Information Services Office   19.3.2012


Prof. Chen Chih-fan
Newsletter No. 394 > Features > Remembering Prof. Chen Chih-fan (1925–2012)

Remembering Prof. Chen Chih-fan (1925–2012)


Prof. Chen Chih-fan, honorary professor of the Department of Electronic Engineering, died on 25 February, leaving us with one less figure who was able to seamlessly fuse arts and science.

A renowned writer and scientist, Professor Chen was an incarnation of the ideal Renaissance Man that modern universities strive to produce. Trained as an electronic engineer, he was an inspiring essayist known for his elegantly simple writing style. He wrote with sense and sensibility about science, arts, contemporary people and current affairs. His essays are interspersed with rich knowledge of literature and anecdotes, and imbued with his care and concern for the Chinese nation. Professor Chen was also a skilled translator who published a collection of his translations of English poetry. As Prof. Wong Kwok-pun Laurence, research professor of the Department of Translation, commented, ‘Very few writers can move freely between science and literature. Prof. Chen Chih-fan was one of them. I would describe him as a rare “amphibian”.’

Helming the Electronics Department

Professor Chen came to CUHK to serve as Professor of Electronics and chairman of the Department of Electronics in 1977. He left in early 1985. Prof. Ching Pak-chung, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, joined the Department of Electronics in 1984. He recalled meeting Professor Chen on his first day of work. ‘I went to his office to see him. At that time the Department of Electronics was located at the North Block of the Science Building, and the chairman’s room was right behind the general office. When I arrived, no one was there. The staff at the general office insisted that he was there. It turned out that he was blocked by a mountain of books and a sea of paper on his desk, which was a chaotic mess.’

Professor Ching said that Professor Chen had a unique way of thinking. ‘Once I went to his office to see him. I knocked on the door seeing that it was open. And I heard his voice: “P.C., why did you knock on my door and wake me up?” I said: “I didn’t know you were sleeping.” He said: “I left the door open.” I said: “Normally people close the door when they’re taking a rest.” He said: “I left the door open so people can see that I’m napping and won’t wake me up.”’

Thanks to this maverick chairman, the Department of Electronics was a pioneer on many fronts. Professor Ching gave an example: ‘Today technology transfer is a buzzword. That means universities should make their scientific and technological developments accessible to industry. In the 1980s, one of the most successful examples of technology transfer took place at CUHK’s Department of Electronics. Professor Chen gave substantial help to a couple of teachers who developed the newest LCD technologies, so they could turn theory into reality by establishing a technology company.’ In those days policies to promote technology transfer were basically nonexistent. The department could keep a tight rein on its staff members’ entrepreneurship. But Professor Chen was very proactive and supported staff in using their research to make positive impact on society. Professor Ching commented, ‘He was a visionary in this regard.’

During Professor Chen’s chairmanship, the Department of Electronics launched one of CUHK’s first PhD programmes, and he was the adviser of CUHK’s earliest PhD student. In 2002, Professor Chen returned to CUHK to serve as an honorary professor of the Department of Electronic Engineering, the successor of the former Department of Electronics.

An Endearing Home

After moving his home from mainland China to Taiwan, and then the US and England, Professor Chen settled in Hong Kong in the twilight of his life. In late January this year, he went back to Taipei with his wife Prof. Tung Yuan-fang to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Professor Tung recalled, ‘We stayed in his house in Taipei. But he kept asking me: “When will we go home?”’ In his heart, Hong Kong, a city that he described as a place ‘where you don’t want to go before you actually visit it, and where you don’t want to leave after you have been there’, became his most endearing home. On 25 February, he passed away in the Prince of Wales Hospital in his beloved city. In great distress, Professor Tung wanted to express her gratitude to her husband: ‘Thank you for entrusting me with your mental and physical well-being. Thank you for your courage, which has changed my life. Thank you for love, which has made my life worth living.’

Earlier this year on 14 January, accompanied by Professor Tung, Professor Chen returned to the CUHK campus, despite ailing health, to attend the opening ceremony of the Documentary Exhibition of Prof. Chen Chih-fan. The exhibition is organized by United College and the Faculty of Engineering of CUHK in collaboration with Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University to acknowledge Professor Chen’s contributions to the University and his literary achievements. It’s on at 2/F, Wu Chung Multimedia Library, United College, till 13 April 2012.

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