Property Tycoon Cecil Chao And His Daughter Gigi On Building A Lasting Legacy
Cecil Chao presses a button at the desk where he begins his workday each morning, and his voice echoes around the four-storey modernist-inspired mansion he designed himself some 40 years ago in Pok Fu Lam, before there were even streetlights on the roads.
“Bring some ice cream and a spoon,” he commands, and they arrive on a gilded platter seconds later. The 83-year-old property tycoon pushes up the sleeves of his leather jacket—orange, Italian, probably python, by Fabio Caviglia—revealing an all-diamond watch from Piaget on his left wrist, and dips into a pint of vanilla Häagen-Dazs, still in its carton, as he ponders how to answer a question about his legacy.
“My life, and I think that of every person living in this world, is for just one purpose”, he says, “and this is happiness.”
Happiness Comes First
The gated entrance of his home—called Happy Lodge—is one of the few signposts of the ultra-rich that is easily recognisable to Hongkongers as they pass along Victoria Road on the western side of the island. Several members of the Chao family reside there, right alongside some of their tenants in the surrounding, and expanding, luxury condominium complex known as Villa Cecil that is owned by Cheuk Nang Holdings, of which Cecil is executive chairman. His red and white Rolls-Royce, which bears the vanity licence plate “CECIL”, is hard to miss in the car park, as were his once frequent arrivals by helicopter during the years when he cultivated an image as one of the city’s most flamboyant and decadent playboys. It is rumoured that prospective tenants, at one point, were prohibited in their leases from filing noise complaints.
“I’m always happy, I could say that,” he says. “There is a Chinese saying, ‘You plan in the spring for the whole year; you plan in the morning for the whole day.’ Every day when I wake up, every spring, I start to plan what I want to do. Happiness always has to come first.” Chao’s eldest child, only daughter and designated heir to the company throne, Gigi, 41, is sitting close by, respectfully distanced but attentive while her father speaks. Perhaps more than anything, Cecil’s embrace of his own extravagance has enabled Gigi to understand him better—and some might say to forgive him—for indulgences that, in some ways, have come to overshadow the Chaos’ accomplishments at the helm of a cash-rich property developer that had a market capitalisation of HK$2.23 billion and net assets of HK$6.8 billion as of 2019.
Real-Life Soap Opera
Twenty years ago, Cecil, a notoriously committed bachelor, caused a sensation when he claimed to have dated 10,000 women, but that was nothing compared to the media uproar that ensued in 2012, when he publicly offered HK$500 million, and later doubled the prize to HK$1 billion, to any man who could convince Gigi, once described by the South China Morning Post as “the most famous lesbian in Asia”, to marry him. Thousands of potential suitors tried, and Sacha Baron Cohen even proposed turning the episode into a movie, but Gigi responded by laughing the whole thing off as “a bit comic and tragic at the same time”.
As far as Hong Kong soap operas go, the story of Cecil and Gigi has been long overdue for another chapter since Gigi’s last appearance on the cover of Tatler Hong Kong in 2013 wearing a steamy Max Mara tuxedo jumpsuit with nothing underneath. Then, Gigi, a licensed helicopter pilot like her father, flew reporters around Hong Kong Island to view the mansion, yelling, “Wave to Daddy!” She wrote an open letter defending her relationship with her then partner, Sean Eav, whom she had wed in a civil ceremony in France the year before. (They announced their separation last March.)
“A lot of people say that I’m brave and I’m courageous, but I think he felt somehow that his worldview was being threatened,” Gigi says. “It was his way of doing something to ensure that his daughter is loved—albeit, in his kind of thinking, love equals money. Maybe not everyone would agree with that one, but I guess for him, part of his legacy is to make sure that his only daughter is respected and not ridiculed.”
All You Need Is Love
If anything, their relationship has grown stronger over the last decade, as Cecil has made clear that of his three children, each by a different mother, Gigi, as executive vice chairman, is being groomed to take over his role. Gigi, meanwhile, has turned the publicity to her advantage by becoming more visible as an advocate for LGBTQ causes, including a campaign for marriage equality in Hong Kong, as well as promoting her work combatting poverty through the Faith in Love Foundation she founded in 2008.
Father and daughter have fallen into a fairly easy pattern of addressing one another with mutual respect, with Cecil deferring to Gigi’s relationships as her “private life” and Gigi seeking to dispel some of the myths and misunderstandings about Cecil.
“He’s like a huge teddy bear,” Gigi says. “Especially in the last six months—they’ve called Covid the great equaliser in some ways, because everyone is stuck at home. Even though he’s stuck in a big mansion, he’s still stuck, right? But we’re all prone to the same human emotions, like loneliness, and we want to connect with other people and enjoy the simple things, like a meal with family and spending time together. I think he’s just this quirky kind of dad who likes to do what he does, and he does what he likes. And in some ways, he doesn’t care what other people think about him, whether they approve or disapprove.”
Home Sweet Home
Cecil, to some degree, appears to be playing to character, as when he pulls out a pair of aviator sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton bag that is filled with them at the table next to him. His flashy home is both a symbol of his professional success and a reflection of his personal style as an architect, startlingly modern in the years after he returned from his schooling in the UK in 1963, then slowly becoming more classical as he matured.
Visitors are greeted by an enormous, double-height room for entertaining that is disorienting in its excess, the floors a mosaic of several types of marble, tile work and glass set in patterns that suggest pathways and puzzles, the ceilings a funhouse of panelled mirrors that extend along to the sides of a vast, sleek, circular staircase.
The decor includes a combination of western modern art, like a towering bronze Ángel Botello sculpture of two sisters, and eastern antiques; some of the balusters in the staircase have been replaced by exquisite ivory sculptures and carvings passed down from his mother, as was the grand piano at the centre of the room. “I learnt two things from my parents,” Cecil says: “to sing Chinese opera and to collect antiques.” The dining room is anchored by an enormous table with seating for 23 in Shanghainese hand-carved, tall-backed wooden chairs, where Stanley Ho and his many wives and children often came for dinners and parties. Outside, a landscaped swimming pool would put most luxury hotels to shame, with an exterior so extravagant that Stephen Chow chose the location to film several of his movies in the Nineties. “Every year we do some redecoration,” Cecil says. “It’s a mixture of western and Chinese, classical and modern. This is what I am.”
“It’s like a discotheque meets the Guggenheim,” Gigi jokes.
But is this really how Cecil wants to be known?
“This is something which I’m thinking about sometimes: what sort of impression people have of me,” he says. “We still have a few more years to think about that. It’s not that I don’t care what people think.”
Cecil’s father, Tsong Yea (TY) Chao, was one of the founding fathers of Hong Kong’s shipping industry, having built one of its most important dynasties in the 1950s after moving his family—his wife, whom he met as a college student at Soochow University, and their five children—from Shanghai at the outbreak of the civil war. Cecil’s brothers Frank and George joined the family business, Wah Kwong, which remains today in the hands of George’s children, Sabrina Chao and Hing Chao. But Cecil was more interested in a career as an artist. And he was his mother’s favourite, like Gigi is his.
“Oh my mother, she’s a wonderful woman,” he says. “She really looked in every respect for the good of me.”
As a child, Cecil says, “I was not very healthy.” He suffered from asthma and his mother forbade him from going to school until he was in Primary Four, but he joined a swimming club and learned to love exercise, which he has ever since. After studying at Durham University in the UK, he worked as a surveyor at the Hong Kong Government Building Department and Architectural Office, then set up his own practice and began working with developers, eventually buying properties as his interests moved further into real estate.
Getting Down To Business
In 1988, he acquired Far East Wool & Fibre Mill and changed its name to Cheuk Nang, with a focus on residential and commercial properties in Hong Kong, then Macau, Malaysia and mainland China. With every project, Cecil drafts the first design, which gives him an advantage, he says, of seeing the business from the perspectives of both design and investment. He won’t allow the pursuit of a creative idea to delay construction.
“In my early days, I spent a lot more time in design, but then you find that in this practical life, the financial side becomes more dominant,” he says. “When you’re doing business, you always have to fight, where in design, you can put down your telephone and think. Chasing beauty is something I have found enjoyable in my whole life, so I am still doing small bits of design, just for my ego in a way.”
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From a business perspective, Gigi is a study of her father, decisive when others might disagree. She recalls a moment at a project in Shenzhen, when a local property agent complained that a chandelier in the lobby was too big for the space. Cecil replied, “Well, that’s your point of view. Moving on.” Even as a child, tagging along to his office or waiting with the driver in his Rolls until he finished his work and she would smother him with kisses, she knew she would follow in his footsteps.
“I was invited to with great strength, in a very convincing manner,” she says with a laugh. “Since I was six, I think, I was told that I should not do drugs, and please do architecture.”
Watch And Learn
Gigi remembers those years clearly, even the toy dinosaur she left at her grandfather’s bedside to keep him company when he became poorly, but she grew apart from Cecil when her mother, the actress Kelly Yao Wei, moved her to the United States for a few years when she was still a child. She came out to her mother when she was 13, but her reaction, as Gigi described in a 2019 TED Talk, was to pound her head against the wall until things fell from the cupboards. Gigi later attended the University of Manchester in the UK and then returned to Hong Kong when she was 22, around the time her grandmother died in 2000.
For many years, her grandmother, who loved antiques and interior design and passed that sense of style onto Cecil, had lived in a property at Villa Cecil that has since been turned into apartments.
“I think the reasons Daddy never married are multifarious, but for him it was actually also a family decision, because he was so close to my grandmother, and she wanted her favourite to look after her,” Gigi says. “I think he saw with society that marriage in the traditional sense causes a lot of conflicts, and he wasn’t ready for it. So he managed his life in a very sober and intentional way. The fact that I’m fighting for marriage equality doesn’t mean that I particularly want to get married myself.”
Day In The Life
Today, Cecil starts his days working from home, calling department heads, discussing problems, and joins Gigi in the Cheuk Nang offices after lunch. “He’s like the A Team, with just him on the A Team, and the rest of us are the B Team,” she says. Sometimes that brings an emotional element to work, says Gigi, who described her role as more executive in nature, looking after projects in Shenzhen and Hangzhou, as well as Cheuk Nang Lookout on The Peak, the Pok Fu Lam developments and One Kowloon Peak in Tsuen Wan. Her brother Howard is a non-executive director and sits on the board. The youngest, Roman, Cecil’s son with the American-Vietnamese model Terri Holladay, is working outside the company to gain more experience.
“I think my father is a very shrewd businessman,” Gigi says. “He’s able to judge very quickly the critical issues pertaining to a deal. I think a lot of my work has been translating his strategic vision or his judgment into the operations, how you can put that into the playbook in a way that’s right for the times.”
Love Conquers All
Gigi describes marriage equality as her “gay job”, but adds that businesses have an obligation today to create social value. Her work with Faith in Love, which supports the alleviation of poverty through education and volunteerism, has been informed largely by her own experience and privilege.
In the Eighties, there were only a handful of Rolls-Royces in Hong Kong, “and so everywhere we went, people just literally dropped what they were doing and watched the car go past”, she says. “I actually found that really uncomfortable even when I was just a tiny thing.” Today, Hong Kong reportedly has more Rolls-Royces per capita than any city in the world.
One project she created, the Young Entrepreneurship Sandbox, allows students, mostly in their late teens, to engage in online businesses that could provide a window for their social mobility.
“I think the pandemic has changed the world permanently,” she says. “The world is not becoming a more equal place, and I realised early on that the fault lines of inequality will be determined around whether you are a contributor to tech or just a consumer of tech.”
Hong Kong’s conservative culture and familial expectations have proved challenging to overcome. Marriage equality, in particular, has been slow to take root, although Gigi remains optimistic and believes that increased visibility will ultimately change many hearts and minds about people in the LGBTI community, she says, using the intersex-inclusive term favoured by the United Nations Development Programme. “Equality for everybody is not just lip service,” she says. “It’s about actual things within the family that allow people to become closer and families themselves to have better relationships.”
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Bridging The Gap
Gigi met her current partner, Jenny Wan, who works in asset management and real estate, on a golf course, and they sometimes live in an apartment at Villa Cecil, looking out on the same view Gigi’s grandmother once did. Cecil has come to accept her, in his Cecil way.
“Well, I always accept Gigi is what she wants to be,” he says. “I only give her some guidance, but she is free to choose what she wants to do in her private life. As I’ve said, I will respect for her to be a happy girl, as much as I want myself to be a happy man.”
He achieved that by selling tens of thousands of homes and steering Cheuk Nang through volatile periods of soaring interest rates and political turmoil. He has seen its business shift to other Chinese cities where “now the profits are just like the old days in Hong Kong, jumping many, many hundreds of times”, he says. As long as he is healthy, he will continue to work.
“Rich life is easier,” he says. “You have no worries. The way I look at it, while I have energy, I still want to make money.”
Cecil still loves to swim, play basketball and take the family on his yacht on the weekends. Gigi and her brothers have lunches and dinners with him, and on their birthdays, Cecil always orders an ice cream cake, and sometimes tries to blow out the candles himself. “He’s really into ice cream,” Gigi says. “He eats ice cream for breakfast.
“He’s not the most talkative person and he tends to be more reserved. And of course, times are different now and the whole dynamic of how the whole story has taken shape is an interesting one, to say the least. But I’m grateful. Part of maintaining a relationship is understanding where a person comes from, even if it’s a really different point of view from your own.”