Getting Michelle Ong and her family together in the same room at the same time is a big task. An acclaimed jewellery designer and gala fixture, not to mention a formidable patron of the arts, Ong has built a reputation that opens doors; all three of her children have inherited their mother’s unyielding gumption and sense of their place in the world, and they lead industrious lives spanning education, business and hospitality.
On the day of the Tatler photoshoot, fraternal twins Jennifer and Amanda Cheung, 30, are first to show up. Jennifer, a teacher, is off for Christmas, and Amanda, looking understandably sleep-deprived, comes straight from Pacific Place, where her new restaurant Wellwellwell opened in November to rave reviews. Adrian, the eldest at 32, arrives shortly after, followed by Michelle and her entourage: a personal assistant, her styling team and her business partner, Avi Nagar, who carries a selection of dazzling jewellery designs to embellish the women’s ensembles. David Cheung, Ong’s husband and the father of the trio, arrives last. Seated in the middle of the group, he says he feels like an emperor. “Ha! That’s wishful thinking,” comes his wife’s quick-fire reply. The room erupts into laughter.
Immediately recognisable by her trademark crop and penchant for statement jewellery, especially earrings, Ong bristles with personality. Her elegant demeanour belies a tough-as-nails approach that verges on intimidating for anyone who dares place obstacles in her way. She is known for being a tough businesswoman, decisive and laser-focused on her work; when Tatler met her, what became clear was that the driving force behind brand Ong is simple: her family.
Ong’s meticulous nature is no surprise considering she has been surrounded by doctors throughout her life. Her father, Ong Guan Bee, who was originally from Malaysia and who died in 2004, was a professor of surgery at the University of Hong Kong, while her mother, Christina Chow, was an obstetrician-gynaecologist and medical superintendent. Then, Ong married David, a cardiothoracic surgeon and heir to the Hong Kong-based confectionery and bakery The Garden Company, in 1985. She credits her work ethic to the example her parents set, especially her mother, who entered the medical profession at a time when female doctors were rare in Hong Kong. The two were close until Chow’s death in 2019 aged 98. “She was still playing ping pong until the age of 90,” Ong says. “My parents were very hard-working and were extremely successful in their careers, but they never rested on their laurels.”
“When people tell me my kids are hard- working, I say: well, why not? Look at me! I’m still running around and doing things. Why wouldn’t they?”— Michelle Ong
Ong, one of six children, did not inherit her parents’ inclination towards the sciences, and although they would have liked her to follow in their footsteps and become a medic, she wasn’t punished for wanting something different: “I was very lucky. From day one, I failed in all my maths and science subjects. My parents gave up on me early in life,” she says, laughing. “They knew I wasn’t particularly drawn to science or medicine. I was always daydreaming and they allowed me to pursue my interests. They were supportive of whatever I chose to do.”
Ong studied sociology at the University of Toronto before the glittering world of jewellery caught her eye. At the turn of the Eighties, a family friend recommended the diamond industry to Ong, and she worked as an apprentice to diamond merchant, Siu Man Cheuk. Later, Ong partnered with Israeli gem dealer Nagar, with whom she co-founded the jewellery brand Carnet in 1985. Frustrated by being unable to find high jewellery pieces that suited her to wear to social events, she took it upon herself to create her own. “I started designing as a hobby. Friends saw and liked the pieces I wore and asked me to create things for them. I absolutely loved working with gems,” she says. Her brooches, earrings and necklaces have been worn by Hollywood A-listers, including Glenn Close and Kate Winslet, and can be spotted in films such as Crazy Rich Asians and The Da Vinci Code.
Of her three children, Ong sees most of herself in Amanda, owing to their shared commitment to work, while she describes Adrian as more even-keel and Jennifer as the most patient. As the most private Cheung, Jennifer has maintained a low profile over the years, stepping into the public eye mainly to support family events. She has spent the past decade in education and currently teaches English at a Chinese primary school. “I want to make a difference in children’s lives,” she says. “It’s very rewarding when I see children who start our programmes without knowing a word of English, and when they leave us, they can have an entire conversation.”
On set, Jennifer is confident and chatty. She plays with looks off-camera, swapping a white Alexander McQueen babydoll dress for a green Louis Vuitton skirt suit, and attempting to walk in towering Versace platforms. By contrast, Amanda tries on structured suits, tailored pencil skirts and more masculine silhouettes. “I’m more reserved than Amanda and she’s way funnier,” Jennifer says.