BEIJING CAPITAL INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
September 9, 2012, 7:45 p .m.
“Wait a minute—I’m in first class. Take me to first class,” Edison Cheng said contemptuously to the flight attendant escorting him to his seat.
“This is first class, Mr. Cheng,” the man in the crisp navy uniform informed him.
“But where are the cabins?” Eddie asked, still confused.
“Mr. Cheng, I’m afraid British Airways does not have private cabins in first class.* But if you’d allow me to show you some of the special features of your seat—”
“No, no, that’s fine.” Eddie tossed his ostrich leather briefcase onto the seat like a petulant schoolboy. Fucky fuck—the sacrifices I have to make for the bank today! Edison Cheng, the pampered “Prince of Private Bankers”—famous in Hong Kong society pages for his bon vivant lifestyle, his dapper wardrobe, his elegant wife (Fiona), his photogenic children, and his superb lineage (his mother is Alexandra Young, of the Singapore Youngs)—was unaccustomed to such inconveniences. Five hours ago he had been interrupted during a luncheon at the Hong Kong Club, rushed aboard the company jet bound for Beijing, and then hustled onto this flight to London. It had been years since he had suffered the indignity of flying commercial, but Mrs. Bao was on this godforsaken plane, and Mrs. Bao needed to be accommodated.
But where exactly was the lady? Eddie expected to find her seated nearby, but the chief purser informed him that there was no such person by that name in the cabin.
“No, no, she’s supposed to be here. Can you check the flight manifest or something?” Eddie demanded.
Minutes later, Eddie found himself being led to row 37, seat E of the aircraft—economy class—where a petite woman in a white vicuna turtleneck and gray flannel slacks sat sandwiched between two passengers.
“Mrs. Bao? Bao Shaoyen?” Eddie inquired in Mandarin.
The woman looked up and smiled wanly. ”Are you Mr. Cheng?” “Yes. So glad to meet you, but I’m sorry we had to meet like this.”
Eddie smiled in relief. He had spent the past eight years managing the Bao family’s offshore accounts, but they were such a secretive lot, he had never met any of them until today. Even though she looked rather tired at the moment, Bao Shaoyen was much prettier than he had imagined. With alabaster skin, large eyes that slanted upward at the edges, and high cheekbones accentuated by the way she wore her jet-black hair—pulled into a tight, low ponytail—she did not look old enough to have a son in grad school.
“Why are you seated here? Was there some mix-up?” Eddie asked urgently.
“No, I always fly economy class,” Mrs. Bao replied.
Eddie couldn’t hide his look of surprise. Mrs. Bao’s husband, Bao Gaoliang, was one of Beijing’s top politicians, and what’s more, he had inherited one of China’s biggest pharmaceutical firms. The Baos weren’t just one of his regular clients; they were his ultra-high-net-worth clients. “Only my son flies first class,” Bao Shaoyen explained, catching Eddie’s look. “Carlton can eat all the fancy Western food and, being a student under so much pressure, he needs all the rest he can get. But for me, it’s not worth it. I don’t touch airplane food, and I can never sleep on these long flights anyway.”
Eddie had to resist the urge to roll his eyes. Typical Mainlanders! They lavished every penny on their Little Emperor and suffered in silence. Well, look where that got them. Twenty-three-year-old Carlton Bao was supposed to be at Cambridge finishing his master’s dissertation, but had instead spent the previous evening doing his best Prince Harry impersonation—running up a £38,ooo bar tab at half a dozen London nightspots, wrecking his brand-new Ferrari, destroying public property, and almost getting himself killed. And that wasn’t even the worst of it. The worst of it Eddie had been explicitly instructed not to reveal to Bao Shaoyen.
Eddie faced a conundrum. He urgently needed to go over the plans with Mrs. Bao, but he would sooner endure a colonoscopy than spend the next eleven hours slumming it in coach. God in heaven, what if someone recognized him? A picture of Edison Cheng crammed into an economy-class seat would go viral within seconds. Yet Eddie grudgingly realized that it would be unseemly for one of his bank’s most important clients to remain here in steerage while he was up front, stretched out on a flatbed recliner, sipping twenty-year-old cognac. He eyed the spiky-haired youth slouching dangerously close to Mrs. Bao on one side, and the elderly woman clipping her nails into the air sickness bag on her other side, a solution springing to mind.
Lowering his voice, Eddie said, “Mrs. Bao, I would of course be happy to join you in this cabin, but as there are some highly confidential matters we need to discuss, would you allow me to arrange a seat for you up front? I’m certain the bank would insist that I upgrade you to first class—at our expense, of course—and we will be able to talk much more privately there.”
“Well, I suppose—if the bank insists,” Bao Shaoyen replied a little hesitantly.
After takeoff, when aperitifs had been served and they were both comfortably ensconced in the sumptuous, pod-like seats facing each other, Eddie wasted no time updating his client.
“Mrs. Bao, I was in contact with London just before boarding. Your son has been stabilized. The surgery to repair his punctured spleen was completely successful, and now the orthopedic team can take over.”
“Oh thank all the gods.” Bao Shaoyen sighed, easing back in her seat for the first time.
“We’ve already lined up the top reconstructive plastic surgeon in London—Dr. Peter Ashley—and he will be in the operating room alongside the orthopedic team attending to your son.”
“My poor boy,” Bao Shaoyen said, her eyes getting moist. “Your son was very lucky.”
“And the British girl?”
“The girl is still in surgery. But I’m sure she will pull through just fine,” Eddie said, putting on his peppiest smile.
Barely thirty minutes earlier, Eddie had been on another plane parked in a private hangar at Beijing Capital International Airport, taking in the grim details during a hastily arranged crisis-management meeting with Mr. Tin, the gray-haired head of security for the Bao family, and Nigel Tomlinson, his bank’s Asia chief The two men had climbed aboard the Learjet as soon as it landed, huddling over Nigel’s laptop while an associate in London gave the latest update via secure-feed video conference.
“Carlton is out of surgery now. He was quite a bit banged up, but being in the driver’s seat with his airbag and everything, he actually suffered the least injuries. But with the English girl, it’s touch and go—she’s still in a coma, and they’ve relieved the swelling in the brain, but that’s all they can do for now.”
”And the other girl?” Mr. Tin asked, squinting at the small pixelated pop-up window.
“We’re told she died on impact.”
Nigel sighed. ”And she was Chinese?” “We believe so, sir.”
Eddie shook his head. “What a fucky, fucky mess. We need to track down the next of kin immediately, before they are contacted by the authorities.”
“How do you even fit three people into a Ferrari?” Nigel asked.
Mr. Tin twirled his phone nervously on the lacquered walnut console. “Carlton Bao’s father is on a state visit to Canada with the premier of China, and nothing must interrupt him. My orders from Mrs. Bao are that no hint of any scandal must ever reach his ears. He must never know about the dead girl. Do you understand? There is too much at stake—given his political position—and it is an especially sensitive time with the big once in-a-decade changeover in party leadership happening right now.”
“Of course, of course,” Nigel assured him. “We will say that the white girl was his girlfriend. As far as the father is concerned, there was only one girl in the car.”
“Why does Mr. Bao even need to know about the white girl? Don’t worry, Mr. Tin. I have handled much worse dealing with some of those sheikhs’ children,” Eddie boasted.
Nigel shot Eddie a warning glare. The bank prided itself on the utmost discretion, and here was his associate blabbing away about other clients.
“We have a tactical response team in place in London that I am personally directing, and I can assure you we will do everything to contain this,” Nigel said, before turning to Eddie. “How much do you think it will take to keep Fleet Street quiet?”
Eddie inhaled deeply, trying to do some quick calculations. “It’s not just the press. The policemen, the ambulance drivers, the hospital staff, the families. There’s going to be an assload of people to shut up. I would suggest ten million pounds for starters.”
“Well, the minute you land in London, you need to take Mrs. Bao straight to the office. We need her to sign off on the withdrawal before you take her to the hospital to see her son. I’m just wondering what we should say if Mr. Bao asks us why we needed so much,” Nigel pondered.
“Just say the girl needed some new organs,” Mr. Tin suggested.
“We can also say we needed to pay the boutique,” Eddie added. “Those Jimmy Choos are bloody pricey, you know.”
2 HYDE PARK
London, September 10, 2012
Eleanor Young sipped on her morning tea, crafting her little white lie. She was holidaying in London with three of her closest friends—Lorena Lim, Nadine Shaw, and Daisy Foo—and after two days of being with the ladies nonstop, she desperately needed a few hours on her own. The trip was a much-needed distraction for all of them—Lorena was recovering from a Botox allergy scare, Daisy had gotten into yet another fight with her daughter-in-law over the choice of kindergartens for her grandchildren, and Eleanor herself was depressed that her son, Nicky, had not spoken to her for more than two years. And Nadine—well, Nadine was appalled by the state of her daughter’s brand-new apartment.
“Alamaaaaaaak! Fifty million dollars and I can’t even flush the toilet!” Nadine screeched as she entered the breakfast room.
“What do you expect, when everything is so bloody high-tech?” Lorena laughed. “Did the toilet at least help you suay kah-cherng?”**
“No, lah! I waved and waved at all the stupid sensors but nothing happened!” Feeling defeated, Nadine plopped down into an ultramodern chair that appeared to be constructed out of a tangled pile of red velvet ropes.
“I don’t want to criticize, but I think this apartment of your daughter’s is not only hideously modern, it’s hideously overpriced,” Daisy commented between bites of toast topped with pork floss.
”Aiyah, she’s paying for the name and the location, nothing more,” Eleanor sniffed. “Personally, I would have chosen a unit with a nice view of Hyde Park, rather than the view facing Harvey Nichols.”
“You know my Francesca, lah! She could care less about the park she wants to fall asleep staring at her favorite department store! Thank God she finally married someone who can pay her overdraft.” Nadine sighed.
The ladies kept quiet. Things hadn’t been easy for Nadine ever since her father-in-law, Sir Ronald Shaw, woke up from a six-year coma and turned off the money spigot on his family’s free spending. Her profligate daughter, Francesca (once voted one of the Fifty Best Dressed Women by Singapore Tattle ), did not respond well to being put on a clothing budget, and decided that her best solution was to embark on a brazen affair with Roderick Liang (of the Liang Finance Group Liangs), who had only just married Lauren Lee. Singapore’s social set was scandalized, and Lauren’s grandmother, the formidable Mrs. Lee Yong Chien, retaliated by making sure every old-guard family in Southeast Asia shut their doors firmly on the Shaws and the Liangs. In the end, a severely chastened Roderick chose to crawl back to his wife rather than run off with Francesca.
Finding herself a social pariah, Francesca fled to England and quickly landed on her feet by marrying “some Iranian Jew with half a billion dollars.”*** Since moving into 2 Hyde Park, the obscenely expensive luxury condominium backed by the Qatari royal family, she was finally on speaking terms with her mother again. Naturally, this gave the ladies an excuse to visit the newlyweds, but of course they just wanted to check out the much-publicized apartment and, more important, have a free place to stay.****
As the women discussed the day’s shopping agenda, Eleanor launched into her white lie. “I can’t go shopping this morning—I’m meeting those boooring Shangs for breakfast. I need to see them at least once while I am here, or else they will be terribly insulted.”
“You shouldn’t have told them you were coming,” Daisy chided. “Alamak, you know that Cassandra Shang will find out sooner or later!”
“It’s like she has some special radar, and if she knew I was in England and didn’t pay my respects to her parents, I would never hear the end of it. What to do, lah? This is the curse of being married to the Youngs,” Eleanor said, pretending to bemoan her situation. In reality, even though she had been married to Philip Young for more than three decades, his cousins—“the Imperial Shangs,” as they were known to all—had never extended her any courtesies. If Philip had come with her, they would surely have been invited to the Shangs’ palatial estate in Surrey, or at the very least to dinner in town, but whenever Eleanor came to England on her own, the Shangs remained as silent as tombs.
Of course, Eleanor had long since given up trying to fit in with her husband’s snobbish, insular clan, but lying about the Shangs was the only way to stop her girlfriends from prying too much. If she was seeing anyone else, her kay poh***** friends might surely want to tag along, but the mere mention of the Shangs intimidated them from asking too many questions.
While the ladies decided to spend the morning sampling all the free gourmet delicacies at Harrods’ famed Food Halls, Eleanor, discreetly dressed in a chic camel-colored Akris pantsuit, racing green MaxMara swing coat, and her signature gold-rimmed Cutler and Gross sunglasses,****** left the swanky building on Knightsbridge and walked two blocks east to the Berkeley hotel, where a silver Jaguar XJL parked in front of a row of perfectly round topiaries awaited her. Still paranoid that her friends might have followed her, Eleanor glanced around quickly before getting into the sedan and being whisked off.
At Connaught Street in Mayfair, Eleanor emerged in front of a smart row of townhouses. Nothing about the red-and-white-brick Georgian façade or the glossy black door hinted at what awaited beyond. She pressed the intercom button, and a voice responded almost immediately: “May I help you?”
* Unfortunately for Eddie, only Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Singapore Airlines have private cabins aboard their Airbus A380s. Emirates even has two Shower Spa bathrooms with sumptuous shower stalls for first-class travelers. (Mile High Club members take note.)
** Hokkien for “Wash your bottom.”
*** According to Cassandra Shang aka “Radio One Asia.”
**** Women of Eleanor’s background would rather camp out six to a room or sleep on the floor of anyone they remotely know than spend money on hotels. These are the same women who wouldn’t blink at shelling out $9o,ooo on a South Sea pearl “trinket” while on holiday.
***** Hokkien for “nosy” or “meddlesome.”
****** Eleanor, who normally didn’t wear pricey designer clothes and made a point of bragging that she “started getting brand-name fatigue back in the seventies,” kept a few choice pieces reserved specifically for special occasions like today.
Excerpted from China Rich Girlfriend. Copyright © 2015 Kevin Kwan. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company, Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Lainey Lui on China Rich Girlfriend and Chinese Lit
Excerpt: Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
Excerpt: Killing Monica by Candace Bushnell
Excerpt: Listen to the Squawking Chicken by Elaine Lui