Chinese Entrepreneur and Iraqi Envoy Find Marital Bliss Despite Odds
This marriage must have been made in heaven. Otherwise, there is little chance these two people would be together. When they met in Beijing in 1998, he didn’t speak her language, Mandarin, and she didn’t speak his, English. He had traveled and lived all over the world; she had only visited Taiwan and Malaysia. She was quintessentially Chinese, while he was as much at home in the posh hotspots of London as in a bulletproof vest in Iraq. She, meanwhile, was a sophisticated businesswoman, well-known member of Beijing’s high society, and his would-be landlord.
He is Samir Shakir Mahmood Sumaida’ie, a former interior minister in Iraq who today serves as Iraq’s ambassador in Washington. She is May Yang, his wife who is now taking a break from her highly successful business ventures during her husband’s posting in Washington. With a great passion for art though, May is continuing her painting pursuits, recently holding a diplomatic tea to exhibit her colorful canvases.
In the future, May and her husband expect to write a book together about their lives and how they have succeeded both separately and together against incredible odds. Over and over again in our interviews together, they each told me: “That’s just too complicated to explain here,” or “that’s for the book.” But May did paint a picture of her unique background for us.
“When my father was only 9 years old, his father—my grandfather—left for Taiwan and never came back,” May began. “My grandfather Yang Guang Yin, a high-ranking general and close friend of Chiang Kai-shek [longtime head of the Republic of China, or Taiwan], escaped the mainland in ’48 when the Communist Party was taking over China and left his wife and two sons behind.
“It was very hard on my grandmother and her children,” May added, explaining what happened after her grandfather left. The family, which had been accustomed to a privileged life, lost everything when the main breadwinner left so suddenly. They were forced to do difficult, sometimes dangerous, odd jobs and maintain a low profile to stay together.
“My father ran away when he was only 16 and changed his name to Yang Hao to start a new life. He ran to the far Qinghai Province in northwest China and met my mother, who was a teacher sent out by the government to this desolate place. They were both transplanted and began their life there together, raising a family.
“Until the ’80’s, I didn’t know this story or anything about my grandfather. I guess they were trying to protect me. I was 19 years old when I finally found out who he was and what had happened and why.”
In 1972, May Yang (or Ying Yang as she was known then) went to a larger town to attend a better high school. After graduating, she returned to her hometown and studied law enforcement administration at the Qinghai Province Police Department.
Then, while in Beijing for the first time, she studied archiving and administration at the city’s College of Law and Political Science. In 1986, she switched to the Beijing Military University of the People’s Republic of China to obtain a degree in politics and government organization.
By 1989, May began working in the computer section at the Ministry of Mechanical and Electronic Industry’s Machinery Department. May ended up as head of the computer section but said she was not satisfied. Though she worked hard, she said most people “just sat around at their desks all day, drinking tea and reading newspapers.”
An entrepreneur at heart, in 1996 she established the Chun Yuan Technology Co., which specialized in computer services. Today, her original company of 60 people has formed a separate joint venture with Founder Electronics, the second largest computer company in China. Specializing in custom-made software, the partnership now employs 300 software engineers and other professionals and is run by May’s brother, Yan Yang.
In 2002, May decided to take her career in a very different direction when she founded VickyMay Cosmetics. “I knew the market was there and we did very, very well,” she said. In fact, VickyMay was selected as one of the top 10 most influential (recognized) names in Chinese cosmetics. May has since closed down the business until she returns again to China.
Further diversifying her business portfolio, back in 2003, May anticipated the lodging demands that the 2008 Olympics would generate, so she started the 100-room Aniserf Hotel in Beijing, selling the property four years later at quite a profit.
May has often been recognized as a business leader. In 2004, she was honored by the National Association of Women in China as the most successful Chinese woman of the year, and in October of that year, she was also included in the “Who’s Who” of 100 female Chinese industrial leaders.
“May is very smart and clever and can do everything well,” said her husband, who took time at the end of a busy day to talk with me before attending an evening reception. “She is totally fearless and very decisive. Since she is the eldest, she has always had more responsibility, and she has positioned all of her siblings where they could prosper.”
This husband and wife clearly share a passion for success and taking advantage of every opportunity before them. “I had to re-invent myself several times,” the ambassador said. “I won a government scholarship at the age of 16 to study in England. I graduated from Durham University in electronics and became the first computer professional in Iraq.”
Eventually, Sumaida’ie, whose personal interests include art, design, Islamic culture and classical Arab poetry, ran successful businesses in London and China, while opposing Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in his homeland.
This type of adaptability has helped him feel “at home” wherever he is. “I believe you need skills to take you wherever you are so you can leave an impact and still enjoy life,” he explained.
But not in his “wildest dreams” did he expect to be in his current position. “It is even more farfetched that I was minister of the interior in the most dangerous country in the world,” Sumaida’ie, who describes himself as a poet, told The Washington Diplomat. “I am analytical yet compassionate … traits that complement each other I think. I can’t allow myself to be afraid.”
But what drew him to seek business all the way in the Far East? “China is not a monolithic whole. There is a huge amount of talent, humanity, tradition and culture in the Chinese people. They are immensely hard working,” he said. “For May, it was torture being home here and not doing anything. So she traveled to China often. Now, she is painting and feeling more at home here.”
The ambassador added: “This is a Chinese girl born in the sticks who has excelled at every level. She, her father and her grandfather had their groundings in their education. It all goes back to education. This family had a small advantage so long ago, they lost everything, and yet they converted it into a big advantage. May is the oldest and has helped each of her three brothers and her sister become well established in business.
“I am very fortunate to have found her,” he continued proudly. “We had language difficulties but she shone through that. She is captivating. And although my job is challenging, frustrating and very, very demanding, this is a fulfilling and rewarding time in my life. May and I really do have a lot of joy,” he said, proudly beaming, “I have another world to come home to … May is another universe.”
May herself is more humble about her achievements. “I’m Chinese; I can’t sit still. Plus, I was the right age at the right time to start these businesses in China,” she said.
But her husband, an experienced businessman himself, quickly recognized the brilliance in May’s financial acumen. “My husband and I met in August 1998 in Beijing,” May said, picking up the story of their courtship. He had come to China looking for new business ventures and needed to rent an apartment. One of her apartments was vacant. When she showed him the rental, “he was a man of few words,” she recalled (after all, he spoke almost no Mandarin), but “that night he left a small card under my brother’s door because [my brother] could speak more English and asked me to call him.”
When she did call, she told him that she couldn’t speak English, but he managed in his few words of Mandarin to invite her to dinner the next night. “I took a friend with me who spoke more English,” May said, noting that she was just starting English classes then.
“He kept finding reasons to meet again—to see the apartment and to take me to lunch. This is really a love story that we will write together when he retires. So many things brought us together even though circumstances kept us apart.”
In 2003, Sumaida’ie—who was separated from his first wife and had five grown children, the oldest only six years younger than May—left for Baghdad after the ouster of Saddam Hussein to take part in its new government, initially as a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. Later that year, the two were married in Iraq. In September 2004, when he became Iraq’s representative to the United Nations, the couple moved to New York. Then in April 2006, he came to Washington.
“I knew he was a gentleman,” said May. “He was so polite. He read poetry. He was an intellectual, smart, calm and he made me laugh. But it was very complicated,” she admitted.
“I would spend two months in China and then two months in New York, but I realized that even though I had a huge market and 100 different cosmetic items, I couldn’t keep the cosmetic line going,” May said. “My sister has a beauty salon chain and uses the products. I imported ingredients from England and France and manufactured my cosmetics in southern China, but sold all over China and to other markets.”
But the commute was simply too difficult to maintain. “My whole family was there, my career, my friends, my property, but my husband was in New York. It is exactly halfway around the world; there is a 12-hour time difference.”
So May decided she had to suspend her extremely successful cosmetic business until she returns to China. “I needed to do something, so I went back to painting, which I started in 1996. Maybe I will sell later but my paintings are like my babies, especially since I am not a mother.”Although May attends receptions only when her husband says “I should go,” she gets out often, leaving her own canvases to see those of the masters. “I must have been to the National Gallery [of Art] 20 times already, maybe more, and to all the other galleries too. And sometimes I get up and paint in the middle of the night. Art, creating something new, makes me so happy,” she said.“I have been very lucky and I appreciate my life. I had a very good, secure job in China’s government and everyone said I was crazy to leave, but I wanted to do something for myself even when, at that time, it was not a popular thing to go into business. I was 32, 33, and could have just sat behind my big desk in my big office and drank tea and read the paper like everyone does.
“I was the right age at the right time in China. I worked hard and I was nervy. In China then, people who went into the private sector were the exception. But I have enterprising ancestors. My grandfather’s family had big estates, schools, art collections and other treasures. Maybe that made the difference.”
When I asked May, who is now 46, if she felt she had any scars from living through China’s Cultural Revolution and having to rebuild her life and that of her family’s, she had a very simple answer: “I love China now. And the best thing that could happen to me would be for my husband to be appointed to Beijing as Iraqi ambassador.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.