He stands only 5-foot-8 with his floppy fishing hat atop his bespectacled noggin, and possesses a physique that is scrawnier than some hat racks. He has neither the knockout looks nor the sizzling youth of your typical TV star.
But none of that matters when it comes to Yau-Man Chan. Defying meager expectations, the 54-year-old computer whiz from Martinez, Calif., has relied on his good-natured charm, keen intellect and island know-how to become one of the main attractions on “Survivor: Fiji.”
Going into Thursday’s episode of the popular CBS reality series (8 p.m. EDT, CBS), Chan is one of only 10 castaways still in the running for the $1 million prize. And for the moment, he appears to be relatively safe because he has in his pocket an “immunity idol” - a special trinket that assures a measure of security.
Even before the show debuted, effusive “Survivor” host Jeff Probst declared Chan to be “one of my all-time favorites.” And now, with each passing week, the Cult of Yau-Man gains momentum.
“Yau-Man: you are officially now known as Yau-DA-Man!!!!” read a rave review in the CBS.com “Survivor” chat room, posted shortly after Chan single-handedly won an immunity challenge for his Moto tribe with remarkable spear-toss and archery skills. “
“Go Yau Man!” wrote another admirer. “You have yet again proved to your team and to all of us who believe in you that you are clever, keen and have more common sense than most!”
Chan, an avid table tennis player and the director of Information Systems for the College of Chemistry at UC Berkeley, has found a way to make his cerebral approach work in a game that, for the most part, has been ruled by the strong and youthful. Watching him thus far has been like watching the little geek best the jocks.
In Week 1, after several brawny castaways failed to break apart a crate of supplies by bashing rocks against it, Chan calmly cracked open the crate by dropping it - corner first - against a boulder. The lesson for the strapping he-men? The corner of a square container is its weakest point.
Chan, who was raised in Malaysian Borneo, has also put his upbringing to tremendous use, displaying a talent for fishing and for opening coconuts with cool efficiency. In addition, his people skills have been a big plus. He knows when to lighten the mood with a toothy smile, when to fly under the radar and when to boldly step up his game.
Two weeks ago, Chan enjoyed a breakout moment on the show when his mystery-solving acumen paid off with the discovery of one of two hidden immunity idols. So exuberant was Chan that it was almost like seeing Golem in “The Lord of the Rings” uncover his sweet shiny “precious.”
“Oh my God!” Chan blurted as his eyes bulged and his tongue darted to and fro like a lizard. “This is it. This is my million dollars right here!”
Chan then showed America that he can scheme with the best of `em by fabricating a fake immunity idol and burying it with the hope of hoodwinking some unsuspecting castaway.
“That move was hilarious and surprising,” says Jonathan Kogelman, who works under Chan at Cal. “I could never imagine him doing something like that. But then again, I’ve never been in a situation where someone is trying to vote me off an island.”
All in all, it has been a pretty dazzling performance from a man who never watched “Survivor” before being recruited by the show’s casting agents and then hurriedly prepped with a Netflix cram session.
“He’s a very analytical person,” says Chan’s sister-in-law, Natalie Walsh, a San Diego resident who watches “Survivor” with her husband and 2-year-old daughter, who refers to Chan as Uncle Yah-Yah. “He tried to look at what was going on behind the image on the screen. He wanted to know how and why something worked. That was his whole approach: `How do I beat it?’”
With shooting on the series completed several months ago, Chan is now back at his computer at Cal. But CBS rules stipulate that “Survivor” contestants refrain from doing interviews until they’re eliminated from the game. So that leaves it to friends and relatives to sing his praises.
“He’s a walking encyclopedia,” says Dan Ho, a lifelong pal. “The amount of stuff he knows is amazing. And people are starting to see some of that.”
Ho finds it gratifying that Chan’s “maturity, wisdom and authenticity” have been highly evident on the telecast so far.
“He knows he’s not Mr. Muscles or Mr. Jock. He just is being himself and doing the best he can do. And right now his best is looking pretty darn good.”
No one could be prouder than Chan’s family - wife Jennifer and teen daughters, Penelope and Ione - who were stunned when he signed up to be on the show, but are having a blast now that he’s shining onscreen.
“A lot of my friends had never watched `Survivor’ before, but now they’re totally into it,” says Penelope, a student at Diablo Valley College. “They all talk about how they saw my dad last night and how he’s so amazing and so cool.”