WITH feet in two worlds, 90-year-old Linda Tsao Yang was recently bestowed “Honorary Citizenship” in Shanghai — the city of her birth though not her home for most of the last 70 years.
Yang was one of two people to win this year’s award. It cited her work in the cleanup of Suzhou Creek and in promoting friendly relations between the people of Shanghai and the people of California.
“I could not help shedding tears of joy and gratitude when I heard that the government and people of my birthplace were giving me such a high honor, 70 years after I left the city to study and then live in the US,” Yang told Shanghai Mayor Yang Xiong when he presented the award.
Yang, Chairwoman Emeritus of the Asian Corporate Governance Association based in Hong Kong, served as US ambassador and executive director to the board of the Asian Development Bank from 1993 to 1999.
During her tenure, Yang helped arrange US$300 million in funding for the Suzhou Creek environmental treatment project. “It was only giving a gentle push to a boat sailing with a favorable wind,” she says. “Staff at Shanghai government and the Asian Development Bank did an outstanding job in preparing the project. Both parties worked together in good spirit and strong commitment to get the project done. And do it well.”
The cleanup of Suzhou Creek has been one of the bank’s most successful projects in China. Yang says it was an important undertaking because of the positive impact it would have on the millions of people in Shanghai.
“I’m a native-born daughter of Shanghai. I was born in my grandparents’ house, which was not too far from Suzhou Creek,” Yang says. “I remember that when I was a child, there were lots of boats on the busy waterway. It was an important transport link between Taihu Lake and the Huangpu River. There were always people coming and going.”
Yang studied economics at the St John’s University, now East China University of Political Science and Law, along the banks of Suzhou Creek.
She left Shanghai in 1946 to study banking and international finance at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University in New York. After graduation, she stayed and worked in the US.
When she first returned to Shanghai in the mid-1980s, she went to see the creek and found it polluted and unpleasant.
In 1992, when Yang came back to Shanghai to attend an alumni event at St John’s University, she visited the creek again and found it worse than before. The water was so stinky that she had to hold her nose, she recalls.
“The flow was blocked by garbage and waste from factories and residents along the creek,” she says. “Things floated on the top. It was very dirty, and I felt sad for the people who lived in the vicinity. I also worried that it would be a source of infectious disease.”
She adds, “Shanghai had millions of residents. They deserve a clean river flowing through the heart of the city.”
Yang’s involvement with the Manila-based Asian Development Bank gave her the opportunity to do something about the deplorable state of the creek. When the cleanup project began to take shape, she had to convince Washington it was more than an infrastructure project. It was a humanitarian project for the health and welfare of millions of people in Shanghai.
“You clean up a creek not just to clean up creek, but rather to improve the health and welfare of the life of the people who live there. It was definitely a humanitarian project,” she says.
Eventually the US joined other members at the bank to approve the funding.
Suzhou Creek today curls through a modern innovative and cultural hub of industries, with plenty of museums and greenbelts.
“It really reflects the hard work of the Shanghai government and staff and my colleagues at the bank,” she says of the achievement. “I just gave it a little push. I feel I really don’t deserve the award. I’m humbled by the award but I love it.”
These sorts of major projects are never easy.
“I think Suzhou Creek, after all these years, is a good example of what you can achieve with collaboration, dedication, patience and perseverance,” she says.
During her tenure at the bank, Yang also introduced a number of policies aimed at helping Asian countries, including China, to benefit from economic development.
In addition to her bank duties, Yang is a long-time member and a former director of the Committee of 100, which is dedicated to promote constructive and mutually beneficial relations between the US and China and full participation by Chinese Americans in all aspects of life in the US.
She is frequent speaker on matters related to the economic and social development of China and has promoted closer cooperation between public and private sectors to boost international finance and trade.
Having not lived in Shanghai for 70 years, Yang says she still misses the City God’s Temple. She recalls her parents taking her and her brother there when they were young.
“My brother would rush to where they kept all the rabbits, birds and other such things, and I would head for the place that sold sweets,” she says. “I especially like the tangyuan, or sweet rice dumplings. When I think of Shanghai, I always think of food, and food to me means City God’s Temple.”
Not all old memories are pleasant. She remembers Shanghai occupied by foreigners and the plight of poverty-stricken families.
While playing outdoors once, she spotted a girl peeping out from a door and invited her to come out and play. But the girl slammed the door immediately.
Confused by her rudeness, Yang related the incident to her mother, who told her that the girl had been given away to a wealthy family to work as a child maid by her poor parents and was forbidden from playing with other children.
“It was the old society,” Yang says. “I’m very, very happy that’s not the case any more.”
She recalls helping illiterate servants who worked in her parents’ house to read letters from their families and write simple replies for them.
Yang was lucky enough to have open-minded parents who allowed her to study abroad. Her mother, though concerned, was not about to let a golden opportunity pass her daughter by.
Life at that time was not easy for an Asian young woman studying in the US. It was just after the end of World War II, and most of Yang’s classmates were veterans studying under the government-provided GI Bill.
“I was 20 and all my classmates were older than I,” she recalls. “Often I was the only woman in the class. So I was very lonely for the first year.”
But Yang is not a woman easily daunted and she overcame setbacks and successfully graduated.
Finding a job was even harder amid race and gender discrimination, she says.
“My professor wrote recommendation letters for me, but I just could not find a suitable job,” says Yang. “Some companies just said no. Some offered me secretarial work. No one wanted to hire me as an economic researcher, even at the lowest pay level.”
But Yang, with the help of her professor, finally landed a research internship at Chase Manhattan Bank.
She was later kept on as a full-time employee at a salary of US$45 per week and went on to impress her colleagues with her dedication and innovative ideas.
In 1993, Yang was appointed by then President Bill Clinton as US ambassador and US executive director to the Asian Development Bank. Upon her retirement in 1999, she was presented with the Distinguished Service Award by Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers.
In 2003, Yang joined the board of the Bank of China (Hong Kong) as an independent, non-executive director and a founding chair of the board’s strategy and budget committee. In 2008, the Institute of Directors in Hong Kong named her “Director of the Year.” Yang retired from the bank in 2010.