After a few minutes waiting on the Beijing street outside what should have been the Cantonese restaurant recommended by Hung Huang for lunch, my phone rings. “It doesn’t exist, does it?” she laughs, a little ruefully, as it had been in turn recommended to her by the listings editor at one of the magazines she owns, a Chinese version of Time Out. I never quite worked out whether the restaurant had been knocked down or simply not built. After all, either can happen in the blink of an eye in today’s China. Pressed for time, we take the easy option and agree to meet at the St Regis Hotel, just across the road in the city’s embassy district.
我在北京的大街上等了几分钟，这里应该是洪晃推荐的粤菜馆所在之处，我们约好在这里吃午餐。这时候，我的手机响了。“那儿就没这家餐厅，是吧？”她笑道，声音里有一丝郁闷，这家餐厅是她旗下杂志——中国版Time Out《乐》——的城市生活指南编辑向她推荐的。我一直没有搞明白，这家餐厅究竟是拆迁了，还是从来就不存在。毕竟，在当今的中国，这两种情况都有可能在转瞬间发生。由于时间紧迫，我们选择了一个简单的办法，约好在北京国际俱乐部饭店(St Regis Hotel)见面，就在马路对面的使馆区。
Hung (pronounced “Hong”) Huang is sometimes labelled as China’s Oprah Winfrey, a description that both flatters and underestimates her. She has an agony column in her listings magazine; an internet blog offering advice that is a little racy - at least by local standards; an expanding stable of magazines; and a television show, all cleverly leveraged by her own high-profile personality.
But she has neither the power nor the income of a US talkshow host. Hung stands out from the crowd for other reasons: her outspokenness in a country where stiff self-censorship in public is the norm on most issues, and her political pedigree.
Hung’s mother was an interpreter for Mao Zedong and visiting US dignitaries, and also served for a short time as his English teacher. Her stepfather was China’s foreign minister. In the mid-1970s, when overseas travel was impossible for ordinary Chinese, Hung went to high school in the US and later graduated with a political science degree from Vassar College, New York. Such political connections offer privilege in China, and, as she was to discover later, a touch of danger.
In recent months, Hung, 45, has also adopted a baby, which allows both of us to reflect on entering the St Regis what a paradise China is for children. Bring your kid into restaurants and hotels in Beijing and you won’t be greeted by the grimly tightened sphincters that welcome you in the west. “The nice thing about China is that it is fairly relaxed,” she says. “It doesn’t have that many sort of etiquettes you have to follow, although they are superficially creating them now.”
I remind her of the etiquette instructions for China’s aspiring yuppies that now help to fill magazines like her own. Yes, she laughs. “Otherwise how are you going to sell all those luxury products? You only need chopsticks in China. Two sticks, and you can eat. How can you sell cutlery and butter knives?”
When we are seated, I ask her to explain the paradox of the luxury-goods explosion in China, a country where ostentatious displays of wealth can attract suspicion and envy, not to say unwanted political attention during periodic anti-corruption campaigns.
“The Chinese want to display [their wealth] to some people and conceal it to others. They want to conceal it to the tax authorities but they definitely want to display it to the rest of world,” she says.
“It is the part of the Chinese that is really reputation-oriented. We want to have face in everything. We want people to really acknowledge our accomplishments. But by nature, the Chinese are conspiratorial. They don’t like to show their cards. They want to keep something hidden.”
Hung herself keeps little hidden, a quality that has earned her the familiar media tag of “provocative”. “China finds me to be provocative, but I don’t think I am provocative. I think no one in the west would find me provocative,” she says. “I have this American education, so there were a few things I take for granted, like why can’t I talk about sexual issues just because I am a woman. It never occurred to me that this would cause outrage in this country.”But surely you realise it now? “I do,” she smiles. “I am getting the hang of it.”
Neither of us is feeling very provocative with the menu. She orders Hainan chicken rice, I opt for Sichuan fried chicken - both standard Chinese fare in any part of the world, let alone China itself.
Hung’s outspokenness tends to divide her (mainly female) audience. Some scorn her, but she says most find her refreshing, especially since they have long been told “to be considerate of everybody else except yourself”. This surely doesn’t apply to someone with a mother as strong as hers? Hung reckons it was in fact the long periods she spent away from her mother that made her self-reliant and also left her lacking some traditional Chinese reticence. It is something that worries her mother, who still lives in Beijing.
“She knows I have a big mouth,” Hung says. “I remember the first time I gave an interview on television after my book (My Abnormal Life as a Publisher) came out, and they shot a part with my boyfriend, partner, or whatever you want to call him. The anchor said: ‘Are you guys married?’ And we said: ‘No.’ And my mom kind of freaked out. She’s like, you don’t understand, you don’t go into the media and claim that you are living with a man. And honestly it never even occurred to me.”
Her mother can always see the “downside” of things, an instinct nurtured by navigating through the murderous cycles of Maoist politics. She was put under house arrest at one stage in the late 1970s after Mao died, but survived. Hung never met Mao and says she was happy when he gave up taking language lessons. “That would be a rather difficult task for my mum, trying to teach an 80-year-old dictator how to speak English.”
From this perspective, she thinks Chinese politics has changed a great deal, even if there is still one-party rule. “We went from this emperor-like figure like Mao to [a situation] where people are used to a change in government every five years. It’s not a coup. It’s not a leader falling out of the sky and announcing a succession. It was one of the biggest problems in China, that every time there was a succession people expected blood in the streets or a conspiracy.”
Even Hung, I am surprised to find, is a trenchant critic of how China is portrayed in the west and she complains that when she is overseas, she still gets asked how she got out of the country. “Well,” she replies, in a mock silly voice, “you apply for a passport and you stand in line for a US visa for hours and hours and hours and then you buy a plane ticket.”
Hung says the country’s pervasive censorship regime does not affect her lifestyle-centred magazines very much. “You do have to talk to [the censors] a little bit, like when we started a gay-and- lesbian section. We had to work around the stigma of that,” she says. She makes it clear that we should not expect too much overt change. It is not in the DNA of the country, in her view, or perhaps more accurately, of the civilisation. “A lot of [the restrictions are] cultural. Chinese are not adventurous. It is very difficult to change the way people think.”
“她知道我口无遮拦，”洪晃表示。“我记得，在我的书（《我的非正常生活》(My Abnormal Life as a Publisher)）出版后，我第一次接受电视采访，他们拍摄的一段内容涉及我的男朋友，或者说是伴侣，或随便你怎么称呼。主持人问道：‘你们结婚了吗？’我们说：‘没有。’我妈妈简直吓坏了。她的意思是，你不懂，你不能到媒体上去说，你和一个男人住在一起。但说实话，我从未想到有什么问题。”
Hung identifies trends these days, not in politics, but in the market research she conducts for her media titles. What she finds there is, in many respects, anything but conservative. When you segment the population, she says, the older they are, the more they think the government is responsible for them. The younger they are, the less they care. “A lot of rich people are not concerned about government. They are concerned about poor people kidnapping their children. Four to five years ago, their concerns were policy-oriented, like tax. Can I take my money out of the country? Now it is crime. It is a wealth problem.”
Mid-mouthful, we are interrupted by a French media executive who has shuffled over from an adjoining table to confirm an appointment next week. It turns out that his company has just poached one of her editors, without realising the contract contained a non-compete clause. After he leaves, Hung agrees that at times like this, western-style rule of law comes in handy in China. “It’s simple. Just buy out her contract.”
Still, it is not the turnover of editors that concerns her. It is the speed with which her customer profile is altering. “People change so quickly that the minute you complete one study - it might take eight months - and digest and analyse it and put it into print, people have moved on to the next thing.”
The market in celebrities is a case in point. In the past, celebrities were treated politely, until readers discovered the wonders of the “yellow press”.
“Now you can tell people how they are getting divorced, how they had an affair, and there was a lawsuit and illegitimate children,” she says. “Six years ago, you couldn’t report all this because it was supposed to be a negative type of thing - the country still felt an ownership of its celebrities.
“Now it is as if the country has said: ‘We have got to have some cannon fodder for laughter and appeasement of the crowds - a kind of feelgood factor. So trash them!’”
Hung says the idea of providing a service to readers, which I suppose includes rubbishing the reputations of celebrities, is entirely new in China. “The Chinese media have never been responsible to their readers in their entire existence. They were first responsible to the government; and then the great commercialisation came, and everyone rushed and became responsible to their advertisers.
“It is finally getting to be an exciting time to be in the media. I think you are now going to see a cultural change, after the material changes in the landscape and buildings and housing. Now we are getting to the interesting part where we are changing people’s minds.”
It seems like an oddly Orwellian note to end on, but neither of us can think of how to take the conversation further after that line. We pay the bill and leave.
Garden Court, St Regis, Beijing
1 x Hainan chicken rice
1 x Sichuan fried chicken
1 x Perrier
1 x Coke
2 x coffees