Geeling Ng is the sort of person you notice as soon as she enters a room. There's a distinct lull in the café chat as she strides across to meet me. Approaching 60, she is still the willowy China Girl of the David Bowie video that made her famous.
She's wearing a mustard rain jacket over an elegant hot-pink knit dress that shows her superbly toned figure to perfection. The effect is finished by stylish mirrored sunglasses that give her that slightly mysterious, distant look of the professional model. The pink lipstick matches her dress perfectly and her dark hair is fashionably long and wavy.
We order green tea. She's not a coffee drinker – she says it makes her feel dreadful.
Geeling has lived a rich and varied life. "I've been hugely lucky," she says. "We're born with a giant jar of jellybeans; some people take them out one by one – I took mine out in big spoonfuls."
Geeling Ng, or the anglicised Ching, as she now prefers to be called, is probably best known as one of the doyennes of the flourishing Auckland restaurant industry. Hers is the smiling face that's greeted diners and managed staff for more than 30 years in venues that are among the best in the business, from cosmopolitan Cin Cin, to the legendary Soul Bar on Auckland's Viaduct.
She is known for her ability to make diners feel welcome and valued, comfortable and special – no small feat when dealing with the public.
She was born Gillian Ching to Betty and Robert Ching in Auckland in 1960. Her sister, Linda, is six years older.
The family lived above their fruit and vegetable shop in the heart of Mount Roskill. Robert had emigrated from China when he was 15. He was a diligent worker; his shop was open six days a week and Geeling is hard pressed to remember him having time off to relax.
"Mum was a superwoman – she ran the shop, sewed for us kids, she'd make us dresses. My favourite was a pink shift. The top was light pink, the bottom dark pink and there was an appliquéd donkey in the middle; his basket was a pocket."
Betty was also a keen cook. She subscribed to the Cordon Bleu magazine and was, Geeling remembers, feeding her daughters watermelon and strawberries with black pepper long before it became a "thing".
It was Robert, though, who was the best Chinese cook. "He'd cook for special occasions. I can remember spending Saturdays making wontons."
Theirs was not a demonstrative family. Outward signs of affection were rare. She's thoughtful when she tells me this.
"Now, I look at the Chinese families who come to the restaurant [at the time of writing she's working at Huami in Auckland's SkyCity] and they are completely the reverse with their children. They rarely put them down, even when they're three or four. They're passed around the table. They're really focused on their children – maybe it's because of the one child policy," she muses.
The two Ching girls were largely left to their own devices. Geeling remembers the family holidaying together just once, when they went to Rotorua. Every summer though, until she was 15, she'd go camping with her aunt and uncle at Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel.
At Mount Roskill's May Road primary school, Geeling was the only Chinese person. She had no idea she was different until one day a new boy chanted "Ching Chong Chinaman" at her. "I just didn't get it," she says.She'd been brought up in a completely Anglicised household. "Mum and Dad tried sending me to a Chinese Sunday School, but all the kids there spoke Chinese at home; I felt incredibly alien."
Geeling admits to being a lazy student. At Lynfield College she drifted through her subjects with ease but had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. And then she met fashion designer Adrienne Winkelmann's brother, Greg. She was 17 at the time and he about four or five years older – "Old enough for it to be a scandal," she smiles ruefully.
He'd come to Lynfield as an adult student to pick up the subjects he needed to enter a law degree. Geeling was smitten. She left school and went to live with Greg. Her parents were horrified.
"I was seduced by the glamour of it," she admits.
"Adrienne would make us amazing clothes and we would wear them to the clubs around town." It was with Adrienne that she would do her first modelling shoots.
"I was working in a pharmacy in Queen Street. My manager there was really strict. I'm really strict. I think she was a role model for me – she gave me clear direction, she expected no nonsense, but I knew she had my back." It's very much the way Geeling operates with her staff at restaurants.
She was soon approached by fashion designers Thornton Hall to be their house model. "All my wages went on clothes."
By now the relationship with Greg had ended and she had met and moved in with musician Paul Robinson. Paul was the singer in the 1980s band Sheerlux.
"We lived in a flat with the drummer," she rolls her eyes, "and a psychiatric nurse. I became the band's unofficial lighting director. I'd sit at the desk and push a red button then a blue button. I had no idea what I was doing," she says, laughing at the craziness of it all.
"It was totally sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. I was super naive. There was lots of heroin going down and marijuana; I never smoked it. I was worried it would make me more paranoid than I already am," she laughs.
They made the move to Sydney and found themselves living in a flat above a notorious café in Kings Cross. Dean's Café was a legendary late-night haunt in the Cross. It was open until 3am. Here Geeling would begin her career in hospitality.
"Paul worked part time in the café and one day he asked if I could help because they were so busy. I started out washing dishes and ended up out front, serving tables, serving drinks and making really bad 80s coffee. I turned out to be quite good at it.
"Graham, our drummer, was the chef at the time and he taught me how to cook. I did carrot and chocolate cakes and spinach and seafood quiches and a thing called 'Fruit Thing', which was oranges, apples and bananas in a blender then frozen, like a kind of slushy. It was busy as hell. I learnt how to hustle."
And then came the call that would change her life. Geeling had found herself a Sydney model agent.
"I was the only Chinese model on their books. I was quite 'exotic'. I remember when I was 'exotic' in Auckland too; now I'm not, dammit!" she jokes.
The agency wanted to know whether she'd audition for a music video David Bowie was making. She was already a huge Bowie fan. The call left her with mixed emotions – terror and excitement. The excitement won and she found herself in a room full of gorgeous Chinese girls. The star was there with his director. They asked if she could stand next to David and then if she could go and remove her make-up (she'd had it specially done for the audition). When she returned to the room she was told she had the job.
"I was completely star-struck… it was almost an out-of-body experience."
Next came the shoot itself, notorious because of the naked sex scene shot in the surf of a Sydney beach. The video was banned here because of it. (She tells me her mother phoned to ask why it was banned. "I said, 'Gee I don't know...")
Needless to say, it wasn't in the least romantic. "We were up at 3am. It was dark and freezing. We were completely naked."
The crew had cordoned off the beach but there were still early morning joggers craning their necks to see what was going on.
"I was so cold. The director would shout, 'Arch your back more, arch your back more.' Then he said, 'We're not getting enough water,' so we had to move down further into the surf. There was water and sand everywhere and in between takes they'd come with robes and coffee and brandy while make-up tried to get the sand off."
It definitely wasn't sexy. "Certain things happen to men's private parts in freezing temperatures," she laughs.
It was all over in a couple of hours but Geeling would spend the week with David in Sydney. He left for Europe at the end of the week and she didn't expect to hear from him again.
A week later came another phone call. It was David's PA.
"David's going on tour starting in Paris next week, do you want to come?" She did. Her thoroughly understanding partner of the time, Paul Robinson, took her to the airport and she flew business class to Paris. She fixes me with a direct look.
"To be perfectly blunt, I became a groupie."
"I spent the next six weeks on the road with David, hanging out with people like Rod Stewart and Grace Jones. It was the life of the mega famous. I realised at that point I never wanted to be that famous, having to deal with it all the time. I can see how people can go nuts. It was a real eye opener," she admits.
She saw both sides of Bowie – the star, and the father and human being. His star power, though, was immense. "It was hard to be in the same room with him and think he's ordinary. He emanated a glow."
At the end of the tour Geeling returned to Sydney and Paul picked her up at the airport, but her life would never be the same. Soon afterwards a call came from Kiwi cinematographer, Leon Narbey. Would she audition for the film Illustrious Energy and, while she was at it, she may as well audition for a new television series, Gloss. She got both parts and so began her acting career.
Gloss would run for two seasons. She met and married her husband Mark Ferguson while shooting the show. The marriage was short-lived, however, and Geeling has been single since.
"I'm independent and extremely selfish," she tells me frankly. "I do things on my own. I have always fended for myself. I bought my own house; it's a matter of pride."
When the third series of Gloss was canned she returned to the restaurant business and, in between acting gigs, it's been her passion since. She's now looking ahead to the America's Cup defence, hoping she'll have a part to play in making that a memorable experience for punters.
She has mentored many young hospitality staff. "I'm looking for people who want to make a difference. You can't teach empathy.
I want people to care. People feel it when you don't care. I tell them it's okay to make mistakes, that's how you learn. I once dropped a whole tray of margaritas trying to weave my way through a dance floor. Another time I got [rock star] Bryan Ferry's order wrong. He's a vegetarian and I gave him sausages. You don't make those mistakes twice."
How does she maintain that enviable figure? Hard work! She runs at least three times a week and works out with weights twice a week. She's also blessed with great genes. Her mother Betty was still playing tennis at 85. She's now 93. Geeling's off to run the Buenos Aires marathon this September with her mate, broadcaster Kerre McIvor. She's already run the London and Paris marathons.
As she approaches 60 she's thinking about her old age. "Who will look after me when I'm old?" she wonders.
She has no children. "I knew at 16 I didn't want children. The idea of being in charge of another human life terrifies me. I'd much rather deal with teenagers on their first job."
She is, she says, "blessed with good health, good luck and good friends."
As for her legacy? "I hope I've made an impression on the young people I've touched… it's certainly a better legacy than being China Girl."
Does the China Girl label bother her? "Only when it's used as a weapon; with certain drunk 50-year-olds."
But it is a label that has served her well. When Auckland restaurateur Judith Tabron was setting up her restaurant, Ramses, in the 1990s, she was looking for someone special to run the place out front. It came down to two people. She was told, pick the China Girl – she'll bring you a little bit of notoriety, a bit of fame and glamour, a little bit extra."
That is pretty much the essence of Geeling.
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