Cover Family First: David Cheung (left); Michelle Ong (right) wearing Ralph Lauren jumpsuit and Carnet jewellery; their children, from left: Jennifer, wearing Versace outfit; Amanda, wearing Proenza Schouler dress, Roger Vivier heels and Carnet jewellery; Adrian wearing Ralph Lauren outfit

Thicker Than Water: For Michelle Ong and her three children, family comes above all else

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. 

Whatever the case may be, their friendship and respect for each other is evident, with Amanda the first to compliment her sister’s looks, even requesting that Jennifer be the main focus of a shot because “she has the nicest legs”.

After years spent fervently supporting a host of charities in Hong Kong, Ong founded her own cause in 2011: the First Initiative Foundation (FIF), which organises local programmes to benefit the arts, education, community welfare and promotion of Hong Kong’s culture on a world stage. Her events are grand and rally some of Hong Kong’s most powerful figures with show-stopping displays that spark conversation. In one of the more famed Michelle Ong anecdotes, she installed a 12-metre-long Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the IFC Mall to coincide with the release of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom in 2018; two years later, FIF flew in paintings from Florence for an exhibition that featured the most Botticelli works ever exhibited in Hong Kong. Last year, she ran a series of art-based events for pets and their owners at Lee Gardens.

Even the pandemic hasn’t knocked the wind from Ong’s sails. “People told me not to bother [hosting events] during Covid-19. I didn’t listen. It’s important to be agile and keep moving forward,” she says. “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?”

Over the years, she has developed a thick skin and is unfazed by criticism of her direct and often blunt approach. “People say a lot of bad things about us. They say I’m not qualified. I have no finesse. I’m not nice to people,” she says. “You know what? I don’t play games because I’m too busy. I don’t compete with anyone and I tell my kids to do the same thing.”

“I prefer to have the power in my own hands because when I’m forced to do something I don’t want to do, I can’t breathe”
Tyson Yoshi

As executive director of The Garden Company, Adrian is the only child currently working in a family business. “I feel a connection [to the company] and especially to my grandfather, Cheung Tse-fong. I admire the company he built. I’ve heard stories about when the factory burnt down and how he rebuilt from scratch,” he says, referring to Garden’s 1932 fire, one of three major blazes to have struck the company in its near-100-year history. “Starting is hard, but restarting after you lose everything? Now that’s incredible.” Adrian studied law at the University of Cambridge, and worked in the field—first in London then Hong Kong—before embarking upon a new direction in food. In 2016, his snack van concept Crunch Munch was one of 16 winners of the short-lived Hong Kong Food Truck Pilot Scheme and, later that year, he founded the traditional Cantonese restaurant Stellar House in Wan Chai.

“I think a lot of people have perceptions of what you are or what you should be doing. My parents always taught us to take pride in our work.”
Amanda Cheung

Also in the food and beverage business is Amanda, who works as an innovation strategist and project lead at Maxim’s Chinese restaurant division. In addition, she serves as managing director for FIF, and creative director and product lead for Wellwellwell, a three-part dining concept at Pacific Place. The launch, as she describes it, was “expected chaos”—exactly the kind of environment she thrives in. “I’m someone who deals well with chaos. S**t happens every day, but I’m a very positive person.”

With an undergraduate degree from Cambridge like her brother and a master’s from business school HEC Paris, Amanda was also primed to take a role in the family’s business but chose to strike out on her own. “I wanted to do my own thing first. So many people grow up and just know that they want to be a doctor or a lawyer. I never had that,” she says. As her grandparents supported her mother, Amanda was also given the freedom to explore her own path. She worked at Dior in Shanghai; in product development for men’s shoes at Louis Vuitton in Paris; and, somewhat unconventionally, had an internship at McDonald’s in IFC when she was 18. “I took out the trash, fried French fries and was even the cashier,” she says.

“My hairdresser at the time said to me: ‘Oh my God! There’s someone who looks exactly like you that works at McDonald’s’. He wouldn’t believe it was me,” she says. “I think a lot of people have perceptions of what you are or what you should be doing. My parents always taught us to take pride in our work. I spent time finding the thing that ignites my engine, and for me that was F&B.”

In October 2020, Amanda hosted the buzzy pop-up 888FatFatFat in Central for two months, serving a menu that added a contemporary twist to regional Chinese cuisine. The endeavour was a roaring success, which gave her the confidence to launch Wellwellwell a year later. “I’ve always wanted to celebrate Chinese food culture and make it more accessible,” she says. The first concept, Auntie Āyi, opened in November 2021 and presented Cantonese classics like sesame candy chicken and stuffed crab claws. The overall theme is a celebration of home kitchens and a “tribute” to the ma jies, or domestic workers, who run them. She says, “Food connects everyone. I want to give people that feeling of warmth and the comfort of home.”

Ong is proud not only of her children’s achievements, but their closeness as a family. “I don’t think my parents and I were as close as I am with my own kids. It was a different era,” she says, while Amanda adds, “Like every family, we have heated discussions, but there’s a lot of love and respect. It’s great that we have a diversity of opinion. It makes us stronger.”

Though the family all live together, Adrian admitted that their careers keep them from spending as much quality time with each other as they’d like. “When we were younger, we were always together because our parents encouraged us to be. Today when we meet, we see how we can collaborate work-wise,” he says. “We’re at an age where we don’t need to interact as much, but it’s nice to know that we’re always there for each other.” Amid jam-packed work schedules, the family cherishes quality time together, including (pre-Covid) annual holidays, but especially dinners on Sundays. “It’s so important that we keep this tradition alive,” Adrian adds.

Michelle Ong has built an empire to be proud of, but it’s moments like these that make it all worthwhile. She says, “For me, family comes first. If my kids are OK, I’m happy.”

NOW READ:

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