Ceci Chan Wanted to Reduce Racism, Hatred, and Violence. So She Focused on the Holocaust.
It was really just a coincidence that in her efforts to reduce racism, hatred, and violence, some of Ceci Chan’s earliest work with USC Shoah Foundation involved the Nanjing Massacre.
Chan, a strategic investor and philanthropist, had been funding projects around Holocaust education for 13 years when she met USC Shoah Foundation Finci-Viterbi Executive Director Stephen Smith at a Shabbat dinner while both were attending the USC Global Conference in Hong Kong in the fall of 2011.
A few days later, Smith, Chan, and Sara Greenberg, who had made a documentary short using her grandparents’ USC Shoah Foundation testimony, traveled to mainland China to visit the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, which honors the memory of 300,000 Chinese civilians murdered by the Japanese Army in 1937.
That excursion planted the first seeds for USC Shoah Foundation’s Nanjing Testimony Project, a collaboration with the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Chan spearheaded the project, which since 2012 has collected more than 100 survivor testimonies, created a wide range of educational programs, and produced two films. The Girl and the Picture garnered critical acclaim in 2018, and this year, Two Sides of Survival has been accepted to six film festivals and was recently awarded best documentary short by the Angeles Doc Film Festival.
Chan is Chinese-American and her family has roots in the U.S. going back multiple generations. Her decision to support the Nanjing Project did not stem from her heritage. Rather, it was driven by the belief that all humans belong to one race—the human race. Chan believes that when one person is unjustly attacked, all humanity is diminished.
“An 8-year-old girl being raped in Nanjing, or in the Yazidi hills, or in Sao Paulo, or in Atlanta—it’s all the same,” she said. “My focus is about enabling people to understand the universality of humanity, so that they could be more caring and kind.”
Chan, a member of the executive committee of USC Shoah Foundation’s Board of Councilors, was raised in Massachusetts and graduated from the Boston Latin School and NYU. She completed her first $100 million investment by the age of 23 and started supporting educational causes when she was 22.
A visit to Dachau in January 1985, soon after she graduated college, shaped much of her charitable giving. She believes the Holocaust stands as the singular most horrific act against humanity.
“As a strategic investor, I look at things with a very practical focus,” she said. “People have been pulverizing each other since time immemorial. One of the most effective ways of enabling them to be their better selves is to allow people to learn from history and current events.”
She became involved with Facing History and Ourselves more than 20 years ago and serves on its leadership council, supporting the organization’s mission of using history to teach students to stand up to bigotry and hate.
At Facing History and at USC Shoah Foundation, Chan is a hands-on leader, offering strategic guidance and connecting the organizations to supporters and collaborators. She has co-produced several films with USC Shoah Foundation, one of which is Liberation Heroes. The film tells the stories of the allied soldiers who liberated the Nazi concentration camps.
Liberation Heroes first aired in May 2019 on the Discovery Channel, which has a reach of more than 100 million U.S. homes and 224 countries. Fellow Board of Councilors Executive Committee member Mickey Shapiro, along with Discovery and Ford Motor Company, were also supporters of the film. Additionally, Chan supported a digital remaster of USC Shoah Foundation’s Academy Award-winning documentary The Last Days, which recounts the decimation of Hungary’s Jews in 1944. The film is now streaming on Netflix.
Chan advocates that to increase Holocaust education, people should learn about other atrocities. Through the Nanjing Project, she supported the creation of a Dimensions in Testimony interactive biography featuring Xia Shuqin, a survivor of the Nanjing Massacre. Chan also co-produced the award-winning The Girl and the Picture in 2018, which features Madame Xia and an American Missionary, John Magee, who in 1937 recorded footage of the Nanjing Atrocities—including that of 8-year-old Xia. Pictures and film were subsequently smuggled to the United States, where they figured prominently in the post-war criminal trials.
“Madame Xia witnessed the murders of her family and neighbors. John Magee acted heroically and became an invaluable eyewitness. These stories must be told so that people could learn to reduce barbarity,” said Chan.
Two Sides of Survival, the film she co-produced with USC Board of Trustees member Ming Hsieh and other donors, tells the story of both the Holocaust and the Nanjing Massacre through the intertwined experiences of European Jews who found refuge among Chinese victims of Japanese atrocities in Shanghai during World War II.
In the last few years, Chan has expanded her mission to include combatting misinformation and voter suppression, largely through funding programs and research at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she is Vice Chair of the Dean’s Council. As part of her work at Harvard, Chan enabled the university to have open access to the Visual History Archive so that students, faculty, and community members can benefit from the VHA’s resources.
And in April 2021, Chan sponsored a panel hosted by Harvard's Kennedy School and USC Shoah Foundation, which explored the topic of combatting hate and the disinformation that spreads it.
Professor Cornell Brooks, an expert in public leadership and social justice at Harvard’s Kennedy School and former president and CEO of the NAACP, told the audience about the impact of taking a graduate school class with Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel. His words encapsulated Chan’s belief in the power of connectedness.
“Taking that one class opened doorways of understanding not only in terms of the Holocaust, but in terms of my own understanding of the slave narrative, my own understanding of tragedy,” Brooks said. “To the extent that we have access to [the Visual History Archive], we then become emissaries and ambassadors for other communities. And that is at least one way of creating the empathy that creates the agency that creates the resilience that allows us to mount a social justice movement against hate.”
It pains Chan to see the U.S. in such a fractured state. “E pluribus unum. I hope our exemplary educators could lead the way in providing historical lessons and geopolitical analyses, so that people in America and around the world could learn to co-exist more peacefully. Tikkun Olam should be practiced by all.”
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