In memory of Lai Kow Chan (1940–2020)

Photograph of Lai K. Chan

Lai Kow Chan, who was an active member of the Canadian statistical community for nearly 30 years, passed away in Hong Kong on December 23, 2020, at the age of 80.

Members of the community old enough to remember will recall that Lai started out as a professor of statistics at the University of Western Ontario (1966–80) and was later head of the Department of Statistics at the University of Manitoba (1980–94). He arranged for the Statistical Society of Canada’s 13th Annual Meeting to be held in Winnipeg in June 1985, served as a regional representative on the Society’s board of directors (1985–87), and was editor in chief of The Canadian Journal of Statistics from 1992 to 1994. For a time, he was also an elected council member of the International Statistical Institute. However, Lai was a man of energy and vision, and there is much more to his long and distinguished career.

Lai had completed his undergraduate studies in 1962 at Hong Kong Baptist College before moving to London, Ontario, where he received an MA in 1964 and a PhD in 1966. His thesis, written under the supervision of Mir Maswood Ali, was concerned with linear estimation of location and scale parameters of a continuous symmetric unimodal distribution using order statistics from censored samples. After being an instructor at the University of Toronto in 1965–66, Lai joined the faculty at Western, where he gradually climbed the academic ladder while raising three children (Bertha, David, and Leo) with his wife Fung-Yee, whom he had met while studying in London. In the 1960s and 1970s, he contributed regularly to model construction, estimation methods, and asymptotic theory. Some of his work appeared in Biometrika, The Annals of Mathematical Statistics, and the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series B. He cared deeply about students and nurtured several PhD students, including Smiley Cheng, Harry Panjer, and Tak Mak, who went on to have successful university careers at Manitoba, Waterloo, and Concordia, respectively.

Lai’s move to Winnipeg in 1980 was an important milestone in his career. His research interests had already begun to shift to applied statistics and actuarial science in the mid 1970s. In an effort to revitalize his department and forge links with industry, he set up the Statistical Quality Control Research and Applications Group (SQCRAG). Under his headship, the department became a center of excellence in the area of quality. Over two decades, members of SQCRAG gave more than 100 workshops on statistical process control (SPC), total quality management (TQM), and industrial experimental design to companies and organizations, generating funds to support students and research. The workshops on SPC and TQM, presented by Brian Macpherson and Smiley Cheng, were particularly effective at raising awareness of the use of statistical methods for quality improvement within the Winnipeg business community.

Former students fondly remember Lai for being supportive and encouraging. Emblematic of Lai’s work with students is the Cpm process capability index, which he designed with Smiley Cheng and their joint PhD student Fred Spiring, now principal at Western Quality Centre; their 1988 paper in the Journal of Quality Technology has been cited over a thousand times.

Lai’s expertise in quality management led him to be involved in the drafting of the criteria for, and adjudication of, the Canada Award for Excellence in Quality, whose patron is the Governor General. He also served on, and chaired, the Statistical Sciences Grant Selection Committee of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Lai loved Hong Kong, where he was born on November 5, 1940. In 1994, he decided to return home to become professor and chair of Applied Statistics and Operational Research at City University of Hong Kong (CUHK). He was head of the Department of Management Sciences (1994–97, 2000–01), and dean of the College of Business (2001–06). Research-wise, this was perhaps his most active period. He supervised many PhD students and published very impactful work with Ming-Lu Wu on quality function deployment in the European Journal of Operational Research, the International Journal of Production Research, Omega and Quality Engineering.

A respected leader, Lai brought the CUHK College of Business to the forefront of business education and research and took its internationalization to the next level. Under his leadership, various new programs were launched and he spearheaded the college’s effort in achieving AACSB accreditation in 2005. To promote statistics, Lai also became as advisor on statistics teaching material for China’s State Statistical Bureau, sat on the Statistics Advisory Board for the Commissioner for Census and Statistics of the Hong Kong SAR, and on the Humanities, Social Sciences and Business Studies Panel of the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong.

In 2006, at an age where most people envision retirement, Lai chose to pick up yet another challenge by joining the upper management team in the forming years of the Macao University of Science and Technology. There he served as director of The Institute for Sustainable Development (2006–17), vice president (2007–11), and dean of the School of Business (2009–14). He became an advisor for the sustainable economic development strategy and the Pearl River Delta Region development plan for several departments in the Macao SAR Government. He was also involved as principal or co-investigator in the construction of various economic indices, such as the Hong Kong Consumer Satisfaction Index (1998), the Hong Kong Centa City Property Index (1999), the Macao Consumer Satisfaction Index (2007), and the Macao Consumer Confidence Index (2008).

Now aged 77, Lai finally retired in 2017. In his later years, he travelled the world with his wife, often with their children. He loved cruises and enjoyed good food, especially seafood, fruit, and desserts. He also took pleasure in spoiling his five grandchildren, allowing them to eat pie for breakfast, and more importantly he encouraged them to be themselves.

Lai’s professional accomplishments earned him many accolades. He was, among others, an elected member of the International Statistical Institute (1979) and a Fellow of the American Statistical Association (1981), the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (1985), the American Society for Quality (1990), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1991).

With his unique combination of wit, common sense, integrity, and compassion, Lai earned the respect of all his colleagues and his students. He was a kind and gracious man, and a true gentleman who cared passionately about the people around him. He will be dearly missed.

By Christian Genest and John F. Brewster
McGill University and University of Manitoba

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Liaison Newsletter: