‘The taxing art of chaperoning a Chinese billionaire.’

By Hung Huang.
Illustration by Jean-Philippe Delhomme.

A letter from… Beijing: Service not included. - © System Magazine

When my concept store, Brand New China, suffered a cash crisis last year, I invited my self-made billionaire, tycoon girlfriend, Zhao Yan, to help me out by investing in the store. She did it in a nanosecond.

This past summer, our two families took a trip to Europe together. It was a learning experience for me, to say the least. I thought I was travelling with friends; silly me, I was really travelling with a tycoon. The journey started with me totally in control. I rented a house near Lake Orta in northern Italy, a region I have long wanted to visit. We dropped our respective daughters at Le Rosey summer camp in Switzerland (her pick, not mine) and drove down to Italy. Most tycoons in China have sleep problems. I think it’s the price you pay for being rich in a Communist country. The problem was our villa was next to a church, and an active one at that. Every morning, the priest would ring the bells promptly at 7am and this would go on at 30-minute intervals until 10pm. I thought my tycoon was going to flip, but she actually held out. And by the third day she proclaimed that she somehow slept better near God’s noisy bells rather than under the watchful eye of the Communist Party. Point taken.

Chinese tycoons, men or women, love history, so northern Italy was perfect. We spent a whole day touring the Borromean Islands in Lake Maggiore. After we finished our guided tour of Isola Bella, Zhao Yan and her husband sat down for a break. ‘Five hundred years,’ her husband reflected, ‘this is as if someone was rich in the Ming dynasty and never lost their fortune.’ In China, there is a saying that wealth can never last more than three generations, so the fact that the Borromeo family could last 500 years is unfathomable. ‘Our economy is our politics and vice versa,’ the tycoon explained. ‘So when new power comes in, they not only get rid of old power, but also old money.’ We all sighed. There was really nothing to be said. Sometimes, I thought, we all stay in China
against our better judgement.

For the last week, I decided to take them to Deauville for further education in bourgeois lifestyles. The first day, we all ate breakfast in the dining room, but for the rest of the week, it was instant noodles in the room. There was no Chinese breakfast at the Hôtel Normandy Barrière, so ramen it was.

Aside from that, I thought food-wise, I could have some fun, but it turned out that, to my great surprise, my friends loved choucroute, the gigantic plateau of seafood, and mussels in cream sauce. They loved it, except they refused to order their own dishes. It was French food eaten the Chinese way. A fork would reach across the long table to stab at some sausage from the choucroute plate in one direction; a spoon would drip cream sauce from the mussel pot in another. And we really showed the bourgeoisie how to put down a huge quantity of food without a trace of good manners. I am pretty sure I am permanently banned from couple of brasseries in the centre of Trouville.

Shopping with the tycoon was both fun and nerve-racking. First of all, she insisted on paying for everything, from fashion to Bellota ham. Between playing assistant, travel guide, babysitter, translator and being bought things, I had a major identity crisis and had to almost scream at her to stop paying. Yet shopping with my friend was also great fun. In hindsight, she does have a great eye for the unusual. She avoids brands such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci (too common, she says), as well as the likes of Hermès and Chanel (too well-known) and goes for the unfamiliar. She does not care about the brand’s reputation. It has to be her own discovery. And this could serve as a lesson for luxury brands doing marketing in China.

It just might be that while luxury brands are spending millions of marketing dollars to impress the average Chinese consumer, the only Chinese who can afford them are turning away from these brands for precisely the reason that they are too popular. I ended the summer rather exhausted. After all, my vacation had not really been much of a break. During New York Fashion Week, I saw Diane von Furstenberg and mentioned my summer playing chaperone to my Chinese billionaire girlfriend. ‘People just stared at us in the restaurants,’ I said. ‘It was embarrassing.’

‘People will get used to it,’ she said, with a little nonchalant wave of hand. And she’s right. Everyone will get used to it – and I will, too.

Taken from System No. 6.