"WHENEVER I TELL PEOPLE THE STORY, THEIR FIRST COMMENT IS ALWAYS `FAIRY TALE,'
says Candy Chuang when asked how she met her husband, Neville Kotewall. “We went to primary school together and he says he fell in love with me on the first day of class.” Almost 23 years later, in the wake of their idyllic wedding on Italy’s Lake Como, the lovebirds are finally enjoying their happily ever after.
Getting hitched to her childhood crush, however, is just one slim chapter in the fairy tale that has been Candy’s life. Blessed with good looks, fortune and the freedom to pursue her passions, the only daughter of real-estate tycoon Alan Chuang has attracted—and endured— the label of “princess” for as long as she can remember. Her house on The Peak is nothing short of palatial, and I’m trying to decide whether her long auburn tresses, swept whimsically across the nape of her neck and down her right side, are more Rapunzel or the Little Mermaid. Glass slippers have been substituted for those of white terry towelling today, but I suspect various incarnations of Cinderella sparklers line her wardrobe. With her newly minted six-foot prince by her side, it would be easy to dismiss Candy as a head-in-the-clouds romantic. Amusingly, she’s anything but.
“When Neville told me about that first day of school, about deciding that I’d be his wife as soon as he saw me, I told him to stop making things up. Then I said, ‘If you knew that then, why didn’t you tell me earlier so I didn’t have to spend years searching for my other half!’”
Pragmatic, plain-spoken and unpretentious, Candy is a far cry from the fragile damsels of Disney films. While her friends grew up playing with Barbie dolls, the pre-teen tomboy opted for basketball with the boys. Strong-willed and straightforward, she says her personality is closest to that of her father, whom she holds in the highest esteem.
Having worked for Chuang’s Consortium, the manufacturing and property empire founded by her grandfather, for more than a decade, she has been an indispensible aide to her father in its real estate ventures. Since 2009, she has been chairwoman of the group’s Treasure Auctioneer, which specialises in Chinese paintings, ceramics and jewellery. She will also soon take up the mantle of managing director of Midas International, a listed printing business under the Chuang’s Consortium umbrella.
Candy approaches love the same way she does business—through the lens of logic. While for Neville it was love at first sight, for Candy affection blossomed in spite of appearances. “In primary school I remember being intrigued by Neville because he was the only mixed-race pupil in the class. He was kind of a novelty.” Neville, the grandson of illustrious Hong Kong businessman and legislator Robert Kotewall, has British, Dutch, German, Persian and Chinese ancestry. “Until we were married, every time I looked at him it felt very surreal because I would see that little face I saw in class. I never imagined I would marry someone I knew as a child.”
When Candy turned 14, her parents sent her to boarding school in Connecticut with her brother Albert. Serendipitously, Neville’s parents sent him to a neighbouring school, also attended by a close friend of Candy, Rosewood Hotel Group CEO Sonia Cheng. Candy joined the squash and tennis teams, which ensured she got to visit Sonia for inter-school games, and Neville would always be there. Then, midway through their teens, he caught her eye. “Suddenly his height just doubled. He became so handsome that I assumed he had to be a womaniser. He looks like a model, Neville. You have to be so confident walking down the street with him because women just stare. At the time I thought, ‘He’s definitely not husband material.’”
Neville made a handful of overtures for Candy’s affections over the following decade but she rebuffed him every time. “Our friends were always trying to set us up. Apparently I was his lui sen—his goddess—or something,” she says, rolling her eyes good-humouredly. “But I never considered him. I thought he was a troublemaker.” It wasn’t until late in Candy’s twenties that she began to reconsider.
Neville’s persistence paid off and the two began speaking on the phone once a month. Candy was surprised how freely their conversation flowed. “He was very comfortable with me and I came to realise he was completely different to what I thought he was. When you meet him, he comes across as charismatic and charming but inside he’s actually a quiet, reserved guy. He loves reading and he’s very considerate. Either he’d been hiding this softer side or I’d just missed it.”
They started seeing each other in May last year but agreed to keep the relationship on the quiet. “Hong Kong is such a small place. We have so many friends in common so I didn’t want to tell everyone we were together until things were more concrete.”
While on holiday in Paris a few months later, Candy bagged tickets to a Beyoncé and Jay Z concert—“i heard they were getting a divorce so I just had to get tickets to their potentially last show.” After the concert, amid the mayhem of exiting crowds, Neville dropped to one knee and declared his love for Candy. “It was a very ad hoc gesture,” she says. “The security guards were trying to move us along and there he was on the ground, telling me he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me.”
Always one to keep her head when those around her are losing theirs, Candy decided they should take some time to consider the concept of “forever” before diving in. “I told him that now we knew that was what we wanted, we should work towards it and address some real issues. For example, did he want kids? What kind of life did he want?” Over the next few months, Candy introduced Neville to her father and ensured her family and friends got to know them as a couple. They finally announced their engagement at the start of the year and Candy threw herself single-handedly into planning and organising the wedding for September.
As we sit in her daffodil-yellow living room snacking on chicken pies and strong puer tea, Candy excitedly presents some of her wedding paraphernalia. Instead of an email or a printed card, her save-the-date notification came in the form of a toy viewfinder that enabled guests to click through a variety of photos of the happy couple. The wedding invitation, which Candy designed, was a jewellery box containing not just the details of the wedding, but Lake Como guide books and Italian language manuals, all sourced by Candy. “My friends thought I was crazy, totally crazy,” she blusters as she empties the box onto the coffee table. “I always tend to micromanage, most of the time unconsciously, and I make decisions straight away.”
The same degree of preparation ensured no one was left wanting for anything on the big day. Every guest received a welcome bag that included personalised luggage tags, snack packs and hangover kits with eye drops, painkillers and Alka Seltzer.
“IT WAS A VERY AD HOC GESTURE. THE SECURITY GUARDS WERE TRYING TO MOVE US ALONG AND THERE HE WAS ON THE GROUND, TELLING ME HE WANTED TO SPEND THE REST OF HIS LIFE WITH ME”
Choosing a venue was easy. Candy’s father fears ghosts may inhabit Lake Como’s historic buildings, so she had to find a newly renovated hotel, few of which exist in the region. She decided on Casta Diva Resort & Spa. “I wanted everything to happen in the one place so if people were jet-lagged they could take a nap; if they were cold they could grab a shawl; they wouldn’t need to worry about taxis; if they were drunk they wouldn’t be vomiting in the car on the way back home—all of these things I thought about.”
The ceremony took place on the hotel’s spectacular floating swimming pool, which Candy had covered with a temporary floor and decorated with white and lilac flowers. What she hadn’t factored in, however— perhaps the only thing she hadn’t factored in—were the dozens of speedboats zipping back and forth hoping to get a closer look at the grand affair. “As we were saying our vows we had to brace ourselves to balance. The whole time we were gripping each other’s hands not out of love, but because we were trying to stay upright. It was very funny.”
Now that the whirlwind of the wedding has passed, Candy is readjusting to quotidian life. An art lover with a head for business, she was the natural choice to chair Treasure Auctioneer when her family bought a majority stake, and she’s now on a mission to find a new direction for the company. “There are just so many auction houses in Hong Kong. To differentiate yourself among all these big players you really have to find your own niche. They’re all selling the same things— art and antiques—and they’re all focusing on the crème de la crème.”
Candy has always wondered why, in Asia, going to an auction has to be a grand affair. “People in Hong Kong treat auctions almost like balls or gala dinners. I see it very differently. I see an auction as a trading platform and I think, if done carefully, this business model could be successfully made more accessible. Why do auctions have to be for items which cost HK$10 billion? Anything could be a collectible. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” This new phase at Treasure Auctioneer will begin with an auction of vintage guitars. Candy knows a collector with 800 strummable gems. Instead of hosting a traditional, “boring” auction, she’s planning to host a gathering where people can test out the instruments before vying to buy. “I want to do something that is fun and approachable. You don’t want to go into an auction and feel like you have to be somebody else.”
As she charges into the next chapter of her life, Candy is determined to put her own stamp on the family empire. “In a family business there is always so much expectation and pressure, but I like to think I am continuing the work that my grandfather started, which has given me such privilege and opportunity.”
Motherhood is a natural next step, she says, and she looks forward to the challenge of balancing children with career. She’s got great role models in that respect, she says, referring to Rosewood’s Cheng, who has just given birth to her second child and is a great example of a woman who has figured out how to “do it all.”
“It’s always hard being the boss’s daughter. You’re always being judged and people constantly try to manipulate you. You really have to earn people’s respect, do your due diligence and figure out right from wrong by yourself. I have my own brain, my own intelligence and I really want to contribute,” she says.
Given that Candy has mastered the devil in the details, as evidence by her meticulous wedding planning, she has plenty to contribute.
“AS WE WERE SAYING OUR VOWS WE HAD TO BRACE OURSELVES TO BALANCE. THE WHOLE TIME WE WERE GRIPPING EACH OTHER’S HANDS NOT OUT OF LOVE, BUT BECAUSE WE WERE TRYING TO STAY UPRIGHT”