Interview with Annie Wu, Board member of the World Trade Centres’ Association and a successful business woman
She is a dedicated and active feminist who is trying to help women to lead a better life. Ms Wu is also a very successful business woman. She was, for instance, the first foreign person to establish a joint venture with China in the late 1970s when China began opening up for foreign business. Today, Ms Wu has about 18,000 employees handling the catering at the main airports in China and Hong Kong, but she is also into real estate and runs different projects round the world.
Q: How did you start in business?
When I was 8 years old my father was running a restaurant in Hong Kong, so I would spend quite a lot of time there. When you are running a restaurant you meet all kinds of people and you can broaden your vision. It is a very tiring business because you work long hours, seven days a week, but it’s a good way to make friends from around the world.
After from graduating from university in 1970, my first job was in Expo in Osaka, and I gained a lot of experience. I was working from 8 in the morning until 11 at night. However, I visited over 110 pavilions, so it was a very international career. It established my vision and I hoped that someday I would do something around the world. In 1976 I started the first World Trade Centre in Hong Kong, and I met Mr Guy Tozzoli. I have been a Board Member of the World Trade Centres’ Association (WTCA) bringing more cities into the Association. I think the more we work together, the more we share a vision. I think the family is getting bigger and that it goes beyond what we call national power.
Trade is a very important way of promoting peace and prosperity.
Q: It seems like a big family working very closely together.
Of course, we are different with different nationalities having different backgrounds, but there is one common goal –– which is friendship, reciprocity and mutual respect throughout the whole world. I think the more we can talk to each other, foster comprehension and better co-operation, then we will have less war. I think it will be better for the next generation.
Q: How many world trade centres have you set up in China?
The last ten years we have set up between thirteen and sixteen, but we are also helping setting up other World Trade Centres in Africa and North America. When people from these countries come and see us in Beijing or Hong Kong, we explain the usefulness of the World Trade Centres. For instance, recently a delegation came from Milwaukee to see us in Beijing. They were so impressed that they are now going to set up the same thing in their city. So it’s not only China –– we are helping cities in other parts of the world to endorse the project.
Q: What is your next project?
I’m going to sponsor some African students who will attend universities in Hong Kong and China. Some of them speak Chinese already, others are learning it. They are very eager to conduct business between Africa and China. I can give them some exposure in China enabling them to become entrepreneurs so that they can set up world trade centres in African cities.
Q: You are also doing other things in Africa.
Yes, we are settings up other projects for Chinese entrepreneurs so that we can employ more people, set up health centres for children, schools, etc.
Q: In which countries?
In many … Tanzania, Cameroon and Madagascar.
Q : What else do you do?
I want to do something more for women because they are underprivileged; especially in certain continents. Not everyone is as free as those in Norway or Sweden. We would like to offer young girls a chance to get educated: if women are better educated they can take care of their family in a better way.
Q: In Europe lately feminists are not so engaged anymore. Have you noticed the same?
In mainland China, women have been educated since 1949. Mao Tse-tung gave all women the chance to become educated. This was a very good thing for Chinese women as it was very unusual before that time. Now, even in the countryside, education is provided to women and young girls. It will take time, as there is still a 20% illiteracy rate in China.
Q: A lot has been achieved in a very short time.
Yes, since 1978 when Deng Xiaoping opened up the country.
Q: I know that you are from Hong Kong. What do you feel –– Hongkongese or Chinese?
I feel Chinese, but through our education and culture we are more open minded.
Q: You are carrying out a project for blind children in Tibet, amongst other things for the well being of others. When do you the find time to do all this, and why?
I am single and not married! My educational background is Roman Catholic; and I went to a school run by Canossian sisters from Verona. In Hong Kong we received a Western education, and at the same time we are Chinese with long traditions. I feel in a way that if we can do something through our education, what we have done is a way of paying back to society. That’s the whole idea.
I was very fascinated by the Tibetan culture, not the religion. They have a very tough life up there in the high altitudes. Many people live no longer than 35 years because of the lack of nutrition and vitamins; a lot of them become blind. Before 1949 there were a lot of landlords and the populations lived like serfs –– they had no freedom. When Tibet was liberated, they are no longer owned by landlords. I went to Tibet because I wanted to see for myself how the country was improving.
In the Tibetan culture, if a child is blind it means that he/she is possessed by the devil, so they are simply thrown away. They have no human rights at all. I was very surprised by a woman who was doing something for the blind children on the streets. Together we set up an NGO.
Then I saw that Tibetan women had no opportunity for education. In the Tibetan culture, men still have a superior status and women have none. People are not aware of this. They thought that the Chinese government was suppressing the population, but it’s the other way round. Tibetan men do not want women to be on the same level as them. We are trying to give the women equal rights, better opportunities and even a chance to work. From the outside you think that the lamas are being oppressed, but the fact is that the lamas enjoy all kinds of benefits. I have seen it with my own eyes. The lamas have a better life than the average Tibetan! There is no religious oppression. I think sometimes you should go and see for yourself.
Q: What is your next project?
A friend and I set up a yak farm for Tibetan women. I also want to set up a farm growing Tibetan cabbage for export. Years ago they could not grow anything in Tibet, but today they can and the quality is very good. In the old days they used to be very poor. People do not know it, but it’s quite different today. The people who have taken refuge in India, the Tibet they talk about is the Tibet of fifty years ago –– not the Tibet of today!
When you read history, each nation has its national pride. Lately, when the Olympic torch was attacked, I think it was a good thing, because it raised the awareness of the young average Chinese about their national pride. I think we need patriotism. It is perhaps one of the best things that happened!
People are saying “Free Tibet”, but Tibet is part of China. There is a lot of freedom there and lots of independence. I have seen it with my own eyes. They have their own freedom; the young children today learn Tibetan and Chinese. Even the Dalai Lama’s brother is living in China –– and that speaks for itself. I just leave people to draw their own conclusions.