Lady Bankers

As a former lady lawyer, I’m sympathetic to professional women trying to make it in this day and age. Imagine, then, what that must have been like in 1920s Shanghai. The Shanghai Women’s Bank opened its doors in 1924. A woman founded that bank. She staffed it exclusively with women to cater to the specific needs of a growing market of female customers. Wealthy women, to be sure, but even they came in all sizes and shapes. Adeline Yen Mah, author of the memoir Falling Leaves, describes the customers.

bank founder
Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah. Image source: Goodreads

spinster daughters, with their inheritance and nest-eggs; first wives (called big wives), with their dowries and winnings from mah-jong; concubines(called little wives), with cash presents from their men; and professional and educated women, who were tired of being patronized at male-dominated establishments.

Adeline Yen Mah, Falling Leaves (New York: Broadway Books, 1997), p. 9

At the time, arranged marriages, child brides and concubinage were still legal. A married woman was expected to obey her husband, a daughter submitted to the will of her father, a widow to the dictates of her son. I must have been stunned by the idea of a women’s bank in that day and age because I used it in my debut novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle.

Then I forgot about both the woman and her bank until I got a call last week from Tony Hsu. In 2016, Tony published Chasing the Modern, a biography of his grandfather, the Chinese poet Xu Zhimo. Xu’s first wife, Zhang Youyi, was an integral part of Xu’s story as well as a major influence on Tony’s life.

It so happens that Zhang was also involved with the Shanghai Women’s Bank. It seemed as if the gods were telling me to look into that bank one more time.

what’s in a name?

The woman who founded the Shanghai Women’s Bank goes by many names: Miss S.Y. Nyien, Yen Shu-Ho, Yan Shunzhen and Yan Shuhe. Her bank also has various names like the Shanghai Women’s Commercial and Savings Bank, the Shanghai Women’s Savings Bank and the Shanghai Women’s Business Bank.

Adeline Yen Mah fails to name her illustrious ancestor but she does offer this description.

Her black hair was cut short above her ears and combed backwards to reveal a smooth forehead above an oval face. Behind round, wire-rimmed, tinted glasses, her large eyes were penetrating. Always elegant, she favoured dark, monochrome, silk qipaos (Chinese dresses) with mandarin collars and butterfly buttons.

Falling Leaves, p. 8

Let’s call her Miss Yen. According to her grandniece, Miss Yen attended the elite McTyeire School for Girls. She was fluent in English, baptized a Christian and cut a mean figure astride a horse. Her bank made it into the New York Times under the heading: “Women’s Bank in China. Native Ladies of Shanghai Run One Exclusively for Their Sex.” According to John H. Nelson, Assistance Trade Commissioner at Shanghai, the purpose of the bank was to employ Chinese women and encourage them to save.  Though, he added, the Shanghai Women’s Bank would also perform the functions of an American pawn shop.

It is a common practice for Chinese women to pawn their jewelry when in need of money.

New York Times, Aug. 23, 1924, p. 15

Shanghai Women’s Bank

Miss Yen had a six story building constructed to house her bank. It was located at 480 Nanking Road, close to the financial district on the Bund. Miss Yen lived in the sixth floor penthouse apartment, together with her friend Miss Guang, three maids, a cook, and a chauffeur. Female bank staff lived in the dormitories in the other upper floors.

Many women worked at the Shanghai Women’s Bank, including Adeline Yen Mah’s mother, Ren Yong-Ping, and her beloved Auntie Baba. Some online sources identify other co-founders or managers, but the name that crops up most often is Zhang Youyi, Tony Hsu’s grandmother.

bank VP
Zhang Youyi and her first husband Xu Zhimo. Image source: Wikimedia

Zhang came from a well-connected family. Her second oldest brother, Zhang Junmai, was an influential statesman and philosopher. Her fourth oldest brother, Zhang Jiaao, was a banker. Tony Hsu believes that it was Zhang Jiaao who introduced his grandmother to the Shanghai Women’s Bank. 

She would have been a considerable asset to the bank. Zhang spoke some French, fluent German and, of course, Shanghainese. In 1927, she became a Vice-President of the Shanghai Women’s Bank.

Zhang did not live at the bank. Like my own grandfather did two decades earlier, she had a house built on Avenue Haig. Hsu describes it as part of an enclave of homes for bankers and other professionals. He lived there as toddler in the late 1940s, around the same time my father would leave his home on Avenue Haig for the wider world.

the long goodbye

The late 1940s were a time of turmoil in China. The war with Japan ended in 1945 and with it any need for the Nationalists and Communists to present a united front. The Chinese Civil War began.

In 1946, Zhang Youyi and Miss Yen were both still active at the Shanghai Women’s Bank. Yen Mah recalls her family’s uncertainty:

Every other family with property, Kuomintang ties or even western professional training agonized over what to do next: to stay or to go. For established businessmen with homes, offices, families, friends, and guanxi (connections), the choice was particularly hard.

Falling Leaves, p. 86-87

Zhang left. She took her grandchildren to Canton, Macau then Hong Kong in 1949. By then, most of the Yen family had also departed China. Miss Yen stayed. She couldn’t bear parting with her bank.

At first, it seemed the right gamble. It was business as usual once the Communists took over. Then the campaigns began against corruption, capitalism, and counter-revolutionaries.

In 1952, struggle meetings were started against my Grand Aunt to ‘assist her in interpreting her past waywardness’ and ‘give her the opportunity to correct her mistakes’. Many of her former employees denounced her. Some went along to save their own skin. Her guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion.

Falling Leaves, p. 198

The Shanghai Women’s Bank was nationalized in 1955. Miss Yen lived through the Great Leap Forward, the famine it caused, the Cultural Revolution and the opening of China. She died in 1975.

the bank today

bank neighbor
My Zhang Xiaoquan scissors. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Today, the ISBC Nanjing East Branch stands at the former site of the Shanghai Women’s Bank. One of many commercial establishments along the busy pedestrianized ares of Nanjing Lu East, it’s easy to miss in the lines for its more famous neighbor, the Zhang Xiaoquan Scissors Shop.

I’ve been to that shop. I love my scissors. It never occurred to me to wonder about the history that was made just next door by a small group of lady bankers.

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