Madame Wang enters the room at some velocity. The first thing I notice are her super-large eyebrows, arched like croquet hoops above her heavily made-up eyelids. Then I take in her fashionable haircut, short with a jagged fringe. Her hair is dyed dark auburn, edged with little tufts of smoky grey. Next I register her Mandarin-collared qipao in leopard-skin print, slit to the thigh. I know it is a qipao because she later tells me emphatically in her raspy, helium-filled voice: “I always wear my Chinese dress. I am not Japanese. This is a Chinese qipao. It is not a kimono.” Over it is a black, cowl-neck vest. The outfit is finished off – if that’s the word – with a chunky lord-mayor’s-style neck chain.
Normally when journalists write about what women are wearing, they get letters complaining that they would never discuss men in the same way. That may be true. But the 70-year-old Madame Wang is the owner of Lanvin, the oldest surviving French fashion house, which she bought in 2001 and helped revive. To talk about what she is wearing seems appropriate, even essential. For the record, I am dressed in a grey suit, slightly rumpled after two cramped flights, one overnight, and a floral-patterned shirt by Marks and Spencer.
We are in Taipei, where Shaw-Lan Wang was brought up after moving to Taiwan from mainland China at the age of seven. Specifically, we are in a 34th-floor dining room in the luxurious surroundings of the Taipei World Trade Center Club. I had arrived early and been ushered into the private room by a posse of women in grey skirt-suits. In the room, small but perfectly appointed, is a round table with a white tablecloth already set for two.
After she catches her breath, Madame Wang, as she refers to herself, reaches into her mouth to remove a piece of gum. She secretes the little green ball in her handbag, Lanvin presumably. Wang rarely gives interviews. She seems unsure as to how this one came about. “How did you get in touch? Through my PR in Paris?” she asks. I am not entirely sure either, since the encounter was also arranged for me. Yet somehow here we are, thrown together in this little windowless room of a Taipei skyscraper.
Madame Wang was born in 1941, the Year of the Snake. Although her family was from the coastal province of Zhejiang, she started out life in Chongqing, the wartime capital after the fall of Nanjing to the Japanese. Her father, a colonel in the army of Chiang Kai-shek, the Guomindang leader, came to Taiwan in 1947. Two years later Chiang himself led a full-scale retreat to the island after being routed by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces.
In 1951, her father founded the United Daily News, a staunch supporter of the Guomindang authoritarian government. Wang, who studied journalism in Taipei, worked as a reporter on the paper. She married an air force pilot and went to live in Switzerland with her husband, where she spent 12 to 15 years. She doesn’t remember exactly. One day, she received a phone call from her father asking her to return to Taiwan and run the paper. “I could not refuse.”
“What do you like to eat? You like kitchen or beef?” she asks. I take the former to mean chicken. Madame Wang’s English, spoken choppily and with the hint of a French accent, is less than perfect, though it is leagues ahead of my terrible Chinese. She speaks with little concession to English grammar, omitting pronouns, tenses and even verbs and nouns. Gaps are filled with the most splendid mimes. Over the course of lunch, she acts out blind, shortsighted, dizzy, happy, drunk, dead, injured, crazy, terrified and a few other things besides. Much is achieved through facial expression. On several occasions, in place of saying “good”, she jabs her upturned thumb in my direction. Once, in somewhat less generous mood, she brings her hands together and twists as if strangling a chicken.
She orders several dishes. The waitress returns with succulent cold cuts of chicken, pork and duck. As Madame Wang takes a bite of the accompanying kimchee, I ask how her newspaper is surviving competition with the internet. “It’s not enjoyable to get information from the internet,” she says. “A good book can touch your heart. But I have never had anything touch my heart on the internet.” But has the internet touched her sales? How is the paper faring in the face of online competition? “The quality of the press is going down all around the world,” she persists. “People have lost respect for the press.”