About four months ago, Claire Chiang was introducing the writer Frances Low at a Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry seminar when a man in the audience got up and spoke. The man, who was in his 50s, said that he had brought his 19-year-old daughter to see “two famous women”, Claire and Frances. But, he continued, levelling his gaze at the diminutive NMP, “I don’t like you, Claire. You speak too much in Parliament. You should just look pretty. You have a famous husband and you should be behind him.”
“It took me a few minutes to process what he said,” the Senior Vice President of Banyan Tree Holdings says. “I thanked him for his honesty, then I said, ‘But still, you brought your daughter to see me.’”
Claire was somewhat taken aback by the incident, but she wasn’t surprised. “As husbands, men don’t like women like me (my husband is an extraordinary exception), but as fathers, they want their daughters to be like me because they don’t want their girls to be bullied by men.”
As feminists go, Claire Chiang comes wrapped in a silken robe. Like her trademark almost-waist-length hair, which, for Claire, is a symbol of her feminine power and not acquiescence to men. “I’ve only cut my hair a few times in my life. If you see me cut my hair, it means I’m making a life change,” she says.
Claire Chiang believes a woman can have it all in an age when some women are already rejecting the Superwoman role model. It’s a personal decision. “I’m greedy; I’m not satisfied with a lot of few things. I want a little and hopefully the best of everything.” Work is also her refuge. Entrepreneur husband Ho Kwon Ping, or K.P. as Claire fondly refers to him, says many of his memories of her are the two of them working late at night in Hong Kong on their old manual typewriters, she on her Master’s thesis and he on his articles for the Far Eastern Economic Review. Says K.P.: “I treasure my weekends—I don’t want to leave the house on Saturdays and Sundays. But on weekends she’ll squeeze in her other activities.”
A look at her CV shows her trying a little, sometimes a lot, of everything. Today the mum of three is a Nominated Member of Parliament and the executive director of Banyan Tree Galleries (K.P.’s family owns, among other venues, the luxurious Banyan Tree resorts). She helped start the Association of Women for Action and Research helpline. She’s president of the Society Against Family Violence (SAFV). She’s trained police officers to deal sensitively with victims of domestic violence and rape.
As the baby sister of five older brothers, she learned early on how to manage men and their institutions: She is one of two women allowed into previously all-male bastions like the Council of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry and even Parliament.
Her latest effort: Stepping Out, the book she co-authored with Dr Chan Kwok Bun, is a study of Chinese entrepreneurs in Singapore and will be made into a TCS serial like The Price of Peace.
She travels a lot – at least on a long trip every six weeks – for both business and public service. Time, she says, is her biggest luxury. She doesn’t shop a lot, she wears craft and costume jewellery, and she goes to a barber to trim her hair which she conditions with olive oil. She even entertains at her home in King Albert Park. Her only indulgence? A head-to-toe spa package when she’s visiting the Banyan Trees.
Claire says sometimes she wishes she wasn’t quite so driven: “I do get a tremendous emotional payback when I’ve made a difference in other people’s lives. And I like being recognised for it—a card, a letter, flowers, gifts. Acknowledgement, recognition, stroking—these are my ‘vitamins’.” And where does that drive come from? “My mum was always telling me, ‘Give your best’. I’m driven by deadlines and projects; I’m at my best in a crisis.”
But from her detractors you also hear words like “pushy” (Claire would say “assertive”) and “self-promoting” (Claire believes good ideas must be marketed). “It’s easy for some people to take potshots at Claire Chiang,” says a journalist who’s known both Claire and her husband for years. “She seemingly has everything. And she’s not shy about putting herself forward. Plus she’s beautiful.”
And she works hard. “She puts in two times as much and effort and work as any of us,” says Maureen Fung, group director of the Asian Women’s Welfare Association. Claire was often called out at night to help victims of domestic violence. When she worked for SOS, she put in her all-night shifts like every other volunteer.
She didn’t plan for a career in public service. Her life, as she puts it, is full of zigs and zags. A miscarriage in 1986 left her so bereft that she retreated into silence; she says now that perhaps she felt guilty because with all her commitments, she was not as welcoming of the baby as she might have been. Despite the best medical efforts and nearly a month in hospital, she lost the baby.
Finding words too meaningless for her grief, she learned sign language to communicate in silence. From there she moved to working for the Samaritan’s SOS hotline, then to Aware, and on to SAFV.
When Claire Chiang speaks to you, you know it. She makes strong eye contact; her eyes actually flash when she’s angry. She still rankles at the injustice of being punished by her mum for something she didn’t do at the age of 14. “She’s stubborn but that also means she’s dogged and will keep on, no matter what,” says her husband.
Claire’s office is at Wah-Chang House at Upper Bukit Timah Road, home to her husband’s family business. The staff call her “boss” or “Mrs Ho”; to get her office, you have to climb three flights of stairs. Claire, it turns out, is claustrophobic, with a fear of lifts: “Every time I get into a lift, an airplane, I no longer have control,” she confesses. Her office is separated from the rest by walls of opaque glass. Tables display products made by women who live in the villages where Banyan Tree resorts are located: Celadon ceramic aromatherapy burners, hand-drawn batik, elegant but simple wooden utensils. Claire has turned a by-product of sourcing for the resorts’ furnishings into a thriving business that benefits both Banyan Tree and the indigenous people.
Her desk isn’t barren, but everything is neatly stacked. She writes with an old-fashioned fountain pen, her handwriting square and artistic. Both the pen and the penmanship are legacies from Miss Govindaswamy, her primary school teacher at Raffles Girls School who insisted that the girls “always be neat, speak well, write clearly and do things properly”.
So today, if Claire promises to do something, she does it, and makes sure by jotting down notes in small square notebooks of hand-made paper. Ask for an interview and she’ll present you with a stack of publications in which she’s quoted or mentioned, each article carefully flagged. Faxes and emails fly out of her office. Family photos are identified and annotated on the back.
Even at an early age, Claire had ideas—lots of them. Sent to dance classes to improve her health, Claire not only danced well, but she occasionally re-choreographed traditional folk dances to suit herself. Her friend of 40 years, Ong Eng Fong, says it was Claire who would remember other girls’ birthdays and who would ring up Eng Fong and suggest a party or an outing. It was Eng Fong, however, who did the organising and ringing around. Eng Fong remembers Claire as an outgoing all-rounder in school, almost always first in her class and a natural athlete.
Her home was crowded with relatives: Her paternal grandmother, her parents, her five brothers, two aunts and five male cousins who were always in and out. Her dad, a public accountant to the Hokkien and Teochew-speaking towkays of Telok Ayer, was easy-going and indulgent, willing to accept chickens and eggs at Lunar New Year, in lieu of cash payment. Her mother was strict and austere, a household manager who kept track of every penny in a little accounts book, and who pushed her children to get the education and skills they needed to make a better life. Her pushing and scrimping paid off: Of the six children, four received tertiary education, and the family was able to buy at least one property.
And there was her grandmother, Claire’s soul-mate who provided the unconditional love the sickly, asthmatic little girl needed. “She was the heart of my family,” says Claire. What she remembers most is her grandmother’s hands, strong and hard from working as a rubber tapper, massaging her to sleep at night or sewing her clothes.
Her father died when Claire was 36; her mother died in 1997. “I feel it was unjust for them to have been taken from me so young,” she says.
From the two-room flat in Race Course Road, Claire’s mother sent her to not one, but two primary schools at the same time because she wanted Claire to get a bilingual education. Claire’s mother persuaded the teacher at Nan Hua Chinese School to let Claire leave a little early each day so she could dash off to her second school, Raffles Girls.
“All my life I’ve been very lucky that people spotted me and gave me chances to try something different,” she says. It’s more than luck, though: Claire Chiang is one determined woman. At the University of Singapore, she turned down her honours year to study at the Sorbonne in Paris (it took three hours in a trishaw to convince her father to let her go). When she returned 14 months later, she persuaded the university to let her complete her course. She persuaded the French embassy to hire her as a secretary when she couldn’t even type, and negotiated a work schedule that allowed her to go to university at the same time.
When her then-boyfriend, Ho Kwon Ping, was arrested and sent to jail for 52 days under the Internal Security Act, her employers stood by her and allowed her to continue her job. Her mantra: I will try. I will learn. I will do it, if it can be done.
Her life is streamlined. She likes to make decisions, not dither: “You can go for years waiting to make the right decision. Better to decide if you’re wrong, learn from your mistakes.”
She juggles work and family time. She has three children—Ren Hua, 17, Ren Yong, 13, and Ren Chun, who will be five. (All are named after trees: “Birch”, “Banyan” and “Cedar”, respectively.) “I steal time. I also organise, plan, delegate and use available resources to create more time.”
Claire and K.P. believe in structured family time. Her staff are rarely asked to work beyond 6pm, because 7.30pm to 10pm every evening is reserved for her family. “Even if the two oldest want to spend time on the phone with their friends, we’re still in the family room for them,” she says. There are outings to restaurants, bicycling, swimming, running and even karaoke sing-alongs.
Claire has always been very fit, a quality she’s passed along to her kids. (Her eldest, with the physique of a swimmer paired with a runner’s leanness, already towers over her.)
There’s also time set aside each week for breakfast or snacks with Claire’s and K.P.’s families.
When she can’t be with the children, Claire leaves notes for them in a pocket, in a backpack, on the door, just to let them know that she loves and cares for them. Last July, Ren Hua was competing in the National Grand Final, running for his school. “She left me this note saying that what was most important to her and my dad was seeing me grow as a person and as an athlete. That whether I won or lost the next day didn’t matter, that they loved me and were proud of me for getting this far,” says Ren Hua. He lost the race, but kept the note.
And for the past 20 years, Claire has always cut K.P.’s hair: “I’m the only client she has, but she believes that if you’re going to do something, you should do it right. She wants a sense of competence in everything she does; she has strong, competent hands.”
Strong hands, strong heart, like her grandmother massaging her all those years ago. And like her granny, Claire Chiang believes in letting her hands do the work of her heart.