CH'NG POH TIONG talks to Cherise Mouiex, the first lady of Pomerol, about her distinguished Chinese roots, her love of art and her marriage to Christian
CH’NG POH TIONG talks to Cherise Mouiex, the first lady of Pomerol, about her distinguished Chinese roots, her love of art and her marriage to Christian
Decanter Magazine, August 2000
‘I am a foodie and very typically Chinese where food is concerned,’ Cherise Moueix confesses, before adding with a warm smile, ‘I love spicy food and pork and duck, and when I am having Szechuan dishes, for example, I would be pairing them with Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer from Alsace, from the House of Trimbach.’
There are several old, noble French families in Libourne, the town that serves as the wine centre of the Right Bank in Bordeaux, including of course Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. What is less known is the fact that one inhabitant comes from equally distinguished Chinese roots.
Cherise Mouiex, née Chen, is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Viceroy Lee Han Chang, tutor to the ill-fated Emperor Guangxu (1875–1908) of the Qing Dynasty. Viceroy Lee’s brother, Lee Hung Chang, was once the Chinese prime minister.
Although Guangxu’s reign officially lasted for 33 years, real power was wielded behind the dragon throne by the ruthless Empress Dowager Cixi. As a child, Guangxu, who suffered from chronic lung trouble, was so terrified of Cixi that upon hearing her approach he would run to his tutor.
It would seem that Viceroy Lee Han Chang was not only a comfort to the future emperor but also taught him well, for Guangxu is remembered as a conscientious ruler. Indeed, in 1898 he tried to modernise Chinese education and eradicate corruption with a series of reforms, only to be thwarted by Cixi. Consequently, he was put under virtual house arrest in his quarters in the Summer Palace until his death, at only 37, in 1908. We shall never know what course Chinese history would have taken had Guangxu’s reforms been successful.
Cherise Chen first encountered her future husband, Christian Mouiex, eight years ago. She recalls: ‘We first met in Paris. I was then director of an art gallery and, one fine day, this tall Frenchman walked in and asked a few questions about some American artists that he was not familiar with. In the course of our conversation, I, in turn, asked about some French artists I wasn’t too knowledgeable about.’
That was back in the October 1992, which was not, it turned out, a very good year for Pomerol wine. But it was a brilliant one for Pomerol’s most famous son, Christian Moueix, and Cherise Chen.
The two discovered they shared common passions for the arts, architecture and Champagne (on a daily basis) and, finally, at the end of 1994, they tied the knot, helped by silky Champagne bubbles and velvety Pomerol wine.
‘I was born in America, although both my parents were from mainland China. I still have relations, on my mother, Clara Koo-Chen’s side, in Beijing although she left in 1946,’ Cherise says.
Herself born outside China, Cherise’s extended family was to be found all over the world. Her paternal grandfather, Chen Chieh, lived many years in Germany as Chinese ambassador. On her mother’s side, grandfather Koo Yee Chun, also known as Y C Koo, was part of the nationalist Chinese delegation that attended the 1944 Bretton Woods talks in the USA, which set up the International Monetary Fund. Y C Koo is remembered as a distinguished economist; for 13 years, from 1953 to 1966, he was Treasurer of the IMF.
Cherise Moueix is clearly sincerely shy when talk turns to her remarkable family. Meanwhile, her husband, Christian, who sits an attentive arm’s length away, is all beaming pride as he encourages his wife to bring out the family album of black and white pictures of her ancestors.
The two appear devoted to each other, sharing a genuine admiration for each other. Their house, ‘Les Roseaux’, just outside Libourne, is filled with artwork, along with much intelligent conversation.
Just as her ancestors possessed a strong sense of public service, Cherise Moueix feels the strong pull of family and Chinese culture. Curiously enough, she came to the latter conclusion when she found herself living in France. ‘I remember when I was first in this country that I called my mother in America and told her that “I have discovered that I am Chinese”. My mother asked “How?” and I said, “because the French and the Chinese have so much in common. The family is central to both our cultures and both cultures are very traditional.” Maybe that’s why they call Paris “the City of Light”.’ It certainly helped to light two peoples’ lives one autumn evening eight years ago.
Written by CH’NG POH TIONG