City & Country: Cover Story - Insight into the life of a HK tycoon and playboy

HONG KONG billionaire Cecil Chao was in town to usher in 2014. He became a celebrity not for his real estate business but for his offer of a huge reward in 2012 to any man who could woo his only daughter from her female companion.  

The tycoon was a guest at the Miss Tourism International pageant, held at a hotel in Putrajaya, on New Year’s Eve. The immense interest in bachelor Chao, who has fathered three children by three women, was further fuelled by his own admission that he has dated (and some publications allege, bedded) some 10,000 women!

Despite having flown in very late on Dec 29, Chao, 77, looked fresh and ready for an exclusive and no-holds-barred interview with The Edge, held at the poolside of a posh hotel in Kuala Lumpur early the next morning.

An interview with the property magnate would not be complete without touching on his domestic affairs. But he did not seem bothered by all the publicity.

“How much time do I have this morning? Take all the time you wish,” he said at the start of the interview. However, slightly over an hour later, he excused himself for a scheduled meeting with a contractor on his billion-ringgit condominium project taking shape near KLCC, which was the other reason for his brief visit to Malaysia.

Clad in a Fila Golf tee paired with dark slacks, Chao, who founded and controls Hong Kong-listed Cheuk Nang (Holdings) Ltd, was last in town three years ago.

This time, he left for Hong Kong on New Year’s Day, but not before packing in numerous meetings and site visits related to the unofficially named Cecil Chao Centre in KLCC, a name Kuala Lumpur City Hall is believed to have rejected. The developer is now looking at alternative names, it seems.

Outside his business affairs, his offer to “straighten out” daughter Gigi, 33, says something of his resolve. His offer of HK$500 million to any man Gigi would be willing to marry went viral.

And it gets bigger — Chao disclosed to The Edge he may even double the prize money!

“I do not mind if he is rich or poor,” he said, which was also how he had responded earlier to the media, both print and online, on the subject.

The offer of a HK$500 million dowry first made the headlines in September 2012, when a shocked Chao learnt that Gigi, an executive director at Cheuk Nang and the eldest of his three children, had in April that year entered into a civil partnership with her girlfriend of seven years, Sean Eav, in Paris. Civil partnerships are not recognised in Hong Kong.

Gigi’s reaction to daddy’s bid to straighten her? She told the Daily Telegraph she was at first entertained by the offer, followed by the realisation she was really lucky to have such a loving daddy. It was really sweet of him to do something like this, she had reportedly said. “It’s not that he can’t accept me. It’s that he can’t accept how society would view me and the status that it would incur.”

Meanwhile, Chao has been overwhelmed by the deluge of interest from eager suitors. Father and daughter have been swamped by tens of thousands of emails and phone calls. Gigi’s Facebook and twitter accounts were jammed by friend wannabes.

The intense interest churned by the whole episode has even caught the eye of Hollywood filmmakers. Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame is said to be working on a movie titled “Lesbian”.

According to reports, Gigi met Sean, 46, while working in Hong Kong. Gigi is said to have her own luxury goods, public relations and marketing and modelling companies while Sean was the marketing manager of a luxury timepiece brand.

Has Chao met Sean? “Yes.” Has he spoken to her? “No.”

“Gigi loves me. I know. She wants to tell me a lot of things and she has done so in her autobiography,” said Chao. Did I detect a tinge of remorse?

“No, she did not give me a copy but I read it. She is brilliant. I wanted but have yet to do so [write an autobiography] for many years. She has done it. I think there are a lot of things she wanted to tell me through the book. She can choose whatever she wants… I respect that.”

Interestingly, Gigi appears to be a chip off the old block in some ways.  It is no secret that father and daughter share a love of flying. Both qualified as architects in England, and both enjoy golfing — Chao declares a handicap of 18, although he thinks he is playing to 20.

On matters of the heart, Chao has declared he is and will remain a bachelor and does not deny this has to do with having to share wealth…  “In Hong Kong, there is no pre-nuptial agreement.”

And is his confirmed bachelorhood known to all his girlfriends? “Yes, they all know.” And they are fine with that? “Be fair to them … When I was young I was quite handsome. I was a romantic…”

Has any girlfriend of his taken him to court? “The mothers of all my three children have taken me to court!” he laughed.

So, did he have a hand in eldest son Howard staying single despite being a father? “No, but they [his sons] should take their time to decide. People change at every stage of their life.”

While Chao makes no secret of his love and admiration for Gigi and her capability compared with Howard, 29, and youngest son, Roman, who is still in college, he is not about to name her his heir apparent.

“I am looking within the organisation or outside,” he said, adding he has many loyal staff. The government stepped in and did a good job with [the late] Nina [Wang]’s estate. Nina was a dear friend of mine … we were born on the same day.”

Throughout the interview, the affable Chao was forthcoming except when asked about his net worth. After a long pause, he would only say he was not the wealthiest man in Hong Kong but had money to last for three generations.

“When I was young, I worked many hours. I was always thinking of work, even away from the office. But now, I am more relaxed. I do things that make me happy.”

Is he a lonely person? “I see my children every day, Gigi and Howard work for me. If I feel like company, I will call friends, especially those whom I have known for a long time. “I do not like gatherings that just talk about work,” he said with a grin.

He said was winding down and wanted to cut his workload by 10% a year. But after our chit-chat, I find that hard to believe.

Based on his 72% stake in Cheuk Nang alone, Chao was worth about US$300 million as at Dec 31, 2013.

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 6, 2014.

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