Obituary: Gavin Zhao

If you look inside “The Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen”, you will find the following inscription:

To Gavin Zhao

For opening my eyes to the real China.
You have been a great teacher and mentor;
I can do now what I once thought was impossible.

I hope you win your battle with cancer,
so that you can continue to mentor and inspire more people like me.

That was written about four years ago. Today, August 9, 2019 at 1:34PM, he lost his battle with cancer. He died while I was on an airplane flying from Singapore to China to see him, perhaps for one last time…seems I was a few hours too late.

As a professional, Gavin interacted primarily with me as a project manager. He was instrumental in helping to build Novena, Chibitronics, Fernvale, and many more projects big and small. What made him special was not that he was a genius in electronics or process engineering. His degree was in Western Philosophy: he understood how people worked, both in terms of their minds and their hearts. He thought deeply on all issues, big and small; formed his own opinions about government and politics, and as such, always had to straddle a fuzzy gray line living in China.

Part engineer, part troublemaker – we got along well.

I often referred to Gavin as my cultural Rosetta Stone. We used to spend long afternoons discussing politics in China, comparing the merits of democracy and communism. There are plusses and minuses to both philosophies. He would archive and share with me stories and posts censored by the Chinese government; I would bring him copies of the New York Times and new books to read. He could explain the deep meaning behind some subtle government actions that would almost seem routine to a Westerner. The problem is, coming from my American background, there are so many mind-blowing things to learn about Chinese politics, we could never have enough time together to discuss. We’d meet for tea at noon and before we knew it, the sun was down. I started the Betrusted project in part because I wanted to be able to spend more time learning from Gavin – unfortunately, it just wasn’t safe for us to correspond via the Internet about some of the ideas and concepts I wanted to learn, so our political discussions were always face to face. Betrusted will come too late for Gavin, but hopefully not too late for others.

Gavin studied many religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Confucianism. Of all the religions, Gavin felt Confucianism was his favorite. It is a very practical religion, built around the fabric of human society, and not around some abstract ideals. Because human fabric is messy, understanding how to apply Confucianism correctly essentially requires the study of philosophy: one cannot boil Confucianism into a series of “thou shalt/thou shalt not”s. So, as a practitioner of Confucianism, Gavin was always a very practical person, and always had a very positive attitude, even in his darkest times. He once pointed me to this passage: “子曰:「女奚不曰,其為人也,發憤忘食,樂以忘憂,不知老之將至云爾」”. It doesn’t translate well to English, but from his explanations, I felt the passage really reflected his character. Last month, while he was literally doubled over in pain, vomiting from the complications of his cancer treatment, I was holding his hand when suddenly he had a moment of lucidity. He looked up at my face, smiled at me through my tears, and proclaimed, “I am just a common man, why am I chosen to have the strength to be able to endure this pain?” Even in his darkest times, he was able to crack a joke.

Mortality is a subject that has weighed heavily on my mind. One thing I have decided is that it’s better to celebrate the living than to mourn the dead. Thus, while I am sad that Gavin has passed, I prefer to celebrate his life, and to focus my emotional energy on supporting his wife Lisa and daughter Coco who succeed him. There was a precious couple of years while his cancer was in remission, and I’m happy we celebrated the time that he had – during this time, he became an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, and we visited Boston together. He touched the lives of many students. I remember he was so excited to visit MIT’s library and explore the section on Kantian philosophy. He helped on NeTV2, and we started on Betrusted together. We went to Tokyo and wandered the grounds of the Imperial Palace, where we found an old, grand tree standing among ruins. He declared that he always admired trees, and he could sit there and watch trees for hours. He wondered – “If we could talk to trees, what stories could they tell us?” So we sat together under a tree for an hour, and watched as its boughs waved in the wind, watched its leaves fall, watched as birds hopped among its branches. It was a true luxury to spend an hour doing nothing but watch a tree together, with a friend who had so little time. At the end, I relayed to him an anecdote I once heard about trees: “don’t feel bad for trees because they can’t walk; feel bad for humans because they have to.” Although Gavin will never walk by my side again, his memory will live on in my soul like that tree – grand, growing, enduring; nourishing in lean times; yet soothing to sit under on difficult, hot days. It will be a landmark that guides me through my remaining life. I celebrate that I had the privilege of being touched by such a good friend and teacher.

Gavin, by carrying your memory in my heart, I celebrate your life as I continue with mine. You may be gone from this world, but you still shape ours in many ways.

Thank you, Gavin. May you rest in peace.

Gavin and I in front of one of his favorite trees at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan


8 Responses to “Obituary: Gavin Zhao”

  1. Eric Weinhoffer says:

    So grateful I had the opportunity to learn from him as well. I’ll always look back on the time I was able to work with you and him as an amazing growing experience for me. Rest in peace, Gavin.

  2. Barry Callahan says:

    My condolences on the loss of your friend.

    I took a break from things I should be doing to ask some questions of google, which led me to the Chinese Text Project, which strives to make pre-modern Chinese texts more accessible to the world at large.

    Specifically, from the Analects of Confucius:

    [ The Master said, “Why did you not say to him, ‘He is simply a man, who in his eager pursuit of knowledge forgets his food, who in the joy of its attainment forgets his sorrows, and who does not perceive that old age is coming on?'” ]

    I can definitely relate to this.

  3. JIn says:

    My condolences on the loss of a great mind.
    Will definitely keep an eye on betrusted project as this will definite help lot of people to avoid big brother monitoring.

    I am hope to see the work/advice from him who understand so much about the western and the eastern culture. Perhaps, that is a way we can avoid conflict like in HK right now if we can be more understandable to each other.

    I work in china for awhile and as a 华侨 that slightly understand both side, there are a lot of information loss when each side of the media report news to the other side of the world.

    RIP. Let make the world a better place.

  4. Simson says:

    Thanks for sharing this. My life has been touched by Gavin Zhao as a result of your sharing how he touches yours.

  5. Ian says:

    Gavin definitely left an impact on my mind. Working on the Form 1 with Gavin I had my first experience manufacturing parts and injection molding in China. Gavin was project managing for a handful parts. I had never worked with a partner quite like this before. We were travelling by train to factories to inspect how they were performing. I remember him pulling out of his bag the part I had designed molded out of 3 or 4 materials. One was obviously better but in ways that could only be discovered through this process. (nicer surface finish, fewer sink marks, etc.) It was a light bulb moment for understanding what it means to go through the manufacturing bring up of a new product. The speed of the interaction and feedback was somehow all the more enhanced that we had this interaction on a speeding train. Thank you Gavin!

  6. Thank you for this touching memorial. Wishing you peace as you mourn/grieve Gavin’s passing.

  7. My condolences for your loss everyone. I did not know Gavin, but your love of him in the words here speaks volumes.

  8. Gloria Huang says:

    I’m touched by your special friendship.
    It’s so impressive always seeing you talking about politics so passionately.i was like a light bulb there then.
    I feel a little bit guilty that my left had gave him the chance/thought to throw himself to work again.