Mind your own business, says Flora
FLORA Cheong-Leen is not usually given to rudeness. Perhaps it is her training in classical ballet. Maybe her refined upbringing. But she would like it known even these constraints have their limits.
The reason? Almost everyone she meets, from prying social acquaintances to intrusive Chinese gossip writers, wants to ask what is going on between her and husband Alan Hoo.
The usually polite Ms Cheong-Leen has had to steel herself to utter one sentence: ''Mind your own business!'' But she adds, as if to temper the blow: ''Every marriage has its ups and downs and there is always a period of adjustment.
''I don't see why people should be gossiping.
''I'll talk about my business, my charities and ballet. But I do not want to discuss my personal life.'' She often reads or hears details about her personal life, which she says are based on conjecture, but said she had reached the point where she tried not to let it upset her.
''Something spreads in seconds. People might hear something, but they add a bit of salt, then a bit of pepper and maybe a little ketchup before passing it on to somebody else.
''Before I know it, I have been baked, grilled and boiled by the media.'' But she will admit that, with two marriages behind her, any picture painted of her leading a perfect life is something of an illusion.
''I'm a commoner,'' she says over a breakfast of hot water and lemon at the Marriott Hotel. ''I have problems, too. People always want to look at me as if I am a simpleton, a pretty girl who is into fashion, modelling and going to parties. But that is not what I am about.'' It's about as hard to swallow as the hot water and lemon. I add some honey to mine.
Ms Cheong-Leen, 33, says she has finally settled down, grown up and embraced the values her parents - her father is former Urban Council chairman Hilton Cheong-Leen - have tried to instil in her.
''My father keeps telling me 'we are hardly public people, although we are committed to helping the public'. I want to take over some of the charitable associations he has worked on, and right from the start people knew that was what I was going to do,''she said.
I add another spoon of honey, as Ms Cheong-Leen warms to the subject of men, marriage and life in the public eye.
Of her past marriages, she says she has learned many lessons.
''When you are in a relationship and you are a fairly social or busy person, it can affect the relationship if the foundation is not strong enough. There can be a lot of misunderstandings.
''Maybe it's the ballet which has made me a romantic, but a relationship should be peaceful, harmonious and it should last forever. Either it works, or it doesn't,'' she said.
''There are many women who marry for security, or for money. I don't believe in that. And I think many men are threatened by a woman who is popular and well-known.
''Maybe it's my overseas education, but maybe I am too Western for a lot of men in Hongkong. Most Chinese families are still very traditional and in some families the men still have more than one wife.
''Life is too short to be in an unhappy relationship. God made Adam and Eve to respect and help each other, not to be in competition.
''My aim in life is to make that happen, to have that type of honest relationship. Love is more than saying 'I love you' to someone. It is about care, respect and sacrifice.'' H ER advice to women is: ''There is such a thing as the right time, place and person. When all the elements are right, it has got to come.
''The most important thing is to give unconditionally. My relationship with God has given me a new perspective on life. It guides me. I have been blessed with all things, but I believe what I really want will come to me one day,'' she said.
For a woman who started with ''mind your own business'', Ms Cheong-Leen has come a long way. So far, in fact, my hot lemon water has gone cold.
She has become more public about her devotion to Christianity, she says. She attends a congregation every Sunday and can often be seen worshipping at St John's Cathedral.
''I'm a very positive person and I believe God will guide my life. So far, he has done just that.'' With a strict convent-education and a rigid Catholic upbringing, Ms Cheong-Leen said ''guilt'' had always been her first reaction to any problem.
''I used to spend time going to confession, repenting for everything I thought I had done wrong with my life, like not spending enough time with my family.
''But now my beliefs have changed. I have become a Christian and it has made me give so much more. It is all to do with giving, sharing and praying.'' To the cynics, Ms Cheong-Leen will be what she has always been: spoilt, pampered and enviably blessed by life.
But in her eyes, those days of being a prima donna are over.
''I was the youngest in a family of 40 cousins, so of course I was spoiled. And yes, I was a prima donna, but I had every right to be. I was the best in my class, got a three-year scholarship to study ballet in London and felt I could be as spoiled as I liked. Even now, I can spend like crazy if I want to.'' She said her overseas education made her more Westernised than many of her peers, and for that reason her relationships were more challenging.
''I think most people in Hongkong take themselves too seriously. I take my work seriously, but I don't do things for the wrong reason. I find that especially so with the opposite sex.'' ''The men in Hongkong in general expect their wives to stay home and they can do anything and everything under the sun and that is something to watch for.'' Still, there are enough young women in Hongkong who aspire to her kind of lifestyle, and Ms Cheong-Leen has mined her glamour-girl image by running a hugely-successful chain of boutiques, Pavlova, which she launched 13 years ago.
''I am a designer. It is what I do best. I love wearing my own clothes, although I love other labels as well. But I enjoy putting different elements together and coming up with something new.'' She has just opened a shop in the Nam Yeung Department store in Shanghai, and is to open another one.
''The clothes are much younger and more reasonable for the China market. I think it is a mistake to bring the whole lot in, which is what a lot of big labels do. People in China still think twice before buying.'' Ms Cheong-Leen's business partners in China are ''within the government'', so much of the hassle surrounding doing business in the mainland could be controlled.
''It's perfect timing. I'm glad I didn't get into China any earlier, and if I had waited any longer I would have missed the boat,'' she said.
Pavlova takes up most of her time. She said she put together four different lines for her boutiques in Hongkong, Singapore, the Philippines and China and she also sold to Hawaii and Spain.
She is helping to organise a major fashion event in China in August, is hosting a nationwide modelling competition and has been taken on by French fashion house Nina Ricci as a fashion consultant.
She is on the board of the Hongkong Ballet and the Hongkong Ballet Group which works with students and spends several hours a week looking after her responsibilities as chairman of the mobile bus service with the Hongkong Council of Early Childhood Services, with which she has been linked for six years.
''The point of it is to instil a sense of philosophy and culture into the younger generation.
''Until very recently, I felt like I had no roots. Hongkong is my home but I had no patriotism, no feelings for China or Hongkong. We are Chinese, but not from the mainland, and I believe Hongkong people are individualistic. But now I have no plans to quit Hongkong. In fact, I am very committed. I want to help ensure a smooth transition in 1997, and that means working with the people,'' she said.
A waiter brings another fresh, piping hot cup of lemon water. Unconsciously, I start spooning in the honey . . .