Last month, an event was held at the St Regis Macao hotel to announce the first St Regis Connoisseur in China. The title is bestowed upon individuals who act as ambassadors for the hotel brand. Current connoisseurs include British jazz player Jamie Cullum, Canadian-raised fashion designer Jason Wu and Keren Craig (whom I had to look up on Wikipedia – she’s the other half of American fashion label Marchesa, along with Georgina Chapman, also a connoisseur).
The press release heralded the arrival of the “first ever Chinese St Regis Connoisseur” which, as Jason Wu was born in Taipei and lived there until he was nine, could be a matter for some discussion. It wasn’t the only debatable moment during proceedings, but more of that later. The new connoisseur is Bao Bao Wan – Wan Baobao in Chinese form – a high-end-jewellery designer. Amid all her baubles, however, it’s probably her family tree that glitters brightest, at least within China: her grandfather was Wan Li, a vice-premier in the 1980s and chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress until he retired, in 1993.
I looked him up, too. In Hungry Ghosts: China’s Secret Famine (1996), Jasper Becker – former Beijing bureau chief for the South China Morning Post – mentions Wan Li twice. When Wan became Anhui’s party secretary after Mao Zedong’s death, in 1976, he issued six guidelines that eased restrictions on private farming in the province. Their success earned Deng Xiaoping’s blessing and were replicated elsewhere. Becker suggests this is the moment when Mao’s commune system was abandoned. In 1980, food supplies in Tibet improved when Wan went to Lhasa with Hu Yaobang, then the party’s secretary general, and sacked those in charge. Not, perhaps, a global hero but not a complete stooge, either.
Because of her illustrious lineage, Wan Baobao was raised within the confines of Zhongnanhai, the government compound set in the former imperial gardens next to Beijing’s Forbidden City. For that reason, she’s sometimes referred to as a “red princess” or, in a 2009 China Daily piece that I read with some interest, as a “red scion”. Wan told the paper that she used to dream of becoming a bus conductor because they had “extremely beautiful bags”. Her family background was “a halo” but she longed for people to know her inner self.
“For anyone in a family like mine, all the burdens are nothing compared with the bliss,” she explained. “We benefit so much, not necessarily materially but mentally. It’s priceless.”
Two other red scions, grandchildren of Communist worthies and friends of Wan’s, were interviewed for the same story. (As Wan put it: “If we didn’t have these backgrounds, we would still be friends because we understand one another.”) Ye Mingzi, Beijing-born granddaughter of another former chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (Ye Jianying) had had the misfortune to move to Hong Kong in 1986, when she was seven.
“My road through British-led Hong Kong and then Britain was filled with challenges,” she told the China Daily, though she’d managed to steel herself to study fashion design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, in London.
The greatest challenge, however, although he didn’t know it at the time, would be faced by the third red scion interviewed for that 2009 piece: Bo Guagua. His grandfather was Bo Yibo, one of the long-living, politically adept Communist veterans known as the “Eight Immortals”. Bo Guagua told China Daily that his generation, born after China’s reform, were “the most blessed people in the world”. “We can all be building blocks of our country,” he stated. “The Chinese dream is very much alive.”
Three years later, Bo’s mother would be given a suspended death sentence for murder (since commuted to life imprisonment) and, in 2013, his father, Bo Xilai – formerly one of the highest fliers in China’s political firmament – would go on trial for bribery and corruption and also be imprisoned for life. During both trials, Bo Guagua’s gilded existence, and the princeling culture that made it possible, would come under excruciating scrutiny.
Since then, President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has gathered pace. In August, Chinese news outlets were told not to promote Western lifestyles or conspicuous consumption, and to avoid putting stars, billionaires and internet celebrities “on pedestals”. You have to wonder, therefore, if this is an ideal moment to be in the bling business. When I asked around – she’d studied at the Hong Kong branch of the Gemological Institute of America, on Queen’s Road Central, and launched Bao Bao Wan Fine Jewelry in the city in 2007 – people said the same thing: that Wan Baobao wasn’t quite as visible as she had been.
Still, she often posts on Instagram (47k followers) so you can keep up with her shiny lifestyle, in the company of such established pedestal dwellers as Victoria Beckham and Lewis Hamilton, while also gleaning useful advice (“Never take diamonds too seriously”). There are also close-ups of stupendous jewellery, although I rather like the simple shot of a – presumably relevant – fortune-cookie pronouncement: Others love your dramatic side. A photo of a determined Baobao aged about five particularly registered. Alongside she’s written: “Always got ice cream and da bossiness”.
On the same afternoon that Wan’s connoisseurship was announced, the St Regis Macao held its first Greater China Butler Award ceremony. The timing was less random than it sounds: as part of her duties, Wan had designed a pin for the winners, who included the Best Female Butler and the Most Linguistically Talented Butler. The event took place in the Astor Ballroom – named in honour of John Jacob Astor IV, who built the first St Regis hotel in 1904, in New York – in front of a smattering of press plus about 50 hotel employees. We learned that the spirit of the St Regis butler service resides in two words: Allow me.
Wan, who’d arrived by helicopter from Hong Kong, attached pins to the lapels of the last two winners – both, as it happened, from the St Regis Beijing. She is very slender, an effect heightened by staggeringly high heels (Walter Steiger). She looks both severely beautiful and strangely ageless; she could be a decade older or a decade younger than she actually is, which is probably early 30s. (She doesn’t like to be exact on the matter.)
A short sit-down chat with the MC followed, conducted mostly in Putonghua with some English. (I heard no Cantonese the entire time I was in the hotel and that, combined with three young women doing a Tibetan dance in honour of the St Regis Lhasa Resort, gave the effect of being much further north than we actually were.) Wan said that in designing the pin, she’d taken the hotel logo and made it out of gold, which reminded her of the St Regis New York – “When I was growing up, I always see the beautiful chandeliers, the gold part always strikes me” – and mother-of-pearl, which apparently reminded her of the hotel’s welcoming sheets and towels “after a long, long day at Fashion Week or the Met Ball”.
Everyone was then asked to write a note to someone they wished to thank, which would be posted anywhere at the hotel’s expense; after some pretty scribbling, Wan revealed that she’d written to the hotel butlers in gratitude for their service. Could there be a more perfect ambassador for a brand?
IN THE ROOM SET ASIDE for interviews, two armchairs have been placed in a front of a circle of 10 chairs. Various people from Wan’s team and the hotel appear to invigilate our chat. The encounter is being taped and, when I ask, it is agreed a copy will be sent to me afterwards. I’ve already had to send over a list of innocuous questions, with no strong intention of sticking to it, and we begin with her jewellery. She says that the jade and – legal – mammoth-ivory earrings she is wearing were based on the beautiful ladies of the Dunhuang caves.
“I’m very proud of our Silk Road and the art of the Silk Road, as well.” (No belt on the dress, though.)
An enormous ring reposing on her small hand is carved with her family name’s character (which means “ten thousand” – Baobao means “treasure”). She made it “so many years” ago but says it has sentimental value: it reminds her of the chocolate coins of her Beijing childhood.
“And it’s a memory of those days of not being a jewellery designer, desiring to be one but too scared to commit to it. Huge decision to make! Like you met someone and before you start to hold his hand or kiss him, you desire him for a long time – maybe, back at school, you go to the library at the hour when he would go to the library and look at the books you would never go to, the shelves about engineering or something ...”
Is this the voice of experience? Wan gives an appealing, raspy laugh – “I’ve done stupid things!” – but nimbly sticks to her point. “I made a lot of jewellery before I became a jeweller, while I was still a photographer.”
That was when she did an apprenticeship with the American photographer Joel Sternfeld, who’d taught her at Sarah Lawrence College, in New York.
“Do you know Joel? He’s amazing! He didn’t call me for 10 years, and all of a sudden I receive a message, ‘Baobao, I’m coming to China but I forgot to apply for a visa!’ I couldn’t help.”
No guanxi then? “Meiyou guanxi!” Another big laugh.
“He ended up with a 72-hour visa. I wasn’t in Beijing but I sent a friend to take care of him. He was coming to photograph the smog but he ended up so touched by the people’s joy and love on the streets, in the alleys, in the little hutongs – he just completely forgot about the smog! And it happened there was not one single day of smog, it ended up he was shooting happy lives. Such a funny story.”
Then she adds, “He was the professor who influenced my whole life, my entire life, the most.”
So why isn’t she a photographer? “Well, you know, family-wise ... Chinese families, they want their kids to be so-called serious.”
I can’t quite see how jewellery design might qualify as an alternative on that front and she says, “Yeah, it was a Long March to fight, basically ... They want me to be all-faceted. A diamond is 56 facets. They want me to have every single facet, they want me to understand the political, the economy, literature ... It’s just not possible to do everything as a profession.”
I have a sudden sense of how suffocating her childhood – alone, behind the wall – might have been. Her website says, “At the tender age of 15, Wan’s thirst for adventure took her abroad to finish her schooling,” but I’ve read somewhere else that she’d also gone to study in the United States when she was nine. “Yeah, yeah. That was tough ... I made it for a year.” No further comment, no laugh.
She has described how flitting around Zhongnanhai inspired her designs – the pagodas, the flowers, the butterflies, etc – but the overall impression is of loneliness. She wasn’t starving (those chocolate coins, that ice-cream) yet it can’t have been an enviable existence, then or later.
“Loneliness transcends into energy, into creativeness,” she says. “If, every day, you’re happy on a beach with 500 friends, going to parties, I don’t think you have a lot of time to print in a dark room, to be honest.”
Or to create jewellery. How does she combine that with her social life?
“I don’t go out and about all the time. I very, very, very rarely go out, actually. Most of the time I hide in my shell. I don’t make myself available.”
I can sense the shell growing round her even as we speak. She says that she travels “most of the time” but when I ask where else she’s been this year (her Instagram account shows her hiking the Dragon’s Back, in a thrusting T-shirt – “Bao Bao Wow,” as one friend barks approvingly), she replies, “This year, less. I try to spend more time with my family and friends in Beijing. I’m very happy with my state right now.” She does not, she says, come to Hong Kong so often anymore.
Last year, Wan Li died at the age of 98. The obituary in The Guardian newspaper described him as a “reform-minded Communist” and ran a 1960 photo of him receiving a banner from Che Guevara – Marxist pin-up and diplomatic representative of Fidel Castro’s Cuba – while being applauded by Zhou Enlai. His memorial service was attended by President Xi. He was the last of China’s pre-revolutionary elders; and in 2003, when he was 86, his granddaughter became the first Chinese débutante to attend the Hôtel de Crillon’s Bal des Débutantes, in Paris.
I wonder aloud how family life might have shifted since her grandfather’s passing but, alas, this is a step too far.
“Was that included, to talk of my grandparents, in the interview?” Wan asks her assembled team. (Da bossiness.) Well, no. The question about Xi’s anti-corruption drive withers on my lips.
So we speak of St Regis comforts. We praise Mikimoto, one of the sponsors of the Crillon ball. We talk about the late Zaha Hadid, whose City of Dreams Hotel Tower is being constructed outside the window and whom Wan once met at a dinner: “She asked me to take off my earrings, she handed me her ring, we exchanged thoughts.” But it is like conversing with a flickering light-bulb. I know I’ve lost her when, in a barrel-scraping moment, I quote back one of her lines – about her generation of Chinese women being fragile, bold and crazy – then ask her what is the craziest thing she’s ever done and she replies, “Become a jewellery designer.”
Outside the Astor Ballroom, the hotel has mounted a display of Wan’s jewellery, including a selection of – relatively – affordable charms that she calls And The Little Ones. (Lane Crawford sells some online, from HK$7,400 for a camera of microscopic dimensions.) She has previously said each one tells a story – that, for example, the writing brush reminds her of grinding ink for her grandfather’s calligraphy practice – so I am curious to hear the tales that lay behind the bomb, the axe and the gun.
“They’re called lady-killers,” Wan replies, as I am leaving. “They’re very popular; guys buy them for girlfriends. It makes you hard to resist but they might be dangerous.”
One of Wan’s team follows me out of the room with a look of revisionism in her eye. Baobao isn’t happy. I’ve already braced myself for potential problems. The Long March comparison probably wasn’t advisable; promoting diamond-studded armament charms was in debatable taste; given the current climate, maybe the reference to the Crillon’s Bal des Débutantes should be expunged ... But no. Wan doesn’t want any mention of Beijing’s smog in the piece.
This, as you might imagine, is astonishing. Could it be a symptom of her fragile/bold/crazy generation? Smog isn’t a state secret – is it? – and that aspect of Sternfeld’s visit barely registered. Yet I am told Wan is worried she’s said something negative about Beijing; so perhaps it isn’t such a funny story after all.
I insist Sternfeld stay in and I’ll write that Wan uttered good things about the capital, which is true. “I love Beijing,” she enthused, quite a few times (the food, the culture, the architecture).
THAT I HAVE HAD ANYTHING to write at all was initially doubtful because the promised tape, emailable within a minute, didn’t materialise. Was this going to turn into Smog-gate? (Paranoia is infectious.)
Four days later it arrived, still intact. After I’d transcribed it, I began typing. Strangely enough, I was professionally guided by what the butlers at the St Regis like to say when you check in: Allow me.