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October 26, 2013

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Shanghai women's bank a first for 'ladies'

The 1920s and 30s were heady times for Chinese women as the economy surged, conventions were challenged, women joined the workforce and some were the boss. Yao Minji reports.

The name Yan Shuhe is little known today, but from the 1920s to 1940s, she was a legendary banker in Shanghai. Yan was one of the first female bank executives, heading the Women’s Department of the Shanghai Commercial and Savings Bank.

She also operated a women’s real estate company with a mostly women clientele and in 1924 she cofounded the Shanghai Women’s Commercial and Savings Bank.

The bank was open at 480 Nanjing Rd E., near today’s Zhang Xiaoquan Scissors’ Shop.

It expanded despite fierce competition among traditional Chinese banks, foreign banks and foreign-style Chinese banks. In 1955 it was nationalized, along with other private banks.

The economy was powering along and these were heady times for Chinese women as traditional roles were challenged and new fields, previously taboo, were opened to them. Women were entering the workforce and some of them took charge.

More privileged women started entering previously all-male areas like banks, custom offices, post offices, police stations, government offices, and universities. They became professors, doctors, lawyers, journalists and pilots, among many other professions.

The idea of a women’s bank was first discussed around 1900, as many wealthy wives, concubines and daughters went to banks to store their jewelry, personal money and dowries in safe deposit boxes. Records of those discussions are lost, but the idea fell through.

Around the same time in the 1920s, many Chinese banks opened women’s departments, where female employees catered for wealthy women.

“Career women started to increase and became an attractive customer group in Shanghai at the time, and many opened their independent bank accounts,” the late Shanghai author Cheng Naishan wrote about the phenomenon. “To accommodate this growing customer group, many banks hired attractive, matronly and credible female staff, almost always married, to work with them.”

Cheng recalled her visit to one of the first female bankers in Shanghai, surnamed Zhao, who had graduated from a women’s college with a degree in Chinese and worked in the customer service department at the Bank of China.

While male clerks wore dark suits or the traditional cheongsam, depending on whether they dealt with foreign or Chinese customers, female bank employees all wore plain-colored qipao that fell below their knees, and used only light makeup. They were not allowed to wear high heels or open-toe shoes.

In 1921, the first Chinese women’s bank was established in Tianjin, by men, but it only lasted around five years.

In 1924, a number of educated and wealthy women in Shanghai founded the Shanghai Women’s Commercial and Savings Bank. The majority of executives, employees and customers were women.

Many of them were already successful businesswomen or bank executives, such as vice president Zhang Youyi (1900-1988), famous as the first wife of well-known poet Xu Zhimo.

She came from a privileged family; her father was one of the wealthiest men in Shanghai and her brothers were executives in big companies and banks.

Zhang, like many privileged women at the time, went to women’s schools and studied in Germany. After her divorce from Xu, Zhang returned to teach German in a Chinese university and later became vice president of the women’s bank.

She also cofounded and operated a clothing company that manufactured and sold fashionable Western-style women’s dresses.

Xie Zhilian, cofounder of the women’s bank, had been general manager of a district tap water works. Another cofounder Tan had helped run her husband’s business, the famous Sincere Department Store, for many years.

Before the bank opened, they recruited 100 middle-school students to be tested and trained. The MC Tyeire School, today’s Shanghai No. 3 Girls’ High School, also had an account at the bank, where tuition was deposited.

In 1949, there were 23,662 employees from all kinds of banks in Shanghai, and 5 percent or 1,161 of them were women, mainly hired in the 1930s and 1940s, according to government records. Other financial institutions such as the Shanghai Stock Exchange also hired women, though very few.

From pilot to professor

As the economy developed, women were entering the workforce both in factories and more senior positions.

The majority of poor women workers toiled in factories and as maids, but they were allowed to work in the same space as men, a proximity previously forbidden as the sexes had been segregated.

Ji Chang Long Silk Co, the first large-scale Chinese-owned and operated company that used large machines for mass production, was established in 1878. It soon encountered problems with locals in Nanhai County in Guangdong Province — they didn’t want men and women working in the same place, saying it would promote immorality.

But women, single, married and divorced, were going to work, making names for themselves.

Only 40 years later, women who had not been permitted to work in factories with men, started founding and owning all kinds of factories and companies. Some of them didn’t come from privileged families.

Dong Zhujun (1900-1997) was the daughter of a rickshaw man. She married, had four daughters and was divorced.

Dong started her own business with a women’s socks and stocking factory and another company to lease out rickshaws. To support her living and her business, Dong was a regular visitor to pawn shops.

In 1935, she started to get successful with the opening of Jinjiang Sichuan Restaurant and then the Jinjiang Tea House in 1936. In 1945 they were expanded into the well-known Jin Jiang Hotel Shanghai.

Women’s newspapers and women’s journals were founded in Shanghai, such as Female Voice, established in 1932. It included novels, opinions, poems and discussions about women’s rights and women’s unequal waged.

In 1936, around 150,000 spectators watched Li Xiaqing, the first Chinese female pilot, as she took off from Shanghai’s Lunghwa Airport and performed aerial maneuvers in a single cockpit craft.

Li had been a famous Shanghai movie star who made her screen debut at the age of 16. Two years later, she retired and traveled in Europe, where she saw a flight performance in France. That inspired her to learn to fly. She studied at a pilot’s school in Switzerland and later at another institute in the United States.

During the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45), Li flew and performed overseas for donations to support the Chinese army. She died in a flight accident at the age of 28.

For a long time, teaching was a respected and popular profession for educated women, but there were no female professors.

In 1920, Sophia H.Z. Chen (1890-1976) returned from the US with a master’s degree in Western literature from the University of Chicago. She became the first female professor in China, hired by Peking University to teach Western history.



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