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Q&A with Rotary Convention speaker Claire Chiang

Singapore entrepreneur reflects on a life — and business — of purpose

It was close to midnight, Singapore time. Claire Chiang exuded energy and grace, despite the fact that she had just returned home after spending 68 days on the road, visiting her businesses in countries from China and the United Arab Emirates to the Maldives and Japan.

A charter member of the Rotary Club of Suntec City, Chiang is known as an entrepreneur, social activist, author, and champion for women’s issues and sustainability challenges. She and her husband, Ho Kwon Ping, founded Banyan Group, a global developer and operator of 76 resorts, hotels, and spas in 23 countries.

Hear Claire Chiang speak at the Rotary International Convention, May 25-29 in Singapore.

For Banyan Group, Chiang is executive director of Banyan Gallery and chairs China business development, global learning and development, and the Banyan Global Foundation. She holds directorships with the Mandai Nature Fund and Mandai Park Holdings and is an advisory committee member for the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She is chair of the Singapore Book Council and the Shirin Fozdar Program at Singapore Management University. Her book, Stepping Out: The Making of Chinese Entrepreneurs, tells the stories of early Chinese immigrants to Singapore, and it was made into an award-winning TV series.

Chiang has accepted an invitation to speak at the Rotary International Convention in Singapore, to be held May 25-29. Rotary magazine caught up with her over a video call to learn more about her story and what makes Singapore special.

You are the daughter of Chinese immigrants to Singapore. How much did your grandmother and mother shape your life?

I feel privileged to have grown up with strong women. My paternal grandmother migrated from China’s Hainan Island to Malaysia in the late 19th century to join her husband as a rubber tapper collecting latex from rubber trees at plantations. After her husband died, she followed her son, my father, to Singapore. Like millions of immigrants, they left their homeland in search of better opportunities. Singapore was that beacon of hope and a new beginning. If you saw my grandmother’s blistered hands, you would think she was a woman without education, but she managed the world with that pair of capable hands. Growing up, I shared a room with my grandmother and became very close to her. She taught me a lot about life. I still remember her advice about dating: You need to control your own life first. And then you choose the person you love and build a life together. In that era, her ideas were considered progressive.

In the 1950s, Singapore was merely a deepwater port with few resources. It had to import most of its food, water, and energy. As a child, I used to queue for water, which was rationed. My brothers and I would each carry a pail of water home for cooking. Our meals consisted mainly of rice and vegetables. Meat was a luxury reserved for special occasions. But we never felt poor or deprived. We learned that we needed to deliver our best to create value in life. This parental guidance and discipline propelled me to study hard and excel in school.

My mother was born in Malacca, Malaysia, and moved to Singapore in the late 1930s. She had to quit school to sell bread on the streets and later worked in a laundry. She met my father, who was a teacher by night and office clerk by day. My mother raised six of us children with a tight fist, stretching every dollar to provide us shelter and protection.

I was the only daughter. Though I was born a preemie, my mother never gave up on me. She kept me alive and strengthened me with goat’s milk. I’m grateful that she was a tiger mom. In a culture where women were once considered, as a common expression said, “like the throwaway water from a bucket” because they would eventually be married off, she invested a lot of our family resources in me. She made me attend two schools in one day, a Chinese school to keep my traditional values and an English school to ensure my ticket to a good career. She encouraged me to play piano and take ballet and Chinese dance lessons. Because she lost her opportunity to receive a good education, she refused to let that happen to me. She saw education as a lifeline.

My mother suffered a stroke when she was only 47. Over the next 35 years, she lived with all sorts of medical hardships, including breast cancer and kidney failure. She never gave up. Her perseverance and resilience continue to inspire me.

In your public lectures, you talk about events that defined your life. Could you share a few?

The first turning point in my life was leaving my homeland and moving to Hong Kong. I received my bachelor’s in sociology from the University of Singapore and secured a job teaching behavioral science to medical students at Hong Kong University while working on my master’s there in industrial sociology. For about four years, we stayed on Lamma Island, where there were no vehicles and no roads. I lived the life of an islander, taking the ferry and a bus every day to go to the university. That two-and-a-half-hour journey exposed me to local people and their cultures.

For my thesis, I spent three months in a factory and came to know many female workers, some of them as young as 16. They had no formal education and were paid little. We held study groups, and I taught them to speak English. Through my friendships with them, I came to see the importance of sisterhood, collaboration, and mentorship.

My husband was trained in economics and worked as an editor for the Far Eastern Economic Review. Since he covered Asia, I traveled with him in the region. These travels enabled us to understand the geopolitical conditions, paving the way for our hospitality business later. In those days, we were students of development. We agonized over contradictions between capital and labor, between profits and justice, and equity between men and women. I think the dreams and the legacy of Lamma Island in Hong Kong were incorporated into the way we built and operate our business now.

How did you start your business?

That came about quite by accident. I call that my second turning point in life.

As a child, I vowed never to marry a businessman. So I married a journalist, and a poor journalist at that. He turned to business through no fault of mine. Soon afterward, I followed him and also became a businesswoman.

In 1987, we moved back home because my father-in-law, a diplomat and businessman in Singapore, had a stroke. So I abandoned my job and my studies. We didn’t have a house of our own, and I longed to find a secluded place that we could call ours and spend quiet and relaxing weekends. That’s why we flew to Phuket, Thailand, to look for a place to build a small getaway. We discovered a stretch of land that had been the site of an old tin mine. We loved the beautiful sunset over a blue lagoon and a Casuarina evergreen forest, but little did we know that the lagoon’s color was actually due to pollution from the mine. That explained why nobody wanted that piece of land. But we were quite foolish. We didn’t do our due diligence before we bought it.

And there’s something that my husband and I both share — we never give up easily. We consulted with experts and rehabilitated what became Laguna Phuket. It took us two years and lots of effort and money. But we stayed the course and developed it into Laguna Phuket, an integrated resort. So leadership is really about experimentation and seizing opportunity; our initial ignorance led us to a journey of discovery that paid off, in that sense.

Claire Chiang and her husband, Ho Kwon Ping (center), pose with their extended family.

And your third turning point in life? The third was an unfortunate one. In 1988, six months into my pregnancy with my third child, my water broke early. I was rushed to the hospital. The doctor did all he could, but my baby didn’t make it. It was devastating. Why did this happen to me? I had this tremendous feeling that I had failed as a woman. I sank into a severe depression and closed down. I literally was not able to speak to anyone. I went to a sign language school and began healing in a world of silence.

While trying to make sense of the loss, I volunteered at SOS or Samaritans of Singapore, a hotline that provides emotional support for individuals facing a crisis. I persuaded the counselors there that my pain might make me able to empathize with people looking for support. I staffed the hotline for four years. Hearing other women’s stories, their personal struggles with trauma and domestic violence, helped me heal too. Gradually, I switched my mindset from one based on the question “Why me?” to “Why not me?” I was able to walk away from my imprisoned self and embrace the world once more. Though I continue to feel the pain today, I found a way of loosening its grip. I became more accepting of myself. This also marked the beginning of my journey on women’s empowerment.

How do you use your business to help women?

My father-in-law, who used to be Singapore’s ambassador to Thailand, introduced me to activist Shirin Fozdar. In the 1950s, she campaigned to end polygamy in Singapore and then moved to Thailand, where she strove to provide education for village girls and helped create jobs for women. When I met her, she was in her 80s. She asked me to buy two cushions, a type of traditional handicraft well known in Thailand. She said: “If you buy these two cushions, I can get one girl to go to school in the northern part of Thailand.” I did a quick calculation: If I were to buy 2,000 cushions or if I could get a whole network of people to buy them, I could help girls in the whole village. That was when I began to see that business could be a force for change.

That encounter inspired me to start the Banyan Gallery, which is a marketing platform to curate work done by women in the rural sector. I can cut out the middlemen and go directly to the producers and give them their fair share of the revenue. I call the concept “communitarian capitalism.” The gallery works with village cooperatives and not-for-profit marketing agents to create employment for artisans in communities around my businesses to help support local cultural heritage. We have supported 82 community suppliers worldwide and 127 communities big and small. And for this work, two cushions changed my life.

I started off as an academic, disparaging business, and my view changed in later years when I saw the positive role it could play. In recent years, I’ve noticed a shift in business discussions. The concept of stakeholder capitalism is gaining momentum over that of shareholder capitalism. It’s not all about creating wealth. It’s also about creating value for the community and co-creating shared prosperity.

How did you discover Rotary?

In high school, I was part of an Interact club and remember visiting community agencies to learn about what it means to do good and support our communities. Years later, in 2000, a friend invited me to join Rotary, but I was a bit reluctant at first because I always thought it was a club for rich men. He corrected me, saying that it is a club for businesspeople and anyone who wants to make a difference. Given my past connection with Rotary, I decided to give it a try with the idea that Rotary could be a platform to do good and to do well. So I became a charter member of the Rotary Club of Suntec City. Then, I served as our club president. I think Rotary has given me that sense of hope about a better world. It is a movement that pushes the envelope to create this betterment. That’s where I felt the alignment and excitement. And I am honored to be part of the movement.

You’ve been invited to speak at the Rotary International Convention in Singapore. What do you hope visitors take away from Singapore?

We are a place where the influences of East and West, North and South are concentrated in a small island city-state. Our guests will enjoy our rich and diverse food and culture, but they’ll also see Singapore’s successful experiment in how people of different races and cultural backgrounds live and work together harmoniously. We continue to learn how to balance modernity and traditions to achieve a better way of living and working together.

This story originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Rotary magazine

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