By Beh Lih Yi
HONG KONG, March 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Hong Kong property tycoon Cecil Chao offered $65 million to any man who could win over his lesbian daughter and make her straight, he inadvertently laid the ground for her to become one of Asia's most prominent gay rights campaigners.
The bizarre reward in 2012 grabbed international headlines and his daughter, Gigi Chao, was bombarded with thousands of marriage proposals from across the world – from war veterans to a body double of George Clooney in a sports movie.
It was the first time the issue of acceptance of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community had played out in such high-profile way in Hong Kong – a city modern in many ways but where social attitudes remain conservative.
"I am glad it happened," Gigi Chao told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the office of her property firm is housed in Hong Kong's third-tallest skyscraper overlooking the city's harbour.
"It has been able to put a comic spin on a topic that is often marred by a lot of tragedies and taboos," said the 38-year-old, wearing a sparkly rainbow-coloured jacket.
The elder Chao - whose property empire invests in Hong Kong, China and Malaysia - put the $65 million "marriage bounty" on his daughter's head after she entered into a civil partnership with her girlfriend in France in early 2012.
After failing to find any suitors, the 81-year-old billionaire doubled the offer to HK$1 billion ($127 million) in 2014.
This prompted Chao to pen an open letter published in Hong Kong newspapers which said: "Dear daddy, you must accept I'm a lesbian" and urged him to treat her partner like a "normal, dignified human being".
Such a public feud in a well-known family would have been remarkable anywhere but was particularly unusual in Asia when no country in the region at that time recognised same-sex marriage.
It was only last year that the Taiwan's constitutional court paved the way for the island to become the first place in Asia with gay marriage after it ruled in favour of same-sex unions.
Today Chao is not only the heir to her father's property business and one of Hong Kong's richest women, she is also the most recognisable face campaigning for LGBT rights in the city.
Homosexuality has been decriminalised since 1991 in Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The city has an annual pride parade and lively gay scene.
But despite the city enjoying freedom of speech and assembly, it does not recognise same-sex marriage and campaigners say LGBT people still face widespread discrimination and often come under family pressure to marry and have children.
Transgender people are recognised if they have undergone sex reassignment surgery but activists have been lobbying to remove this requirement.
A proposal to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation has been under discussion in the city's legislature, the Legislative Council (LegCo), but there is no clear indication whether it will be adopted.
"It is disappointing in that LegCo doesn't have the forward vision or the courage to put something forward like this in fear of offending the traditional groups," Chao said.
But where the government has failed, is where Chao believes businesses can step in to take the lead.
The businesswoman has been using her influence in high society to forge a coalition of allies to mobilise support.
"What we found to be most effective is to engage top executives and allow them to see how inclusion, diversity and equality is something they should, and they shall, stand for and let it cascade down the organisation," she said.
"There are a lot of notable organisations which have been doing that. Engaging the government is more difficult."
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There have been other signs of growing acceptance.
Hong Kong is set to become the host of the 2022 Gay Games, a sports and cultural event dubbed the "Gay Olympics", after fighting off bids from cities in the United States and Mexico.
In a rare victory, a Hong Kong court last year ruled that a British lesbian whose partner worked in the city should receive a spousal visa.
The charity Big Love Alliance - of which Chao is a founding member - organises an annual Pink Dot gathering to campaign for LGBT rights and it has attracted sponsorship from embassies and investment banks.
Chao also works with the United Nations on LGBT rights and became the first Asian to be named as the top LGBT executive on an annual OUTstanding list compiled by the Financial Times which ranks LGBT role models in business.
A qualified helicopter pilot, Chao said the marriage bounty episode did not tarnish her ties with her father - who like her also shares a passion of flying.
"You build a much stronger bond in these relationships after you have been able to live your full self, be a full person and live as an honest person in front of your mum and dad," she said.
"It is an important process to go through although in the short term it does jolt them into a bit of shock."
But in a signal that there is still a long way to go for same-sex marriage in Hong Kong, Chao said she and her partner have had to temporarily put aside the idea of having children.
"Even for people like me - who many perceive as having all the resources in the world to do whatever I want in some ways - it is very difficult," she said.
"It is not easy because you can't do it in Hong Kong or anywhere else in Asia."
($1 = 7.8490 Hong Kong dollars) (Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith