When entertainment reporter Chan Hoi-wan first met her future husband, billionaire mogul Joseph Lau, she reached out to a mole on his head and asked if it was real.
So begins the story of one of Hong Kong's most peculiar family sagas, as reported by Chan's former employer, the Apple Daily run by media tycoon Jimmy Lai. It culminated this week with Chan, Lau's second wife, gaining more influence over her fugitive husband's real estate empire, which is altogether worth about $US 8 billion ($11.7 billion), according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Filings with the Hong Kong stock exchange showed that Lau Ming-wai, Lau's son from his first wife, transferred 25 per cent of Chinese Estates to an entity of Chan's children, putting her in charge of a 75 per cent stake. The transfer, worth about $US300 million, is the latest in a reshuffling of Lau's empire that began in 2017, when he gave shares to his son and Chan. It effectively consolidates Chan's control over one of Asia's largest fortunes.
"The more shareholding concentration will reduce the possibility of disputes concerning future direction, which would be positive for Chinese Estates' development and also for the shareholders," said Kenny Ng, a securities strategist at Everbright Sun Hung Kai. "It's expected that Chan Hoi-wan will be more actively involved in the company."
The transfer is happening at a tricky time for Hong Kong, where the real estate sector faces a downturn from ongoing anti-government protests and the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a 41 per cent jump this month, Chinese Estates shares are down 20 per cent for 2020.
Before marrying Lau in 2016, Chan was a reporter at Apple Daily for several years, where she covered entertainment and made connections with various celebrities around the city. She joined the Chinese Estates group as an associate in 2002, working in its cosmetic business, according to a company filing. Her elder sister, Chan Sze-wan, was appointed chief executive officer of the company in 2015 after joining in 2002. Chan Lok-wan, her younger sister, is an executive director.
Lau, who was convicted of bribery and money laundering in Macau in 2014, came into the political spotlight last year, when his lawyers applied for a judicial review against the government's plans to permit extraditions, including to mainland China and Macau. His legal challenge opened a split between the Hong Kong government and the business community, which deepened as other business leaders came out against the bill. Lau later withdrew the application, and the government ended up scrapping the law in the face of growing protests.
He was sentenced in absentia to five years and three months in prison for his conviction but, with no extradition pact between Hong Kong and Macau, hasn't served jail time -he just hasn't returned to the gambling hub. This week's share transfer to Chan may be a way to protect the stake, said Everbright Sun Hung Kai's Ng.
"Lau's family is still optimistic about the prospect of Hong Kong and Chinese Estates so the members of the family increased their shareholding," the company said in an email. "Chinese Estates' general operation and policy will remain unchanged. Please do not make any conjectures."
Lau, one of Hong Kong's richest moguls whose early fortune came from making ceiling fans with his brother Thomas, has been known for some of his high-profile relationships with women. His first marriage to Theresa Po Wing-kam ended in the early 1990s. They had a daughter, Jade, and Lau Ming-wai, who is the chairman of Chinese Estates and deputy chairman of Ocean Park, the debt-laden amusement park that is seeking a government rescue plan.
Before marrying Chan, he had a dramatic breakup with his girlfriend Yvonne Lui Lai-kwan that resulted in Lau's printing of a full-page statement in several newspapers to debunk "untrue reports in the media," in which he said he had given her gifts worth more than $HK2 billion over the years, making her a "very wealthy woman." Lau had two children with Lui.
The more shareholding concentration will reduce the possibility of disputes concerning future direction, which would be positive for Chinese Estates' development and also for the shareholders. It's expected that Chan Hoi-wan will be more actively involved in the company.
Kenny Ng, a securities strategist at Everbright Sun Hung Kai
Nowadays, the 68-year-old mogul keeps a low profile. This year, as most of Hong Kong's richest tycoons declared support for Beijing's controversial national security law, he has not come out publicly on the issue.
One of the few places where he appears is on the Instagram feed of his wife. Chan, who goes by Kimbee on the platform, posts shots to her 182,000 followers with celebrity friends and business elites. As recently as last year, she showed photos of Lau hobnobbing with fellow billionaires, including Jack Ma, China's richest man, and Thomas Kwok, a member of Hong Kong's wealthiest family. She also posts frequently about penguins.
Chan, whose age was given as 40 in a December filing, started accruing assets in 2017, when Lau gave her a retail complex at commercial building The One in Tsim Sha Tsui that he bought for $HK7.8 billion ($1.5 billion). The same year, he transferred most of his stake in Chinese Estates to her. He told Apple Daily that Chan "is not greedy. She is pure, and she is not a bad woman. She has been taking good care of me and my children."
Lau, who has also owned a Boeing 747 jet and has properties in Hong Kong and London, is known for his investments in art, wine and jewellery, and children with Chan have been the recipients of his largesse. He bought them precious stones and named one of them "The Blue Moon of Josephine", after their daughter Josephine. It has the highest possible colour grade of fancy vivid blue, and its pre-sale price was estimated at 34.2 million francs to 53 million francs ($52.3 million-$81.5 million), according to Sotheby's website.
Despite the health concerns he cited for his transfer of shares to Chan in 2017, they had a third child in 2018.
Chinese Estates' annual report shows that Chan holds her shares as trustee for her minor children, which means they will be among the heirs to one of the world's greatest and most bewildering fortunes. But while they're still kids, their mother will protect them. On Instagram, Chan sometimes covers their faces with penguin emojis.