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Last updated: January 27, 2013 1:22 pm
The wrought-iron gate at the top of the path leading to Cecil Chao’s waterfront mansion says “Happy Lodge”. And Chao, a Hong Kong property tycoon, certainly takes every opportunity to be happy. Colourful even by the flamboyant standards of the city’s billionaires, the 76-year-old claims to have slept with 10,000 women – and to be adding regularly to his tally. A lifelong bachelor, he made headlines last September by offering a $65m bounty to any man who could woo and marry his lesbian daughter, Gigi. It turned out that he was not so much offended by her sexuality as in want of grandchildren to whom he could pass on his business.
I had caught a glimpse of Chao soon after he made his novel proposal. I was visiting friends in Pok Fu Lam, a quiet residential neighbourhood on the western edge of Hong Kong island. They lived in Villa Cecil, a collection of apartments owned by Chao with stupendous views of the Lamma Channel. A Rolls-Royce pulled up to the gates of Happy Lodge at one end of the complex. It bore the licence plate “Cecil”. In the front sat Cecil himself, waving delightedly to someone. In the back were two glamorous young women.
Now I was sitting in Cecil’s living room. (Hong Kong is a friendly place where almost everyone refers to each other by their first name.) The gate to Happy Lodge had been set ajar, so I had wandered down the path past a fishpond full of koi carp. The little door to his house was also open. In the living room was a grand piano, a tall, simply decorated Christmas tree, two large modernist statues and lots of glass and chrome. The far wall was glass, behind it a beautiful sea view. It reminded me of the Isla Negra house owned by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet enamoured of the ocean.
There didn’t seem to be a bell. It was warm, even in early December, so I stood outside until, after some time, I was greeted by a Filipina maid who ushered me inside. The enormous room was round with an improbably high ceiling in black mirror. Overlooking it was a balcony with an entertainment area and a banqueting room. You reach the top floor by a winding staircase. As the entrance is on the third floor the staircase also winds down to the staff quarters and to Cecil’s bedroom, site – almost inevitably – of a round bed.
Cecil eventually appears from below and we sit on one of three sofas arranged in discrete areas of the room. He looks improbably young and easy of movement for a man of 76 – a youthful appearance he attributes to his regular basketball sessions and nocturnal activities.
He’s wearing a brown suede jacket, a sweater, cravat and casual trousers. He calls one of his staff – he has eight in total, including a driver – to bring him his “light” sunglasses. A maid appears with a pair of Ferragamo.
Cecil designed the house himself some four decades ago when he returned from studying architecture at the UK’s Durham University. “It started with very contemporary thinking: black mirrors, stainless steel, high ceiling, skylights,” he says. “But when you get older you like Chinese and European classical culture,” he adds, gesturing to the assortment of antique furniture, ink paintings, Chinese lacquerware and Buddhist statues around. “We also have a Japanese garden.”
The house, at around 16,000 square ft, was designed to let in lots of natural light and to incorporate the sea view. “We tried to keep both sides light, mingling in the green environment,” he says. “So you have an interior garden mixed with an exterior garden and a waterfall outside.” He notices the waterfall is not operating and picks up a white telephone from the glass coffee table. “Julia, can you turn on the waterfall,” he says, his instructions transmitted through loudspeakers as though he were a Bond villain. “Our guest would like to see the sharks,” I imagine him saying. “Julia, can you please release them.”
We walk over to his terrace for a better view of the ocean. Below is a kidney-shaped swimming pool with a small stone elephant poised as if about to dive in. There are rocks and coral on the pool floor. “So we can snorkel,” he explains.
We go upstairs to the banqueting room. Cecil employed Chinese carpenters for two years to make the long table and ornate, high-backed chairs. It seats 36. Conversation between people at opposite ends must be virtually impossible. Cecil has a wide variety of friends, from fellow yachting and helicopter aficionados to his basketball buddies. Then, of course, there are his romantic interests.
He couldn’t possibly have slept with 10,000 women, could he? I ask, summoning my finer tabloid instincts. “I never counted, but it’s possible,” he says. “Every day you can date one, two, three or four women. I have many good friends. We share our life, not just limiting to one person. I like to live a free and happy life.”
Cecil has three children with three different women, including Terri Holladay, an American-Vietnamese beauty 30 years his junior. “Marriage is difficult, particularly under Hong Kong law. She can take a lot of your money away. It’s safer not to be married,” he smiles beatifically.
Sharing wealth around is not one of the more noticeable characteristics of Hong Kong, one of the most unequal societies in the developed world. “We have too many poor people. That’s obviously not good for Hong Kong,” he concedes. “We will be unsettled and it will affect security. But too much social welfare is also not good,” he goes on. “It makes people too lazy to work and you get the same situation as you have in Greece, Spain and Portugal.”
Cecil has a similarly nuanced view on freedom, another commodity some Hong Kongers feel is in short supply. “I always say freedom is good, but too much freedom makes government very difficult. You can see in China there is not so much freedom. But the country is going quite well and is financially healthy. Democracy makes a country less aggressive – and financial growth deteriorates.”
Our digression into politics over, we end with the only subject possible: his 33-year-old daughter Gigi. “It all came about because of some gossip magazine people. They called me saying my daughter had got married in Paris,” he says of her rumoured civil union in France with another woman. “I was shocked. Gigi is still young and beautiful. She has 70 per cent of her life to go.”
That’s what prompted his offer of $65m to any man who could persuade her to marry. “She can choose whatever she wants. But anyone who comes along to pursue Gigi, we will give them a moderately deluxe life,” he says. Clearly, $65m doesn’t go that far in Hong Kong. “I would not force her to marry a man. But obviously I would, from my point of view, prefer her to be married and to have grandchildren.”
Our meeting over, Cecil makes his way down the spiral staircase. As he descends, he calls out to his staff that he’ll be leaving shortly and be needing the Rolls-Royce. “Number Four,” he says, by way of clarification.
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor
China property: an investor’s view
Cecil Chao is the son of a Shanghai-born shipping tycoon who made his fortune after coming to Hong Kong when the communists took over the mainland. Chao himself is more associated with property than shipping, both as an architect and through Cheuk Nang Holdings, the Hong Kong-listed developer he owns. Cheuk Nang has residential and commercial property in Hong Kong, Macau, mainland China and Malaysia, where the Cecil Chao Centre (what else?) is under construction in Kuala Lumpur.
Chao is most enthusiastic about the mainland property market where, in spite of perennial talk of overheating, he insists there are still bargains to be had. In some cities, he says, property goes for a tenth of the price fetched in Hong Kong, where scarce land and huge demand from mainland Chinese buyers pushes prices skyward. “In my view, there is no danger of a bubble in the Chinese property market,” he says. “The property price will escalate gently along with people’s increasing incomes.”
Chao has invested in Shenzhen, the massive city in Guangdong province just across the border from Hong Kong. When a fast-speed rail service starts (scheduled for 2015), it will only be half an hour away, he says. “I like Shenzhen. It’s nearby and they have everything you want – nice hotels, good restaurants, shopping.” (Shopping is important since he doesn’t like to pack but buys everything, including underwear, on his travels.)
Chao is also a big investor in the West Lake area of Hangzhou, former capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) and now a 50-minute bullet-train ride from Shanghai. Aside from its famous lake, whose views inspired poets and painters down the ages, it has become a high-tech hub. Jack Ma, who once taught English in Hangzhou, founded Alibaba, one of China’s biggest internet companies, in the city.
Chao says property prices would rise faster in mainland China if the government “were more flexible” about controlling the market. In recent years, Beijing has taken measures to curb what it regards as a precipitate rise in prices that has threatened to put housing out of reach of tens of millions of ordinary Chinese.
Ren Zhiqiang, an outspoken property tycoon, complained recently that some measures to cool the property market had backfired. The government had reduced the number of auctions and manufactured a land famine, he said, after paying $160m – nearly five times the opening bid – for land in Tongzhou, a Beijing suburb.
Chao takes a longer-term view of mainland property prices and even predicts that the Hong Kong market will rise so long as interest rates remain low. (The Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the US dollar, meaning current interest rates are lower than they otherwise might be.)
“The only way to stabilise property prices in the long run is to provide enough land supply to meet demand,” he says. The Hong Kong government raises much of its revenue through land auctions and has been accused of not releasing sufficient quantities.
Chao says he will switch more investments into mainland China, but will still be investing in Hong Kong, Macau and Malaysia.
Cecil’s favourite object is a painting of cherry blossoms by Tang Yin, better known as Tang Bohu, a Ming dynasty scholar, calligrapher, painter and poet. Tang is considered one of four masters of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and his paintings are extremely valuable. Cecil, naturally, owns several. He picked this one up at auction “a long time ago”, though he can’t remember quite when or the exact circumstance. Asked how much it is worth, he says he’s no idea. “A lot.” Since it’s not for sale, it’s irrelevant anyway.
Cecil’s favourite painter was no celibate either. He is said to have had eight wives. One story of Tang’s exploits has him falling in love with a slave girl whom he glimpsed on a boat. He became so enamoured that he sold himself into slavery so that he might woo her. The ploy worked and he brought her home.
Cecil is also fond of two larger-than-life sculptures by Angel Botello, a Spanish-Puerto Rican contemporary of Picasso. He bought them from Botello’s son after seeing them in a museum in Puerto Rico. They were cast in Egypt. He had originally thought to keep them in the garden, but he worried that they might be damaged by the torrential Hong Kong rain. They now take pride of place in a corner of his enormous living room.
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