Today, 8 March, marks the occasion of International Women’s Day. Founded in the early 1900s, the event has grown over the years, now serving as a way to recognise the struggle for women’s rights around the world.
Hong Kong has had no shortage of trailblazing women, all of whom made valuable and groundbreaking contributions to their respective fields, from education to sports to government. Here are just a few of the exceptional women to make their mark on Hong Kong’s history over the years:
Irene Cheng, first female university graduate in Hong Kong
A member of the affluent Ho Tung family, Irene could have led a comfortable, carefree life, but instead she set out to achieve more. In 1926, she became Hong Kong’s first female university graduate, receiving an English degree from Hong Kong University. After earning a doctorate in London, she moved to Guangzhou to teach at Lingnan University and became a member of the Ministry of Education.
In 1948 she returned to Hong Kong and became the city’s first senior education officer. Her motivation was partly inspired by her mother, Lady Clara Ho Tung, who told her, “Gather all the learning you can from your teachers, study to serve humanity and hand over your knowledge to others.”
Hazel Ying Lee, first Chinese-American female pilot in US military
Although she was born in Portland, Oregon, the Chinese-American pilot became a hero in both China and the US for helping to protect both countries during World War II.
In 1933, Hazel travelled to China to volunteer for the Chinese Air Force, but was turned away because she was a woman. Instead, she stayed in Canton and flew for a private airline until 1937, when Japan invaded China. She survived the bombing attacks and escaped to Hong Kong, where she continued to help the war effort by visiting a refugee camp for women with babies. She then returned to the US and ultimately became the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the US military, and was tasked with ferrying aircrafts from manufacturers to North America airfields.
Tragically, she died in a crash in 1944. Her sister, Frances Tong, said of Hazel: “It so happened that Hazel got her pilot’s license right after the passing of our father. If dad had still been there, I don’t think she would have been able to get it. But she knew that’s what she wanted to do. She didn’t care if it was ladylike or not.”
Emily Lau Wai-hing, first elected legislator in Hong Kong
Also dubbed an “Iron Lady,” in 1991 Emily Lau Wai-hing became the first woman to be elected to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. She also served as chairperson of the pro-democracy Democratic Party.
Previously working as a journalist, she famously posed a controversial question to Margaret Thatcher in 1984 about the Sino-British Joint Declaration to “deliver over 5 million people into the hands of a communist dictatorship.” She has been an unwavering advocate of a free press and human rights, often flying to Geneva to attend United Nations hearings on human rights issues.
When she left Legco last year, she vowed to continue serving civil society: “My bosses are the Hong Kong people,” she said. “I have no conflict of interests or conflict of roles. I devoted all my time to serving the Hong Kong people.”
Perveen Crawford, Hong Kong’s first female pilot
Perveen became Hong Kong’s first female pilot in 1995, and she is now on track to become the city’s first astronaut. After introducing herself to Virgin Group founder Richard Branson at a party, she was offered a once-in-a-lifetime trip to outer space as part of Virgin Galactic’s push to create a space tourism industry. Originally scheduled for 2008, the trip was delayed after some setbacks, but 100 people have already signed on including the likes of John Travolta, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Perveen was quoted as saying, “My husband and kids don’t think it is completely safe. But I told them it’s more dangerous to cross the road in Hong Kong. Besides, I’m not afraid of death. I would rather die and float gracefully in space than be buried on Earth.”
Lee Lai-shan, Hong Kong’s first Olympics gold medalist
Professional windsurfer Lee Lai-shan was not only the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal for Hong Kong, but she also remains the only person in the city’s history – male or female – to clinch the top athletic award. Affectionately known as “San San,” the athlete, now 46, won gold at the 1996 summer games in Atlanta while representing the then British colony. After winning, she proudly announced to media: “Hong Kong athletes are not rubbish!” And right she was.
Margaret Leung Ko May-yee, first female CEO of a Hong Kong bank
Hong Kong-born Margaret Leung Ko May-yee became the first female CEO of a Hong Kong-listed bank when she took the reigns as Hang Seng Bank’s head honcho in 2009.
After graduating from Hong Kong University in 1975, she started working at Bank of America, followed by various positions at HSBC in retail, commercial and investment banking. In 1985, she decided to relocate to Melbourne for a position with HSBC – something she says changed the trajectory of her career path.
“I was told it would not be right for a woman to leave her family in Hong Kong,” she said. “If I hadn’t gone to Australia, I would likely have stayed on in my job, comfortable until retirement and becoming part of the bank’s furniture.”
When she returned to Hong Kong, she made sure that didn’t happen.
Text: Emily Petsko