Within the bowels of the Giauque Low Temperature Laboratory underneath Hildebrand Hall, Yau-Man Chan works quietly at his computer.
The unassuming 59-year-old’s office reflects his title as chief technology officer for the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry — bits of old electronics and tech books line his floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and a second desk supports a second computer and provides space to tinker.
Everything reflects a life dedicated to creating and maintaining technology, except for a few choice items — photographs taken with Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends from “The Girls Next Door” and other celebrities, a certificate naming him an honorary Kentucky colonel and a big poster featuring a slightly slimmer version of himself with the logo of the “Survivor” reality television series.
Chan was raised in Borneo but left after high school to study physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He later received a master’s degree from UC Santa Barbara and after a brief stint working for the University of Colorado, settled in at UC Berkeley in 1984.
“We designed electronic instruments — anything you need to measure that you can’t buy, we built it for you,” Chan said. “Then networking came to campus, so we were one of the first departments to wire ourselves up.”
Chan said that this sort of ingenuity — the work that had come to define his career — was not necessarily what got him on “Survivor: Fiji” in 2007. He said he was recruited by Survivor producers because he was a competitive table tennis player and because not many older people or Asians apply, but it was his upbringing in Borneo that sealed the deal for him.
Although he had not been back to Borneo for years, he quickly transitioned to life in Fiji while fellow cast members suffered because he was used to the 90 degree weather with 90 percent humidity and non-stop pouring rain.
“They have never seen so much water before,” Chan said. “You never get a chance to be dry — your clothes are wet, the ground you sleep on is wet. Hey, I’ve been there.”
So Chan arranged for extended leave from work and left for the show. Johnathon Kogelman, who works in IT operations for the College of Chemistry, filled in for Chan, and even though he knew why Chan was taking leave, he was more concerned about doing a good job than for Chan’s well-being.
“Yau-Man handles a lot of unique technical issues. Generally, we just say, ‘Can you do this?’ and he just makes it happen,” Kogelman said. “He’s a small guy, but … he’s pretty wiley when he wants to be, and I knew if he couldn’t physically do it, he’d probably outthink everybody.”
Chan’s non-disclosure agreement recently expired, so he freely tells of his exploits on the island, which he said were all real. He said the only part of the show that is manipulated are the individual interviews cast members film, which are used at various times — sometimes out of context — when the show is edited together instead of in chronological order.
The exploits that won Chan fame throughout the country — mostly in the midwest and south, he admits — and even internationally after the show was subtitled or dubbed were when he used his knowledge of basic physics and science to win physical challenges.
“You can beat most of those challenges by understanding how to run it without using brute force,” Chan said.
Chan beat younger, more muscular contestants at archery and javelin challenges, and he navigated a maze blindfolded by recalling a large-scale contest that challenged people to create a robot that could navigate a maze.
He recalled that the winner of the contest was a low-tech robot that clung to one wall and sped through the maze as quickly as possible.
“It’s not the most efficient way, but you never go around in circles,” Chan said. “I had my hand on one wall, and I just ran. My hand was covered in splinters after, but who cares?”
He revealed that even though the show was edited to make it seem like he narrowly won, he beat the second-place contestant by about 20 minutes.
Chan said that once people realized he was not just a feeble old man, he was voted off the island, but he still placed fourth in the show and won $60,000 as a result.
But that’s why he decided to go in the first place. Chan said he participated in that season of “Survivor” and the following one — which pitted all-star contestants against one another — to try to win $1 million dollars, not to become famous.
That prize was enough to inspire Chan to leave his home in Martinez and his wife and two daughters for six weeks and later three weeks for the all-star season. He noted that other contestants were looking for a way into Hollywood, but he said he was content just being “the cool dad” for a little while.
And in the four years since his time in the spotlight, not much has changed in his life except for being honored in Kentucky and attending numerous charity events, including a trip to Afghanistan to visit U.S. troops stationed there. He acknowledged that the recently proposed Campus Shared Services Center — which will house members of the campus’ support staff once it opens in September — may result in him being let go by UC Berkeley because the College of Chemistry does not necessarily need its own IT department, but he said he would take early retirement if that happened.
“It should be a concern for me, but it’s not,” he said, smiling. “If they tell me to take a hike, it’s not an issue.”
He said he would instead like to work in science education because the country needs more people going into careers in science and engineering.