April 21, 2007

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The real Chinachem mystery

The Economist profiles the late Nina Wang...the whole thing is a good summary of the Chinachem saga, but with a couple of highlights:

...The origin of Nina's and Teddy's fortune has always been mysterious and became more so as it grew. The Wang fortune originated in Shanghai, where the two met as children. They migrated to Hong Kong in the 1950s after the communist takeover, when getting out was hard and shifting wealth even harder. (Many Hong Kong fortunes are hard to explain, and it is considered bad manners to ask questions about their origins.) By the 1970s, the Wangs' company, Chinachem, owned vast swathes of the New Territories, the stretch of land between Kowloon and the Chinese border. The firm eventually erected more than 300 buildings, many of which were controversial because they circumvented zoning laws or were said to skimp on quality.

But the oddest aspect of Chinachem's management was not how tough it was on costs and quality or how it finessed local building authorities—familiar complaints, justified or not, about many landlords—but rather how lax it was on revenues. Hong Kong tycoons are known for working their assets—erecting buildings, filling them up, raising rents, then knocking them to rubble when demand allows for bigger replacements. In contrast, Chinachem had empty buildings, none more bewildering than a project Nina launched in 1997 when she spent more than $1 billion to build a curious funnel-shaped apartment block in Hong Kong's lovely Repulse Bay. Not a single one of its 184 units has ever been rented or sold, notwithstanding a booming market for flats. She subsequently built a 42-storey “Nina Tower” and at her death was building an adjoining 88-storey “Teddy Tower” in a depressed area of Kowloon, where typical corporate-tower clients are unlikely to want to work...

Speculation abounds about who might be the heir to Ms Wang's fortune. [Note: not any more, it's not so-badly off property developer and ex-feng shui guru Tony Chan Chun- chuen. Now we're in for a repeat of the last battle of wills, much to the lawyers' delight, and already the rumours are starting]. Reports first suggested it would go to charity, then to family members. More quietly, many people wonder how much of a fortune there is to inherit. Property empires rarely lack debt. Projects have partners. And Chinachem's cavalier attitude towards management suggests it was operating outside the world of disciplined, credit-scarred bankers. Just because it was never clear who Ms Wang's backers were does not mean they do not exist. Pigtails and pets were always a wonderful distraction. The question that remains is: from what?

posted by Simon on 04.21.07 at 10:49 PM in the Hong Kong people category.


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