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.
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.”