In a sleepy village on the outskirts of Beijing, not far from Qincheng, a jail for high-ranking political prisoners, Hung Huang and her husband have built their dream home among the gnarled trunks of an old persimmon orchard.
With its high walls, spacious lawn and buildings inspired by traditional Chinese architecture, the compound is a haven of tranquillity for China’s most well-known media mogul, fashion guru and social commentator.
When I arrive at her house on a cold, clear Sunday morning she has only just returned from Paris where she was attending a dinner hosted by Jane Fonda and L’Oréal to celebrate 40 years of its “Because I’m worth it” slogan.
She ushers me in through the floor-to-ceiling glass wall that runs the length of the 50m long, high-ceilinged main building and serves me tea and cake. We are sitting on tall white plastic stools in the open-plan living space.
In her immaculate American English, punctuated by her famously sharp wit, she immediately compares the feminist pride on display at her Paris dinner with the status of women here in China.
“After Mao Zedong and the communist revolution [in 1949] women gained the right to work but not to be treated as equals; the feminist movement hasn’t happened yet in China,” she says. “Because of this, Chinese men have lived largely unchallenged and so their capacity has diminished – it’s like an animal that doesn’t have to hunt and is served everything on a silver platter; it deteriorates and gets weak. I try to be an equal opportunity employer and hire men too but it almost never works out.”
Throughout a life spent in the glare of public attention, Hung has made a career out of bold statements and bold action.
Her mother, from a wealthy family that joined the communist revolution, worked as English teacher and translator to Chairman Mao, the communist leader who ruled over the world’s most populous nation for nearly three decades and was revered as a living god.
When her mother remarried one of China’s top diplomats, Hung left with them to live in America, where she received much of her education while her stepfather and mother ran China’s mission to the UN.
After previous marriages to top Chinese film director Chen Kaige and to a senior French diplomat, she now lives with the man who designed and built the house we’re sitting in.
Yang Xiaoping is an artist and designer whose father was the official in charge of the Forbidden City, the enormous traditional palace complex in the centre of Beijing that was home to Chinese emperors for centuries.
“[Yang] started working on it 15 years ago and I joke that I had to sleep with him just to get him to finish it,” Hung says. “Now he sees it as a hobby and he’s constantly renovating, adding new buildings or expanding the garden or putting in a swimming pool.”
The 1,200 sq m compound consists of a long rectangular garden with old persimmon trees scattered throughout and long grey buildings lining two sides in a style reminiscent of an ancient Beijing courtyard house.
The main building has a huge study of about 150 sq m at one end, the elongated living room/dining room/kitchen with a vaulted, wooden-beamed ceiling in the middle where we’re sitting and bedrooms and a loft at the other end.
Priceless works of art are scattered throughout the house, as well as the accoutrements gathered from a life as a writer, publisher, critic and fashion expert. Copies of Hung’s current publishing venture – the fashion magazine iLook – lie on the desk next to bags from her newly opened fashion store, located in Beijing’s trendiest shopping district and set up mainly to support homegrown Chinese designers.
She is the publisher who brought Time Out to China and has also been the host of television shows, including the popular Bright Talk, making her a celebrity in her own right with more than 3m followers on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
Despite these accomplishments she jokes how ultra-rich friends look at her with pity that she hasn’t capitalised on her stellar political background and connections to accumulate obscene riches as many of her contemporaries have done.
“I’ve had this cocktail conversation for at least 10 years where they always ask if I’m still doing my little magazine,” Hung says. “They think I’ve squandered my political resources and can’t understand that I actually like what I do.”
But she says it is now often the children of these ultra-wealthy who are the customers in her fashion and design store, which has been open for about a year in the Sanlitun Village shopping district in downtown Beijing.
“Until now, China has been good at selling things cheaply at huge volumes but our branding hasn’t been great so my store is intended to help young Chinese designers get exposure and confidence,” she says.
Her customers are mostly women – about one-third are professionals, another third are wives and children from wealthy families while the other third are concubines or “second wives” of rich and powerful men.
What they all share in common is sophisticated taste and the fact they have shopped all over the world and are choosing her store because they want to support Chinese design.
“These are people who already have 150 Louis Vuitton bags and 50 Gucci bags and they want something a bit different,” Hung says.
While she acknowledges that some luxury brands are starting to become over-exposed and commoditised in China (Louis Vuitton now has 33 stores open across the country), she argues that western brands have been the key to educating high-end consumers and creating a domestic design and fashion industry.
“Without support from Hermès and Chanel and their advertising I would have been out of this industry a long time ago,” Hung says. “It is a misconception that Chinese design is hurt by foreign brands – it is the opposite.”
With the sun streaming in through the glass walls we move to the soft leather couches next to the unlit fireplace and Hung rattles off the names of some of her favourite Chinese designers. Uma Wang creates baggy clothes that give the impression of “sexiness by accident” while He Yan is exquisite at tailoring and commercially very savvy, according to Hung.
Two successful domestic fashion brands she admires are Zuczug, which already has about 60 retail stores across China, and Exception de Mind, which is also growing quickly. Both brands are environmentally conscious and own organic farms to produce cotton, and both promote an understated natural lifestyle with overtones of a classical Zen value system.
“The trend in China is moving away from ostentatious bling bling design; the next generation of Chinese fashion buyers wants something less western, more Oriental, more Zen,” she says.
Looking around Hung’s house and tranquil garden it is obvious that despite her American education and her celebrity lifestyle that is something she wants for herself as well.
Jamil Anderlini is the FT’s Beijing bureau chief
Hung Huang’s favourite things are mostly not inanimate objects but when I press her she points to a brand new tea set she has just acquired and says that this is her newest favourite object. The set is made of fine bone china and wrapped in intricate weaving.
“The set is made by a Chinese company called Shangxia, which is probably the first attempt to create a truly luxury Chinese brand,” Hung says. The brand is invested by Hermès and it combines traditional Chinese craftsmen with modern design to create a high-end collection of homeware, fashion, jewellery and furniture.
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