Photo: Nora Tam
MOVING STORY When my father (late shipping tycoon Pao Yue-kong) decided to leave Shanghai for Hong Kong in 1948, it was the second relocation for the Pao family in seven years. In 1942, Shanghai fell to the Japanese and the family moved to the wartime capital of Chongqing. The two characters in my given name (Pui-hing) mean "celebrating victory at the secondary capital", as I was born (in Chongqing) in the days following Japan's surrender. From a European-style three-storey house with a garden in Shanghai, we landed in a mid-floor apartment on Seymour Road, in Hong Kong. Father was very busy starting up his business, which he began with savings of HK$20,000. But every morning he would walk me to school and then take a bus to work. As the eldest daughter, I received more discipline from my father than my three younger sisters. "You are the eldest. Whatever you do, you must set an example," and, "Anything a boy can do, a girl can do," are words that have stayed with me all my life.
Like my father, my mother, as a Ningbo person, didn't use much. "Making something out of nothing" was her ethos. She was avant garde when it came to "recycle, reuse and reduce". She always wore old clothes, even her underwear was all patched up. She never threw away old curtains and would instead turn them into golf travel bags, long before they became commercial products. At her memorial in 2011, family friend Gordon Mau had a line about a photograph of my parents that sums it all up very well: "Aunty Pao darns the socks of Sir Y.K. Pao".
WORKING GIRL Thriftiness in my family led me to be conscious about the poor. When I was 16, I went to work with the delinquent girls in Ma Tau Wai Road (To Kwa Wan) and also the people at the temporary estates and hillside cottages in Tai Hang. I couldn't tell my parents what I was doing as I would have been disallowed. But I was determined. At Purdue University (in Indiana, in the United States), I majored in psychology and sociology in spite of pressure from my parents, especially my mother, who was very traditional in thinking that an educated woman always ended up a spinster. So I became self-supportive in my graduate studies in social administration at the University of Chicago. The scholarship I obtained would only pay for the tuition fee so I worked as a waitress, for a free meal a day. After I got married (to lawyer and businessman Helmut Sohmen), we moved to Canada and I went to McGill University, in Montreal, to work with black delinquents. In 1970, we returned to Hong Kong and joined father's ship-ping business.
ONE MAN'S VISION It was the time of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. But father was a visionary and always looked at the bigger picture and beyond. It still amazes me that he would tell us in 1968, a time when Red Guards were rampaging across the mainland, that "one day China is going to open up and we will all go home". His positive thinking was best shown by a scene on Changan Avenue, in the heart of Beijing. It was long after the Cultural Revolution and China had just ushered in reform and was opening up. There I saw a mule pulling a fully loaded peasant truck, moving very slowly. To my remark, "Look at the pace of the mule, China is just like that, taking forever to catch up," he said, "As long as there are peasants pulling a cart like this, there will be employment, and soon this will be replaced by cars."
ROPE TRICK Father had great charisma, and he was very humorous. (Once, he) presented a skipping rope as a Christmas gift to then British prime minister Mrs Margaret Thatcher with the remark: "You would be amazed to see how skipping can result in extra blood pumping into your brain … which will help you solve many of your serious problems." I was father's interpreter, his English sentences were short and sometimes needed clarification, and I would cite examples of what he meant. But it was not so at his meetings with Mr Deng Xiaoping. To this day, I remain puzzled over how the two gentlemen, each speaking in their own heavily accented Putonghua, could understand each other without interpreters.
There was one meeting between them which I did not attend. It was shortly after the 1989 Tiananmen incident. My father was quite ill with the chemotherapy treatment he was receiving but he made a special trip to go up (to Beijing), and I was with him. He felt for China and the Chinese people. He did not say much in those days. He got tired of the news on television, switched it off and rested. I used to read the news to him in his last few months. Perhaps it was out of fatigue or simply heartache, he just told me to stop.
VALUE ADDED Like father, I am a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory position which I at first declined and later accepted after some persuasion from the Chinese Manufacturers' Association of Hong Kong. I think father would have feared for me in taking the position because I am a very direct person and not very politically minded. But the role of that body is now very different to that in the days when he was a member. It has a broader base and is more democratic. We can voice ourselves better. Every year, I submit four or five motions on issues such as the environment and charity.
My dream is to build a world-class Chinese school. Not Eton, Hanover or Harrow; I want a Chinese brand, which is ours. In 2007, my son Philip and I founded the YK Pao School in Shanghai, offering the best Chinese primary curriculum. In 2011, we extended our efforts by founding a secondary boarding school. This education project is a living museum of my father's values.
Anna Pao Sohmen is due to speak at the Foreign Correspondents' Club (inquiries: 2521 1511) and the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre (inquiries: 2103 9511) on Thursday.