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Interview with Executive Director of Cheuk Nang Holdings, LTD., Gigi Chao.

Aired February 20, 2014 - 03:30:00   ET



MONITA RAJPAL, ANCHOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voiceover): Gigi Chao is a certified pilot, a successful businesswoman, a professional model, and now one of the most famous faces in Hong Kong. Although, that attention isn't something she's looking for.

Her name hit headlines after her father offered millions of dollars to any man who could win her heart. The thing is, Gigi Chao is already married to a woman. A fact that Hong Kong property tycoon, Cecil Chao has found hard to accept.

CECIL CHAO, OWNER, CHEUK NANG HOLDINGS LTD.: I can't say I'm happy with her choice, but she has to choose her own happiness. I can use my money to let her have choice.

RAJPAL (voiceover): In September 2012, he offered 65 million U.S. dollars to any suitor who could successfully woo his daughter.

GIGI CHAO, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CHEUK NANG HOLDINGS LTD.: Most notably, Gorge Clooney's body double.

RAJPAL (voiceover): That's after media reports revealed Gigi had her relationship with her long-term partner, Sean Eav, blessed in France. And then, in January this year, Cecil Chao reportedly doubled the dowry. Drawing in yet more offers of marriage to the tens of thousands that had flooded in already.

Gigi's response? An open letter in Hong Kong's "South China Morning Post" asking for her father to accept her wife. He's since taken the offer off the table, though he's still not convinced that her daughter's decision is final.

CECIL CHAO: Because she's only 33. I mean, I changed a lot when I was 33 to now.

RAJPAL (voiceover): This month, "Talk Asia" meets Gigi Chao in Hong Kong to find out why she's not angry at her father's unconventional behavior and shares her advice for others caught between their sexuality and tradition.


RAJPAL: Gigi Chao, welcome to "Talk Asia".

CHAO: Hello. Thank you for having me.

RAJPAL: We know the headlines, but I want to know a little bit more about you. You're in the family property development business.

CHAO: That's correct.

RAJPAL: What is it about this business that drives you?

CHAO: Well, I think there's property development, and then there's the designing of the buildings - the architecture behind it. Obviously, my father was - is still - a very devout architect. And he loves designing buildings. So, from a young age, I took after him and found a city to be a wonderful palate.

RAJPAL: You went to the University of Manchester and studied architecture. What made you decide that that's where you wanted to go and what you wanted to do?

CHAO: Well, I entered university at quite a young age. I was 16 at the time. If it was up to me, I think I would have traveled the world a bit more. And I think it was my father's decision that he wanted me to finish my studies quickly and come back and jump in the deep end.


RAJPAL: Hey there.

CHAO: How are you?

Sell this baby out to market late, late this year.

RAJPAL: The condos? Condominiums?

CHAO: Well, we've got 19 for lease apartments here.


CHAO: And about five villas.


What's it like, working with your dad every day in such close proximity?

CHAO: It's fun. It's fun.


CHAO: No, he's really sharp and really intense.


CHAO: And he's just - he's the most hardworking guy in the company.

RAJPAL: Which means you have to be doubly so.

CHAO: No, not really.


RAJPAL: But are the expectations of you -

CHAO: He works much harder.

RAJPAL: But the expectations of you that much higher because -

CHAO: Of course, yes.

RAJPAL: -- you're the boss' daughter.

CHAO: Yes, of course, yes. Yes. But he's very intense.


CHAO: And he's demanding and he slave-drives everybody.

RAJPAL: What does he expect from you?

CHAO: Well, he wants me to be even more hardworking. So, I'm getting there, dad.

RAJPAL: And you both share an office. What have you learned from him?

CHAO: You know, negotiation skills. He's very good at negotiating. You know, every day meetings, I think I'm with him, you know, three out of the five meetings that he has every day. So, yes, you learn a lot just seeing him in the flesh.

RAJPAL: There's no better way - there's no better education, isn't there, than learning on the job?

CHAO: Yes, it's great.



RAJPAL: Part of you, as well, is being an advocate for the gay community here, in Hong Kong. What's it like, being gay in Hong Kong?

CHAO: In general, I think for a lot of people it does restrict them somewhat. They are - it's a part of their life which they are reluctant to share with most people. And it's an interesting predicament, I think.

They don't admit to being in the closet. So I ask, "Well, do your parents know?" No, no, no. We've never discussed the matter. And I wouldn't want you to divulge this to anybody but the closest friends. But I'm not living in the closet. This is just who I am, so -

RAJPAL: You've said before that Hong Kong is a much more conservative society - even more so than the United States and China.

CHAO: That's correct, yes.

RAJPAL: That's crazy to think. In a city that's constantly growing, changing, evolving, wanting to modernize.

CHAO: Because a lot of Hong Kong is built on some aspects of not changing. Some aspects of resistance to change and keeping constant power. A lot of what Hong Kong is, is family ties and relationships in this tiny, small, overcrowded place. And there's a lot of people that want to keep it that way.

RAJPAL: How much of it is based on a very Asian way of thinking of tradition - saving face - those kind of things?

CHAO: Yes, well, it's not just about saving face. It's a belief that coming out as gay is a blatant disrespect for your parents. I don't know. I think it's an unfortunate concept. Because it's not that way at all, I think. Most gay people I know respect their parents very much. But it's just this mentality that causes great schisms within the family.

RAJPAL: What was it like for you?

CHAO: It was OK, because I sort of didn't really have a choice about it. It just kind of all happened for me and I just had to pick up the pieces afterwards.

RAJPAL: When did you know for sure that you were gay?

CHAO: Well, when did you know for sure you were straight?


RAJPAL: You see, that's interesting to me, because so much importance is placed on coming out and being true to one's self. But yet, do you feel that it's this inequality where the onus is placed on a gay person to say, "Yes, this is who I am"?

CHAO: I mean, it might come as a surprise to some people, but I don't mind inequality. I don't mind that the world's not fair, because it's not. And I think the fact that inequality exists is a motivation for me to make it a better place. It's a motivation for me to prove myself and work harder and, you know, beat the odds. I think it's a gift. Yes.

RAJPAL: But was there ever a struggle in having to deal with that? In having to come to terms -

CHAO: It's a daily struggle.

RAJPAL: Really?

CHAO: It's a daily struggle. Just because the older generation prefers not to talk about it. And the younger generation to be well behaved - then you don't rock the boat. So -

RAJPAL: How, then, do you exist in something like that. Do you feel that you're split in two?

CHAO: No, I don't think I'm split in any way. I think I'm true to myself all the time. But I think part of growing up Asian is that you learn to hold your tongue from a young age. And just choosing your words carefully, I think, is just being respectful to conservatism.

RAJPAL: Well you are known in Hong Kong society - you are well known in the society pages. But now, you've also taken on another role. Is it a reluctant role that you've had to take on? Or do you take it on now with such pride and gusto of being an advocate of change for the gay community here, in Hong Kong?

CHAO: I still don't admit to being any sort of activist or leader of any movement. I think I am who I am and I speak for myself and myself only. I think that's really the best that I can do is to be true to myself and speak my mind. And all that's happened is that I've been given a voice and people seem interested in what I have to say. And if anybody finds some inspiration from that, then I'm honored.


RAJPAL: You became known worldwide for this.

CHAO: Yes.

RAJPAL: How did that make you feel?




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So there some rich tycoon in China offering 120 million smackeroos for somebody to wed his lesbian daughter. So this is a marriage proposal from me, George, here in Denver, Colorado, to you, Gigi Chao, in Hong Kong.


RAJPAL: It all comes out in a very public manner. Your partner Sean says you're married. Your father reacts after seeing it in the papers by saying, "No. She's straight and I'm going to pay any man 65 million U.S. dollars to marry her". It's all done very publicly. Did all of that get out of hand?

CHAO: It did. Yes, it sort of just had a life of its own and yes, it became its own organism.


CHAO: Yes.

RAJPAL: You became known worldwide for this.

CHAO: Yes.

RAJPAL: And it became something that you were identified with.

CHAO: Yes.

RAJPAL: How did that make you feel?

CHAO: That's a really good question, but, well, as Margaret Thatcher says, "Who cares how I feel? Who cares what I feel?" I think that this is an opportunity to stand for who I am. Doesn't matter what I feel.

RAJPAL: You were quoted as saying, "I had to get over the shock of suddenly being thrown out of the closet".

CHAO: Hmm.


RAJPAL: How fast did you have to get over the shock?

CHAO: I don't know if it's my innate being reacting and saying, "OK, I don't have time to be shocked, there's other people I have to take care of. There's my mom, there's my dad, there's Sean. They're all distraught and I'm the one that's in the middle of all this. And, you know, the media are going to want to portray it this other way and there's all these factors out of my control. So I have to be my own rock". Right? And so there wasn't really an opportunity to mope and, "Oh, poor me, I've been thrown out of the closet". It just never occurred to me to take it that way.

RAJPAL: Did you ever have a conversation with your dad after that? I mean, about it, specifically?

CHAO: Yes, of course.

RAJPAL: And were you ever upset with him for having said that out loud?

CHAO: No, I wasn't. Again, a lot of people ask me whether I've been upset by - you know, and a lot of people on the internet - they've expressed anger over what my dad has done. Quite honestly, I think it's just his way of rescuing the situation which caught him off guard.

And it was his way of, again, just getting back up and dancing in the rain. And he loves the attention. I don't think he makes any secret of it.

RAJPAL: It's interesting, because it didn't end there. I mean, he goes on and says that he's doubling the offer. And then, of course, you reply in an open letter in the newspaper - the local newspaper here. And you say, "I'm sorry to mislead you to think I was only in a lesbian relationship because there was a shortage of good, suitable men in Hong Kong".

How do you feel you misled your father?

CHAO: Well, we had a conversation and he was obviously in disbelief that I was in a happy relationship with Sean. I showed him photos. "Hi daddy. Look, we went to Paris. We had a church bless it". And he looked at the photos with huge eyes and went, "Why did you do this so impulsively? This is so wrong. Why have you done this?"

And I just said, "Well dad, I don't think I'll ever find a man that I would like - that I would ever want to marry, especially not in Hong Kong". It was this, sort of, sentence that made him think, "Oh, we must find Gigi the right man". I suppose his reaction came from there, where he was - he thought it was his fatherly duty to find me a husband.


RAJPAL: To help you?

CHAO: Yes.

RAJPAL: It's interesting - when we spoke to your dad, he said many times, over and over again, he said that, well, no, you're still young. And that, you know, you could change your mind.

CHAO: Yes.

RAJPAL: As if being gay was a choice.

CHAO: Yes. Oh well.

RAJPAL: Yes. Why did you feel it was necessary to do it in such a public way, though? To have that open letter?

CHAO: Well -

RAJPAL: Was it more for everybody else?

CHAO: Yes. Well, there's the aspect of all the hate mail and all the nasty things that people send both to myself and my dad. And to the supporters as well. However, on the other hand, I tried to speak with him privately to ask him to take back the offer. And obviously, he wouldn't listen. Well, I wouldn't say wouldn't listen, but he would find it too frivolous a request.

RAJPAL: Well, he did say, though, that it's done. If you're happy, it's done.

CHAO: Right.

RAJPAL: Well done.

CHAO: Yes.


RAJPAL: It's off.

CHAO: Yes. I wonder, until (ph) wed again.

RAJPAL: Yes. But what kind of impact has all of this had on your partner, Sean?

CHAO: This time, she's better and she's learning to take it with a pinch of salt. But, in some ways, she has to take it all on. Because she was the one that started all of this by making the announcement. So yes, she just has to suck it all up.

RAJPAL: If she hadn't made the announcement, do you think you would have spoken to your father about it and told him that, "Hey listen, I'm married and -"

CHAO: I did. I did. Yes, just after we came back from Paris, I had the conversation. I showed him photos. And he said it was wrong, wrong, wrong and so on. So there was a good six months between the two events.



RAJPAL: Your father wants you to get married, but he never married.

CHAO: Right. So all the audience out there that's after the money should marry him.





UNIDENTIFIED MALE (onscreen translation): I can respect a person being gay. But I can't accept the passing of a law that would endorse it and I can't accept the public being forced to reluctantly accept it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (onscreen translation): It how society looks at you, if they know you are gay, they will go "woah". But I am quite old already. I have seen a lot of things so I am not that concerned about it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I think Chinese or Asian in general, they are more traditional and they think gay isn't normal. So it's really hard for the Asian gay in Hong Kong to let their parents know they are. Yes.


RAJPAL: How much of your story do you think is about wanting to have a society evolve?

CHAO: Change happens slowly.

RAJPAL: And painfully.

CHAO: And painfully. And it trickles, almost - change - from a faucet that gets closed a lot. So I say that, you know, Hong Kong is more conservative than China. Because, in China, you can change like this -


CHAO: -- overnight. You can easily make changes. And in Hong Kong, there's just so much - so much opinion and then you have to listen to everybody. I don't think - I never - I can listen to criticism, but it just doesn't - it doesn't affect me like - in the same way that it affects Sean and say, for example, my mother.

RAJPAL: What was your mom like, growing up?

CHAO: Yes, well, she was a famous -

RAJPAL: Actress, yes.

CHAO: -- actress. Yes. She's the exemplar of elegance and womanly beauty. And she's a very critical person. I think, with the publicity, it's been difficult for her.

RAJPAL: I remember reading once - and correct me if it's inaccurate - you once - when you told your mom that you'd had a relationship with a girl - and this is when you were 16 -- she had a reaction that wouldn't be considered supportive in any way shape or form.

CHAO: I think, in high school - I went to an international school in Hong Kong - so I had friends that dressed more masculine. And this was something that made my mom very worried. And she wanted to stop me from hanging out with these friends.

So it must have been 13 or 14, I had some friends over and one of them was my girlfriend. And she was very upset by it. And so, we went into the room and I sat on the bed and I started talking to her and she reacted rather horribly.

And she was distraught and heartbroken and she cried and screamed and banged her head against the wall and said, "I would never accept this. I would never accept this fact about you. And I'll never accept it to the day I die".

RAJPAL: That would make anyone not want to say anything about it ever again. It kind of leaves quite the imprint - and indelible imprint.

CHAO: Yes, so I just sort of sat there and sat in silence and took it all in. And then left the room. Yes.

RAJPAL: Did you ever feel that there was a sense of resentment that she felt?

CHAO: Yes.

RAJPAL: Really? And did she act that out on you?

CHAO: Possibly.

RAJPAL: Yes. What did you learn about relationships from your parents? Your father wants you to get married, but he never married.

CHAO: Right. So for all the audience out there that's after the money, you should marry him.


RAJPAL: But he wouldn't marry anyone, would he? It's interesting the relationship you and your dad have. You obviously have a lot of love between you. I mean, he said that.

CHAO: Yes.

RAJPAL: He wants you to be happy. You say that you love your father. Do you feel, though, that that love is conditional?

CHAO: No, I don't think it is. I think we have different expectations of each other. For example, he wants me to work diligently within Cheuk Nang.

RAJPAL: Which is the company -

CHAO: Which is our company -


CHAO: -- our property development company. Work, work my butt off.


CHAO: And carry the legacy forward. And perhaps I want him to be more accepting towards my partner. Well, he's the father, so he gets the upper hand, unfortunately. So I think it's just a matter of, yes, just easing it through and be patient and finding softer ways to get through to him.

RAJPAL: Say if there's someone out there watching and they're struggling, what advice do you give them in terms of how they deal with that - those emotions - and the courage that's needed?

CHAO: Courage is overrated. Yes. Just don't worry about being courageous. Just be patient and be loving and who you are. And embrace the, perhaps, the confusion that the other people that don't understand you go through as well. I think it gets better.

RAJPAL: You've also actually said, now, that you will spend as long as it takes to get your father and your partner, Sean, together.

CHAO: Together.

RAJPAL: How long do you think that will take?

CHAO: Oh, ten years? 20 years. I'm aiming at 20. If we can achieve it less than 20, then it's a win.


RAJPAL: All right. Gigi Chao -

CHAO: Thank you.

RAJPAL: A pleasure. Thank you.