Controversy over US$10 million donation to Yale: 7 things about China's power couple Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin

Chinese billionaire couple Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin sparked controversy among China's netizens when they gifted US$10 million (S$12.8 million) to Yale University on Wednesday.

The endowment is part of the couple's US$100 million initiative to fund disadvantaged Chinese students at top institutions across the globe. In July, the couple also gave Harvard University US$15 million. Some Chinese netizens, however, argued that the money would be better spent on schools in China.

Pan and Zhang are the husband-and-wife duo behind real estate giant Soho China, the largest commercial property developer in China. They have built up their fortune through innovative architecture, clever land deals, and shrewd business sense.

Here are 7 things about China's power couple:

1. Theirs is a rags-to-riches story

Both Pan and Zhang had humble beginnings.

Pan (pictured below, centre) , 50, was born in a rural village in China's north-west Gansu Province. His parents were poor - his father was a teacher and his mother an invalid.

In an interview with The Times in 2007, Pan said: "My father is the one who has influenced me the most. He taught me how to live and survive in the worst environment."

Pan graduated from university and went to work at the former Ministry of Petroleum Industry, but decided that he wanted to have a taste of the business world. Virtually penniless, he quit the state-owned company in 1988 and headed to Hainan.

There, he began investing in real estate and found success within a few years. In 1992, he headed back to Beijing and co-founded property firm Beijing Vantone. It was during his time in that company that he met Zhang.

Zhang, 49, was born in Beijing but moved to Hong Kong when she was 14, where she worked in various factories and saved up enough after several years for an education abroad.

Her first stop: Studying Economics at Sussex University. She then did her master's in Development Economics at Cambridge University. After that, she made it to Wall Street - working in investment banking for Goldman Sachs and Travelers Group.

She then headed back to her hometown, Beijing, in 1994, where she met Pan (below, centre, on Sept 20, 2014).

2. Pan proposed to Zhang four days after meeting her

Zhang met Pan when he was working as a partner in Beijing Vantone, after Zhang's friend suggested that she check out Pan's property firm.

According to news reports, it was love at first sight for Pan, who proposed to Zhang four days after they met. Three days after his proposal, Zhang said yes.

Sohochina quoted her as saying: "Within 10 days of meeting Pan Shiyi in 1994, I decided to marry him, even though he was newly divorced, was not so rich, and was balding."

Womenofchina.cn has Zhang saying that marrying Pan in 1994 was "her biggest venture".

3. Pan has a love child

In 2012, their marriage faced a crisis after a post on Weibo - the Chinese version of Twitter - alleged that Pan had a seven-year old love child with a woman by the name of Yu Yang.

Danwei.com reported that Pan had an affair with her while studying for an EMBA (executive MBA) at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in China.

In spite of this, Zhang said she would stand by her husband. In her post on Weibo in December 2012, she wrote: "Old Pan and I have been married for 18 years. We've been through all kinds of trials and hardships, from the pressure in the early years of starting our business to the gossip that repeatedly says we are divorcing. But every trial has made our marriage more solid and made us cherish our family even more."

In a May 2013 article, Wantchinatimes.com furthered confirmed that the couple had weathered the crisis, by saying that Zhang had forgiven Pan, who had also acknowledged his affair and apologised on his Weibo account.

Ms Yu reportedly received US$5 million (S$6.4 million) as compensation.

4. Their children

The couple have two teenage sons, Sean, 16, and Luke, 15, who speak fluent English. They have been seen attending functions with their parents, dressed in smart attire.

Zhang told Cnn.com in July 2013 that they tried "so hard" to give their sons a normal life. "It's not easy to be my sons because we're very high profile," she said.

Giving them a normal life includes ensuring that they do not take money for granted.

"I'm very, very tight with them about money," she told Cnn.com. "I don't give them money until they ask, 'I need 100 yuan for my lunch card', and so on. So they never have extra money.

"But I think that still cannot compare to how we came, where we came from."

5. Their empire

Pan and Zhang started a company together called Redstone, or Hongshi in 1995, a year after they wed. They renamed their company Soho China in 2002.

They listed their company on the Hong Kong stock exchange in October 2007, and their company is now regarded as Asia's largest commercial real estate IPO.

They introduced the small office/home office (Soho) concept into the Chinese real estate market, and Zhang is also the brains behind two award-winning hotel projects, one of them being the Commune by the Great Wall.

In June 2013, Zhang, together with other investors, bought a 40 per cent stake of New York's iconic General Motors building in midtown Manhattan.

As of last July, Soho China had 18 developments in Beijing, with many of them being landmark buildings. The company has also expanded to Shanghai, where it has bought or built 11 properties.

The couple has worked with many renowned architects for their projects, including Zaha Hadid, Yung Ho Chang, Bjarke Ingels, Kengo Kuma, and Kazuyo Sejima.

6. Their roles

In previous media interviews, the couple said that they complement each other perfectly.

In an interview with The Times, Pan is said to be the dealmaker while Zhang looks after aesthetics and design.

In Wantchinatimes.com, Zhang used different terms to describe these roles. She said that her husband is a "drummer" who is responsible for all business negotiations, sales and government contact, while she is the "performer" who interacts with overseas companies and looks after business operations.

As of last year, Zhang is the biggest shareholder of the company, holding at least 51 per cent of the firm's shares.

7. Their status

They are both hugely influential figures in China. Pan has more than 17 million followers on Weibo, while Zhang has more than 8 million followers.

Pan is regularly invited to speak at events and forums, on topics such as China's economic development, industry trends and social issues.

The couple has even made time for the big screen. Pan has made an appearance in "Aspirin", a locally-produced romantic comedy. Zhang, too, has had a cameo appearance in Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Zhang has a net worth of US$3.7 billion and is No. 408 on Forbes magazine's The Richest People On The Planet 2014 list. She is currently No.62 on Forbes' list of most powerful women in the world.

Together, the couple is ranked No. 30 on Forbes' China Rich List this year.

Sources: The Times, sohochina.com, forbes.com, china.org.cn, wsj.com, wantchinatimes.com, womenofchina.cn, cnn.com, The Telegraph, danwei.com, chinadaily.com.cn

brynasim@sph.com.sg