December 29, 2016 12:00 pm JST

Gigi Chao has a head for business and a heart for LGBT rights

Hong Kong property heiress has an ideal platform for her cause

WILLIAM MELLOR, contributing writer

HONG KONG From her 49th-floor office at Central Plaza, Hong Kong's third-tallest building, Gigi Chao juggles three roles as a business executive, philanthropist and one of Asia's most prominent gay rights activists.

Although her billionaire father, Cecil Chao Sze-tsung, owns the company she helps to run, being heiress to a property fortune has been no easy ride for the 37-year-old Chao.

In 2005, her father fired her for not showing enough commitment to the business. Then in 2012, having only recently rehired her, Cecil humiliated his daughter by publicly offering a dowry of $65 million to any man who could succeed in wooing her into marriage, an offer that made global headlines. He then doubled the amount 16 months later. Gigi responded with an open letter politely telling him to back off.

Times have changed. Not only does Cecil Chao accept Gigi's sexuality, but the 80-year-old Hong Kong tycoon has selected his daughter ahead of his two sons to succeed him as chairman of Hong Kong-listed real estate developer Cheuk Nang (Holdings).

In her business role, Chao helps her father oversee residential real estate projects in China, Macau, Hong Kong and Malaysia. But it is her role as a leading spokesperson for Asia's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community that has attracted more attention.

In October, the Financial Times and OUTstanding, a professional network of gay and gay-friendly business leaders, ranked her No. 1 in its 2016 global list of 100 leading LGBT executives.

RARE ROLE MODEL Chao is helping bring changes to a region where protection of gay rights still lags and LGBT role models are rare, especially in business.

Chao, who studied architecture at the University of Manchester, cites Hong Kong as an example. Chao says 71% of gay people in the territory hide their sexual orientation at work. "It's tragic that people have to live a double life," she told the Nikkei Asian Review. "I have a lot of close friends who find it prohibitively difficult to come out."

That is not the case for Chao, who does not disguise her relationship with Sean Eav, a businesswoman she married in a church ceremony in Paris in 2012. "I do think it is important for me to be honest about my sexuality," she said.

As committed Christians, Chao and Eav are often seen attending glittering society functions, worshipping at St John's Anglican Cathedral or visiting the city's most deprived neighborhoods on behalf of the Faith in Love Foundation, a charity Chao formed in 2008. She also pursues a passion for aviation by flying her Robinson 44 helicopter around Hong Kong. On the ground, she drives a Tesla electric car -- in part, she says, because she has met and admires company founder Elon Musk.

Chao said the couple does not enjoy equal rights under Hong Kong law, which does not recognize same-sex marriages. Chao believes Hong Kong's attitude to gays is worse than in mainland China. "Despite being seemingly cosmopolitan, [Hong Kong] is still a very conservative place," she noted.

Chao is the first of three children her father, a self-confessed womanizer who never married, had with three different women. Her mother is Kelly Yao, an actress and singer who came from a poor family. When she was a child, her mother still lived with relatives in a tiny public housing unit in the teeming industrial area of Kwun Tong.

Chao's parents never lived together and she recalls being shuttled between Cecil's 1,500-sq.-meter waterside mansion, Happy Lodge, and Yao's apartment, where seven people were squeezed into 25 sq. meters. That experience, she said, drives her effort to help girls from deprived backgrounds gain job opportunities and university educations.

With her father continuing to lead the company, "it works out quite well," she noted, "because it gives me time to do my charitable work and activism that is more important for the healthy development of society in the region."

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