Mother’s Day has always been bittersweet for Bling Empire star and producer Christine Chiu. In her first few years of marriage to Dr. Gabriel Chiu, the holiday served as a painful reminder that the couple were struggling to start a family.
“I think in my early years, Mother’s Day has been a little bit difficult, because it was confronting a lot of feelings of failure and disappointment,” she tells BAZAAR.com over the phone from Beverly Hills. As she revealed in the Netflix reality series, she was pressured by her in-laws to produce an heir—and was essentially shunned when she couldn’t. What made it harder was that she was covering up for her husband’s infertility to protect his reputation with his family.
“I always wanted to be a mom,” Chiu says. “So for almost 14 years, it was hard to have this entire day focused on something that you really, really, really wanted, but was out of your control and you could never be, and that’s what doctors had told me.” After several rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF), Chiu is now a proud mom to healthy three-year-old Gabriel, a.k.a. Baby G. “Motherhood is, for me, a long-awaited sigh of relief, but also a very urgent feeling to do more,” she says.
Chiu opened up about her difficulties getting pregnant on Bling Empire, which centers on a circle of insanely wealthy Asians and Asian-Americans in Los Angeles. A reality series boasting lavish parties, babies in designer clothes, shopping sprees in Vegas, and squabbles over high jewelry might not seem like the ideal setting to discuss deeply personal battles, but Chiu wanted it to be. The bigger goal of this glitzy reality saga, for Chiu, was to highlight aspects of the Asian experience for mainstream audiences and prompt broader discussions about topics like infertility, adoption, identity, and intimacy. And that’s what it did. “So many Asian women have reached out and said, ‘Thank you so much for sharing that part of your story, because I am, too, covering up for my husband,’” she recalls.
Chiu, a businesswoman and philanthropist, also points out that there’s more to her than her name-dropping, wig-wearing on-screen persona. “The ostentatious display of fashion, that’s not who I normally am,” she says. “I mean, I don’t walk around town in high jewelry and couture. I’m in sweats and UGGs, which I’m addicted to. But I knew it was a necessary component to make the show a hit. So I was willing to take that bullet and to kind of participate in the overly showy side of me.”
Last year, Mother’s Day looked different for Chiu. Spent under lockdown and apart from her in-laws, she quietly celebrated over high tea with her husband and baby in her backyard. In 2021, however, the holiday feels different in another way. In the wake of discriminatory attacks targeting the Asian community, she, an Asian mom to an Asian child, is pausing to take in the moment. “It definitely has stopped me in my tracks a couple of times, to reevaluate things that I like to pass on versus things that I may like to change as a young, first-generation Asian-American mother,” she says.
The protests and calls to stop Asian hate are a departure from the tradition Chiu was raised in. “Talking back is not permitted, really, in Asian culture,” she explains. It may have also helped that her privilege gave her some protection. “So that practice of holding things that frustrate us or feel unjust to us, I think, has really backfired in terms of racism.”
Chiu’s Mother’s Day celebrations this weekend remain undecided, but she’s gently nudging Dr. Chiu (and Baby G) to set something up. They might filming the next season of Bling Empire by then, too, so perhaps we’ll see the festivities on camera. Ahead, Christine Chiu talks to us about breaking taboos, Asian representation, and what’s next for Season 2.
As an Asian woman, how are you processing being a mother during this time?
If I weren't a mom right now, I think I would be equally frustrated, shocked, enraged, but I would have a different urgency to make change, because I'm seeing this as accumulation of decades of, unfortunately … redirect[ing] that anger or that energy to be quiet. Talking back is not permitted, really, in Asian culture.
So that practice of holding things that frustrate us or feel unjust to us, I think, has really backfired in terms of racism. I think it's the generations of redirecting the energy. Yes, we showed them by being really successful and by being upright citizens and doing great things in the world, but we missed the mark by not speaking out. And by not speaking out, we unfortunately allowed that racism to persist.
Now as a mom, if I don't speak out and if I don't utilize this opportunity to teach Baby G about right and wrong, and about inclusivity and racism, then he suffers from a racist future himself and generations after him. I'm really proud of the community for standing together in a big way right now.
How has it been to take in the success of Bling Empire from home?
From a producer perspective, the worldwide positive perception is overwhelming and so rewarding and gratifying. We really didn't anticipate this type of response. I participated in this project to help further Asian voices and faces and stories in mainstream media. But with the show, it's become kind of a part of pop culture conversation.
And that is just so unprecedented for an all-Asian ensemble cast, to be very organically and authentically part of American pop culture or global pop culture. In the past, usually when it comes to Asian perspectives, it's a little bit more stereotyped or carved-out conversations. So for that, we're very grateful.
As a cast member, I'm very grateful that we have a really strong group. We're on a group chat. [Even if we're not] physically together all the time, we get to experience it together, like, every second, because the chat just keeps going off, buzzing all night, every day, all the time. And we get to make fun of each other and make memes of each other. But then, we also get to encourage and support each other.
My character on the show is a very dramatic character, and I definitely wanted to bring the drama and the rivalry aspect of it for entertainment purposes. So, yes, I did get some flak for it, and it was anticipated, but I think it was worthwhile, because it's one of the factors that made the show so talked about and heavily debated and enjoyed.
When we talked previously, I asked you about the public’s comparisons between Bling Empire and Crazy Rich Asians, and whether it felt like another stereotype. And you said that you were more focused on the fact that you were being represented, rather than how you were being represented. Is that still how you feel, or has that changed?
It's the frequency and the increased visibility of Asians and Asian-Americans that I feel gives us more voice to combat injustices. I wouldn't want Bling Empire to take the credit as a leader during this time, but I do feel that with a cast of what, nine, eleven characters out there floating in pop culture with Asian faces and voices, I think that stands for something. [The community] may not relate to the characters entirely, but it does give them a sense of pride that, you know, that these Asian characters are considered, say, beautiful or have a platform to speak.
And I think most of the cast have utilized our platforms in positive ways to help raise AAPI awareness. I think that platform is the greatest byproduct of increased representation, and leveraging that platform in standing together. I mean, I grew up without any really Asian [representation]; I don't even think I watched any Bruce Lee movies. I think in my teens or college years, I watched Lucy Liu on Charlie's Angels, but I can barely remember any Asian faces on big or small screens. So just seeing people who are like yourselves, and then with social media, leveraging those platforms appropriately, I think, is helping positively during this movement.
I appreciated you opening up about your struggle with motherhood and fertility. It's still taboo for women overall, but even more so in Asian culture, which is something we often forget, because it's so swept under the rug. How did you feel discussing it on camera?
It definitely was not easy. I don't know if I would have had the strength to do it if I didn't have a happy ending, and that's the truth. I have Baby G, so as I'm opening up. I can turn around and look at him and his chubby cheeks and his little smile, and be comforted in knowing that things did turn around for us, although it took a while.
But I felt that it was necessary to tell more importantly than anything. I felt like it was my duty. It was necessary for me to share the story, because when I was going through that decade-plus of infertility, I felt very alone. And once in a blue moon, somebody would open up or pull me aside and tell me, "It's okay, you're not alone. I've been through this. If you ever need just someone to speak to or chat about any difficulties, call me."
Over the course of 10-plus years, I probably can count maybe four, three people that have done that. And even the three or four people, it helped tremendously. Especially when doctors were telling me to my face, "You will never be a mom. You will never give birth, and you will never be a mom. Just forget about that notion."
So the encouragement was tremendous in helping me fight through. I felt like I would be very selfish if I didn't use this platform to encourage the millions or tens of millions of other families undergoing the same difficulties and struggles. I felt like even if I touched one family, and one couple, it would be worthwhile. But in the process of doing so, I actually feel like it helped me. I broke through, because being an Asian woman, you're expected to hold it all together—and not only hold it all together, but to hold it inside and to have a glossy, tough exterior and to not show any signs of weakness. And I felt like in the releasing of my struggles, I got in touch with a more vulnerable side of me, and I felt like a burden was lifted off my shoulders.
First of all, congratulations on getting renewed for Season 2. Is there anything you can share about production so far?
We haven't started filming yet, but it's happening very, very, very soon. I think the cast is expanding, so the stories of existing cast members will be deepened. And with the addition of new faces, I think more stories will be added, and more struggles and triumphs and journeys will be explored. And, of course, we have to take the bling up a couple notches. Whatever emotional roller coaster that viewers went through with Season 1, I would say that is amplified and the wow factor is amplified too. I hate to stereotype, but you know, Asians are kind of overachievers. So we definitely want to put out a bigger, blingier Season 2.
We've previously documented your love for couture. What was it like experiencing couture week from home this winter?
I took a season break during COVID, because I felt like the industry could survive just fine without me for a season. But the money that I would have spent towards collecting pieces, I felt at that time there were more urgent causes, that I could redistribute those funds. So now I'm back on track.
I really miss the old-fashion way of approaching haute couture. I really miss the romance and the courting from the houses and the client. What I love most about haute couture is the fashion history and fashion education. And the very intimate involvement a client gets with the house, with the designer, with the people behind the fashion that you really unfortunately don't get with ready-to-wear. So to attend, quote-unquote couture week via Zoom is still a little, you know, not the same. I do applaud the houses that are leading by example by not having physical shows. And I still want to support them. Safety is still first.
I'd like to close off by asking, what does motherhood mean to you right now?
Motherhood is, for me, a long-awaited sigh of relief, but also a very urgent feeling to do more. It's the combination of like, "Wow, I'm finally here. I'm so excited, but then I have so much more to do." Because I think the joy and the responsibility of motherhood go hand in hand, and as a mom, I think moms are the most important people on the face of the planet, more so than politicians or any other type of leaders, because you're literally creating humans. Literally.
But also, you're framing and shaping who these people are, and you're creating generations, and you have such an opportunity to impact in such positive ways. And then, there's a lot of pressure also because, like currently, this is a great opportunity to have really serious discussions on racism. And we don't want to bypass that. We don't want to turn deaf ears and a blind eye. So there's this great sense of responsibility that is enveloping me, also with the joy of picking up poop.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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