From entertainment to sport, here are nine women whose remarkable career achievements have paved the way for others’ success
When women break barriers in their industries, they both inspire and empower other women to follow in their footsteps. In 2021, all eyes will be on Chloe Zhao, who is likely to become the first Asian woman to be nominated for a best director Oscar for her film Nomadland after garnering significant critical acclaim in 2020.
Here, we celebrate other examples of notable women from Asia who have risen the ranks to excel in their fields.
1. Going to space
Japanese surgeon Chiaki Mukai became the first Asian woman to rocket into space when she boarded the space shuttle Columbia in July 1994, the first of two orbital expeditions she would embark upon.
Jaxa, the Japanese National Space Agency, (or Nasda, as it was known then) chose Mukai to carry out physiological and medical experiments, such as bone and muscle metabolism and the ageing process, while in zero gravity.
2. Directing an orchestra
Yip Wing-sie broke the glass ceiling of a traditional, Euro-centric and male-dominated classical music scene when she was named Hong Kong Sinfonietta’s first female music director in 2002. Yip was also the first woman to be taken on as a resident conductor with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in 1986.
Eighteen years later and even after battling cancer, Yip retains her position with the Sinfonietta and status as one of the most respected, in-demand and influential figures in classical music in Asia.
3. Climbing Mount Everest
The names Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay roll off the tongue when discussing the world’s highest mountain, but how about Junko Tabei? The Japanese mountaineer made history in 1975 when she became the first woman to climb Everest, tackling an avalanche and altitude sickness along the way.
Once word of her achievement spread, Tabei was lauded as a hero in Japan and throughout Asia, though she felt uneasy towards her newfound fame and being framed for her achievements as a woman. She told the media that she’d rather be remembered as the 36th person to summit Everest: "I did not intend to be the first woman on Everest.”
4. Circumnavigating the Earth
In 2016, pilot and flight instructor Julie Wang Zheng joined an elite club when she became the first Asian woman to circumnavigate the Earth in an airplane, and the first Chinese person to fly solo around the world.
Wang took 33 days and 155 hours of flying a single-engine propeller plane to complete her journey where she started, in the Dallas area of Texas.
5. Michelin-starred dining
Tellingly, there has been little coverage of Asian women who have entered the ranks of the Michelin Guide. Japan-born Kei Pilz, head chef and co-owner of the fine dining restaurant Shiro in Ahakista, Republic of Ireland was seemingly the first Asian woman to be awarded a star in 1996.
Since then, on Asian soil, DeAille Tam became the first Chinese female chef to earn a star; Vicky Lau, of Tate Dining Room, was Hong Kong’s first––even going so far as achieving two in 2021; Garima Arora was first in India; and Jay Fai the first from Thailand.
6. A first look at the virus
"Batwoman" may not be the most flattering moniker in 2020, but virologist Shi Zhengli stamped her name onto the annals of history this year when she discovered that Covid-19 is in the same family of viruses as Sars.
Her research, published in the journal Nature, was the pinnacle of more than a decade spent looking into origins of Sars. She has used her platform to warn the wider scientific community and global governments about the dangers posed by human proximity to bat populations. "Bat-borne coronaviruses will cause more outbreaks", she said. "We must find them before they find us."
7. Winning the grand slam
Ann Hui prefers not to frame her achievements in terms of her gender, but her prowess and pioneering career as a filmmaker cannot be overlooked. There have only been two films that have won the "grand slam" of Hong Kong Film Awards (simultaneously picking up best picture, best director, best screenplay and best actor and actress) and they are both by Hui: Summer Snow and A Simple Life. In 2020, she also became the first Asian woman to receive the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Hui, whose pictures are noted for their realism, is characteristically modest and low-key. "Winning this award as a woman offers more coverage and noise for female directors, and in turn there will be more job opportunities and recognition for us,” she told Tatler.
8. Winning a Tony award
Lea Salonga, the first woman of Asian descent to win a Tony award for her role as Kim in Miss Saigon on Broadway in 1991 and the first to play the lead roles of Éponine and Fantine in the musical Les Misérables on Broadway. The Philippines-born singer and actress is also known for being the singing voice behind the Disney characters Jasmine and Mulan.
9. Putting women's snooker on the map
Snooker player Ng On-yee became the first Asian winner of the Women’s World Snooker Championship in 2018, a bumper year during which she also won the Australian Women’s Snooker Open and the UK Women’s Snooker Championship. Though international snooker experienced a lull in competitions in 2020 due to the pandemic, but Ng has won both of the tournaments she played at the Belgium Open in February and Hong Kong Women's Open in November.