Anna Pao Sohmen: Helping SSA Develop Social Work Education in China

Anna Pao Sohmen with Julie Jung

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


Anna Pao Sohmen surrounded by children



Anna Pao Sohmen, EX ’68, came to SSA from Hong Kong during a turbulent time for Chicago and the nation. It was there that she learned the importance of social work as she did her field work among disadvantaged children. After marrying, she returned to Hong Kong where she taught social work at Hong Kong University. She recently provided support for a joint graduate social work exchange program for SSA in partnership with Peking University in Beijing and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The program is expected to feature cross-national and cross-university exchanges among faculty and students and discussions and programs with scholars focusing on pressing social welfare issues. The goal of the exchange is to address many of the social issues that are emerging due to the fast economic growth in China over the last three decades.


During her studies at SSA, the country saw increasing racial tension. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his Chicago Freedom Movement Rally address at Soldier Field in 1966, an address that included some of his most powerful statements “… now is the time to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream … freedom is a weapon greater than any force you can name … and … I am still convinced that nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It cuts without wounding. It is a sword that heals.”

Her second year field placement at Olivet Community Centre, which served mostly low-income African Americans, exposed her to working with underprivileged youth. She experienced first-hand, the anger young African Americans had against society, as their study and job opportunities were undercut by social prejudices and injustice. Her placement not only introduced her to people of different races, but different perspectives and life experiences.

She was interested in social work and child psychology as early as 14 years of age, when she volunteered during the summer to work with delinquent girls in Hong Kong. From this experience, she came to understand the income gap in Hong Kong, the lack of compulsory education, the social inequality of men and women, the absence of social security for people involved in industrial accidents, and child labor. Her acute awareness of social problems made her more eager to bring about changes, via her father’s social connections with the Governor of Hong Kong and other officials. She became interested in how the social environment or how deprivation can affect the behavior of youth. She would later teach social work at Hong Kong University.

Mrs. Sohmen was the eldest daughter of Sir Pao Yue-Kong, a self-made man and Hong Kong shipping magnate who founded Worldwide Shipping. Born into a privileged family, she has always been keen to see change that could help rectify the social conditions of the underprivileged.

She met her Austrian husband, Helmut Sohmen, during her time in Chicago and they were married at Bond Chapel on the University campus. She followed her husband, whose career took them to Montreal, where she continued her graduate studies at McGill University. After setting up the legal department at the Royal Bank of Canada, Helmut joined his father-in-law’s business and the young family moved back to Hong Kong.

Irving Spergel, the late SSA Professor whose study of gangs was seminal in the field, was serving as a United Nations Advisor on youth work to Hong Kong in 1970-71. He, his wife, and Anna Pao Sohmen developed a friendship as he developed plans for a two-year college of social welfare studies and advised the director of the social welfare department of Hong Kong. Mrs. Sohmen was often a sounding board for questions and ideas.

Mrs. Sohmen later joined her father’s company as a director. Now called the BW Group, World Wide Shipping was run by her husband Helmut Sohmen, after her father retired. It is now run by their son, Andreas Sohmen-Pao.

Sir Pao Yue-Kong distributing Chinese New Year gifts to senior citizens at the Family Welfare Centre in the Western District, Hong Kong Island, 1962.


Sir Pao Yue-Kong distributing Chinese New Year gifts to senior citizens at the Family Welfare Centre in the Western District, Hong Kong Island, 1962. 



Anna Pao Sohmen began talks several years ago with Dean Neil Guterman about “bringing SSA to China” by developing a program that involved faculty exchanges and collaborations around research, curriculum, and field work, as well as the development of international field placements for American and Chinese students.

Their initial ideas are now coming to fruition as SSA has developed a strong relationship with Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) as well as with Peking University (PKU) in Beijing as part of the China Collaborative, a project of the U.S. Council of Social Work Education (CSWE), the China Association for Social Work Education (CASWE) and the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), to help to develop social work education in Mainland China.

SSA has led programs and offered support over the past few years to social work faculty from across China as they work to establish a social work educational infrastructure, professionalize the field, and develop the capacity to grow China’s social welfare system.

With a lead support gift from Anna Pao Sohmen and her friends in Hong Kong, SSA will capitalize a three million dollar endowment and will direct a joint graduate social work exchange program in partnership with PKU and PolyU. The program is expected to feature cross-national and cross-university exchanges among faculty and students and discussions and programs with scholars focusing on pressing social welfare issues.

“SSA can be a leader in advancing social work in China,” she said. “The goal is to address many of the social issues that are emerging due to the fast economic growth in China over the last three decades. The western world went through a few hundred years of industrialization, whereas China rapidly moved quickly from an agrarian society to the digital age. As a result, China has to cope with abandoned children in villages, broken marriages, and a host of educational and integration problems due to mass-migration to urban areas.”

One of her former students at Hong Kong University, Professor Angelina Yuen, (currently the Vice President for Institutional Advancement and Partnership at PolyU), is working with SSA Professor Robert Chaskin on the student exchange program (See here for an article about students’ experiences during the latest exchange).

Professor Yuen says that “the social work student exchange program is an exemplar of cross-national exchange which effectively broadens students’ horizons and enhances the international understanding among students from different social and cultural backgrounds.

“The tripartite partnership has contributed to the establishment of an international platform fostering international partnership among the social work schools of three distinguished universities with the aim of advancing education and research in social work, social welfare, and social policy with a particular focus on the development of postgraduate education and research in the Chinese Mainland.”

Mrs. Sohmen believes that the program will also help raise the profile of social work in China. “Social work simply does not have the prestige in China compared to other professions,” she says.

Her advice for SSA students who want to study in China is to have a humble attitude, learn the language, listen, and to learn about the new environment. “There’s no supremacy, there is no absolute,” she stresses. “Different societies evolve through history by using different social structures."

“When I was at SSA,” she adds, “we learned confrontation as a tactic to address social change. But in China, this does not work.” She explained further, “American students need to learn about the diversity of China; each region and each state has its own sub culture. There are many minority groups and China may not be as homogenous as it appears. The wealth gaps between the provinces also mean education opportunities vary greatly across the countries. For example, in Shanghai, the city may have 52 universities, but some inner provinces do not have any tertiary institutions. Children may have to walk for miles to attend a village school."

Her interestes in bridging international understanding are broad. She founded a bilingual school in Shanghai. She helped renovate an 18th century French sanatorium and turned it into a Film School for the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. She also brought teachers from all over the world to her personal ballroom studio.

YK Pao School, founded in 2007 in Shanghai, was built at the instigation of the current President of China Xi Jinping, who was then the Party Secretary of Shanghai. He made introductions for her and her son to build this experimental school. YK Pao School is the first school to educate mainland students together with international students and to integrate a Shanghai curriculum with the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, providing a well-rounded educational approach. The school follows the example of the British boarding school system in how it houses its students.

Anna Pao Sohmen surrounded by children


“My youngest son Philip and I built YK Pao School in 2007 to honor my father. Compassion, balance, and integrity are our three core values. We also teach my father’s personal motto, ‘exercise persistently, use [things] sparingly, and work diligently,’” says Mrs. Sohmen.

The school educates students from years one to twelve. The teachers are 50 percent Western and 50 percent mainland Chinese; the almost 1,200 student body is 40 percent international and 60 percent Chinese. “Shanghai is the perfect setting for the school as it is a cosmopolitan city,” explained Mrs. Sohmen, “it’s very exciting. They live social work by teaching our students to have social responsibility!”

The students are required to do many volunteer projects in the community. Most of the Chinese children come from single child families, and by attending this boarding school, the children learn to get along and care for one another.

Mrs. Sohmen with her son, Mr. Philip Sohmen, at the YK Pao School in Shanghai


Mrs. Sohmen with her son, Mr. Philip Sohmen, at the YK Pao School in Shanghai.

Anna Pao Sohmen has also been committed to the advancement of the arts and of sharing Chinese culture with the world. As the Council Chairman of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts for 10 years, she promoted eastern and western art forms. She advanced the school’s programs in film and television, started their school for Chinese opera, and helped establish a master’s program. She is also a former trustee of the Royal Opera House in the UK and a former Chairman of the Sino-British Fellowship.

She is currently a Member of National CPPCC (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference), a Standing committee member of Zhejiang CPPCC and Heilongjiang CPPCC, a member of the Culture and Heritage Commission, the Town Planning Board, and the Hong Kong Business Coalition on the Environment. She is also a founding member of Helping Hand, a home for the elderly in Hong Kong, and the founding chairman of the Hong Kong Liver Foundation and the Society for Mentally Retarded. She has helped raise funds for the elderly, for cancer, and for patients needing liver transplants, among many other causes.

She recently helped renovate an 18th century French sanatorium, Béthanie, in Hong Kong. Béthanie is used by the film school of the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. The chapel provides a sanctuary for weddings for the general public of Hong Kong. The committee is still searching for many of the original stained glass and sculptures, having recovered four beautifully carved marble statues of the disciples of Jesus standing on octagonal stone bases. People who know of the whereabouts of any of the eight remaining stone sculptures of the twelve disciples can contact

She invited a scholar Alain LePichon to study the Society of Mission Etranger, a group of Roman Catholic missionaries who preached in South China. LePichon wrote a book, Béthanie & Nazareth: French Secrets from a British Colony about the French priests who built Béthanie. They came to Hong Kong and southern China, in part, to document the various regional dialects. “It’s quite an interesting historical place. I renovated it as a passion project,” said Mrs. Sohmen.

Besides being an avid music lover, dancing is another of her hobbies. She started with ballet as a young girl in Hong Kong, and took modern dance in college at Purdue. Later in life, she started ballroom dancing. Her performances have raised up to the equivalent of $4.6 million in U.S. dollars. Recently, she raised $200,000 for breast cancer.

“Through ballroom dance, I have met dancers from all over the world. Learning about their countries and their different backgrounds, opened up my mind as well,” she says.