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Yau-Man Chan Yau-Man Chan says he had no reason to go on Survivor: Fiji "except for the million dollars. Why else would you choose to starve to death and get bitten by bugs and snakes?" (Wendy Edelstein photo)

After 'Dreamz,' it's back to reality
College of Chemistry's Yau-Man Chan reveals what viewers didn't see on Survivor: Fiji

– This season's recent Survivor:Fiji results proved stunningly disappointing for fans of Yau-Man Chan, the College of Chemistry's information-systems director, who braved hunger and thirst, poisonous snakes, 108-degree temperatures, and backstabbing competitors during the program's 14 weeks, only to be eliminated before reaching the competition's final round.

During that more-than-three-month run, Chan, 54, became a favorite among the program's estimated 13.8 million fans: He was named the most popular cast member by nearly two-thirds of the visitors to the program's website.  That level of fandom surprised him as much as did his own ability to persevere and survive in a game that, in Chan's words, typically "attracts young, buff men" rather than a "scrawny old guy" like him. "I thought I'd be seen as the weak, old guy" with not much chance of winning, he recalls.

But Chan endured, employing a three-pronged strategy that served him well until a costly miscalculationtrusting a fellow competitor — ended his run. First, he tried to avoid elimination by winning "immunity challenges" in each round of competition. (This and other nuances of the game are explained below.) Second, he focused on gaining the respect of his fellow players so they wouldn't view him as "the weak, disposable one." Third, he forged a key alliance with another player whose mental strength, Chan calculated, would help keep the alliance together.

Chan was no slouch in the mental-strength department himself. "I knew that on a brute-force basis I could not beat these guys who easily bench-press 300 pounds," he says. "So I tried to win using my knowledge of science." And so, when a wooden crate of airdropped supplies proved difficult to pry open, Chan suggested dropping the crate on its corner until it split open. It worked.

How the game is played

For those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of this massively popular, nationally televised money grab, here's a quick primer: Nineteen people go to a remote corner of the planet trailed by a camera crew that films their every conversation, and endure grueling physical conditions and interpersonal perils that make high school look like a cakewalk — all for the chance to win a million bucks.

Yau-Man Chan in Fiji
Yau-Man Chan lives by the philosophy, "Love many. Trust few. Harm none." (CBS photo)

The road to that windfall involves two kinds of challenges: the reward variety enables winners to score food (a scarce commodity in the game), supplies, or a rare night at a spa resort, while immunity challenges let the victor escape elimination during that round. At the end of each episode the players cast votes for the person they wish to send packing. The final three players make their case to the tribal council (a jury consisting of the nine most recently eliminated contestants) on why they deserve the million dollars. Jury members — some of whom are embittered after being betrayed by one or more of the remaining players — ask pointed questions of the trio in an attempt to spotlight particular people's character deficiencies. They then cast ballots to decide the winner.

Chan, unfortunately, fell just short of making it to the final tribal council, where, it was widely thought, his odds of winning the million dollars were excellent. (At the Survivor:Fiji reunion show, host Jeff Probst queried the council members on how they would have voted had Chan made it to the final three. Chan, they assured him, would have been the big winner.)

Alas, a tactical miscalculation cost Chan his chance at the money. After winning a $65,000 truck in a reward challenge, Chan gave the vehicle to Andria "Dreamz" Herd, a 25-year-old cheerleading coach, in exchange for the promise of immunity in a critical, later round. Herd hemmed and hawed, but, unable to resist the chance that he himself might walk away a million bucks richer, he went back on his word and allowed Yau-Man to be eliminated from the final four.

In hindsight, Chan says, he should have reminded Herd that if he reneged on the deal, he would advance to the next round at the expense of losing the jury's sympathy and his chance at the prize.

"I never thought to tell him that," admits Chan, "but now, knowing Dreamz, maybe I should have, because he is so impulsive and doesn't think things through." Chan also would have made a second deal with Herd, promising that in exchange for the delivery of the immunity necklace he would cast his elimination vote for whomever the younger man wished.

With Chan out of the running, his ally, Earl Cole, an ad executive from Santa Monica, won the game with a unanimous vote — a Survivor first — beating out Herd and the other runner-up, Cassandra Franklin.

He demonstrated his value to the group in other ways. Having spent his early years on Borneo, where the environment is similar to what the contestants encountered in Fiji, Chan was able to show the other players how to open a coconut and not lose the palatable water inside. He also knew to boil sea snails for protein, and recognized that the slimy stuff growing on rocks was oysters, another food source.

Hunger is a powerful motivator for Survivor players: The show's staff do not feed contestants off camera, requiring that they be responsible for their own sustenance. Chan, who reasons that his longevity on the program was due at least in part to his food-finding skills, weighed 140 pounds when filming began, then lost 15 pounds during the competition.

A brain in neutral?
Thirst, hunger, and privation were not what Chan anticipated when he was recruited for the program last August — as part of CBS's efforts to improve the cast's diversity, he explains. "We never had enough to eat on location," he says. "When you're so hungry, you're thinking about food all the time — and even thinking becomes a problem. I never knew the brain could go into neutral, but I felt myself slowing down."

Fiji's climate also posed difficult challenges for the players. During a challenge that obliged the players to compete for an oversize truck, they dug through sand in search of a knife while a thermostat registered the granular stuff's temperature at 108 degrees. "The sand was so hot, it was burning our hands," recalls Chan.

Then there was the wildlife to contend with. Throughout the competition the contestants remained aware of Fiji's sea snakes, which, says Chan, are "very poisonous, swim very fast, and move pretty well on land, too." The snakes were especially abundant on Exile Island, where Chan experienced one crawling across his legs after bedding down one night. "We were told that if you get bitten by one of these snakes there's antivenom available, but it is so difficult and dangerous to administer that you can end up in cardiac arrest." In the event of snakebite, the show's producers would airlift the victim to Australia or New Zealand, a four-hour flight from camp. "So, you have to be really nice to these snakes," says Chan.

On Survivor, the snakes come in many guises. Chan was surprised when he watched the show to see the machinations that went on behind his back. "It was very interesting to see all the plotting," he says. While Chan knew he was vulnerable from day one due to his age and perceived weakness, not until he watched the show did he realize that Earl Cole, his ally throughout the competition, "saw the need to keep me there, and convinced people not to boot me off." Unfortunately, even Cole couldn't save Chan from Andria "Dreamz" Herd's double-dealings, the details of which were the subject of many office water-cooler conversations the next day.

We've got a secret
While Chan and the other cast members knew who was voted off the show well before Survivor:Fiji began airing in early February (the events were filmed over six weeks beginning in late October), the results of the tribal council's final vote remained a mystery even to them until the May 13 telecast. CBS stipulated that the players sign a non-disclosure agreement requiring them to stay mum about the show's goings-on. Keeping the show's secrets was "tough, but after a while you get used to it," says Chan, whose wife preferred to watch the show without knowing the outcome in advance.

He didn't get used to being out of touch, however. "I'm a news junkie," he says. "I need to know what's going on in the world. There was a coup in Fiji [while the show was being shot]. We had no idea it happened."  

Second to his computer and the Internet, food was the amenity Chan missed the most. "Once I was off the island, I could not stop eating," he recalls. "I'd wake up at night and go down to the refrigerator looking for sugar and carbohydrates — that's all I craved." Chan worried that if he kept up his nonstop eating he'd weigh 250 pounds by the time he appeared on May's reunion show — but instead he just managed to gain back the weight he'd lost during filming. 

From the outside, Chan's life before Survivor has resumed its previous character. "I can't afford to retire without my million dollars," he says wryly. (Chan did get $60,000 for his fourth-place finish; Herd and Cassandra Franklin, who tied for second place, each received $100,000.) One unanticipated benefit: his teenage daughters now see him differently. "They think they have the coolest dad in the world," says Chan, noting that his 14-year-old wants him to pick her up after school so she can show him off to friends.

In less-visible ways, the experience was transformative. "I'm really quite a shy person," Chan reveals. "Being on the show, I'm a lot more outgoing. I have confidence in myself after facing and surviving something as different from my normal life as possible."

From the Survivor sidelines

Outside of Yau-Man Chan's family and friends, perhaps no group was tracking his experience on the reality TV show closer than his colleagues in the College of Chemistry.

Longtime Survivor devotee Sue Gettinger, an administrative assistant for the college's shops, was surprised by Chan's staying power, but when he was voted out she "wasn't really shocked. You have to win those final immunity challenges," she says, "because that's where you control your destiny and don't rely on the others anymore."

Another aficionado of the show, Rebecca Egger, executive assistant to the dean of the college, "didn't realize Chan had so many survival skills and that he would be adept at dealing with coconuts." For Egger, winning on Survivor hinges on one's "ability to negotiate a line between making friendships and forming alliances, and not taking over and bossing people around — an ability to negotiate the interpersonal politics." She was disappointed Herd accepted the truck, then reneged on his deal with Chan, but she "didn't think he would give the immunity idol away after he won it."

Dorothy Read, development services manager in College Relations, never had watched Survivor before. She's known Chan since coming to work at the College of Chemistry in 1992 (Chan has been there since 1984). When Chan returned from filming on Fiji, "he was just bouncing with excitement" and told co-workers in person — rather than by e-mail — that he was a cast member on Survivor: Fiji. "He was so energized by the whole thing, I thought he'd must have been one of the final two. When I found out he wasn't, I was impressed that he was delighted and not disappointed," says Read. "I'm glad he didn't win a million dollars, because if he retired, we'd miss him."