2001 Fortune Global Forum Spouse Programme

“Women In Hong Kong”(只備英文版)— Speech by Ms Anna Wu, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission


It gives me great pleasure to join you this morning. I hope you have enjoyed your stay in Hong Kong so far.


Hong Kong is often referred to as the hub of Asia, and there are some very good reasons for earning this title. Allow me to start by indulging in a brief account of Hong Kong's historical developments.

Hong Kong was seized by Britain from a weakened Qing dynasty in three stages under treaties regarded as unequal by China. In 1841, the Hong Kong Island together with half of the harbour was ceded after the Opium War. This was followed by the Kowloon peninsula in 1860 together with the other half of the harbour. The New Territories, accounting for 92% of the territory's land, was leased to Britain in 1898 under a 99-year lease. Sovereignty over Hong Kong reverted to China on 1 July 1997 and the territory is now the "Hong Kong Special Administrative Region" governed under the "one country, two systems" policy.

Prior to cessation to Britain, Hong Kong was a small fishing community and a haven for pirates and smugglers. At first, it was not thought to be much of a jewel in the British Crown. In fact, it was often referred to as "a barren rock" or, worse still, "a sterile pile of granite".

Against these inhospitable surroundings and the burning conflicts of the Opium War, colonial Hong Kong carved out a paradoxical existence to unparalleled heights in economic developments.

Shortly after Britain took possession of Hong Kong, Sir Henry Pottinger, the first governor, declared that Hong Kong would be a free port (6th February, 1842). This, together with two other factors underpinned Hong Kong's success – its laws and its low tax regime. The English legal system took root here and Hong Kong is, uniquely, the only Chinese city in the world that has a common law system. It is similar to many English-speaking countries like the USA, the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Its jurisprudence does not develop in isolation and the courts are kept aware of legal developments in other common law countries.

Hong Kong also provided a haven when massive numbers of refugees fled Mainland China in the late 1940s and 1950s and the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution during the 1960s.

Hong Kong is less than a dot on a world map. But if you have difficulty finding it, just look for the convergence points of shipping and aviation lines.

The Hong Kong economy had undergone two major transformations since the Second World War. Before the war, Hong Kong was an entrepot for China. The Korean War in 1951 and the United Nations' embargo on trade with China in the 1950's disrupted this trade. But the massive inflow of labour, capital and entrepreneurs propelled Hong Kong into a flourishing manufacturing centre.

The second transformation occurred as China began to leave behind a controlled closed-door economy for a more liberal and open economy. With the rise in cost of land and labour, the production lines moved north. And in the 1980s, Hong Kong developed into a finance and service centre as well as increasing its entrepot trade. The territory went on to become the first developing economy to enter the world's top 10 economies.

While Hong Kong has no natural resources of any kind, above ground or underground, what it does have is people, the human capital. Hong Kong now has a 6.7 million strong population.

Today, Hong Kong is an international city serving as one of the world's major financial centres. This small dot on the world map is the world's 10th largest trading economy and the 10th largest exporter of commercial services. It is home to the largest community of multinational firms in Asia outside of Japan. More than 2,000 multinational companies maintain regional offices or headquarters in Hong Kong and they play important roles in Hong Kong's economic development.

Hong Kong's international characteristics are evidenced by its large multicultural society. As it becomes more globalised, the population's ethnic make-up is likely to become even more diverse. At the moment, on Chinese alone we have several kinds: Hong Kong Chinese, Mainland Chinese, not to mention the other overseas Chinese such as the ABC (American- or Australian-born Chinese) and the BBC (British-born Chinese). Hong Kong is also home to a very diverse range of communities from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Britain, Japan, Europe, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, African, Korea, Bangladesh and Lanka, as well as Jews and Indians from Shanghai! The racial diversity provides a unique value. It is our link to our trading partners and strengthens Hong Kong as the global trader.

With such rich varieties of communities, it is not surprising to find that all the world's major religions are practised in Hong Kong - Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shinto, and Taoism. And to cater for children from different nationalities, we have a great number of international schools in Hong Kong such as American, Anglo-Chinese, Australian, British, Canadian, French, German-Swiss, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Singaporean and United World schools.


Throughout the historical transformation of Hong Kong, women have participated and made important contributions to its success in their roles as homemakers, workers, business partners and policy makers. Many women today have stepped out of conventional boundaries to become movers and shakers. But we have come a very long way indeed and we have worked very hard for it.

When Hong Kong became a British colony in 1841, footbinding for women was still a norm and women had no definable social, economic and political rights. Polygamous marriage and concubinage were acceptable; women were precluded from inheritance and property ownership, and young girls could be bought and sold as mui tsais, a system of domestic servitude of girls. Most women did not have access to education because uneducated women were considered virtuous. Added to this was the British Government's undertaking to allow the customary law of the local community to remain in operation. Customary law was effectively the Qing Dynasty law, some of which continues to apply in the New Territories today. This law is heavily biased against women.

The situation is quite different today. To illustrate this change, let me briefly give an account of the milestones in women's development in Hong Kong.


In the area of education, 1921 saw the admission of the first female student to the Hong Kong University. But it was not until five decades later that education became universal. The Government enforced six-year free compulsory education for boys and girls in 1971 and extended this to nine years in 1978. In 1971, about 36% of women over the age of 15 had received no schooling or kindergarten education. By 1999, this was reduced to 12.6%. Compulsory education has been a great equaliser and today, women and men studying in universities are roughly equal. However, there are still fewer women choosing to enter science and technology streams. We do not want to see this situation continue because Hong Kong is fast becoming a knowledge-based society. Information Technology (IT) is already a way of life and will be a key employing sector. It is important for girls to start learning and applying IT at an early stage so as to not to fall behind.


In the area of social life, the Hong Kong Council of Women was formed in 1947 to campaign for rights in areas such as marriage, abortion, inheritance and sexual violence. The Family Planning Association was revived in 1950 to provide family planning, education, clinics and other services. Family planning was able to give women a degree of control over reproduction and family size reduced considerably. But corresponding legislative change in other areas of women's lives did not come until the 1970's.

The 1970s saw the passing of some fundamental laws that gave women rights in the areas of marriage, inheritance and property ownership. Monogamous marriages and the taking of concubines were outlawed in 1970 with the passing of the Marriage Reform Ordinance. In its footsteps, amendments to existing law and new laws gave women independent legal personality and their rights to property ownership, legal proceedings and inheritance of their fathers' or husbands' legacy, irrespective of their marital status. Women in the New Territories, however, did not enjoy land inheritance rights until 1994.

Abortion law in 1972 allowed women to lawfully terminate their pregnancies and a revision in 1981 extended the criteria for lawful abortion to include young women under 16 and victims of rape, seduction or incest.

In 1977, the Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance was passed to prohibit media disclosure of rape victims' identities. This was further extended in 1979 to include victims of indecent assault and helped to encourage women report sex crimes.


In 1985, the first women's refuge in Hong Kong, Harmony House, was opened by the Hong Kong Council of Women. The following year, the Domestic Violence Ordinance was passed allowing abused married and de facto spouses to apply for an injunction order to prevent the abuser from harassing them or entering their places of residence, without having to file for divorce or separation.

In 1989, amendment to tax law gave married couples the option of separate taxation assessment in the year 1990-1991 and gave married women the right to control their own financial and taxation affairs.

In 1994, the New Territories Land (Exemption) Ordinance was passed, enabling female indigenous residents to have rights to land inheritance. The following year, female indigenous villagers were given the equal right to participate in elections. These changes were particularly significant because they gave rights to women, which did not exist under Qing Dynasty customary law.

In the area of sex discrimination, the Government conducted its first formal public consultation on sex discrimination in 1993. I decided to drive this process forward by initiating a Private Member's Bill on equal opportunities in 1994 in my capacity as a Legislator. The Bill sought to prohibit discrimination on a wide range of grounds including gender, disability, sexuality, race, age and other characteristics. The Government offered its own version of the Equal Opportunities Bill. These efforts resulted in the Sex Discrimination Ordinance and the Disability Discrimination Ordinance, which came into force in 1996. The Family Status Discrimination Ordinance followed in 1997.

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) was set up in May 1996 and became fully operational in September 1996. In that same year, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was extended to Hong Kong. At this point, I am hoping to persuade the Government to legislate against race discrimination.


It has always been difficult for women to fully participate in economic life. For one, childbirth often puts a stop to many women's careers. In Hong Kong, women who did win the right to work found that they were consistently paid less for performing the same job as their male counterparts. Years of campaigning led by the Legislator, Dr. Ellen Li, culminated in an agreement from Government in 1965 to progressively implement equal work for equal pay. Nurses and teachers were initially excluded but were included in 1971.

In 1981, amendments to employment law introduced 10 weeks of paid maternity leave for women in full-time employment. Maternity leave pay was initially equivalent to two-thirds of basic salary but later amended to four-fifths. The same year saw the Government agreeing to offer equal conditions of service and benefits for men and women within the civil service.

More women are participating in the labour force today but we still have much work to do to create the enabling conditions for women to fully participate in economic life. Women's labour force participation rate is still much lower than men's. By the time women reach 35, their participation rate starts to decline very sharply from then on. Women's median pay still lags behind men's. For women who are homemakers, the Government's new Mandatory Provident Fund scheme has caused concerns for old age security. This scheme is a retirement fund based on employment contributions and will exclude homemakers as they are not in gainful employment. Homemakers fear that they would be heavily reliant on their husbands' income or social security in old age.


In 1965, Dr. Ellen Li became the first woman appointed to the Legislative Council. In 1972, Mrs. Joyce Symons was appointed a Legislator and went on to become the first woman appointed to the Executive Council.

The Legislative Council held its first direct election in 1991 when it became a partially elected body. Seven of the 60 seats (which included 3 ex-officio seats) were then held by women. Today, women hold 11 of the 60 Legislative Council seats and 3 of the 14 seats in the Executive Council.

Over the years, women have become much more prominent in the political arena but the numbers are still low and in no way proportional to the 50% make-up of women in Hong Kong.


I hope that rather quick sweep of events will give you a flavour of the status of women here. Of-course, none of these events could possibly happen by themselves. Along the way, women from all walks of life have participated and agitated for change. Women such as Mrs. Anson Chan, who became the first female Chief Secretary for Administration in 1993. Likewise, Ms. Elsie Leung is the first Secretary for Justice in the new Hong Kong SAR Government.

But there is one woman I want to particularly focus on. A woman of outstanding character and an awe-inspiring crusader for women's rights – Dr. Ellen Li. Charting Dr. Li's life is parallel to charting the social history of women's development in Hong Kong. For more than 20 years, she was relentless in her pursuit for marriage reforms to end polygamy and concubinage, and to give equal inheritance rights to women. She also championed for equal pay for equal work. She founded the Hong Kong Chinese Women's Club, Hong Kong Council of Women, Federation of University Women and Hong Kong Family Planning Association to provide much needed social, educational and medical services to women.

Dr. Li's achievements and activism seem all the more remarkable when set against her background. She grew up at a time when it was still acceptable for her grandmother to buy young maids customarily named after flowers and vegetables by their owners. Her father took a second wife and Dr. Li's own mother chose this second wife.

Dr. Li spent part of childhood and adult life in Indo-China as well as in China. At one point, she was put in a boys' school founded by her father and later studied in a well-known school for girls in Shanghai before going onto university. From Shanghai, her father then brought her to Hong Kong.

Interestingly, much of Dr. Li's work on promoting women's equality stemmed from her philanthropic activities. This was in fact typical of the way many women from affluent background had contributed to women's development in Hong Kong. As philanthropists, these women usually worked on a voluntary basis to provide social and welfare service for people in need. Family planning is one example. Another example can be found in the Po Leung Kuk (the Kuk), an organisation founded in 1878 to care for the young and protect the innocent.

In the early days, the Kuk was primarily involved in protecting women and children from abduction and being sold into prostitution. Many of the children found were female orphans and the Kuk became well known as an agency to help orphans. From early on, women philanthropists became involved in all aspects of the running of the Kuk. Today, the Kuk is still known for providing good quality social services and education.

Women philanthropists were involved in many other non-governmental organisations but significantly, most of the earlier services later received government subvention in recognition of their necessity and value.

In recent years, while women in Hong Kong are gaining a higher profile in the corporate world, our study in 1999 found less than 5% of women on the Boards of the 33 companies that made up the Hang Seng Index. A brilliant role model is, however, found in Ms. Marjorie Yang, Chairman of the Esquel Group. Ms. Yang graduated from MIT and Harvard Business School before returning to Hong Kong to develop her family's textile and garment manufacturing company. In October 2000, she was named the sixth most powerful businesswomen in Asia by the Fortune magazine for her significant achievements in running a global operation that employs 43,000 people worldwide.

What is especially refreshing about Ms. Yang is her candidness about the need for social accountability in business. She demonstrates her commitment in practical terms by investing in technological solutions to protect the environment and use resources more effectively for sustainable development. An example is the wastewater treatment centre she has set up in China, which uses wastewater to treat wastewater before it is discharged by neutralising the sulphur dioxide in the water. Water is also used more efficiently with a new dyeing profile. This reduces water consumption by 1,700 tons each day, which means a corresponding reduction in wastewater quantity, and saves the company USD 0.27 million each year. These are remarkable measures.

The Esquel Group has now joined the United Nations' Global Compact, under which the company commits itself to respect a number of international norms in the areas of human rights, labour standards and the environment. The Esquel Group considers itself "the standard bearer of reform for the Chinese garment and textile industries". It will be interesting to see how the company takes forward their social accountability approach and lead the way for manufacturers in Hong Kong and Asia.

Another businesswoman deserving of respect is Mrs. Maria Lee, a housewife-turned entrepreneur who used her culinary skills to set up one cake shop in Hong Kong in 1966 and went on to build a multinational enterprise with branches in China, Taiwan, USA and Canada. The business expanded aggressively and ran into difficulties, especially after the Asian financial crisis. By 1998, it went into voluntary liquidation. But it is important to look beyond the failure of that business. Mrs. Lee's rise to fortunes started from a very small idea, and it is still surprising how the simplest idea can often work best. Mrs. Lee was also very innovative because her cake shops revolutionised traditional wedding cake-delivery in Hong Kong.

It is customary to give cakes to wedding guests before the wedding reception takes place and in the past, cakes were literally hand-delivered. Today, even if you had a Mercedes at your disposal, the task is cumbersome and time consuming and, I guess, the ultimate test of true love. Mrs. Lee sold cake coupons and it became the perfect solution as well as averting many pre-nuptial arguments. The idea, again, is simple. You send coupons to your wedding guests and they can choose their own cakes at leisure in any of Mrs. Lee's cake shops. The idea worked because Chinese traditions were still being preserved. Mrs. Lee created a trend that other cake shops were quick to catch on.

Mrs. Lee was in her seventies when her business ended. For many, that would probably be a convenient point to retire gracefully. Not so for Mrs. Lee. She has now branched into organising elaborate "Designer Dinners" in her home, starring herself the head chef, and operates 3-day tours in China in her native home town. She is enjoying herself and that attitude to life is the most inspiring. As George Bernard Shaw once said:

"People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in the world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them."


On a concluding note, I would like to say that the social development of women is also a journal on the development of a civil society in Hong Kong. In civil society, every member needs to feel they have a stake in the social order and to help build a strong community. I believe that equal opportunities and social accountability provide an enabling and empowering framework for the individual, man or woman, to benefit from economic development. They allow different spheres to coexist by providing a level playing field for individuals to succeed. Businesses now recognise that they need to transcend capitalism and that consumers expect them to be good corporate citizens. Rights advocates, too, need to recognise that industries and businesses create jobs and they must become a partner in the advancement and development of a community. Governments will have to take up their role to enable the individuals in a community to become independent and thus to reduce the reliance on the public purse. We each need to play our part because the reality is: we live in a world that is interdependent and interconnected.

Thank you very much. I wish you all a very pleasant stay in Hong Kong.