The tiny helicopter dips towards Victoria Harbour and sweeps thrillingly between two of Hong Kong’s tallest skyscrapers.
Gigi Chao – pilot, playboy’s daughter and Asia’s most famous lesbian – cannot resist a whoop of delight. The 33-year-old heiress, boldly steering the air-craft to give her passenger the best possible view, banks eagerly towards the city. The cockpit is a realm she dominates: a strangely intimate boudoir of altimeters, wind gauges and critical instruments.
On dry land, at society parties and in local gossip magazines, Chao may be the Sapphic centrepiece of perhaps the most ludicrous fairy tale of modern times – unwilling participant in a contest designed to overturn her sexuality. But in the air, with just her skill as a pilot and a perspex bubble between us and watery doom, she is control personified – one of China’s most powerful businesswomen, a poised socialite and now victor, not victim, of Daddy’s debacle.
Nine months ago, that triumph seemed unlikely. Last September, Chao’s father, 76-year-old property magnate Cecil Chao Sze-tsung, unleashed a tirade of parental stricture. His daughter’s April marriage ceremony to the woman she loved, in a Parisian church, had not taken place, he told reporters. She was not a lesbian, he said, and offered HK$500 million to the man who could wean his daughter off her preference for girls.
It was a commodification of romance that seemed both appropriate and jarring, given Cecil’s self-crafted reputation as a playboy. He claims to have bedded more than 10,000 women since 1970. That relentless pursuit of new conquests may suit him, said Gigi’s friends at the time, but his daughter was in a real relationship and her father hardly had the moral upper hand.
The timing and suddenness of Cecil’s outburst were also something of a mystery. For approaching a decade, Gigi’s lesbianism had hardly been a secret. She had appeared many times in public with Sean Eav, her partner since 2005.
In fact, confides Gigi, she had stepped out in public many times over the years with previous female lovers, but all of them had been more visually feminine than the short, puckish, 45-year-old Eav. Drooling scandal sheets had simply assumed these other beauties were just pals of the heiress. The coy phrase “same-sex friend” never appeared until it was Eav, unambiguously a lover, on Gigi’s arm.
Eav is herself the scion of a local business family. It was when that luxury goods company, Ball Watch, engaged Gigi’s PR company in 2005 that the two met. Their early dates were not deliberately conducted in secret, says Gigi, but she was mindful of Eav’s discomfort with the paparazzi.
Local gossip was incapable of seeing Eav as anything other than butch or boyish. There was a clear insinuation that, if she absolutely insisted on being gay, stunning Gigi somehow “deserved” someone in Jimmy Choo and Vera Wang, not chinos and Adidas.
“In reality, Sean is now very comfortable with her feminine side,” says Gigi, “and I am proud of that.”
But the destructive potential of her father’s offer was considerable. The dowry, calculated Cecil with a mercantile logic, would draw out the sort of “kind-hearted” hero who could seduce Gigi straight, marry her, make her a mother and descandalise the dynasty. She had had boyfriends in the past, after all. How difficult could this act of conversion be? Plus, the choice of spouse would be hers: he would never force his daughter to marry someone she didn’t like.
The day after Cecil’s offer was reported, queues formed outside the Hennessy Road headquarters of Cheuk Nang, the family property business.
The e-mailed CVs and Facebook friend requests arrived in a deluge from around the world and still trickle in today. Gigi’s eyes roll every time an Australian, a Nigerian or a Canadian sends a picture of himself in Speedos. Her public response was mostly controlled. The whole imbroglio, she said at the time, was her father’s way of saying, “Baby girl, I love you and you deserve more.”
It was, above all, a seizure of control by Cecil: a reverse coup in which the chairman of Cheuk Nang asserted his power over its executive director – his daughter. He may privately know her sexuality is not for sale but by making it appear that it might be, and by making it the subject of manic international theatre, he took decisive ownership of her outing.
The heiress’ original plan was to have a quiet ceremony in Paris with Eav: she knew that neither of her parents would be there. In theory, the couple would then sidle officially and elegantly out of the closet in their own time, their partnership recognised in France but certainly not in Hong Kong.
Though marinated in affection and distorted by the crackle of the helicopter headset, Gigi’s descriptions of her father reveal much about the episode. Whenever she refers to him, Gigi switches unconsciously between “Daddy”, “Father” and “Cecil”. She talks of the “sacrifice” he has made to maintain his pace of daily sexual conquest. She intimates, sadly, that the sacrificial victim in all this may in fact be her. As the city sweeps off to the north, we pass Villa Cecil – a sprawling Pok Fu Lam complex, birthplace of a thousand seedy rumours.
“Wave to Daddy,” comes over the headset, accompanied by a little wave towards the house. It is the gesture of a child, not a millionaire.
Gigi hooks her aircraft towards a small creek. Her control remains absolute but there is a wobble as the chopper descends. Then a final dip to the right and the skis ease onto something solid.
“Tah-dah!” she says. “Daddy’s yacht. He can’t land on it but I can.
Shall we go now?” The brevity of the stay is significant, the fatherdaughter rivalry palpable. The luxury yacht is clearly a nuanced plaything. There are depths of anger wrapped in the grace.
Superficially, the source of anger seems clear. The media inferno and the tsunami of marriage proposals, hammy verse and naked male photographs were predictable and left Eav feeling especially vulnerable.
Gigi shakes her head in recollection. “It was very bad for her. Very bad.”
As the suitors circled, Gigi’s most coherent response came on Facebook: “Dear Earthlings, Thank you for your flood of marriage proposals, love letters, business proposals, death threats and other general correspondence,” she posted. “Whether you are Muslim, Catholic, atheist, Hindu, or what your world views may be, I implore you to stop bothering my friends or my receptionist. I pray that you will all find love, that which begins with self-love, and that which begins from love of parents, and that which stems from love of the universe.”
It is difficult to tell how far the underlying love between father and daughter has been dented, and how far piety (she uses the word often) has tempered some of her legitimate rage.
“I had no alternative but to be calm about it all,” she says. “I knew where he was coming from.” But these are thoughts too big to be interrupted by what the heiress troublingly calls the “life-or-death multitasking” of flying a helicopter. “Shall we continue the tour of Hong Kong?” she says, adding, “Conservative Hong Kong.”
“HONG KONG CAN BE HORRIBLE. It has been horrible. Any place is horrible when you can feel society pushing against a particular freedom you believe in,” says Gigi, back on terra firma and sipping lager in the distinctly establishment Hong Kong Aviation Club, at Kai Tak.
A letter from the Hong Kong Air Cadet Corps and addressed to “Flying Officer Chao” has been left for her behind the bar. She shows it off with the broadest grin of the day so far. “I am pleased to inform you that the Commanding Officer has approved your promotion to the rank of Specialist Flight Lieutenant with retroactive effect from April 1, 2013,” it reads. The letter marks another cherished bond between daughter and father.
“Daddy worries that my lifestyle and my lesbianism will lock me out of conservative Hong Kong high society. It’s not just high society.
The whole of local society here is conservative, especially on the issue of sexuality. In some ways it is even worse than mainland China.”
There is irritation in her voice, and it seems primed to accuse someone or something of leading that restrictiveness. She pauses to look across the table at my notebook, incredulous that she has found someone with messier handwriting than herself. Gigi at least has an excuse: a natural left-hander, she was forced as a child to write with her right hand. Mostly, she says, because to eat left-handed with chopsticks around a dinner table upsets the balance and causes an intolerable bumping of elbows. Who imposed that particular stricture?
“My mother,” says Gigi, sharply. “She is authoritative. She tries not to be, but she can’t help it.” Their relationship, she adds, has improved over the years. “I have to see her as a friend. This is a hierarchical society but, when maintaining a long relationship with your parents, the adult has to come to regard them as equals and, eventually, as little children.”
Gigi appears content. She is in effective control of the family property empire (one of her brothers also has a senior executive role) and can flex her intellectual muscles. Our interview takes place on the eve of elections in Malaysia, a country in which Cheuk Nang is expanding.
When the conversation turns to work, the chirpy lesbian heiress vanishes in a heartbeat. In her place is a formidable businesswoman, wrestling with an emerging market, political risk and the fate of a project worth billions. It is clear she’d rather be talking shop than sexuality.
Nevertheless, since her father’s global blandishments to male suitors, the heiress has been more strident in her defence of gay rights. She asserts that progress on that front would be considerably smoother if other gay scions of the great Hong Kong families (and her “gaydar” tells her there are many) were to admit what they are.
“It won’t happen, of course. The place is run by these patriarchs and matriarchs and you are never truly outside the circle they control. They know that if their very handsome son ever decided to come out it would be a scandal for the whole family. It is the fear of this that prevents people from living free lives and being happy. The crazy thing is that they can be as gay as they want privately – and they are – but the words ‘I am gay’ must never be uttered.”
Having unambiguously crossed that Rubicon, and having tentatively embraced the “Asia’s most famous lesbian” handle, Gigi is under some pressure to be a pioneer. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in Hong Kong some 20 years ago. Before then it could technically be punished with life imprisonment. The city’s faltering emergence from that is a source of embarrassment to Gigi, who views the embrace of gay marriage by countries such as France and New Zealand as a cause for pride in humanity.
Gigi is adamant that her stance should never be defined for her. Even sexuality itself, she believes, is something defined by the gender of the person you happen to fall in love with. She regards the assertion that people are “born gay” as highly debatable. With HK$500 million at stake, however, there are those who might see her belief that sexuality is changeable as a chink in the armour. Suitors who think that, she says, will be disappointed.
“I don’t think you can be certain that homosexuality is something you are born with. I am more of the scientific point of view that sexuality and sexual identity are something that evolves. It is more of a fluid thing. It is like those fish that can change their gender on a whim. I think there is a fluidity in human sexual identity that can be affected by experiences in life,” she says.
“The ‘born this way’ argument is for Lady Gaga. I suppose it does stop people trying to pray you straight. The really important thing – and I think we are still some way off this in Hong Kong – is whether this society can learn to respect people rather than judging them.”
The striking thing – both in this train of thought and elsewhere – is how similarly Gigi and her father seem to think. The eldest of Cecil’s three children by different mothers, Gigi has long been the receptacle of his ambitions. The love of helicopter flying is an obviously shared joy; beneath the surface, there is both common ground and the sort of rivalry that can only thrive between conjoined spirits.
Gigi was academically gifted but Cecil pushed her with particular ferocity. Sent from Hong Kong to a school in Britain, she completed her A levels by the age of 15, and a year later began a degree in architecture (another passion her father shares) at Manchester University.
“Manchester was strange. I was out on my own and it was tough because I was younger than everyone. They were running around having sex and doing their rites of passage into early alcoholism, and I struggled.
The academic work was fine, but I didn’t have the emotional maturity to handle the living aspects of it all,” she says. “I think I was just lonely.”
After graduation, she travelled broadly, taking what she describes as a series of “crap jobs” to broaden her experience before the inevitable return to the family business.
Her father, the resolutely unmarried septuagenarian tycoon, still seems to want his daughter to succeed him at the head of the property business, and she clearly wants that role. Gigi’s public response to Cecil’s effort to “buy her straight” was surprisingly unruffled, and those around her have described her restraint as an expression of “deep, but calibrated affection for her father”.
Asked whether her father knows Eav at all, Gigi hesitates. “He knows of her. They have seen each other at events. The conversation has never gone beyond ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’. But I don’t think it’s a disapproval of Sean.
Just her gender. If Sean were a guy, Daddy and the whole family would be clapping and hoping for 2.4 children,” she says.
But even as Gigi restates her father’s opposition to the relationship with Eav, more father-daughter similarities pile up. Both Gigi and Cecil see Hong Kong as a torrid nest of judgment and taboo. Both the heterosexual philanderer and the lesbian monogamist see the institution of traditional marriage as suffocating and vulnerable to Hong Kong’s unique pressures. Both decry high society as proscriptive and hypocritical.
Both know Gigi’s decision to come out shatters convention: one of them minds, the other does not.
It is the outward reactions of the two that differ.
“Nowadays, I actively enjoy not being hetero,” says Gigi, describing the unexpected feelings of liberation since her father’s offer. “We have chosen to be a visible couple and to rejoice in the lack of expectation that weighs so heavily on a conventional marriage.”
She sees her father, on the other hand, as instinctively conservative.
Before the handover, she says, “Cecil, being a very prudent man, started making plans in advance. He bought a boat with a helipad and a helicopter and learnt to fly so he could just fly his family out at short notice, if it ever came to that. The hope was that he could get the yacht outside Chinese waters. It was a genuine stress for him. The first time I ever rode in a helicopter he piloted was just before the handover,” she recalls.
And yet, to the outside world and the local gossip columns, Cecil remains an inveterate lothario – unreconstructed and unabashed in his pursuit of new lovers. On the face of it, Gigi allows her affection for the man to trump whatever misgivings a daughter might have about so prolific a swordsman.
“I don’t disapprove of him. I disapprove of the hearts he has broken, but I don’t disapprove of his lifestyle. I think there are sacrifices made for the way of life he has chosen. Great sacrifices. He doesn’t talk about it as he doesn’t even know it,” she says, her voice dropping.
“He assumes he’ll be a bachelor all his life and he enjoys the reputation of that. But he doesn’t have a wife to look after him when he is older and that is something that worries me all the time. Every day.
I’m terrified of him being in an accident, not having someone there who knows how to look after him properly. That is the sacrifice.”
Later that evening, the Aviation Club is in party mode, celebrating the 10th anniversary of its helicopter division. The party is a tight, joyous, bibulous gathering that includes a few of the richest and most powerful tycoons in Hong Kong. Partners and families are present and, with not the slightest hint of awkwardness, Eav is there for a Saturday night with the wife. She has even brought their two dogs.
As the evening swills on, Gigi flitters cheerfully between veteran pilots, old school friends and the great and good of the city. Everyone adores her and jostles for her time, but she is on nearly constant lookout for Eav.
Instinctively, Gigi glances across the room to satisfy herself that her wife is having a fun time and has not been trapped in a dull conversation.
She fusses, making sure Eav has had something to eat, that she is happy and that she is all right to stay a little longer. Nobody pays these outward signs of domesticity any attention.
If this is the high society that will forever reject Gigi’s lesbianism, it is not doing a very good job tonight.