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"My Story" Patrick Soon-Shiong and Michele Chan-Sam

We are very African in our roots

Wits-educated billionaire scientist Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong (MBBCh 1975)  and his wife, Michele Chan-Sam (BA 1986), speak to the National Museum of American History about their South African roots.

Soon-Shiong: Michele and I both come from Hakka families. The original Hakka in China believed in total community collaboration, and the warrior is the woman, and she is as strong as the man.

My parents came to South Africa after the Japanese invasion of China, and they were simple shopkeepers. My father was an herbalist in China, so in South Africa he was also a Hakka Association doctor, and every two months a metal biscuit can would arrive from China filled with foul smelling weeds. If anybody had a fever, a cough, or a boil, there would be a knock on the door, they'd walk into the house, and he would concoct something. I'd sit there and watch that whole activity. I think my father’s work drove a lot of what I'm doing today because it started influencing my belief that you have in your human body the ability to protect yourself from disease. You were given the innate capability to heal yourself. Image: LA Times

I was born in a small town on the ocean called Port Elizabeth, and Michele was born in an even smaller town called East London. Looking back, my childhood felt normal, but it was a strange normal because we were not black, and we definitely were not white. We could get on the bus, but we couldn’t sit in the regular compartments with everyone else. I grew up with black friends, white friends, Chinese friends, Indian friends.

Growing up in apartheid South Africa, we were always the underdogs. My black friends were always the underdogs. It gave me insight into the dignity and strength of the underdog. So part of what Michele and I do, consciously or unconsciously, is always fight for the underdogs in this country and for ourselves. 

I met Michele my second year of medical school at a basketball game. To this day, basketball is the thing that keeps me sane. It's the only activity where I really truly relax.

Chan: My mom and dad were both born in South Africa. My grandfather was, as family legend has it, the black sheep of the family, and he was not expected to live. There were too many kids already, so they put my grandfather literally out in the pigsty to die. A servant brought him back, because he said, "He's not as weak as you think; he's living." My grandfather never felt appreciated, so he left home at the age of fourteen and lived in India and Southeast Asia, and then made his way to Cape Town. He didn't come in a wave of immigration, he was literally a straggler. 

My grandfather became quite successful in his small town and opened three businesses. My parents inherited one of his businesses. We were raised Catholic, but the Catholic schools did not allow Chinese students. When it came time for my older brother to go to high school, my dad drove to Port Elizabeth to have a meeting with the archbishop and held his feet to the fire and said, "I'm raising my children Catholic, but you are denying a Catholic education for my children." The archbishop said, “Because it's against the law.” My dad said, “Whose law takes precedent? God's law? To whom do you answer?” My brother was the first Chinese student to receive a Catholic education. It was hard-fought, and so we don't take education for granted. 

I attended drama school at the University of the Witwatersrand. The university had to apply to the interior minister for my permission to study. My parents were incredibly supportive, which is very unusual for conservative Chinese parents. At the time, Patrick and I were going through very similar things, which created this very unusual bond. He was the first Chinese intern to actually work in a white hospital. I was the first Chinese student in a drama school. It's given us an appreciation for how hard you have to fight for what you want, and it has made us a family of risk-takers.

Soon-Shiong: I was sixteen when I went to medical school and was in the top four out of 200 in my class, and still my first working experience in South Africa as a Chinese doctor required permission from the South African government and paid me only fifty percent of the salary of my peers.  

We married in 1977 and went to Vancouver for my junior residency. I got accelerated right into UC Davis as a chief resident and then became the youngest professor of surgery at UCLA. A big transition for me was the business of medicine in this country. It is one of the biggest changes that I still haven't figured out.

Chan: LA had the same climate that we had grown up in, and we felt so completely comfortable.  California is incredibly accepting of everybody. It was probably the happiest time of our lives because we were just starting out and had nothing to lose. We had no car and an old TV that was handed down to us that we had to keep slapping on the side to work. It was perfect.

I remember we didn't understand Halloween that first year. I went to the bank to cash a check and the teller was dressed up like a witch but acting normal, and I thought, “Everyone’s gone mad!”

Disney hired me in 1984 on a show called Danger Bay. I worked on Danger Bay for about five years, then Hotel and MacGyver. I really loved the work. When we had children, I stopped working and was a stay-at-home mom until my youngest, who's twenty-one soon, went to college. Then, I went back to work, and I started Green Screen Studio in Culver City, and I became more involved in designing the NantWorks campus and the Innovation Center.

Soon-Shiong: In America, anything is possible if you work hard and you set your mind to it. That's what we did. I did the first two whole open pancreas transplants and kidney transplants at UCLA. I was thirty years old. Then I realised it's the most dangerous procedure. I went to my chairman and said, "You have to shut down the program for which I'm the director so I can do islet cell transplants." He said, “What's that?” I said, “Well, I think I can extract these cells and make the islet cells and wrap them in a membrane. And can you give me a sabbatical?” He says, “You don't get a sabbatical. You just got here.” Then I said, “What if you give me six months without salary, and I go travel the world to learn how to do this?” I went to Michele, and she was making much more money than I was, and she said, “Go do that.” I came back after six months, and I did the first islet cell transplant at St. Vincent's Medical Center.

There is a universal molecule called albumin that drives all cancer cells, so I decided if I could make a nanoparticle of albumin, I could trick the cancer to feed, not starve. So I invented that, and then went to the National Cancer Institute and said, “Here you have got to develop this.” They said, “Who are you?” I explained that I'm a surgeon doing diabetes and whole pancreas transplants; I’m a NASA scientist, and I think I have a treatment for all cancers. I have this letter to this day which said, “We tested this, it's fantastic, but please go away. We can't manufacture this.” 

I began to see the incongruity of how we've been trained. That by giving maximum tolerant doses of chemotherapy, wiping out the immune system, you're wiping out exactly what you've been God-given to protect your body. I decided after I launched Abraxane to sell everything and to go, so to speak, underground to prove to myself and to the world this hypothesis. If in so doing we will truly change not only cancer, but things like MS and diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis and infectious disease, because it's all the same continuum of the same biology, which means we need to really interrogate the human body down to the peptide and protein level. 

The first thing we needed to do was to build an infrastructure. I took over a printing press building in Culver City in 2005. Now, NantWorks has thirty acres between here and El Segundo. The pen and the quill in the NantWorks logo represents a perspective of the world the way da Vinci may have seen it. Now I always say, “Imagine if da Vinci had a supercomputer in his hand as opposed to that quill.”

I'm proud that we've been able to do this crazy work and retain our marriage and create strong family values. I'm proud of the fact that I see people that have been with me on this journey for twenty-five years. 

In Chinese tradition, what we are doing is for the next generation. I tell my children, “Find your passion, be persistent, and pursue your dreams. Be patient, allow yourself to grow and flourish.”

Chan: We are very African in our roots. We are very Asian in our roots, which in fact makes us perfectly suited to be American.

We were able to fulfill our dreams here in a way that we never could have anywhere else. It was a lot of hard work, but it would not have been possible if America wasn’t the open and giving society it is. I hope we stay that way.

Source: National Museum of American History

Senator Bobby Kennedy at Wits University

Professor Martin Colman reminisces about RFK visit to South Africa

The visit of Senator Bobby Kennedy to South Africa for five days in 1966 was an exhilarating experience for us all and engendered great enthusiasm for possible political change in South Africa.  My brother, Neville, was a member of the NUSAS (National Union of South African Students) committee that invited RFK to visit South Africa, to give the annual “Affirmation of Academic Freedom Address”, that had been established in 1959 in protest to the Government law that restricted access to the universities based on race.  I do not think he appears in the film, but two of his committee colleagues, Margy Marshall and Ian Robertson, figure pretty prominently.  Margy Marshall later earned fame as Chief Justice of Massachusetts.Senator Bobby Kennedy at Wits University

RFK was scheduled to give two speeches in Johannesburg – a public lecture in the Great Hall at Wits University, for which tickets were to be sold starting one morning, and a private address at an evening cocktail party for invited guests, mainly judges and advocates, in the Johannesburg Bar Common Room at Innes Chambers.  In early 1966, I was a senior house officer in obstetrics at the Queen Victoria Hospital, Elinor was teaching at Kingsmead College in Rosebank, Neville was a third-year medical student, and my dad was an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar, with his office on the 7th floor at Innes Chambers, and also a part-time lecturer (on Evidence and Civil Procedure) at the Wits Law School.   

My dad called me one day at work in the OB unit at the Queen Vic.  My recollection of the conversation was that he asked, “Are you a student?”  I answered, “Yes, for life!”  “Good!” he said, “Because John Coetzee (a colleague at the Johannesburg Bar) is in charge of the Kennedy Cocktail Party, and has asked if I can arrange for six students to be waiters at the reception, but he didn’t say they had to be law students, so I’m asking you and Neville!”  I was elated at the prospect, as was Nev.  It later turned out that he had also asked another advocate-colleague, Namie Phillips, to invite his two sons, Bobby (also a medical student) and David (whom I believe was a BA undergrad at the time).  The remaining two people invited were actual law students.  We were asked to meet John Coetzee at the Bar Common Room a day or two before the great event for instructions and orientation.  I should add that the Bar Common Room was hallowed legal turf – only accessible to advocates and judges (in SA all judges of the Supreme Court are chosen from the ranks of the advocates).  Things may be different now, but in those days, not even spouses were allowed, and there were no table servers, just staff in the kitchen and a serve yourself counter, so having waiters to serve drinks was a special arrangement for the occasion.  John met with us at a prearranged time, and explained that he had divided the room into six areas, each of us would be responsible for serving in one area – taking orders from guests, and picking up drinks from the barman at the bar counter, that Senator Kennedy would remain in only one of the areas, and that he (John) would not reveal where he would be until after we had each chosen the area we were to cover.  He said we would “draw matchsticks” of different lengths, which he held so only the end showed, and whomever drew the shortest match would have first choice, and so on, with the person with the longest match choosing last.  After we had each chosen our areas, he turned to me and said, “You have Senator Kennedy!”  I felt I had won a jackpot!  He then led me to the bar, pointed out three bottles of Heineken beer (which I believe was not then marketed in SA) and explained that after Senator Kennedy had given his speech, I should come to the bar, and take one bottle of Heineken, a glass, and an opener, and take it to Senator Kennedy.  He emphasized that Senator Kennedy would open the beer, and pour it himself, and that I was not to do anything other than deliver the sealed bottle with opener and empty glass.  At the actual event I was very excited about the great moment I anticipated, and do not remember anything of his speech except the way he pronounced the word “LAW”!  I have no recollection of any of the details of what he said.  I waited for my “big moment”, and made my way to the bar as Kennedy finished his speech.  When I returned with my tray and its contents, there was a cluster of people around the Senator.  One of them, Willy Kantor, an advocate-colleague of my dad’s who knew me well, turned toward me and asked, “Martin, is that beer for Senator Kennedy?”  I answered affirmatively.  “I’ll give it to him!” he said, and took my tray from me.  My grand moment of closeness to celebrity was stolen from me.

In the lead up to Senator Kennedy’s public speech at the Wits University Great Hall, the University announced the advance sale of tickets to the event.  I recall that the hall had seating for slightly more than 1000 people, and we expected demand to exceed availability.  Elinor and I decided to queue overnight, so we would have a better chance to get tickets for the lecture.  We were very fortunate and among the lucky ones to have two seat tickets.  The demand was so great that arrangements were made to set up loud speakers outside the Great Hall and an additional two or three thousand people were accommodated on the steps and plaza in front of the Great Hall.  I remember Kennedy’s speech that night being inspiring and uplifting, and beyond anything I had previously experienced.  It generated huge hope and expectation for change in South Africa.  At that time there was little open dialogue between English- and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans.  Kennedy had previously spoken at Stellenbosch University, and I remember him emphasizing that there had to be dialogue between all groups in South Africa in order to solve the problems in the country.

A little more than two years later, on that fateful day in 1968, as I arrived for my morning outpatient follow up clinic at the NEH Hospital, I recall the immense sadness and horror I felt when one of the surgeons sharing the clinic space, asked if I had heard that Bobby Kennedy had been shot.

Professor Martin Colman (MBBCh 1964; MMEd 1971), USA