CLAU­DINE

SO­CI­ETY’S RULE-BREAKER ON MOTH­ER­HOOD, MAR­RIAGE AND MAK­ING MIS­CHIEF

Hong Kong Tatler - - Front Page - Pho­tog­ra­phy olivier yoan Styling jus­tine lee Shot on lo­ca­tion at The Lang­ham, Hong Kong

The lounge at the Four Sea­sons Ho­tel is a ca­coph­ony of tin­kling spoons, clink­ing china and the nat­ter of primped ma­tri­archs. It’s teatime on a Tues­day and Clau­dine Ying, the young glama­zon who rou­tinely graces the pages of Hong Kong’s glossies, has asked to meet me here for our in­ter­view. She’s run­ning late; I’ve taken a ta­ble in the far cor­ner with a prime view of the ac­tion so I can spot her when she ar­rives. A few min­utes later, a young woman in black ex­er­cise gear is ush­ered to­wards my ta­ble, her win­some, make-up-free face bob­bing above the sea of so­cialites and scones.

“Sorry I’m late,” she says mat­ter-of-factly as we kiss hello. Without her jew­els and haute cou­ture, the daugh­ter of for­mer Es­prit chair­man turned phi­lan­thropist Michael Ying and bal­le­rina Flora Zeta Cheong-leen looks bare. For Clau­dine, who has been in (or at least flut­ter­ing near) the spot­light for as long as she can re­mem­ber, dress­ing down must be a lux­ury.

Go­ing incog­nito may well be strate­gic too; Clau­dine’s face is ar­guably one of the most recog­nis­able in Hong Kong so­ci­ety. Her ty­coon-meets-celebrity parent­age has al­ways drawn me­dia at­ten­tion, and her slen­der frame, doe eyes and clear skin has lured the busi­ness of many a high fash­ion and beauty brand. All of this has helped make her a dig­i­tal star, too. The founder of Be­be­garten, a pro­gres­sive kinder­garten that ad­vo­cates a method of learn­ing based on cre­ativ­ity, ex­plo­ration and play, Clau­dine is per­haps the only early-ed­u­ca­tion en­tre­pre­neur with more than 21,000 fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram.

The at­ten­tion, how­ever, has reached new heights in the last six months. In Jan­uary this year, the un­mar­ried 28-year-old an­nounced she was preg­nant with the child of boyfriend Lloyd Jones. She’d been dat­ing the Aus­tralian ex­pat just nine months when she broke the news—and what a frenzy it’s cre­ated.

“Peo­ple have called me brave, which seems bizarre to me,” she says dis­pas­sion­ately, as she stirs a spoon­ful of honey into a glass of Per­rier. “I would never af­fil­i­ate that word with what I’m do­ing.”

When asked if she finds it strange that a child born “out of wed­lock” is still the stuff of gos­sip in 2016, she rolls her eyes. “Peo­ple are think­ing too much. I mean, these days there are sur­ro­gates, gay mar­riage is gain­ing main­stream ac­cep­tance, and de facto re­la­tion­ships in many coun­tries af­ford the same le­gal pro­tec­tion as mar­riage,” she says in her laid-back US West Coast ac­cent—a holdover from high school in Los Angeles. Nev­er­the­less, peo­ple have been talk­ing, as so of­ten hap­pens in the close-knit city that is Hong Kong.

“This preg­nancy,” she says em­phat­i­cally, as if she’s fielded ques­tions about it time and time again, “is some­thing I have al­ways wanted.” Clau­dine says she be­gan think­ing about hav­ing chil­dren two years ago af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with a rare auto-im­mune dis­or­der. Her con­di­tion re­quired treat­ment that would have made it ex­tremely dif­fi­cult— and, in short, dan­ger­ous—to con­ceive. “From the be­gin­ning, my doc­tor had told me that if I was plan­ning on get­ting preg­nant, I would need to tell him. I made a con­scious choice to stop treat­ment in or­der to have a baby. So when peo­ple im­ply it was an ac­ci­dent, I say ‘Ac­tu­ally, that’s phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble.’”

Sick­ness threw things into per­spec­tive. Now sure that she wanted a baby, she broached the sub­ject with her boyfriend, Lloyd, a strap­ping banker who used to play rugby for the Hong Kong team and who she had then been dat­ing for only six months. Was that daunt­ing? “No,” she says non­cha­lantly— but then it’s hard to imag­ine any­thing that would faze her. “I was just re­ally hon­est with him about want­ing to start a fam­ily and I wanted to make sure we were on the same page. I said: ‘Who knows what life has in store for me? Thirty might be too late for me to have kids.’ That sounds re­ally dra­matic, but you just never know if these things are go­ing to take longer than you think.”

Her peers had mixed re­ac­tions when she re­layed her plan. “Re­li­gious friends of mine were like, ‘Don’t do that, it’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate.’” She pauses, gaz­ing into space as if she’s still try­ing to wrap her head around the con­cept of an “in­ap­pro­pri­ate” child. “I just can’t see it that way.”

Can­did and self-as­sured, Clau­dine has a re­laxed rhythm. Not one for the­atrics or small talk, she speaks slowly and de­lib­er­ately. Veron­ica Chou couches it as a “di­rect and no-bull­shit at­ti­tude” which she says makes Clau­dine a great friend and one of the coolest girls she knows. Don’t be fooled by

“MY MOTHER’S A GOOD ROLE MODEL IN TERMS OF BE­ING AN IN­DE­PEN­DENT WOMAN. SHE’S VERY SUC­CESS­FUL AND I’VE LEARNED A LOT FROM HER, BUT I’VE ALSO LEARNED A LOT ABOUT WHAT NOT TO DO FROM HER”

her cheru­bic face; it be­lies a will of iron and an in­ner strength she was forced to de­velop, ac­cord­ing to her mother Flora, to get through a com­pli­cated child­hood.

Clau­dine’s par­ents di­vorced when she was one year old. Her mother, who she ad­mits is “not a very ma­ter­nal per­son,” wanted Clau­dine to live with her fa­ther, Michael Ying, who mar­ried and started a fam­ily with ac­tress Brigitte Lin shortly af­ter their di­vorce. Clau­dine says Flora is a great friend to her now, al­though it’s clear things were shaky through­out her teenage years. “My mother’s a good role model in terms of be­ing an in­de­pen­dent woman. She’s very suc­cess­ful and I’ve learned a lot from her, but I’ve also learned a lot about what not to do from her,” says Clau­dine.

Flora un­der­stands. “When I went to board­ing school, I think I left my fam­ily too early,” says the for­mer dancer. “I de­vel­oped a very strong sense of in­de­pen­dence and I had it in my head that Clau­dine should be in­de­pen­dent, too. Now I feel like I wasn’t a good mother be­cause I wasn’t there to pam­per her and put on her shoes, but I felt like I wasn’t able to at the time. I was so busy with my ca­reer and launch­ing my fash­ion col­lec­tions. I felt Clau­dine was lucky be­cause her fa­ther re­mar­ried and her step­mother, a kind and com­pas­sion­ate per­son, was there for her. It was a com­plex feel­ing, but I didn’t want to give her mixed sig­nals. So, against my in­stincts, I said, ‘Lis­ten to your dad and your step­mother.’ It’s im­por­tant not to con­fuse a child when she is young—i didn’t want her to feel she had dif­fer­ent bosses.”

In­stead of breast­feed­ing her daugh­ter, Flora in­vented a mo­bile that dan­gled a bot­tle above Clau­dine’s crib so she could suckle when she pleased. Clau­dine’s in­de­pen­dence man­i­fested in pri­mary school too, when she re­fused to wear the manda­tory skirt in favour of shorts. When the head­mistress asked why she was be­ing so re­bel­lious, she calmly ex­plained that the boys could see up her skirt when she walked up­stairs, prompt­ing man­age­ment to change the school rules. “Clau­dine was a bit of a ground­breaker. She doesn’t talk much, but when she does, she al­ways has very solid ideas,” says Flora.

Af­ter pri­mary school in Hong Kong, Clau­dine spent three years at an in­ter­na­tional school in Bei­jing, dur­ing which time she lived with her cousins. “It wasn’t like Hong Kong, where the in­ter­na­tional schools are pop­u­lated by af­flu­ent Chi­nese peo­ple. I had a lot of Malay friends, Mus­lim friends, whose par­ents worked in Bei­jing at IBM or Boe­ing—i re­ally en­joyed that ex­pe­ri­ence,” Clau­dine says.

The main­land has played a ma­jor role in her life since then. In ad­di­tion to her work with Be­be­garten, she also works with the Yanai Foun­da­tion, a non-profit ed­u­ca­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion es­tab­lished by Clau­dine and her fa­ther, which builds free pub­lic board­ing schools across China. The foun­da­tion has built more than 200 of these schools, known as Siyuan Ex­per­i­men­tal Schools, in 17 dif­fer­ent prov­inces in an ef­fort to pro­vide qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion to un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren.

Clau­dine keeps tight-lipped about her teenage years, but it’s clear she was given a lot of free­dom. She went to high school in Los Angeles for three years, liv­ing, for the first time, with Flora, who was ner­vous about her daugh­ter spend­ing this for­ma­tive pe­riod in the US. “I told her fa­ther she should not be there be­cause the Amer­i­can life­style was so free,” re­calls Flora. “I felt she could turn the wrong way.” Clau­dine de­scribes it as “that clas­sic Cal­i­for­nian high school ex­pe­ri­ence: prom, home­com­ing and foot­ball games.”

I ask Clau­dine if she ever went off the rails. “I was the worst kid you could imag­ine. I don’t want to talk about it—some of it may not be le­gal,” she says, laugh­ing. “But most teenagers go off the rails. The dif­fer­ence is that some are in the spot­light and some are not. Some are eas­ier to make fun of. My par­ents were in the pub­lic eye, so peo­ple were more crit­i­cal of me. I’ve got no re­grets, though. I’ve had a re­ally good run. I got away with a lot.”

When Clau­dine was 16, she told her par­ents she’d en­rolled in an over­seas sum­mer school pro­gramme but in­stead flew to Cabo, Mex­ico, and used that tu­ition money to fund a three-week hol­i­day. How did Flora feel about her daugh­ter sneak­ing off ? “That wasn’t naughty. Ev­ery­one needs their space; she was just very in­no­va­tive.”

I ask Clau­dine how she would feel if her own child pulled a stunt like that. First off, she doesn’t think any child of hers would be ca­pa­ble of fool­ing her. “Now I can smell out any lie. There is not one trick in the book I didn’t use,” she says. “But I think you have to be pa­tient with chil­dren. You have just got to let them screw up—and have faith that you have given them good foun­da­tions and that they will grow out of it. If you try and clamp down on every­thing, it might make them re­sent­ful.”

Many of Clau­dine’s clos­est girl­friends, in­clud­ing Natalie Chan-kwok, Ali­son Chan-el Azar, Emily Lam-ho and Veron­ica Chou, have been mar­ried in grand, for­mal cer­e­monies in the last few years. This, no doubt, is what so­ci­ety ex­pected of her. But the heiress feels no pres­sure to ap­pease so­ci­ety’s de­sire for nup­tials. Right now, she and Lloyd have no plans to get hitched. “Maybe she is a bit scared of get­ting mar­ried,” says Flora, who is un­der no il­lu­sions as to the ex­am­ple she set for her daugh­ter. “My mother has been di­vorced many, many times, so I don’t think mar­riage is for every­body,” says Clau­dine. “It’s not that I’m jaded, I just don’t have strong feel­ings about it ei­ther way. I want to go straight to rais­ing a fam­ily. That has al­ways been my pri­or­ity.”

That doesn’t mean she has given up on a fu­ture with Lloyd—far from it. “We see each other as life part­ners. There’s a much greater com­mit­ment in for­mu­lat­ing a fam­ily with some­one than hav­ing a wed­ding.” The cou­ple has al­ready de­cided they want a big brood. “I feel like I just want to be a baby ma­chine for a good cou­ple of years.”

Both her par­ents and her step­mother are sup­port­ive of her de­ci­sion. “Wed­dings are of­ten about the par­ents rather than the chil­dren. My dad is a very lov­ing fa­ther. He doesn’t need a wed­ding for him.”

What kind of mother does she want to be? “I’m go­ing to be very pedan­tic about the char­ac­ters that are be­ing formed at home. More so than aca­demic re­sults. I want them to be de­cent peo­ple with good val­ues.” Per­haps she’s re­acted against the type of moth­er­ing she re­ceived. “My mum was ab­sent for most of my child­hood. She was a dis­ci­plinar­ian and very re­sults-driven when it came to my school­work. I want to fo­cus on be­ing a warm and lov­ing mother who raises chil­dren that give back to so­ci­ety in a mean­ing­ful way.”

Lloyd is a very pri­vate per­son. When Clau­dine is busy giv­ing in­ter­views, oblig­ing the pa­parazzi or feed­ing so­cial me­dia, he’ll of­ten re­mind her that “some things are sa­cred.” How are they go­ing to man­age those dif­fer­ent dy­nam­ics in the fu­ture? “I think…” she stops, as if she’s turn­ing over a ma­jor de­ci­sion in her head, “I think I’m go­ing to re­tire. From all of it. When I have kids, I wont have time to do all this. I look for­ward to those days of hav­ing a quiet house­hold.”

“I WAS THE WORST KID YOU COULD IMAG­INE. I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT—SOME OF IT MAY NOT BE LE­GAL. BUT MOST TEENAGERS GO OFF THE RAILS. THE DIF­FER­ENCE IS THAT SOME ARE IN THE SPOT­LIGHT AND SOME ARE NOT”

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