More than 30 years on from starring in a David Bowie music video and joining him on the road for a European tour, Kiwi restaurateur Geeling Ng is still recognised as ‘Bowie’s China Girl’.
“Isn’t that unbelievable? It is bizarre – that was in 1983!” exclaims the now 55-year-old. In fact, it is not surprising people recognise her. Geeling, who now uses the Anglicised surname Ching, has aged very little in three decades – a feat she puts down to good genes. “My mother is 90 and only stopped playing tennis five years ago,” she says.
Like mother, like daughter, Geeling is a bundle of energy – she’s run several marathons, including New York and Paris, and is in training for next month’s Auckland half marathon. Her work also keeps her on her toes. She is currently in the process of opening a yet-to-be-named restaurant in Auckland’s trendy Britomart, the second new eatery she has worked on in a year. In 2014 she left her 12-year role as operations manager at Auckland’s Soul Bar to open Crew Club.
The Auckland-born model and actress started her hospitality career in cafés in Sydney in the 1980s, at about the same time she was cast in David Bowie’s China Girl music video, which changed her life forever. She had a short fling with the rock star while filming the video over a week in Sydney, and went on to join him on the European leg of his Serious Moonlight Tour.
It was just six weeks of her life, but the publicity that followed opened doors for the 23-year-old Kiwi girl, who went on to appear in French Vogue, and star in the much-loved Kiwi TV series Gloss and Australian film Mad Max 3 with Tina Turner and Mel Gibson. She had moved back to New Zealand for Gloss with her then husband, actor Mark Ferguson, when she was picked up for Kiwi film Illustrious Energy in 1988. Several small TV roles followed.
Geeling, who divorced from Mark in the mid 1990s, has not had children. “From an early age I knew I wasn’t going to,” she says. “I don’t appear to have many intrinsic maternal instincts!”
For more than two decades her main focus has been her hospitality career, but when she received a call from Kiwi cult film-maker David Blyth asking her to star in his 2013 movie Ghost Bride, she didn’t hesitate. “I have admired David since the 1980s; he was one of my heroes. I read for the part of the mother, but he saw into my dark soul and said, ‘Oh no, you need to play the evil conniving witch!’” she says with a laugh.
The experience was a positive one for Geeling, but she says hospitality remains her priority. “Given the opportunity, I will always dabble in acting, but my real skill and love is hospitality.” And she says the skills she learned acting and modelling have all been transferable to the restaurant floor. “I say to staff, ‘When you walk out here, you leave all of your problems backstage and your primary job is to put on a great show, look after your audience and make sure they are having a nice time.’ Generally, if you can bring a great time to the floor, then that rubs off on the customers.”
Geeling never trained formally as an actress but says her mother helped by putting her in speech and drama classes as a young girl. “It was probably quite a good grounding,” she explains. “I was a confident speaker and could learn scripts.”
Geeling believes she has set an alternative example for young Chinese girls in New Zealand. “I haven’t followed traditional paths,” she says thoughtfully. “I was a straight-A student and my mother was sure I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer, but I dropped out of school in sixth form and became a model.
“There was – and still is – a lot of expectation that Chinese girls become doctors or lawyers, and I have spoken to young Asian women who have said, ‘When you became a model and an actor and went into restaurants I realised I didn’t have to do tertiary education – I could be successful in other ways.’”
Words by: Nicola Russell
Photos by: Mike Rooke