Claire Chiang is a social activist, entrepreneur, and author. She was Singapore’s Woman of the Year in 1999 and is a formerNominated Member of Parliament (NMP). She developed a company, Banyan Tree Gallery, which started as a retail business in 1996, and she has since been at the helm, overseeing the opening of over 60 retail outlets across the world.
In her early years as an educator, Chiang conducted intensive sociological fieldwork on factory workers and industrial relations in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. From1982 to 1990, she taught in the sociology department of the National University of Singapore and continued research at the Centre for Advanced Studies from 1990 to 1994. Recognized for her business acumen, she helped bring an end to the long-standing tradition of an all-male Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI) by becoming one of the first two women to be admitted in 1995. In spite of her achievements, she has remained down-to-earth and is an active advocate for women’s rights, family life, and the disadvantaged in society.
Chiang lived in a shophouse along Race Course Road in Little India, a home shared with 11 other Hainanese family members. She was the youngest child and only daughter of a family of six children. Her father worked as an accountant while her mother did various odd jobs. She did not have a bed to herself until she reached adulthood, having had to share her room with two brothers and her paternal grandmother.?Living in poverty, her family ate mainly vegetarian dishes: meat such as chicken was a luxury item eaten only on special occasions.
Yether parents had friends from all backgrounds, ranging from towkays to the washerwoman. Although her family was poor, she saw her parents giving food to the less well-off and her father offering free professional accounting services when needed. She had a multi-racial upbringing, living in a neighborhood where she had Indian “uncles” and “aunties.” Even the race riots of 1964 did not mar her family’s relations with their multiracial neighbors.
Chiang’s mother was a very important figure in shaping her values and attitudes toward life. Although she left school to work odd jobs to support her family, her mother made sure that her daughter learned everything from ballet to piano to Chinese dance. Chiang was enrolled in two primary schools so that she could have a strong bilingual education. Chiang hated the pressure, but she is grateful to her mother’s painstaking efforts to make her what she is today. In spite of the various illnesses, from breast cancer to stroke, that Chiang’s mother suffered for more than 20 years, she showed strength and determination in raising her children. She died of kidney failure.
Throughout her life, Chiang has held several interesting careers in academia and business. She was a research sociologist and a sociology tutor at the tertiary level. Her research culminated in the publication of the award-winning book Stepping Out: The Making of Chinese Entrepreneurs (1993), which was subsequently made into a Chinese serialized drama in 1999.
In 1994, she became the human resource director of her husband’s Wah Chang/Thai Wah Group of companies. However, it is as the founder and executive director of the Banyan Tree Gallery she has been recognized in the business world. The Gallery supplies furnishings for Banyan Tree resorts’ by working with indigenous local artisans, and Banyan Tree Gallery currently runs the Museum shops in Singapore.
In addition to her business activities, Chiang maintains active involvement in social work and women’s issues. She has developed and implemented workshops to help police officers respond more sensitively to victims of domestic violence. She became the president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) (1994) and the Society against Family Violence (1995). She has served on the boards of a number of welfare agencies. She took up volunteering in 1990 following a miscarriage and found that it helped her feel useful, happy, and productive to society.
Claire Chiang is a woman with a strong passion for life. Her intelligence, inner strength, and passion for people and causes that matter have endeared her to those who come into contact with her.