Lady bosses of Shanghai

Here's a look at a few of the many brilliant women totally killing it in Shanghai

Yang Xiaozhe
In the wise words of Beyoncé: Who run the world? Girls! Shanghai's unstoppable lady bosses are blazing trails and changing the game. Real talk: just existing in this world with XX chromosomes is some kind of victory. But then there are those unstoppable wonder women blazing trails and changing the game who have us all awestruck.

Our column ‘Lady bosses of Shanghai’ looks at a few of the many brilliant women totally killing it in the city we call home. Take notes on general female badassery with these 13 profiles of real-life superwomen.

Photography by Yang Xiaozhe

Hannah Keirl and Phoebe Han, bar raisers

When Phoebe Han and Hannah Keirl get talking about bar business, you won’t be able to stop them – and you won’t want to, either. Their passion for their craft is infectious. Australian native Keirl moved to Shanghai last year with her start-up Spirits Box, a platform that imports and distributes craft spirits, while Shanxi-born Han experiments with and teaches the ins and outs about local spirits at her Tianping Lu bar, Healer, in Xuhui.

But these two don’t stop there. They came together last winter to work on a sustainable ‘closed loop’ cocktail menu for Healer. Sustainability is something Keirl has been teaching for a while. ‘You create a menu rather than an individual cocktail,’ she explains. ‘That way if you have something left over from one cocktail, you use it in the next one [to reduce waste production].’ The idea is that the small changes will snowball. 

It’s a huge task, but steering the traditionally waste-laden bar industry towards a greener path is something they both feel is possible. ‘We need to change our mindset,’ Han says of bartenders. ‘A lot of people feel that pollution is such a big thing that they’re not responsible for, and it’s up to other people to fix. After working with Hannah I realised we must make a start somewhere.’ 

They suggest starting with the little things – say no to plastic straws, opt for suppliers that are working to offset their carbon footprint, limit the amount of ice you use… And don’t expect to see change for awhile. ‘Anything with sustainability is a process, and it’s not going to happen overnight. You have to be mindful. Challenge yourself and others to question what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,’ Keirl finishes.

By Amy Snelling

Dora Ke, mentor

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When asked what she thinks is the importance of women helping other women, Dora Ke laughs, ‘Well, no one else is helping us.’ She’s only half-joking, though. Ke became China President of Her Century, a women’s mentoring network, to fill what she thought was a lack of people encouraging young women to pursue bold goals, to take risks and explore what they’re capable of. 

Ke is an explorer herself, having wandered off the traditional route – university, a stable job, marriage, kids and the rest. With her MBA and psychology masters, Ke works in career development at IE Business School, while pursuing social enterprise with Singularity University, Startup Weekend and of course Her Century. Education is her main means of exploration, with her own bottomless reading list spanning from culture and history to blockchain, AI and more.

By Kenny Ong

Danyi Gao, chef and restaurant owner

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Danyi Gao didn’t plan to be co-owner and head chef of funk and soul supper club Shake. She didn’t even plan to be a chef. The Ningbo native’s first career was industrial design, but fast-forward to now and Gao’s coming off a big win on Hong Kong celeb chef Nicholas Tse’s cooking show, Chef Nic, securing one million RMB in investment capital. 

As a foodie and self-taught cook, Gao dropped her career in design for a life in the kitchen, starting with an internship at the Shangri-La. The plan was to go to culinary school after six months, but instead she went on to work in Le Sept and Mr and Mrs Bund

Professional kitchens are famously abusive work environments, and being a woman doesn’t make it easier. ‘I’ve been locked in the walk-in refrigerator, slapped on the back with kitchen towels, humiliated by the chef in front of everyone,’ Gao says. ‘In a professional kitchen, women are an easy target for negative behaviour because there are so few of them. Friends and family would always ask why I was doing this, and they would feel sorry for me. You have to learn to not give a shit.’ 

When it comes to cooking, it’s apparent Gao very much gives a shit. While opening Shake, she couldn’t find a chef that met her standards, so she decided to do it herself – making her one of Shanghai’s very few female head chefs and restaurant owners.

By Kenny Ong and Cat Nelson

Charlene Liu and Jill Tang, tech women

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‘Growing up and studying engineering in the ’90s, all my role models were men – Einstein, Edison – because you don’t hear about people like Stephanie Kwolek, the lady who invented Kevlar [used in bulletproof vests],’ Charlene Liu (left) remembers. Have things changed today? ‘Well, not really, no.’ A deficit of women still plagues STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) industries. But that’s where the dynamic duo of Liu and Jill Tang come in, with their passion project Ladies Who Tech – an organisation challenging the status quo of STEM sectors by encouraging women to break into the still male-dominated fields. 

‘We’re inspiring women to empower themselves’ by creating a community of female and male techies in Shanghai who also recognise the importance of diversity in the industry, Tang emphasises. Liu adds, ‘We also want corporations to own the fact that they can hire more women,’ which is why they have invested particular time and energy partnering with international and Chinese multinational corporations to hold regular talks targeting students, graduates and entrepreneurs. 

But they’re only just warming up. This year, Liu and Tang are planning regular events like workshops and hackathons, and a Ladies Who Tech convention in June with forums, a job fair and networking sessions. They also plan to build more partnerships with schools and companies who can offer scholarships for women going into STEM. ‘We might be a small party, but we are trying to get a message of change across,’ Tang notes. 'We need to not only bring communities together to inspire them, we need to get more people involved, to tell people you can do these jobs, you can have it all.

By Amy Snelling

Sharon Gao, tech product manager

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Sharon Gao is well aware of the doubts and assumptions made about her. People's gears turn, grinding through some roundabout logic or disbelief, when she says she's gamer and a games developer. She doesn't care to explain, and she doesn't need to prove anything about who she is.

‘Men need to care more, and women need to care less,’ she says at one point, laughing, talking about the importance of being fearless as a woman. ‘Guys, please be more aware [of the unique challenges facing women], and girls, don’t let [those challenges] hold you back.’ 

For Gao, fearlessness comes from having faith in yourself. She compares it to religion, ‘...an unshakeable foundation that you just know and have and it doesn’t have to be based on facts. You know it’s there and you know it’s good for you, so it almost doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.’

In her third year at Princeton University, the CEO of Zynga, the company behind Farmville, recruited Gao for an internship after her questions at a Q&A stumped him. The internship, with lots of on-the-job-training and mentorship, matured into a career in tech product management. Since Zynga, Gao has launched tech products for Anheuser-Busch InBev and Javelin. She now works for Directive Games in Shanghai as a lead producer and product manager, with plans to start her own company one day.

When it comes to being a woman in the games industry, Gao thinks people are wrong to associate games development with the malicious sexism associated with negative gamer stereotypes. ‘The type of sexism in the games industry is more “bro-culture”. It’s the type of thing where they hang out together, they drink together, they tend to give each other more opportunities, more information, and they rise together.’ 

As for how that can be fixed? More women in leadership positions would be helpful, says Gao, but she also reiterates, ‘Men need to care more. Women need to care less.’

By Kenny Ong

Sarah Köchling, insights and innovation consultant

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'My wish is could I just have an eighth day,' Sarah Köchling says. 'I don't have enough time to get done all of the things that I want to get done.' And when the American powerhouse rattles off the list of initiatives she's pushing forward, it's easy to see why. Almost three decades deep into her China life, Köchling runs her own consulting firm Shanghai Blossom Innovation, helping multinationals to get to deeper levels of local insight for growth as well as supporting local start-ups in strategic categories. She co-founded and co-chairs AmCham Shanghai's Women's Executive Network (WEN), works on TEDx Shanghai Women and sits on the board for new anti-domestic violence hotline Safe Haven Shanghai as well as on the gala board for Chunhui Children's Foundation.

In her work with WEN, Köchling is addressing a gaping void she sees in China - a 'last-mile' offering to support senior level female executives pushing it that much further. 'The only way to change the status quo is for more women to get those seats of power,' she says, 'Right now our numbers are pathetic. The business case is there. When there are women in the senior-most positions and on the board, data shows these companies deliver significantly higher ROI, shareholder value and better governance. What more do you need? But it's about power, and sharing power is frightening.' Preach.

By Cat Nelson

Tina Kanagaratnam, historian

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If you've got a question about Shanghai's rich, dynamic and oft-confusing past, then you'll want to speak to Tina Kanagaratnam, co-founder of heritage society Historic Shanghai. Alongside raising children and co-running her PR and marketing company AsiaMedia Ltd, for the past two decades Kanagaratnam - with her husband Patrick Cranley and friend Tess Johnston - has been piecing together and passing on stories from Shanghai's Golden Age and beyond with Historic Shanghai's talks and walks that sprawl all over the city.

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Kanagaratnam muses that, 'one reason Historic Shanghai has been such a great interest is that, unlike New York or London, information on these buildings and people is not easy to come by. There is no continuous history' - she's referring to the years following the founding of the People's Republic of China, when Shanghai's pre-1949 history was 'deliberately forgotten or ereased'. And, of course, there's the city's constant need for development. 'It's a place where you go on vacation and there's a chance something on your streeet will have changed by the time you come back,' Kanagaratnam laughs. But with all the knocking down and rebuilding, what does the future hold for Shanghai?

'Well, it's always been about progress,' she continues. It's a battle between balancing historic preservation with commercial interests. But whatever the future holds for the city, we know Kanagaratnam won't let us forget its past.

By Amy Snelling

Norah Yang, comedian

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Self-assured, goal-oriented and not conforming to societal norms and expectations – Norah Yang is the archetypal modern Shanghainese woman. A senior associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers by day, Yang is one of the city's most recognisable and successful comics, performing in English and Chinese and appearing regularly on hit video series Mamahuhu.

A regular at Kung Fu Komedy Club, in English she has opened for big-name touring international acts, such as Mark Normand and Kyle Kinane. Last year, she performed at Burning Man in Black Rock, Nevada, while back in February she headlined in Chinese for the first time with her show 上海梦 (Shanghai Dream).

Away from comedy, Yang is also making a name for herself in the world of online streaming. She has her own weekly show, 诺拉小姐的下午茶 (Miss Norah's Tea Time), every Saturday on video platform iQiyi and has hosted live programmes to huge online audiences.

For Yang, comedy comes first. The traditional path expected to be taken by Chinese women of her age, such as finding a husband and starting a family, is one she's not thinking of going down anytime soon. It's something her parents and, more importantly, she herself have been happy to accept – not that she, like so many, wasn't immune to the occasional probing question from family over Spring Festival...

When we met, she was the only female stand-up performing on the English-language weekend showcases at KFK following the exits of former regulars Ida Knox and Reyhaneh Rajabzadeh. Yang is more than aware of the expectations and scrutiny that comes with being the sole woman on the bill. Still, she feels she deserves to be recognised as a comedian without the preceding and arguably categorising tag of 'female'.

By Adam Hopkins

Sophia Wang, soul sister

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Sophia Wang has been a familiar name in Shanghai music circles for over a decade, and there would definitely be less song and dance to the city without her. A former talent booker for popular gig venue Yuyintang, she played the keyboard for three-piece all-girl rock group Next Year’s Love – a band who went against the more traditional cutesy aesthetic associated with Chinese girl groups, Wang proudly tells us.

Nowadays, she co-runs Uptown Records and Uptown RnB (Records n Beer) with her husband Sacco, as well as being one half of experimental electronic/drone act Peng Zhuang, also with Sacco. Wang knows what she’s talking about when it comes to music in Shanghai, despite once being deemed unfit to speak on the subject simply for being a woman by (you guessed it) a male executive.

Hidden in a Pingwu Lu basement, Uptown Records, where we meet with Wang, is a music-lover’s dream and one of the few places in the city where you can buy actual vinyl – the walls and shelves are packed with records, posters and zines and other memorabilia. Along with fellow local vinyl peddlers Daily Vinyl and Sacco, Wang produces and distributes one of these zines herself – Chinese-language record industry zine Daily Vinyl

Sophia Wang knows Shanghai music and if you have any interest in music in this city, you definitely want to know Sophia Wang.

By Adam Hopkins

Ying Wong, V Spot owner

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‘With women’s vaginas, I feel like it’s almost not your own. You’re never allowed to touch it, look at it, feel it. It’s forbidden,’ says Ying Wong, owner of sex shop and event space V Spot.

Wong has spent a long time thinking about the taboo surrounding women’s sexuality. ‘There’s a lot of slut-shaming in China – it’s the same everywhere – but I think maybe in China even more so. So if you talk about sex, if you admit “I have needs”, I think a lot of people still look down on that – even in 2018,’ Wong adds. That’s why she opened V Spot last summer to be a space for people to ‘feel safe and have fun exploring’ their sexuality. 

Wong also hosts regular body-positive dance classes and workshops – shibari, pole dancing, burlesque and the like – and this year she’s planning more educational classes. ‘I want women to think about their bodies, but not in the medical way... In a stress-free way that’s more playful and about how to actually [feel sexual satisfaction]... Women should learn to have fun with their bodies, and enjoy sex however they like,’ says Ying. And we won’t argue with that.

By Amy Snelling

Scholastica 'Sky' Tanyi, body-positive activist

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Scholastica 'Sky' Tanyi wants to help you 'represent your unique self... to go forth and do so badassedly.' In her case, that means belly dancing, burlesque, Zumba, modelling and creating the body-positivity and self-care brand amBADASSador, an idea born of frustration and of taking a leap into an untapped childhood interest - silk screen printing.

When Tanyi couldn't find enough clothes that fit in Shanghai, she decided to make her own. Following that, and remembering that old childhood interest, she invented an apprenticeship at the Squirrelz print shop, where she learned silk screen printing and started designing her own shirts. As her shirts gained attention from friends and strangers, Tanyi saw a way to aim her work at empowering plus-size women in China.

'Don't let your body-image keep you from doing what you want,' she says, 'I want to showcase plus-size - or "goddess-size" - women being able to do anything they want to do.' With amBADASSador's self-care products, clothes, dance classes and other body-positive-themed events, like plus-size pool parties, Tanyi knows she can make beauty standards more healthy and inclusive.

Tanyi recalls how her own struggle with body-image was set-off by a mentally abusive relationship. 'This guy would say to me, "You're prettier than all your friends, but you're fat so you'll never have a boyfriend." He really did a number on me, for years, but when I was able to look at myself and not criticise, I got my parts back.' That's self-empowerment.

By Kenny Ong

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