MAY 13, 2009 The Fight for Little Sweetie's Billions Is Getting More Than a Little Weird
Feng Shui Master: I Was Her Secret Lover; Puppet Show: Don't Believe It
By JONATHAN CHENG
HONG KONG -- Lawyers began arguments this week to determine whether Tony Chan, a bartender-turned-feng shui master, will become one of the richest men in the world.
His lawyers say Mr. Chan, 49 years old, is the rightful heir to the fortune of the late Nina Wang, a billionaire whose pigtails, miniskirts and bobby socks earned her the nickname "Little Sweetie." Ms. Wang's charitable foundation is fighting his claim with, among other things, a puppet show.
It's the latest chapter in a convoluted tale of money, love, kidnapping and allegations of forged wills.
Ms. Wang died of cancer two years ago at age 69. Aside from her girlish get-ups, she was famous for successfully laying claim to the real-estate empire left by her late husband, Teddy Wang, who was kidnapped in 1990 and never heard from again -- leaving behind two purported wills of his own.
Nina Wang, one of Asia's most powerful women, in Beijing in 1998.
Fleeing humble origins in mainland China a half-century ago, Teddy and Nina Wang became property moguls, building hundreds of apartment towers, shopping malls and offices across Hong Kong, including the recently completed 90-story Nina Tower. Forbes estimated Ms. Wang's worth at $4.2 billion in 2007, though the true value of her estate isn't publicly known.
After Ms. Wang's death, the charity she helped establish was expected to take control of her fortune. At least, that's what one of her purported wills, dated 2002, says. But Mr. Chan produced a second will, dated 2006, declaring him the sole heir.
His argument rests on the idea that he wasn't merely Ms. Wang's adviser on feng shui, a complex system of beliefs about the influence of stars, geography and the location of objects on people's lives. He says he was Ms. Wang's lover for 15 years.
Mr. Chan's lawyer, Jonathan Midgley, has produced photos showing Mr. Chan cavorting with Ms. Wang. Mr. Chan frequently joined Ms. Wang for "midnight meetings," Mr. Midgley says.
"This was a long-lasting, close and affectionate relationship," Mr. Midgley said in an interview.
Ms. Wang's longtime personal assistant, Ringo Wong (who helps administer her charity) says Ms. Wang loved only her late husband, Teddy. He recently helped stage an 80-minute puppet show depicting the Wangs' "eternal love." The play's 10-day run, in an auditorium just steps from Hong Kong's harbor, ended Saturday.
"Oh, I will never stop loving you, Teddy," a wobbly, string-operated Ms. Wang cooed in one early scene, set in 1950s Shanghai.
After Hong Kong's government blocked Ms. Wang's plans to make Nina Tower the tallest building in the world (it was too close to the airport) Ms. Wang split the complex into two towers. The taller one, nicknamed Teddy Tower, was joined to the other by a sky bridge often characterized as representing a hand-holding couple.
Back in the 1990s, Teddy Wang's bizarre kidnapping spawned its own war of wills. The men later convicted of kidnapping him for ransom said they threw him overboard from a boat in a moment of confusion, but a body was never found -- triggering a years-long legal fight over whether he was legally dead. In the late 1990s, Teddy's father produced a 1968 will leaving the fortune to him. Ms. Wang produced a competing will that left the estate to her.
A lower court ruled against Ms. Wang in 2002 and the police launched a criminal fraud investigation into her actions. But in 2005 she won on appeal to Hong Kong's top court, and charges were dropped. She died two years later.
After Ms. Wang's death, an initial will, dating from 2002, indicated that her fortune was destined for a charitable foundation that would create an Asian version of the Nobel Prize.
That's when the feng shui master stepped in. Through his lawyer, Mr. Chan claimed to have a later will, signed in 2006, giving Ms. Wang's fortune to him.
According to court filings from both sides, Mr. Chan, who has been married since the early 1990s, was a former bartender and waiter. Unemployed in the late 1980s, he began studying feng shui and eventually became a "fortune teller for celebrities," the filings say.
Mr. Chan was introduced to Ms. Wang after professing to be able to help her find her husband with the aid of a planchette, something like a Ouija board. At the "midnight meetings," according to the court filings, Mr. Chan and Ms. Wang would visit various buildings controlled by Ms. Wang and throw jade pieces into holes dug in the ground. The purpose of the ritual is unclear.
Mr. Chan's lawyers say the hole-digging quickly stopped and became a smoke screen for late-night trysts.
The feng shui master's case has suffered setbacks. A handwriting expert hired by Mr. Chan's own lawyers said Ms. Wang's signature on the 2006 will is probably a forgery. Mr. Chan's team has since tried to replace her with a different handwriting expert.
Mr. Chan is already a very rich man, thanks to Ms. Wang. In the years before her death, she made three payments to him of about HK$688 million (US$88.8 million) each.
The 2006 will, which unlike the earlier one is written in legal-sounding English, closes with the line: "I am deeply and thankfully convinced that my will is proudly guided with God [sic] Help."
"This is the sort of will when you look at it, it just excites suspicion," Denis Chang, a lawyer for Ms. Wang's charity, said Monday at the trial's opening in Hong Kong's High Court. He noted that the 2002 will is written in Ms. Wang's native Chinese.
Mr. Chang said in court on Tuesday that Mr. Chan took advantage of Ms. Wang's faith in the supernatural, for instance holding a 49-day "reincarnation ceremony" in which Ms. Wang spent a night in a coffin with the hope of attaining "unending life."
Lawyers for the foundation have also asserted that the 2006 will is merely a ceremonial "feng shui will," meant to be burned in a traditional Chinese funeral ritual. To which Justice Johnson Lam replied in court: "This is a court of law, not a court of feng shui."
Ian Mill, Mr. Chan's lawyer, has also noted that Ms. Wang had cut off her famous pigtails and given them to Mr. Chan as a gift. The pigtails have been submitted as evidence in the case, he said Tuesday.
Write to Jonathan Cheng at [email protected] The Fight for Little Sweetie's Billions Is Getting More Than a Little Weird - WSJ.com