Her extensive contribution to charitable causes was recently honoured at a glittering international gala, but Cathy Lee generally eschews the limelight. The philanthropist talks to Marianna Cerini about the important things in life

‘‘I'm only going to take seven minutes of your time,” Cathy Lee said as she took to the stage at Shaw Studios. “But let’s be clear: this isn’t for me. This is for all the people who suffer from the condition and live with it every day. Please help me to celebrate some of them here tonight,” the former model continued as she welcomed 14 people onto the stage.

The occasion was the annual amfAR gala dinner, the condition was HIV/Aids and her companions were people living with it. The reason Cathy, generally reclusive when it comes to such events, was at the international fundraiser for Aids research was to be honoured before some of the biggest names in entertainment, fashion, art and advocacy for her extensive contribution to the fight against Aids and the stigma that so often goes with it.

See also: The amfAR Gala 2018 event photos

When we meet at the Four Seasons a few days before the star-studded event, where the entertainment included performances by Kylie Minogue and Tove Lo, Cathy looks beautiful and relaxed in an oversize cardigan and casual trousers. “My uniform,” she says, with her youngest son by her side. “I like to keep things simple. Being a mum, I don’t have much time to think about what I’m going to wear. There are more important things.”

An active ambassador

Philanthropy is most certainly one of them. Over the past decade, Cathy has been at the forefront of numerous non-governmental organisations in the city, from Summerbridge Hong Kong, an educational venture that works to improve the English skills of underprivileged children, to the Chi Heng Foundation, for which she is a goodwill ambassador.

The Hong Kong-based foundation, one of the oldest children’s charities in China, focuses on youth affected by Aids and on Aids prevention campaigns across the nation. It was for her work with the Chi Heng Foundation that Cathy was to be honoured at the amfAR gala.

“It’s thrilling, really,” she says when I ask how she feels about the public recognition of her contribution. “I really admire amfAR, but I’m also so humbled to be shining some light on the work the foundation has been doing. It’s our 20th anniversary this year, which makes it all the more meaningful. I’ve always been drawn to this particular cause. Even more so over the years as people have kept telling me to join less ‘risky’ philanthropic efforts. Reactions like that have only made me more aware of how important organisations like Chi Heng are—how essential it is to fight the misconceptions and stigma that still surround Aids.”

See also: Flashes of Brilliance with Cathy Lee

With the NGO, she has travelled extensively throughout China, visiting poverty-stricken families whose members, for example, have become infected with HIV, the virus that causes Aids, from poorly sterilised needles when they have sold their blood.

She has raised funds—“although you’d be shocked to see how fast potential sponsors and donors retreat when you drop the word Aids”—and worked to build safe networks for young people with HIV who often find themselves shunned by their village community.

With husband Martin, the vice-chairman of Henderson Land Group, she has made generous contributions to help HIV-affected teenagers pursue higher education. She has also been engaged with Save the Children, which she joined as the first Asian patron two years ago. The NGO runs programmes to empower and educate ethnic minority girls and women to help them have healthy, safe and dignified livelihoods.

Privilege and values

“I’m aware of what lucky, privileged lives we lead,” Cathy says. “Giving something back, trying to make a change, to impact others in positive ways, it’s the bare minimum we can do.” It’s also what she’s striving to teach her own children, Leanna, 10, Hayley, 8, Triston, 6, and Preston, 2. “I am quite a hands-on mum. So is Martin as a dad. As parents, we have the responsibility to teach our kids what’s right and what’s wrong, ethics, compassion and moral values. And it’s essential to start when they’re young.”

To that end, Cathy has been taking her children on her charity trips abroad. Hayley accompanied her to Nepal after the 2015 earthquake, and Leanna, Hayley and Triston recently joined her on a trip to Laos. “We were in villages where children their age wouldn’t even have shoes. It changed their whole perspective on the world, and that’s so important to me. I want to keep taking them with me. I want them to become grounded, involved individuals.”

See also: The Save The Children 2017 Gala Dinner

Beyond that, Cathy won’t talk about her family. She’s exceptionally private and reserved (she and Martin even married in Australia to escape media attention), and prefers to keep the focus on the organisations she supports.

“Charity is what drives me most,” Cathy says. “I’m quite a shy person. Domestic, too—I love just staying at home with the kids. I don’t do red-carpet events, nor talk about myself much in a public way, unless it’s to support the causes I believe in. And still, then, I rather the attention be on the issues we’re tackling than on me.” She made a rare exception in 2012, when she attended the Hong Kong Tatler Ball and was awarded the Humanitarian Award for her charitable efforts.

Besides that, the only other way she has “bared” herself publicly has been through two of her other passions, art and precious stones. Cathy studied gemmology at the Gemological Institute of America and over the years has organised fundraisers and auctions for her charities, and has personally donated pieces from her own extensive collection.

“All of my jewellery holds a personal meaning,” she says. “Every piece reminds me of a special time in my life, a person, a place. They trigger some of my most cherished memories. Putting some up for a good cause has been something I have truly enjoyed.”

Collaborating with Cartier

Above all, she loves Cartier. “I always have, particularly their vintage pieces and superb craftsmanship. I’ve had a long relationship with them. But I also really respect how involved they have been with humanitarian causes, corporate social responsibility and altruistic missions [the maison established the Cartier Charitable Foundation in 2012, an autonomous arm that seeks to improve the livelihoods of the most vulnerable across the globe]. More brands should follow their example.”

And more wealthy individuals should follow hers. “People have different values, which I respect” she says, modestly. “As far as I’m concerned, I just feel that material things can disappear. Including my beloved jewellery,” she jokes. “But concrete actions and efforts to make things better, to find a cure, to help children, those will stay. That’s the ethos I live my life by.”

And that’s what the guests took away from the speech Cathy gave when she received amfAR’s Award for Courage in March. “The true reward is in the lives we are able to touch,” she summed up before returning to her seat. The thunderous applause affirmed that sentiment beautifully.

See also: Cathy Lee's Tatler 500 List Profile


Photography: Chen Man
Styling: Justine Lee
Stylist's Assistant: Rosana Lai
Hair: Yoyo Hui at Hair Culture
Makeup: Gary Chung at Gary Chung Image Studio
Prop Stylist: Esther van Wijck
Bar stool: Fasem, available at Casa Capriz
Lounge chair: BoConcept