Age plays no factor in Amy Yip’s decision-making.
At her Tai Hang flat, I’m surrounded by antique Chinese furniture and artwork, and her elegant whippet Gwat (“bone” in Cantonese) is snuggled in her cozy bed between us as we chat. I’m exploring how a little girl from Xiamen, a fishing port in Fujian province, China, became the gentle yet confident powerhouse of today.
Fifty minutes in, I ask Amy, “Who are you?” she pauses, tilts her head, gives me a coy smile and responds, “I’m an energetic troublemaker.”
Amy’s bio is impressive. Among many achievements, she holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and was the first woman to have a seat on the dealing floor at J.P. Morgan, Hong Kong. She had a 40-year high profile banking career. She held senior roles within the Hong Kong Monetary Authority from 1996-2006, and then was CEO of DBS Bank, Hong Kong, until her official retirement in 2010. After “retirement”, she co-founded a private investment partnership and sits on several corporate boards. Now, at 70, she has decided to pursue her Master of Counselling from Monash University to help others and “stay relevant”.
Amy’s main inspiration was her mother, Yu Yuk, whose life started out easy thanks to family success from their fishing boat fleets and a winery. Yu Yuk was not very literate but was feisty. She stopped going to school at age 8 because she “didn’t want to.” Yu Yuk had an arranged marriage to Amy’s father, Chin Liang, at 30 and many tumultuous years ahead. Chin Liang lost everything in 1949 and left Yu Yuk in China to take care of Amy, her sister Sally, and his ailing father, while he went to the Philippines to work. In 1952, Yu Yuk brought Amy and Sally to Hong Kong to rejoin their father, only to find out he had a mistress. Yu Yuk, through her own strength and resilience, “made the family and their life.” Yu Yuk ‘s advice was to try to marry well, but no matter what, remain independent and self-reliant.
The themes of strength that emerge from our conversation are Amy’s perception that she is “lucky” (a humble and positive perspective built on gratitude), an ability to connect with others, and self-confidence.
One of Amy’s early goals was to marry by age 40, mainly to get her traditionally minded family off her back. “I believed it was better to get married and divorced rather than have the stigma of being an old maid,” she explained. Amy met a man, married him, and gave it her all for three years. “It was transactional, it didn’t work, and eventually it couldn’t be reconciled.” During the divorce, Amy’s attorney insisted she see a counsellor. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she recalled. What emerged was her ability to free herself from the pressure of society. “Life is not what it should be, it’s what you can do. Yes, it’s great to have a soulmate, but you must find yourself first. If you don’t like yourself, how can you expect anyone else to like you? If you are constantly denigrating yourself, how can you get respect?”
I ask Amy what it was like being a woman in a male-dominated industry in the early days. Was she afraid of the men when she stepped out as the first woman onto the J.P. Morgan trading floor? “I didn’t give a fff…,” she stops herself. “I was afraid of failure, yes, but not of the environment.” This was Wall Street of the 80’s — high energy, big money, crazy lifestyles. A few other women joined soon after. “We loved it,” smiled Amy. Mentorship was key to Amy’s career successes, and once again she emphasizes the importance of a network.
One of the most difficult times in Amy’s life was the period pre- and post- retirement from DBS Bank. The Lehman Brothers collapse happened in 2008, and as CEO of DBS Bank Hong Kong, Amy was immersed in the banking crisis for 2 ½ years. After testifying to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in 2010 about DBS’ sales of Lehman Brothers-related minibonds, she and her colleagues were met outside by a crowd of fearful investors who surrounded and shook their van in anger. It was time to leave the corporate world.
Amy had been preparing for retirement for several years, but for the next six months felt lost. Friends were concerned. “Through every stumbling block I’ve encountered, I’ve always managed to get through it and emerge at a higher level,” Amy states, describing her resilience. She began by exploring opportunities, reaching out to her network and over the next four years took on several independent directorships, set up an asset management business, and became Chairwoman of the Vita Green Charitable Foundation.
“I used to carry around guilt because I’ve been relatively lucky in life – I’ve never been down and out. I stopped feeling guilty and look to see how I can contribute back to the community. You don’t have to sit on an NGO board to do this.” At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Amy and friends found a face mask supplier, packaged them individually along with other necessities and distributed them to people in need.
And this year began her counselling studies. She wants to “stay relevant” to get an understanding of today’s world. She is energized by the learning and new friends but struggled in the beginning with the wonky intranet. “I told myself I’m not giving up. If I want to stay relevant, I must get on board with the technology. I asked a friend for help, and I got there.”
“The best part about aging is that I’ve earned the right to be irreverent. I love taking the mickey out of people. I don’t take things too seriously. I’ve earned the right to do that, and to say what I want,” says the energetic trouble-maker with a mischievous glint in her eye.
Published September 2021, Hong Kong Living