Tue, Apr 03, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Hong Kong property heiress becomes accidental LGBT champion

By Beh Lih Yi  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, HONG KONG

When Hong Kong property tycoon Cecil Chao (趙世曾) offered US$65 million to any man who could win over his lesbian daughter and make her straight, he inadvertently laid the ground for her to become one of Asia’s most prominent gay rights campaigners.

The bizarre reward in 2012 grabbed international headlines and his daughter, Gigi Chao (趙式芝), was bombarded with thousands of marriage proposals from across the world — from war veterans to a body double of George Clooney in a sports movie.

It was the first time the issue of acceptance of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community had played out in such high-profile way in Hong Kong — a territory modern in many ways, but where social attitudes remain conservative.

“I am glad it happened,” Gigi Chao said at the office of her property firm is housed in Hong Kong’s third-tallest skyscraper overlooking the territory’s harbor.

“It has been able to put a comic spin on a topic that is often marred by a lot of tragedies and taboos,” the 38-year-old said, wearing a sparkly rainbow-colored jacket.

The elder Chao — whose property empire invests in Hong Kong, China and Malaysia — put the US$65 million “marriage bounty” on his daughter’s head after she entered into a civil partnership with her girlfriend in France in early 2012.

After failing to find any suitors, the 81-year-old billionaire doubled the offer to HK$1 billion (US$127 million) in 2014.

This prompted Chao to pen an open letter published in Hong Kong newspapers, which said: “Dear daddy, you must accept I’m a lesbian” and urged him to treat her partner like a “normal, dignified human being.”

Such a public feud in a well-known family would have been remarkable anywhere, but was particularly unusual in Asia, when no country in the region at that time recognized same-sex marriage.

It was only last year that Taiwan’s Council of Grand Justices paved the way for the nation to become the first place in Asia with gay marriage after it ruled in favor of same-sex unions.

Today Chao is not only the heir to her father’s property business and one of Hong Kong’s richest women, she is also the most recognizable face campaigning for LGBT rights in the territory.

Homosexuality has been decriminalized since 1991 in Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The territory has an annual pride parade and lively gay scene.

However, despite the territory enjoying freedom of speech and assembly, it does not recognize same-sex marriage and campaigners say LGBT people still face widespread discrimination and often come under family pressure to marry and have children.

Transgender people are recognized if they have undergone sex reassignment surgery, but activists have been lobbying to remove this requirement.

A proposal to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation has been under discussion in the territory’s legislature, the Legislative Council (LegCo), but there is no clear indication whether it will be adopted.

“It is disappointing in that LegCo doesn’t have the forward vision or the courage to put something forward like this in fear of offending the traditional groups,” Chao said.

However, where the government has failed, is where Chao believes businesses can step in to take the lead.

The businesswoman has been using her influence in high society to forge a coalition of allies to mobilize support.

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