Kai-bong and Brenda Chau
THE PHONE rings. It is Kai-bong Chau. He has some important news to tell but it takes a bit of hemming and hawing before he gets to the point (or, as he puts it, before he plucks up the courage to tell all). He is going to be included in the 1998 edition of Who's Who In The World and he wonders if maybe I could just slip in a tiny mention somewhere. I say that I'm delighted to write a 1,200 word interview. I've often seen Kai-bong and Brenda on the social circuit and have developed a soft spot for them.
You know about the Chaus, of course. You have read about the pink Rolls, and the gold one in several thousand articles which have included descriptions of the gold loo-seats, the gold house, the gold dinner service, the gold jewellery and the pale visages of the Chaus. They are God's gift to jaded journalists on a global scale. They say things like 'I am Count Dracula' (Kai-bong explaining his predilection for nightlife) or 'Despite our appearance, we are humble at heart', without apparent thought for how such statements might look in print. They appear to have no guile. This is certainly touching; having endured generations of hacks sending them up, it indicates a heroic lack of cynicism.
So I climbed into the Rolls at the appointed hour and there was Brandon, the Chau's monosyllabic 12-year-old son, on his way home from school. Rumour has it that Brandon is adopted. Taxed with this later, Kai-bong said: 'He is my genetic son, I assure you. If you look at his palm, it's a carbon copy of mine and it's difficult to have my sideburns, which he has. He's 100 per cent me.' Is he 100 per cent Brenda? 'Mmm, I can't reveal.' We sat downstairs under a chandelier of some magnitude. On the way in, I'd circumnavigated about 10 workmen who were supposed to be digging up the road outside but sounded as if they were excavating a tunnel beneath the house, so incredible was the noise level. When Brenda appeared, she sat on the sofa opposite, softly complaining about the decibels and touching her head with sweet, vague gestures. The photographer wanted to take her picture at the golden front door but this was a definite no-no. 'We try to avoid daytime,' explained her husband.
Indeed, a prevailing air of gloom hung over the house but as the light outside faded, Kai-bong became progressively more cheerful as he produced forests of magazines and photographs detailing social triumphs. This, he believed, was why he had been approached back in March by Who's Who In The World which turned out to be published by an American company based in New Jersey. 'Very mysterious,' said Kai-bong. 'They said that someone in New York had recommended me. They do all these checks, because you know some people write a lot of rubbish.' Later on, I had a closer look at the congratulatory letter which also offered 'the opportunity to purchase an Enhanced Biography Subscription' and added, in fairly microscopic print, that 'should your biography not be included because of professional or geographic constraints, your order will automatically be cancelled'. Which, I couldn't help feeling, was slightly ominous.
Kai-bong only sees the positive side of life, however. 'I hope when you present me that you don't present me seriously,' he announced, merrily, at one point. This seemed as good a moment as any to observe that people not only didn't take the Chaus seriously, they - well, frankly, they laughed at them and how did he feel about that? 'I leave it to them,' replied Kai-bong mildly. 'You know why? I was educated in England, I'm a mixed-up Chinese. European people never have that thought of laughing about fancy dress. It's my frustrated artistic nature, you know, this is an outlet for that. We've been interviewed by 32 countries in 30 years and we provide excitement and glamour for people.' Fair enough, I agreed. But a little later, Kai-bong asked wistfully: 'Do you think people laugh at us?' I said that I thought people considered them a highly eccentric pair whereupon Kai-bong rallied and said, 'Oh I don't mind, it's my Western side.' Long, long ago, the Chaus were lawyers - in fact, they have a large law firm in which others diligently toil - but it's been a while since a forensic thought crossed either of their minds. Brenda recalled, with some animation, the horror of combining social functions with morning appearances in court. Society won, no contest. But are they happy? 'No,' replied Kai-bong instantly. 'It's some pressure. People expect certain qualities, they expect Brenda to slide down the banister like Marlene Dietrich.' Kai-bong has a birthday (he wouldn't say which one) this Thursday and, on request, he pondered encroaching age with philosophical resignation. 'This is a matter of course,' he stated. 'Brenda used to wear see-through dresses with body-stockings but everyone has to go through spring, summer, autumn and winter.' So where are they now? 'Hmm, I don't know.' Late summer perhaps? 'Oh, that's very kind of you,' breathed Brenda. 'Indian summer!' cried the irrepressible Kai-bong. 'But maybe a typhoon coming!' And thus several enjoyable hours passed, with much light-hearted hilarity, and then I went off to dinner with a friend. Halfway through the meal, I came across a gold-wrapped lai-see packet which Kai-bong had presented on my arrival ('Just a small Chinese tradition') and which I'd tossed heedlessly into my bag. Closer, appalled inspection revealed that it contained $5,000.
Once I'd recovered, I rang Kai-bong and asked him what on earth he thought he was doing. 'It's nothing,' he kept saying. I said he'd either have to take it back or I was giving it to charity. (Mother Teresa had died on the day of the interview and her nuns seemed the most appropriate recipients.) 'Just keep it,' Kai-bong moaned. 'Don't be embarrassed, I wanted to buy you a crocodile bag but I don't know your taste, money is easier. It's nothing.' I wanted to know if he did this for every journalist who crossed his threshold - in which case, given the amount of publicity he's garnered, the outlay would be mind-boggling - but he said no, he didn't do it to all people and that it was just because of the Mid-Autumn Festival and that the amount was so little, I mustn't worry about it.
Well, the nuns now have the money but I'm more puzzled than ever about the Chaus. I rang Philip Plews, a good friend of theirs, who said that they could be spectacularly generous and that they give a great deal of money to charity. I was glad to hear it put like that, without a more sinister interpretation. I suspect handing over money to journalists is part of their striking guilelessness. Whether or not you agree, of course, is - as they say in the legal world abandoned by the Chaus - entirely a matter for you to decide.