Gigi Chao and her multiple missions for hearts and minds.
Words STEPHEN SHORT
Creative Direction and Styling ALVIN GOH
Photography REUBEN FOONG
Make-up ALVIN GOH
Hair Styling GARY SUN
Photography Assistants THEODORIC WONG, KU PO LUN and WEI
Midway through my conversation with Gigi Chao, lesbian, the activist and vice-chair of Cheuk Nang Ltd, we find ourselves discussing the game of golf. Chao is sporting, having played tennis, basketball, volleyball, badminton, along with snowboarding and wakeboarding at various stages through her more than four-decade-long life. She tagged along with her parents on the golf course from a young age and still plays socially today.
Given Chao’s level of conviction in everything, how does she identify the strengths and weaknesses of her game? “I love long fairways,” she says. “I hit quite long, so I love all those challenging dogleg fairways [to the uninitiated, that’s an angled fairway, necessitating a “blind shot” over trees or lakes], where you hit shots over the trees hoping they’ll land on the fairway but instead they bounce on the road and land somewhere else.”
A surprising answer, and one indicative of the trajectory of her life, perhaps. Did or does she ever do any old-school business on a golf course, or is it pure recreation?
“I don’t know that the world needs to entertain people at length like we used to do on a golf course. And what is business any more? It’s just life mingled in with everything else. I love playing with friends, it’s obviously a very good social occasion.” She pauses for dramatic effect. “I’ve won a girlfriend from the golf course, but not done many business deals on it,” she says, laughing. And who has the better game, we wonder? “I tend to be more technical than she is. She’s more of an intuitive player.” More of which, later, while we take a narrative dogleg.
Long before the contemporary world was awash with digital influencers, angel investors, key opinion leaders, start-uppers and Gen-Z disruptors, Chao was an analogue activist – on climate change. “I have a climate change-denier of a father who pushed me the other way,” she says, smiling, before adding, “and can I just say that he’s still a climate change-denier, so that makes life rather difficult.” The role of father Cecil Chao in Gigi’s life has been well documented, but she says his stance on all matters of the heart for her – marriage equality, LGBTQIA or climate change – has helped her understand more about her lot in life.
“These things are all about disruption to the status quo, to the incumbents, and … especially with climate change, a lot of people think of it like a technical issue, or to do with measurements or redefining technology, but I think it’s not that at all; for me it’s a social issue, how you communicate and find the right message and the right messenger.”
As someone who set up Hong Kong’s Faith in Love Foundation in 2008, a charity servicing socially disadvantaged youth and families in the city; a contributor to Change Collective, a programme whereby marginalised Hong Kong youth can be rehabilitated and find a brighter future; a same-sex advocate for marriage equality; a special private-sector adviser for the United Nations Development Programme’s Being LGBTI in Asia and also adviser to global organisations on diversity, inclusion and ESG business responsibility in building social capital, Chao knows more than most about expeditious ways to communicate. “Whether you’re a big radical rights activist or whether you’re a radical anything, what you need is momentum to sustain hearts and minds, and win hearts and minds. And that’s been my life’s lesson, if you will.”
As a student in the UK from the age of 14 – and by that time keenly in sync with her lesbian demeanour – Chao was already a radical environmentalist. “I was free to make my own decisions and gravitated more towards the movement. I shaved my head and became a strict vegan for eight years.” All of which was fine in the UK, where she participated in environmental groups such as WWF and lived “happily as a hippie-looking student and not many people so much as raised an eyebrow.”
But then she returned to Hong Kong. “To Hongkongers my behaviour was shocking and freakish. I was vegan because I wanted to stop the climate emergency but, to my dismay, the more radical I was in proclaiming the emergency, the more I was turning people off and getting brushed aside. That’s when I learned that the work of changing the world is unfortunately not usually achieved through single heroic acts but rather an integrated mission of shaping institutions and building alliances.” It’s knowledge she draws on daily. “As I reflect on my work at the UN, so much time and effort are put into research, reporting, fostering connections, understanding people and capacity building.”
While eco-blazing her adolescent and formative ways across the UK, Chao also “studied Buddhism, and read about comparative religion. You know … in the end, I think it’s all talking about the same thing; how you do something for the greater good rather than just selfishly, and whether that makes you happy. And whether selfish pleasures actually make you happy. And I guess for me, that was a contrasting style to my father. Every generation has its own story or narrative and for me the story wasn’t high glamour. But, at the same time, radical reaction also didn’t work very well, so I had to find a kind of calm and a sort of middle way.”
Given pending Climategeddon and COP27, and her lifetime of eco-advocacy, how does Chao feel at Planet Earth’s “11th hour”? “I’m an optimist,” she says, adding that despite the prevailing doom and gloom, there has been progress. “When I first started my journey the big story was about CFCs and the hole in the ozone layer. We’ve been able to eliminate quite a lot of CFCs from our air conditioners and our aerosol spray cans, so it is possible.” And the future’s bright. “The latest science suggests that by 2050 the ozone layer will basically heal itself because we haven’t been using CFCs. So I feel there is progress. We have done a good job.”
But what of fossil fuels, or “24-hour sunlight”, as scientists call them? “We’ve been using the atmosphere as an open sewer and that’s been the problem. So the story for us going forward is to find ways to operate more efficiently as humans and move on from the previous industrial revolution. At the moment, we’re addicted to this very easy form of fuel that we just burn. So we just need to do things in a cleverer and more efficient way. I think we can do it. But we do need to be organised as a concerted effort.”
And where does the current fashion for nuclear power fit into that narrative? “It’s one of the most efficient forms of energy, but the big problem is that it’s the same attitude where you’re kicking the problem down the road because we don’t have the tech or know-how to resolve the problem of nuclear waste. Second – and this is the big one, the elephant in the room: if you encourage nuclear power it’s basically just a page-turn away from that country or government having nuclear weapons. In a better and more stable time, for example, I don’t think that nuclear is a problem. But in times such as this, you do have to question whether it’s wise to give nuclear capabilities to everyone. And obviously it’s a political decision more than a technological or environmental one. For example, former German chancellor Angela Merkel decommissioned her nuclear power plants in Germany way too quickly, and she was rewarded politically for that, but now of course they’re struggling.”
Does she nurture political ambitions? “Maybe in another time and another place. My priority is winning marriage equality.” Within what timeframe? “I would say within 10 years. It’s urgent and important work that I put considerable resources into, and it’s something [about which] some people say, ‘it will never happen,’ or ‘we don’t have the political autonomy to make something like that happen,’ but, I don’t think that’s important. What’s important is to continue to exist, continue to be there and continue to be a voice and continue to show people this is what we stand for and we won’t stop until we win it.”
I spoke to Chao straight after this issue’s cover photoshoot and ask which of the “‘looks”’ she favours most. She shows us four of the images and defers. Was she actively involved in style choices for her shoot? “They asked for references and I said, ‘anything but boring,’ which the stylist [Alvin Goh] said was music to his ears. So he put me in a wig, these big shoulder-pad things and some very funky stuff. Every time I put on make-up I feel like I’m in drag to be honest, because I usually don’t wear make-up and all my friends say I’m actually quite masculine.”
And then she appraises the bigger picture. “A lot of the work I do is like stepping on to a stage, putting on a persona and playing a part and just powering through the script, as you will. I think I’m quite good at that and I think I do love drama. And I understand a lot of life is about discovering your role as a player, either in comedy and tragedy, and your role in that.”
That much is apparent to anyone who saw Chao’s TEDxTinHauWomen Talk in 2020, in which she discusses her lesbianism and parents’ disapproval, with the panache and flamboyance of the late queer actor Leslie Cheung. “I used to adore Leslie Cheung,” she says. “I was infatuated with him.” (Although in truth, who in Hong Kong wasn’t?) At times, Chao and Cheung almost feel like they could have been sister and brother. Both share the British private-school education vibe with large helpings of cultural Americana (in Chao’s case, she grew up in the US before venturing to the UK). They share, too, a form of old-school theatrical vernacular; whereas Cheung used to punctuate and link his thoughts with the phrase, “and then one fine day”, Chao invokes “if you will’s”, and “as you will’s”.
Wherein lies one of the great paradoxes of Gigi Chao’s life. While her father’s offer of millions for a potential male suitor to “convert” his wayward daughter back to heterosexuality became global news 10 years ago, Chao’s mother, singer and actress Kelly Yao Wei, is a cinematic lesbian icon. “The reason why my mum’s a lesbian icon is because she always plays lesbian icons in films by [Hong Kong-based, Taiwanese director] Yonfan. He’s the loveliest gentleman, always praising her as the biggest beauty of all time, and they’re great friends.” Chao’s mother also voices a role in Yonfan’s latest film, No 7 Cherry Lane. What does Yonfan think of Gigi? “I’ve known her since she was a little girl. She’s beautiful inside and out. I love her,” he says.
Yet despite her mother’s Sapphic screen stature, “In front of me she’s hypercritical and reproachful,” says Chao. “She’s offended and disgusted by my sexuality. It’s crazy.” Much of which she discusses on that TEDxTalk. “My mum will always be my most vocal and harshest critic,” says Chao. “That’s wonderful if for no other reason than that I’ve learned to … umm … ignore them, and develop a thick skin, good mental-health hygiene and mental immune strengthening from over exposure.”
In many respects, and despite Chao’s LGBTQIA championing, the reality of Hong Kong schooling in matters of sex education on all fronts is poor. Chao shares with me an Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) report from November 22 into the findings of A Study on Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Secondary Schools of Hong Kong, which found “sexuality education” in the city to be largely inadequate and teaching hours insufficient. Fourteen percent of the responding schools indicated they didn’t teach sexuality education in classroom at all; and a whopping 82.3 percent of responding schools said there was no time for sexuality education “as the secondary-school curriculum is already jam-packed”.
Of schools that do broach the subject, heavy focus is placed on biological and physiological aspects – friendship, dating, courtship, puberty and self-image, but minority focus on the psychological and social aspects – healthy relationships, sexual orientation and sexual consent, gender equality and identity, image-based sexual violence, sex, law and ethics, etc … The study found almost 25 percent of students had experienced sexual harassment. “I’m speechless,” says a chopfallen Chao.
As for issues related to LGBT, teachers noted they had LGBT students who told them they would like to or have the need to learn more about sexuality education covering LGBT issues. Yet many found it difficult to cover LGBT issues in class, either because the topic remains “controversial” in Hong Kong, or due to disagreements about it among teachers.
Is it any easier being lesbian in 2022 Hong Kong than 20 years ago? Chao singles out a peculiarity of Hong Kong school life. “Because of the large numbers of Catholic and Sheng Kung Hui (Anglican) single-gender schools, it’s created an interesting dynamic where we’re so used to seeing young girls holding hands or arm-in-arm just being happy girls in their uniforms after school on the streets without much thought to sexuality. That has produced mixed results and a somewhat convoluted collective psychology for Hongkongers, and especially the closeted lesbians.” Headlines were made last year in the tragic case of a double suicide of a young lesbian couple that had been subject to “‘conversion”’ therapy.
“I feel like we failed them,” says Chao of the late couple. “We allowed institutional bullying and trauma to take place, ordered by headmasters, teachers and social workers, knowing full well the psychological damage conversion therapy causes. And all this because of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mantra. We need to do more to end these harmful and horrific practices,” she says. When I tell Chao I can’t find mention of the tragedy on a Google search, she says that’s because it was either covered up, or reported minus the lesbian narrative.
Which was foreground the day Chao met real estate executive Jenny Wan, at Kau Sai Chau Public Golf Course in Sai Kung, when the attraction was tangible. What was it that Chao found appealing about her?
“I think she’s just very different in the sense that … she’s much more energetically positive than me. I guess we’re both introverts to a certain extent. She has very different experiences from me in terms of how she was brought up, what she could do with her career, what options she had open to her. She came from a middle-class family and her parents are business people. So we have similarities. Because of her family business in real estate and her vigorous career, she’s knowledgeable in property development and asset management, so we have lots of common conversations. At the same time, our differences have created an interesting dynamic between the two of us. She’s a serial consumer – interested in everything – travelling, archeology, food culture; she has a very objective view of humans, and I would describe her as an anthropologist. Due to my past I’m easily involved in things and get emotional, but she has the ability to remove herself and see things in a historical perspective, I find that very useful. She provides the perspective that’s very different from my own. So that balances everything out.”
Has Wan seen the photos from the Prestige shoot yet? “Yes. She couldn’t recognise me, but I guess she’s happy that people won’t recognise me,” says Chao. “She’s one of those ultra-conservative people, she never wears anything outside of brown, white and grey. She’s like the opposite of outlandish and glamorous; we enjoy our very quiet, private life, and sometimes I put on the persona to do the work that I do.”
Cognisant of Chao’s shape-shifting personas, I seek out Jenny, and ask what drew her to Gigi? “Gigi is an amazing athlete, boundlessly talented, curious and, on the surface, hospitable, friendly and gregarious. But in quieter moments, I could tell hidden behind her eyes were vulnerability, longing, ambition and mystery. I guess what drew me to her was this sharp contrast between that seemingly invincible outer shell, and a vulnerable hidden secret of which I saw glimpses.” When I share Wan’s words with Chao, the latter blushes, crushes and switches to humour. “She’s my sophisticated lesbian version of Homer Simpson,” Chao jokes.
Chao worships The Simpsons. Her mother brought her to the States and remarried, where they settled in New Jersey. “Every Saturday or Sunday night, I’d watch The Simpsons,” says Chao. She was eight at the time, didn’t get most of the jokes, but kept watching it and loved the humour – and its feminism. “Homer is just this kind of country, not-very-educated fat bloke, who basically drinks beer and goes bowling and uses his fists to solve problems. He has a kind-of-sacrificial wife, with a feminist, vegetarian daughter and a very naughty son, and that’s basically the nucleus of the family in the US. And I love how those stereotypes are portrayed and how they make fun of everything, from Elon Musk to the president – and I used to love that.
“It’s so removed from what we have in Hong Kong, where everyone’s quite polite, and civilised and I love that contrast. But it’s also a reminder to me that I don’t want to fall into that trap of always being afraid or full of polite pretences and fit in with the status quo. I find it very liberating to watch The Simpsons.”
Chao says Wan is the opposite. “She loves everything to do with British culture; she’s addicted to scrutinising every button on every uniform in The Crown, and every sentence, and obviously, she studied at university in London. Her dream car is the James Bond Aston Martin.”
Chao, the 13th owner of a Tesla Roadster in Hong Kong, tells us she’s currently shopping for a new car. “I spoke to Elon when he came, and he always said Hong Kong was his most successful business story. I was happy to meet him; it was before SpaceX when he was working on Solar City and he came and I scrutinised him and asked him about tech. He’s a very nice guy in person. And my car’s still here.”
While she won’t be drawn on whether she’s upgrading, Chao does admit she’s “definitely not a Rolls Royce or Bentley person. That’s my Dad. The problem with the previous generation is that it turns me off. Everything they did makes me not want to do. So I’m more of a Brompton bicycle-to-work kind of person.”
We speak just days after US crypto-currency firm FTX, a US$32 billion empire run by entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried, filed for bankruptcy. Is she buying crypto? “I think that by 2030, digital payments and crypto-currency will be ubiquitous,” she says. Due to the largely unaudited and unregulated nature of the business, she’d encourage people to learn more about it first. “I’d give typical financial advice; don’t put in more than you are prepared to lose. So if the choice was between, ‘oh let’s buy a new pair of shoes’, or ‘buy some Ethereum’, I’d say, ‘buy some Ethereum’.”
Given Chao’s multiple missions, does she ever switch off ? “I do love reading; it’s kind of my once-a-month to myself treat, to have a hot bath and a nice book.” She shows us Fernanda Pirie’s The Rule of Laws, subtitled, “A 4,000-Year Quest to Order the World”. Not exactly light reading, or the literary equivalent of The Simpsons?
“OK,” she says. “The cover looks intimidating, but it’s really not.” Which sounds like an apt description of Chao, or indeed, a metaphor for Wan’s words about her. But wait, don’t the pages get soggy reading in the bath? “Yes,” she says, laughing. “All the bottom corners are curled and dog-eared.”
Before signing off, we ask Chao for a final word. “For me, it’s mainly the fact that LGBTQIA in Asia are excluded from the concept of family in the most populous regions of the world, and that’s a tragic loss for humanity. I’m happy in my life of quiet, but when we look up from the page it’s clearly not good enough. We must seek to learn, learn more about the unfamiliar, and share in our common humanity. It certainly shakes one out of our comfort zone, but in the end, it’s worth it.”
Let G-Force be with you.