Be Merry, Do Good: Spotlight on Michael Crain, Organizer for Chi Fan for Charity

Former Chief of Staff to the United States Ambassador to China, Michael D. Crain launched Chi Fan for Charity in 2009. The event raised RMB 100,000 for a local charity. This year his idea continues to grow (see related post) With the committed involvement from more than two dozen of Beijing’s most highly-regarded restaurants, Chi Fan for Charity offers Beijingers a rare chance to make a difference simply by having a good time with old and new friends. (Register for the November 6 event at chifanforcharity.org) Mr. Crain chats about the event and some of his Beijing experiences.

How was Chi Fan for Charity conceived? What was the inspiration?
My friends and I were discussing our desire to give back, but what could we do with such busy schedules and limited time? The idea of having dinner with friends for a good cause developed after having conversations with other friends in the restaurant business. The format is simple: high-end, well-regarded and popular restaurants donate a table for ten with food and wine, which they serve just as if it were a normal large party. CFFC sells the table and all the proceeds go to charity.
The idea was inspired by the thought that one of the best and easiest ways for people to make a difference for a charity might be for restaurants and their customers to team up to do what they might do anyway – but for a cause.
We added the angle of having a “celebrity host” for each table, so that people can bid for a place at a table hosted by a Beijing personality that they already consider a friend or are interested in meeting, and that added a compelling social aspect to the concept.

What charities does the event benefit?
Last year all of the money we raised went to one charity, The Dandelion School which is a middle school for children of migrant workers. This year, in addition to The Dandelion School, the steering committee has voted to benefit two other charities with this year’s proceeds – HIV/AIDS education and awareness organization Prevention Through Education and Rural Women, which works on development and educational projects for rural Chinese women.

What restaurants will be participating?
I’m very happy to report that this year we have confirmed participation of more than two dozen of the city’s best restaurants including: Bei, Black Sesame Kitchen, Capital M, Carmen, Chef Too, Courtyard, CRU Steakhouse, Duck de Chine, Fuel, Grange, Hatsune, Jaan, Karaiya Spice House, Kagen, Kagen Teppanyaki, LAN Club, Maison Boulud, Modo, Nola, Oden, Red Capital Club, ROOMbeijing, Scarlett, Sureno, Taverna, Toro Bar and Vasco's.

What were the highlights of last year’s Chi Fan for Charity?
We had 16 restaurants participating and around 200 people dining. From idea to execution, we pulled it off in eight weeks. The format was novel and I think people really didn’t know what to expect. But by the end of it, all the pieces came together, everyone had had a great time, and a lot of people had made new friends or run into some old acquaintances in a new context – all for a good cause.
The table at Oden was a bit of a standout success, as the venue and host were so popular and attracted so much interest that the restaurant ended up donating the whole restaurant for the night rather than just the single table.
One example of a case where the “celebrity host” format was extremely successful was the table hosted by art critic Karen Smith and her husband, photographer H.S. Liu at Capital M. Several people who had been hoping to meet them for a long time got a seat at their table. The guests apparently had lots of experience with the Beijing art scene and so much in common with both hosts that they ended up having such great conversations they never even made it to the after-party.
Another highlight was that through the process of putting this all together I met a lot of great people that have become great friends – like Chef Daniel Urdaneta and Alex Molina at Mosto/ Modo.

How is the event going to be different this year?
One thing that’s very different this year is that we have a much larger team helping organize the event. Last year I was basically approaching everyone myself, but this year we have assembled a steering committee of around a dozen people who attended last year’s Chi Fan for Charity and have volunteered their time to help make it even better this year.
Because of that, and thanks to the momentum we’re building, we expect this year to be much more successful than last year, which means we will raise a lot more money for the chosen charities.

What are you looking forward to most about this year’s event?
The buzz the event has already received has made me very happy. One of the new elements this year is that we will have representatives from all three of the beneficiaries serving in the role of celebrity table hosts. This means that Dandelion School Principal Zheng Hong, PTE founder Gabriel Suk and Wu Qing from Rural Women will all be hosting a table. In addition, we will have all of our most popular hosts coming back, including CCTV anchor and UNAIDS Ambassador James Chau, Tibetan Princess Yabshi Pan Rinzinwagmo, Karen Smith & H.S. Liu and restaurateur Alan Wong (whose venue, Hatsune will be hosting the after party) as well as film director Chen Daming (of the upcoming What Women Want starring Andy Lau and Gong Li). I know a great time will be had by all and looking forward to seeing it all come together.

What does charity mean to you?
I am not sure where the desire originates, but I’ve always felt compelled to do what it within my power to help those that haven’t been dealt the same cards I have. I’ve had a lot of opportunities in my life and been blessed and enjoyed good fortune in many ways. I have been lucky to have the chance to see and do a lot of things that a lot of people haven’t been able to do. I have also been a believer that people can volunteer and assist others in many ways. It isn’t just undertaking big projects like building a house or volunteering several hours a week at an educational institution. All of those are important and certainly worthwhile endeavors if you have the time. However, if all you can do is pull a group of people together for a purpose or serve a meal for a purpose then nothing should stop you from volunteering and assisting in the best way you possibly can. One thing that this project teaches us is that if we work together with other people for generous aims, wow, it is actually possible for us to do exactly what we’d like to do anyway – have a fantastic dinner with our friends and meet some interesting people – and still make a significant difference in the lives of others.

What were some of your highlights of serving as Chief of Staff for the US Ambassador to China (Clark T. Randt, Jr.)?
I was there for the last two and a half years of the administration and there were many highlights of my tenure. Probably the biggest highlight was being in that role for the Olympics when President and Mrs. Bush came to Beijing to visit. The embassy had spent two years preparing for his visit, which was unusual because a sitting president had never attended an Olympics on foreign soil. It was an exciting time to have them, here too since there was just an incredible vibe happening in Beijing. The access we received because of the visit was incredible. We were able to see some historical moments including the opening ceremony, Michael Phelps win his first and second gold medals. It was actually a really good moment, because the president gets scathed a lot in the press, but it is an incredibly tough job. This visit was the longest period he had stayed in any one place outside of Washington, Crawford or Kennebunkport the entire time he was president. He had said in the lead up to the Games that this was a mini-vacation towards the end of his presidency (and he hadn’t taken a vacation in quite some time) and he was coming to cheer on the American athletes. Of course, with that position you never really get a vacation as decisions still need to be made. However, having been a part of his team since the early days of the 2000 campaign in Austin, it was nice to see him a little more relaxed and just engaged in the joys of friendly athletic competition.
Overall, during that time relations between the two countries were very good. Of course you can’t control everything, but I think that the ambassador did what he could to ensure relations between the two countries were the best possible.
Our two countries have differences, but I do think that we both have the same goal in mind. It’s just how we want to arrive at that goal that is different. So, that was an interesting time, but I am glad to be done with what was an incredibly busy and challenging part of my career.

What brought you to China and why have you stayed on?
Early on in my tenure at the embassy my wife Joanna and I had decided that we loved it here and were having a great time. Working inside the embassy and especially at my level, there is no question that you do live inside a bubble to some extent. But we made an effort to get out and make lots of different friends across many different sectors. There was no question that my job was ending in January 2009, so from there we started transitioning. Joanna already had a business assisting VIPs/CEOs with travels to China (www.chin-easecorp.com), which gave me the ability to venture out and establish a strategic consulting firm to assist companies that want to do business here (MDC Strategies). We had begun the process to adopt a Chinese child, so it was very important for us to stay here and see out that process. We actually have two beautiful Chinese twin girls and it is important to us that they keep their Chinese language and learn something about their heritage, so I think we will be here for some time into the future.

Where are some of your favorite places around town to eat, and be merry?
Oh, I wish I could pick just a few, but by my size you can tell that I love to eat … a lot! I really do love all of the restaurants who have jumped forward and are supporting Chi Fan for Charity. These really are almost all of my favorite places, the places that I regard as offering the highest quality dining experiences in town. I hope your readers check them all out if they haven’t already!

To register for the event or learn more, see chifanforcharity.org

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