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Jackson Tai

“One of the compelling things about DBS Bank is that we are building a pan-Asian enterprise ‘in the time zone.’ ” It’s a bold and somewhat controversial goal: to build a bank managed by Asians for Asians. “This is my second life,” says Tai, “to try to do something constructive for Asia.”

Photo © 2002 R. Ian Lloyd

Beyond Chinatown

Jackson Tai always has pushed beyond his boundaries.
Global Vision
He grew up in New York City’s Chinatown, the middle child of immigrant parents who worked long hours waiting tables and sewing piecework to give their kids a strong start in life. Tai’s wife, Kay, his childhood sweetheart, grew up there as well. Each of their parents emigrated from Canton in South China, the fathers before World War II, and the mothers after.

“You know West Side Story?” asks Tai. “Where we lived, it was ‘East Side Story.’ Very colorful.” Cultural preservation was imperative. “My parents were insistent that we learn Chinese—language, history, geography, and culture.” That meant eight years of Chinese school, every day from 4 to 7 p.m. “This is what immigrant families do,” he says.

On the other hand, Tai adds, “My parents and siblings were optimists about leaving the limitations of the Lower East Side.” Indeed, he began venturing beyond the neighborhood early in his life.

“At the age of 7,” says Tai, “I would ask my mother on weekends for 15 cents—the cost of a New York City subway token in the late 1950s—and roam the boroughs of New York all day.” Or for a nickel he would ride the Staten Island Ferry. “Even at an early age, I never felt bounded by or confined to the neighborhood.”

That adventurous spirit has buoyed Tai’s remarkable journey through the world of international finance. The first leg on the journey brought him to Rensselaer.
Tai’s childhood home in Chinatown was just a few blocks from the now destroyed World Trade Center. Watching the early phases of construction on the towers inspired Tai to pursue a career in civil engineering. And that meant Rensselaer. For his family, a successful college degree was one with a clear vocational path—“the charge was ‘become an engineer,’ ” says Tai, “rather than ‘become a scientist.’ If you look at Rensselaer historically,” he adds, “I think you will see that many first-generation [immigrant] students have come here.” Later generations, perhaps, might go to college to explore social sciences and the arts, which also interested Tai, or even to “find themselves.” But none of that made much sense to Tai’s parents.

Though they had not heard of Rensselaer, he says, “it pleased them that I was going to pursue engineering.” He headed up the Hudson River to college, regretting only that he would not be able to watch the daily progress on construction of the two great WTC towers.

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Rensselaer Magazine: March 2002
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
Front Page At Rensselaer Milestones
In Memoriam Making a Difference Staying Connected
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