Noelle Leung

A bunch of newly acquainted teenage girls were chatting in the hotel room.

“I want to be a lawyer when I grow up,” one said.

“Me too,” concurred another.

“I will be a doctor,” said the third.

“An accountant for me,” shouted the fourth.

That was in December 1985. These ten girls just won the first ever Outstanding Students Awards. One of the prizes was a week-long study trip to Japan. The girls were sharing their dream profession in response to a question by the accompanying TV crew. They had all but grand plans.

Fast forward 25 years to 2010. These little girls have all grown up and some are still in touch. One becomes a doctor. Two are qualified accountants. One is now a prominent singer while another belongs to the management of a multi-national company.

The youngest of them instead chooses to become a zookeeper for her private household. She is a full time mother of two.

I need to first bore you with my life story. Sorry.

I was an active student at school. My mother was an achiever and naturally she set very high standards for her three daughters. We had always known that obtaining B’s in examinations was not an option. Back at our time in a local primary school, academic excellence was ironically the only objective indicator of a child’s ability. As a matter-of-factly I was labeled a “good” student – despite I could never stop talking in class.

Secondary school was quite different however. A super student could no longer just have straight A’s without excelling in extra-curricular activities. Member of Girl Guides, St John Ambulance Brigade or Red Cross? Good. Winner of speech, drama or essay competition? Better! Passed grade 8 Royal School of Music piano examination with distinction? OK!. Record holder of long jump, sprint or free-style? Great! Head girl? Excellent! NO, I didn’t do ALL those (I was hopeless in sports to start). I participated in enough activities however to call myself an accomplished student without much blushing. I also became one of the first Outstanding Students Awards winners in 1985.

Then came the second stage of my life – the working years. In an unprotected environment I was quick to realize how much work needed to be done starting from the bottom of the food chain. I obtained my Certified Public Accountant qualification in New York and started practicing in a public accounting firm. I later joined an investment bank that eventually brought me back to Hong Kong.

The benchmark for success was now more material and tangible. No one cared anymore how many A’s you got back at the university, nor if your name was on the Student Hall of Fame. Star students did not necessarily make high-flyers here. In fact those annoying young associates who lingered on to their glamorous past (and constantly reminded others about it) were usually considered, so to say, losers. In an investment bank, these young kids only had one important task to do i.e. to develop a daily morning contact with the server at Starbucks on behalf of their managers.

As a young investment professional back then, I got hooked up with the vanity of being in the business. I believed naively that the longer the hours I worked, the more impressive I would be. At one point I was even proud of myself for pulling an all-nighter. Arriving at work at 7:00am was something to boast about. I felt big to travel on business class and to dine and wine in the best restaurants in town. The bigger the trades I did, the larger my thrill would be. My life revolved around my trade blotter, my squawk box and my phone. I would celebrate privately if I beat my colleague in monthly production. I worked hard to get my name on the professional investors’ poll and even went through three painful years to got myself a Chartered Financial Analyst qualification in hope to gain more credibility. It did not matter if I was too busy to see my friends as they should understand. My bonus at the end of the year would hopefully make up for it. Life for me was exciting and challenging. Business was good. I thought I was doing quite all right.

Then one day I got burnt out.

In autumn 2004 my husband and I were in desperate need to re-charge. Being in the same business, we both felt tired – not just physically but mentally. Nothing seemed right and it was obvious we could not go any further. The stress, the pressure and politics at work finally weighed us down. Both of us were clear-minded people but we decided to do something way out of our characters and left work to travel round the world. Certainly the plan could potentially be detrimental to our jobs but we did it anyway. Those few months of travelling were eyeopening and soul-cleansing. The pebble-streets in Florence, the flooded markets in Venice, the cold but refreshing air in Paris, the scenic 17 miles drive in California were all but memorable. For the first time in many years I did not wake up worrying about my work’s budget. I refused to watch Bloomberg news. The rise in Euro or Sterling only mattered to me as it made my ice tea more expensive. I gradually realized life did not need to be complicated or competitive.

We lived in a real world so eventually we went back to work as usual feeling fresh and well rested. Just as I got accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the business again looking at the dollar sign every day, the turning point of my life came. I got pregnant.

Who would have thought a little lump of fat would turn our life upside down. I laughed when he smiled. I cried when he refused to eat. I did not even find his poo-poo disgusting. I was not in control – but was surprisingly happy about it. The moment I went back to work after maternity, I noticed something different. Business was still very good but my most dialed telephone number at work was no longer my client’s. Whoever asked me to stay behind for the execution of a large trade past 8:00pm became my No 1 enemy. I preferred a quick sprint back home for lunch instead of patronizing Nicholini’s.

I finally quit my job after a year.

It was not an easy decision and came with a lot of personal struggles. I had always been a career woman and was gratefully doing well at work. I was fortunate enough to be respected by my business peers and my firm treated me well. More importantly, I was at the height of my career.

When I told my close friends I wanted to be a full time mother, none of them would believe I could let go. The glamour of the industry, the power and rewards were too attractive. Most doubted how long my “retirement” would last.

“You will be bored.”

“Are you sure?”

“No more Jimmy Choo shoes for you!”

That was three years ago.

I am now a happy full time mother of two and for those who are not parents (or those gentlemen who think full time mothers have the best jobs) I have news for you. It is NOT easy to be a full time mother. Contrary to public belief, motherhood is a 24/7 job. Despite having helpers at home, I enjoy chaperoning my children to school and to other activities. I have made great friends with other mothers and regularly organize play dates for all the families. I became the smartest grocery shopper and can tell you the only place to find quality boneless sea bass is at Citisuper but organic milk is a better bargain at Market Place. I can give you a 30 minute speech on the why Creative Kids is so popular and why I think the ballet program at Lee Theatre sucks. I also have a long list of mandarin, chinese, english tutors contact on hand and if you want a good football coach I can recommend one too. In fact I have become the proud yellow page to my mother group!

My life obviously has a 180 degrees turn. For a change I no longer need any recognition from others to prove my worthiness. While I am no longer saving the world as a banker (wink wink) I have an important job to do. In the absence of salary, business cards and a secretary, I have a great husband and two beautiful children. I am comfortable, confident and at peace with myself without a suit or a Birkin. This is my new definition of personal success and for that I am most grateful.

We drove past my old office in Central last Christmas.

“That’s mommy’s old office.” I told my 4 yr old son.

“This is where you used to work?” he asked.

“Yes.” I decided to test him. “Do you want me to work or stay home with you and Mui Mui?”

“I want you to stay home Mom.”

“I can buy you more Transformers if I work!” I teased him.


“No mommy. I want you to stay home.”