Saturday, April 14, 2007

Goodbye Little Sweetie

By Clifford Coonan in Beijing Published: 05 April 2007
Nina Wang leaves a fortune and an unsolved murder mystery

Nina Wang, Asia's richest woman, who looked like a manga cartoon character with her schoolgirl skirts, bobby socks and pigtails, has died in Hong Kong leaving an enormous property fortune and an unsolved kidnap and murder mystery.
In January, Forbes magazine named Mrs Wang, popularly known as "Little Sweetie'', the 11th richest person in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong and reckoned her wealth at well over £2bn.
Despite her fabulous riches, Shanghai-born Mrs Wang was famously frugal in her personal life - she spent just £200 on herself every month, favoured fast food over haute cuisine and was known to queue for cheap tickets when going to shows. She cut an unusual figure, even among Hong Kong's eccentric and flamboyant super-rich, with her brightly coloured, child-like clothes. This was a fashion look she held on to right until the end, aged 69. She could also be seen wearing traditional Chinese cheongsam dresses, most of them hand-stitched by her friends to save money.
"With deep sorrow and sadness the Chinachem Group announces the passing away of its chairlady Mrs Nina Kung Wang on 3 April 2007," the company spokesman said in a statement, adding that funeral arrangements would be made shortly.
Despite her frugal ways, understatement was simply not a word in Mrs Wang's vocabulary. She built Nina Tower 1 in the Tsuen Wan district of Hong Kong, the tallest building in the territory outside the central business district and the 22nd tallest building in the world. She named the tower after herself, but dedicated it to her husband Teddy, who disappeared after he was kidnapped leaving the Hong Kong Jockey Club in 1990. Mr Wang was declared dead nine years later and the internecine war over his financial legacy was the most brutal Hong Kong had ever seen. Mr Wang owned 400 companies around the world, but he left no heir, and his father was keen that his vast riches should remain in family hands. Nina Kung first met Teddy when she was a child. They were playmates - her father worked for the ICI chemical company, while Teddy's had a trading company called the China United Chemical Company, and both families were extremely close.
Nina and Teddy married in 1955, after both had moved to Hong Kong, and Teddy began his Chinachem business.
Mrs Wang always maintained her husband was alive and would eventually return. As co-director, she took control of his company and, through a series of canny deals, expanded Chinachem into Hong Kong's largest privately held property empire.
It was the second time Mr Wang had been abducted. Seven years earlier, he was released after being held inside a refrigerated lock-up after Mrs Wang paid a £5.5m ransom.
But this time, Mr Wang was not seen again. Mr Wang's father, Wang Din-shin, 96, campaigned hard to have his son declared dead, so that the estate could be settled.
Several years later, one of his kidnappers claimed Mr Wang, then 56, had been held on a sampan fishing boat and then thrown in the South China Sea.
In 1999, Wang Din-shin succeeded in having his son's death declared, and he launched a civil suit to claim his inheritance. Old Wang is quite a character himself, a former opium smoker who admits to having had a concubine and is very much a pre-Second World War kind of Chinese businessman.
But the matter was complicated by the fact that there were two, possibly three, wills.
In one will, from 1968, Mr Wang left his father everything. His father said the will was written after he told his son of his wife's infidelity with a warehouse manager. Furious, Mr Wang tore up an earlier 1960 will that split his fortune between his wife and his father.
Mrs Wang had a different version, a will from 1990 after Mr Wang had fallen off a horse, just one month before he was kidnapped. He left everything to his wife, and wrote the phrase, in English, "One love, one life".
A Hong Kong High Court judge ruled that this will was a fake, saying that part of it was "probably" written by Mrs Wang.
However, in 2005, the city's Court of Final Appeal overturned the verdict and said Mrs Wang should inherit all of the fortune.
After her death, thoughts quickly turned as to who would inherit her vast wealth. There were no details of how she died though there had been speculation for many months that she had developed ovarian cancer which had spread to her liver and other organs.

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