to the Tokyo Television building, where she's scheduled as a guest on a quiz show.

Stepping out of the chauffeur-driven car, Chan, 43, makes her way to an anonymous dressing room and begins a remarkable metamorphosis. She is dressed stylishly but without a trace of color: grey knobby sweater, a pair of black slacks with an attached, kiltlike skirt. She seems pale, fragile, exhausted from her overnight trip to Yokohama, where she gave a concert yesterday. But here in the dressing room, she quickly changes into a sparkly silver Lycra suit and fastens showy rhinestones to her earlobes. She applies mauve eyeshadow, finishes the look with berry-red lipstick and heads for the bright lights of the set.

Chan, PhD '94, knows about transformation. Born in Hong Kong, she became a singing star at 14. Three years later, at the invitation of a Japanese record company, she moved to Tokyo, where she was adopted by the Japanese public as a pop idol. The press dubbed her "the fairy who came from Hong Kong." Over the next quarter century, she kept cranking out hits in Japanese. But she also added steadily to her public portfolio, writing newspaper and magazine columns, appearing on television news and game shows and raising money for charitable causes.

It was her starring role in the "Agnes controversy," though, that earned her the most fame—and a measure of infamy. The episode erupted in February 1988, about three months after the birth of her first child. Chan, by then a celebrity with a half-dozen regular TV gigs, began bringing her son and a nanny to the television studio so she could nurse the baby in her dressing room. The arrangement enraged Japanese conservatives, who thought Chan should stay at home with her son. Feminists turned on her, too, accusing her of presuming to speak for working women who didn't have the same economic advantages.

The outcry, which sparked a national debate about work and family, was the 32-year-old Chan's first taste of public disapproval. Devastated, she found herself re-evaluating her life and career. "Normally, public figures who are women would not be so public about having children so they could avoid damaging their 'image,' " Chan says in her soft, slightly lilting English. "I was very open about it." A compilation of news accounts about the episode, Reading the Agnes Controversy, sold 100,000 copies in its first three months.

Chan decided the best way to cope with the crisis would be to learn more about the job-family conflicts working mothers faced. Her brother-in-law, a Hong Kong cardiologist, called a colleague at Stanford to ask if his friend knew anyone on campus studying such issues. That's how Chan ended up having a half-hour transpacific telephone chat in January 1989 with Strober, who had recently published her findings on the work and family choices of members of Stanford's Class of '81.

Intrigued by Chan, Strober suggested that she consider applying to Stanford's PhD program. (Chan had taken a break from her singing career in the late 1970s to get an undergraduate psychology degree from the University of Toronto.) Strober was astonished at what happened next: Chan dropped everything and flew to Stanford to learn more. The two spent much of the next two days discussing the program and possible approaches to researching work-family dynamics. Strober gave Chan an application, promising to deliver it herself to the admission office and ask for an extension of the deadline, which had passed a few days before. Chan filled paperwork out by hand. "Many students spend months on these forms," Strober says. "Here was an application that was outstanding. It was so clear why she wanted to come." Chan was accepted and returned to Stanford that fall for two years of course work. She worked on her dissertation at home and received her doctorate in 1994.

For her dissertation, Chan re-created Strober's survey—this time focusing on Tokyo University graduates from the early '80s. Now the two women have analyzed their findings and written a book, The Road Winds Uphill All the Way: Gender, Work, and Family in the United States and Japan (MIT Press, 1999). Strober wrote a first draft of the book, and the two women worked together to finish it, mostly by fax and overnight mail. Among the book's conclusions: neither American nor Japanese women have done "a very good job at combining work and family in more egalitarian ways," Strober says. Women in both countries are still saddled with a disproportionate share of housework and child care.

When Chan returned to Japan in 1991, she resumed her career as an entertainer, giving concerts, making public appearances and turning up on television shows. She still had a following, although she wasn't competing with younger stars. But she also began to spend more time on charity work, teaching and public-policy issues. She has visited famine victims in Ethiopia, testified before the Japanese parliament on humanitarian issues and taught courses in cross-cultural communication at Meijiro University and Nagoya Cultural Women's College. In her latest public-policy crusade, she has convinced Japanese lawmakers to pass a law prohibiting Japanese men from hiring prostitutes under 18—even outside of Japan. (The law is aimed especially at prostitution in Thailand.)

Her unassuming style of public advocacy has been shaped by her experience as a celebrity and her understanding of Japanese society. "I'm so submissive to everybody—to women, to dogs, to rabbits. That's very pragmatic," she says. "But I don't give up. I'm on their doorsteps. People respect that more." Strober attributes Chan's success to her empathy. "I don't want to sound too squishy," Strober says, "but Agnes listens so closely to what people have to say that, when she responds, I often have the feeling that she's able to look into people's souls."

In April 1998, Japan's UNICEF committee named Chan its first goodwill ambassador. Her role is not merely honorific. She has been traveling throughout Asia, advocating for children, raising money and writing newspaper columns and magazine articles. The experience has left a deep impression on her. "I've been around children who have never drunk one cup of clear water in their life. I've been with mothers who have never had a chance to see all of their children survive. I've been with young girls, 12 years old and pregnant," she says. "There are 12 to 14 million children dying before the age of 5 every year."

Like the couples she studied for her dissertation, Chan struggles with the trade-offs of family and career. The situation is complicated by the fact that she is recognized wherever she goes in Japan. She tries to maintain a semblance of a normal family life with her husband (and manager) Tsutomu Kaneko and their three children, Arthur, 12, Alexander, 9, and Apollo, 2. A typical morning at home finds her wearing a quilted bathrobe and granny-style glasses, giving Apollo a piggyback ride. She tries to get home for dinner every night. When she's on the road, she reviews the kids' homework by fax. After all, the balancing act must go on.

Cynthia Haven is an author and journalist in Northern California.