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Worth more than Oprah: Meet China's female real estate tycoon

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 4th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Zhang Xin, like many of her generation, grew up in poverty and began working in a factory at the age of 14. Zhang today is richer than Donald Trump, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. Worth $3.6 billion, according to Forbes, Zhang is worth $800 million more than Oprah Winfrey, the world's best known self-made female billionaire. A Chinese real estate developer, she is responsible for the majority of the "new China's" city scapes.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Zhang's logo of her company, SOHO China decorate the sides of buildings wherever you turn in Beijing. SOHO China has 18 developments in Beijing, many of them landmark buildings. Her base of operations has since extended to Shanghai, where it has bought or built 11 properties.

Two of her Beijing projects, one completed last year and another under construction are designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid.

The 47-year-old Zhang was born in Beijing just before Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Educated people like her parents were sent to the fields for "re-education." She returned to Beijing with her mother, where they weathered poverty and hardship.

"I was born and grew up when the city was very quiet: no cars, no shops, no lights, no machines. People were just on bicycles," she said.

She and her mother moved to Hong Kong when she was 14, where she spent five years in low-paid factory jobs, manufacturing toys, clothes and electronics, trying to save enough to go to England for an education.

"As a new immigrant to Hong Kong with no education, no background, didn't even speak the local language or dialect, Cantonese, and it was just a hard way to live in Hong Kong," Zhang says.

It took Zhang five years to save enough for a plane ticket to London and an English language course. She won a scholarship to university, studied for a master's degree in economics at Cambridge University and landed her first job at Goldman Sachs in New York.

Zhang chose to return to Beijing, where she met her husband, and together they started SOHO China.

"There was excitement of people talking about how to change China, and it was a very intellectually vibrant time," she said. "I felt that this country was really making a transition, and I wanted to be a part of that."

Zhang and her husband, Pan Shiyi, formed SOHO China in 1995. It swiftly became China's largest commercial real estate developer, with 56 million square feet in prime developments in Beijing and Shanghai.

Amazingly, Zhang's story is not unique. Of Forbes' 2013 list of 24 self-made female billionaires, six are from China, including one from Hong Kong, more than any other country outside the United States.

"I think women of our generation went through Cultural Revolution, went through hardship, coming from nowhere, and suddenly see China's amazing opportunity," Zhang says.

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