Having been born during Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution, her parents were sent to the countryside to be “reeducated.” This eventually led to her parents’ separation. She spent her adolescent years in a factory eking out a living and trying to be as frugal as possible. Unlike girls her age, Zhang had a dream. She wanted a better life; she hungered for education; she had a goal.
While Mao empowered women in his belief that they hold up half the sky, gender inequality was still palpably felt during Zhang Xin’s teenage years. To dream of leaving her country and trying her luck overseas was not very common to women of her age. Well, Zhang Xin is not really your typical woman. Although she’s every inch graceful, her business acumen is that of a cunning capitalist.
She used her Wall Street knowledge to grow SOHO China. In her early 30s, she became one of the most respected business figures not only in her country but in the rest of the world. Zhang Xin’s story never fails to inspire women to make a name for themselves and not to be content with where society places them. Women of worth like Zhang Xin is a living testimony that women not only hold up half the sky but also dictate the economy.
Her skyscrapers are telling of her sophisticated taste. The architecture of her buildings spells elegance. This makes us wonder, if women can run a household and keep it in order, they can very well run businesses and even beautify a city’s landscape. Don’t get fooled by Zhang Xin’s charm. Underneath her pretty face is a business tycoon toughened by poverty. Her buildings, on the other hand, are all works of art. Well, that’s what happens if a woman gets to lead alongside men.
Zhang Xin’s Early Life
Zhang Xin’s parents were both college graduates. In fact, the couple used to work as translators at the Bureau of Foreign Languages. She was born in 1965, about the time Mao Tse-tung launched China’s Cultural Revolution, opening the country’s door to modernization. Her parents were sent to the countryside for “reeducation.” The sudden poverty they experienced took its toll in her parents’ marriage. The two decided to separate and Zhang Xin was left to the care of her mother.
Her mother decided to go to Hong Kong where she found a job as a translator. Zhang Xin recalls sleeping on her mother’s desk because there was no decent home for them. She used her dictionary as pillow. When she was about 14 years old, she started working in sweatshops. Zhang Xin became one of the many workers in Hong Kong factories who wear the same clothes. Having no notion of private property, it was difficult for Zhang Xin to have an ambition. China’s socialist government was not so encouraging especially for women like her to dream of becoming successful someday.
But although she had no idea of what it’s like to live somewhere else, Zhang Xin knew that it’s not the kind of life she wanted to end up having. She worked in textile factories where work could last for 12 hours. At times when she heard of a factory offering a cent more than her pay, she did not hesitate jumping from one factory to another. It was the thought of earning more that kept her going.
During that time, she and her mother lived in a room that could only accommodate two beds. They shared a bathroom with a dozen more families. It’s the kind of life that was so miserable Zhang Xin wanted to escape come hell and high water. She saved every penny she earned until she had enough for an airfare to London. It’s a very risky move—she either make it there so she could come back a successful woman or fail and never make it back to China.
But off she went with her suit case, wok inside. Speaking very little English, the 19-year-old Zhang Xin left her mother to seek a better life abroad.
Zhang Xin’s Life Overseas
When her plane landed in London, Zhang Xin had nowhere to go. She didn’t know anybody there and hadn’t seen a place so alive all her life. While thrilled about finally making it to a free country, Zhang Xin realized how difficult it is to live in a strange country where the culture is so different with what she was accustomed with. She felt so helpless she ended up crying on the street, suitcase in tow.
She soon found work as an attendant in a fish and chips stand. With a steady source of income, she started going to a secretarial school and enrolled in an English class. Having been able to adjust in the English way of life, Zhang Xin started looking for more opportunities to get better education. Fortunately, she won a scholarship grant in the University of Sussex.
In 1991, Zhang Xin finally completed her Economics degree. With an undergraduate diploma, she was able to pursue further studies and finished her master’s in Development Economics from Cambridge University in 1992. Hard work and determination were her only weapon. Soon after she was out of Cambridge, Barings Plc.—an investment bank based in London—hired her to analyze privatization in China. This brought her back to Hong Kong. Being academically successful, Zhang Xin was sought by companies who want to have a better understanding of China. It was necessary for companies to have people who understand China in order to infiltrate the market. With a population considered the third largest in the world, investing in China was every businessman’s dream.
Zhang Xin’s Wall Street Days
Soon, Zhang Xin left Barings and flew to the United States. She worked for Goldman Sachs, one of the most respected investment banking firms in Wall Street, the stock capital of the world. Working in an environment dominated by men did not faze Zhang Xin at all. What she was not able to stand was the crass culture inherent in a world driven by profits. In an interview, she said:
“On Wall Street, all values seemed upside down. People spoke crassly, treated each other badly, looked down on the poor and adored the rich. The difference [from working in factories] is, in Hong Kong the competition turned people into shortsighted mice, whereas on Wall Street it turns them into wolves and tigers.”
Apparently, Zhang Xin is not the type to sugarcoat reality. As much as she adored working in a place bursting with energy and applying all she learned about economy, Wall Street proved to be too much for a woman used to blending with the crowd. She decided to leave and work for Traveler’s Group in 1994. No longer happy with her life abroad, Zhang Xin chose to go back to her home country.
In Beijing, a friend suggested she goes into real estate. Her friend told her she knew someone who’s planning to invest in that industry. That businessman turned out to be Pan Shiyi, a self-made man like Zhang Xin. The two hit it off right away and the business meeting ended up in a date.
Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi’s Matrimonial and Business Partnership
It’s not hard to fall for someone like Zhang Xin. She’s attractive not to mention, very smart. But those qualities could also intimidate men and keep them at bay. Pan Shiyi, however, was a successful man in his own right. He’s had a harder life than Zhang Xin. She would eventually tell reporters than if she had nothing before, Pan Shiyi’s circumstance was worse than hers.
Pan Shiyi came from an even poorer community. Like Zhang Xin, he had nothing but the will and guts. He eventually rounded up working for a real estate investor where he learned the ropes of the business. Upon meeting Zhang Xin, Pan Shiyi knew he found his match.
The two visited a site in Beijing where Pan Shiyi told Zhang Xin that he’s going to develop the area and make it into China’s Manhattan. Zhang Xin was not able to suppress a chuckle. She thought that Pan Shiyi’s statement was amusing coming from someone who has never been to Manhattan in the first place. That did not keep her from accepting Pan’s marriage proposal though. Four days after they met, Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin were engaged.
The couple founded Hongshi (or Red Stone in English) together. While the business proved to be quite stable, their relationship as husband and wife wasn’t. Probably because they had very limited time to get to know each other, Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin went through a rough adjustment period. So frustrated was Zhang Xin that she left China and lived in London for a time. While there, she was able to get her act together and called her husband back home. They got into an agreement that they’d make the marriage work. Zhang Xin won’t meddle with Pan Shiyi, she’ll become a full-fledged housewife.
She got pregnant soon after the reconciliation. Their family eventually grew as Zhang Xin gave birth to their second and last baby boy a couple years after the eldest.
SOHO China Keeps Growing
Zhang Xin was enjoying motherhood with Pan Shiyi proving to be a businessman to be reckoned with. Soon it was time to explore more opportunities. With her boys no longer infants, Zhang Xin’s help was solicited by her husband.
Hongshi became SOHO and was reinvented by Zhang Xin when she became the company’s CEO. Instead of leasing buildings to the uber-rich, SOHO developed small office home office buildings to cater to the rising middle-class. This proved to be a successful concept since the middle-class of China are mostly into business and love the practicality of having their office in the same building where their home is. Zhang Xin’s family lives in the building where their main SOHO office is located.
While Pan Shiyi used his network in China, his wife focused on building relationships overseas. She travels to get the services of the most renowned architects to build their skyscrapers. This makes SOHO both quality and elegant developers, making state-of-the-art dwellings without compromising beauty. Some of their architects are award-winning Zaha Hadid and Kengo Kuma.
SOHO completed the construction of the following buildings: SOHO New Town, Jianwai SOHO, SOHO Shangdu - designed by Lab Architecture Studio, Chaowai SOHO, Guanghualu SOHO, Guanghualu SOHO II, Beijing SOHO Residences, ZhongGuanCun SOHO, Sanlitun SOHO, Qianmen Avenue, Chaoyangmen SOHO I, Chaoyangmen SOHO II, and Galaxy SOHO (formerly, Chaoyangmen SOHO III) [source: Wikipedia (SOHO China)].
And who hasn’t heard of the world-class Commune by the Great Wall in Beijing and Boao Canal Village in Boao, Hainan Island? Just recently, Zhang Xin is said to be negotiating to purchase the GM Building, one of the most exquisite architectural structures in the US. It made history when it commanded the highest price bought at 2.8 billion dollars last 2008. The couple also owns an upscale apartment in New York.
SOHO holds the record of being Asia's largest commercial real estate IPO to date when it went public in 2007. Two years prior, the couple founded the SOHO Foundation which aims to provide underprivileged youngsters the opportunity to study so they too can change their lives for the better just as Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin did.
Had Zhang Xin stayed in Hong Kong working from one factory to another, we’ll never see a Bangkok as beautifully landscaped as it is now. Not even the sky limited her.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Young Global Leader of World Economic Forum, Davos
- Asia Business Council - Member
- Council on Foreign Relations - Board Member
- China Institute in America - Trustee
- Soho, Beijing
- Bahá'í Faith
- Soho China Foundation
Awards and Achievements
- 1991: Completed her Economics degree from the University of Sussex
- 1992: Graduated with a Master’s Degree in Development Economics from Cambridge University
- 1995: Co-founded Hongshi (meaning Red Stone), which became SOHO China, with her husband Pan Shiyi
- 2002: Voted among “Most Influential Figures in the Age of China's Transition” by the Economic Observer
- 2002-2003: Served as "Young Leader" by National Committee of US-China Relations
- 2002: Honored as an individual patron of architectural works at the 8th la Biennale di Venezi
- 2003: Named Asia's Under-50 Movers and Shakers by Asia Inc, along with Pan Shiyi
- 2003: SOHO was recognized among the top ten taxpayers in China's real estate industry from that year onwards
- 2004: Won BusinessWeek’s Stars of Asia Award
- 2004: Received the Montblanc Arts Patronage Award
- 2005-2010: Served as a Trustee to the China Institute in America
- 2005: Founded Soho China Foundation
- 2006-2010: SOHO was named one of the "Most Admired Companies" in China by FORTUNE (China) Magazine
- 2007: Selected as one of the "Ten Women to Watch in Asia" by the Wall Street Journal
- 2007: SOHO went public and has the distinction of being Asia's largest commercial real estate IPO to date
- 2008: Listed among Forbes Magazine's "World's Most Powerful Women"
- 2009: Included among Forbes’ "Top Ten Billionaire Women We Admire"
- 2009: Included in the Financial Times’ "Top 50 Women in World Business"
- 2010: Named among "China Top 10 Career Women Role Models in 2009" by the All-China Women’s Federation, China Sun Media Group, Sina.com and Hunan TV
- 2010: Recognized by the China Institute with the Blue Cloud Award
- 2010: Appeared in the film "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"
- 2011: Named among the "The International Power 50" of the "Most Powerful Women" by Fortune Magazine
- 2011: Recognized as one of "World's Most Powerful Women" by Forbes
- 2012: Began serving as the chairwoman of Tech For China Board of Directors
- Awarded a Special Prize at the 8th la Biennale di Venezia for Commune by the Great Wall
- The seventh richest self-made woman in the world
- Followed by more than 5 million on Weibo
- Five times richer than the Queen
- 2013: Received honorary Doctor of Laws from University of Sussex
Wikipedia [Zhang Xin (businesswoman)]
CNN (Richer than Trump or Oprah: Meet China's female property magnate)
Telegraph (Meet Zhang Xin, China's self-made billionairess)
Bloomberg (Beijing Billionaire Who Grew Up With Mao Sees No Housing Bubble)
Macau Daily Times (SOHO not interested in Macau’s casinos)
Market Watch (How Religion Changes a Chinese Billionaire Developer)
Celebrity Networth (How Zhang Xin Went From Sweat Shop Girl to Self-Made Billionaire)
The Independent (Zhang Xin, the Chinese tycoon seven times richer than the Queen, set to buy America's most expensive office tower)
SOHO China (Zhang Xin CEO, Co-founder SOHO China)
SOHO China (About SOHO)
Think Green (Zhang Xin: self-made woman in China)
The Wall Street Journal (Who Says China is Building Too Much?)
Next Insight (ZHANG XIN: ‘China’s Most Flamboyant Property Tycoon’)
Thomas White International (Zhang Xin, CEO, SOHO China)
CNN (Lessons from a self-made billionaire)
Financial Times (The woman helping to build the new China)
CBS News (Zhang Xin: China's real estate mogul)
The Daily Beast (Amy Chua Profiles Four Female Tycoons in China)