Nina Wang, who staged an epic eight-year legal battle to maintain control of her murdered husband’s Chinachem property empire, died Tuesday, apparently from cancer, at the age of 69, according to a statement Wednesday from a family spokesperson.
Her death leaves open the question of who will control the behemoth, mystery-shrouded property company she fought for. She and her husband, Teddy Wang, who was killed in 1990, left no children, and she was estranged from her 96-year-old father-in-law, Wang Din-shin, who put on a marathon battle for control of the company.
The diminuitive Wang, notoriously frugal and habitually accompanied by a phalanx of as many as 50 bodyguards, was often described as Asia’s richest woman, although her real worth was only an estimate. The Hong Kong-based Chinachem is a private company. Forbes Magazine’s latest annual ratings listed her as Asia’s 35th richest person, with a fortune of US$4.2 billion.
In the last two years, Wang dropped the bizarre pigtails and miniskirts that had leant color to her career. She had been largely quiet since December 2005, when her riveting legal dramas ended in Hong Kong’s Eastern Magistry. The Hong Kong Justice Department at that time formally withdrew criminal charges of forgery against Wang, putting an end to a story that combined murder, money, rumors of triad and other criminal involvement and a struggle for the company that rivaled anything that appeared in television miniseries.
Wang Din-shin charged Nina in a probate action with forging the will purportedly written by her husband that gave her control of Chinachem, alleging that Teddy Wang had caught Nina sleeping with a hired man and revoked the will.
In 1983 the Shanghainese-born Teddy was kidnapped and Nina, whose full name was Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum, paid a HK$80 million ransom for his release. When he was kidnapped a second time in 1990, the gangsters reportedly threw him into Hong Kong harbor from a speeding boat while being chased by police. His body was never recovered.
Nina delayed having Teddy declared legally dead until seven years after his disappearance -- her father in law alleged because she was unsure of her ability to prevail in court as the sole heir. Ultimately, after a trial that included allegations of sexual misconduct and other scandals, the High Court ruled that Nina had forged the 1990 will that granted her Teddy’s entire estate. Signed "one life, one love," the will negated another that Wang had composed in 1968 bequeathing his holdings to his father.
But ultimately, the Court of Final Appeal ruled in September 2004 to overturn the civil edict, saying "there was no evidence whatsoever" to suggest a conspiracy to forge the will.
The trial judge “apparently thought that for Mr Wang to make a will in 1990 leaving everything to his wife and nothing to his father was so unreasonable as to be evidentially probative of forgery. I do not hesitate to characterize this proposition as utterly ridiculous," the court ruled.
The Attorney General, however, refused to take that for an answer, and continued criminal proceedings against her until December 2004, when the prosecutor said that the decision to finally withdraw the case hinged on laboratory tests ‑ presumably for her fingerprints ‑ conducted after the Commercial Crime Bureau obtained the will from the High Court as part of the criminal investigation.
Authorities would not reveal the results of the test, but prosecutor Kevin Zervos told the court: "In light of that exercise [and the Court of Final Appeal ruling] and on advice from counsel from both within and outside the Department of Justice, it has been decided that at this stage the most appropriate course is to withdraw the charges against Mrs Wang."
Immediately before the verdict, was read, Wang ‑ minus her trademark pigtails but wearing a bright red outfit ‑ stood and bowed to Magistrate Allan Wyeth, who then pronounced: "The defendant is discharged."
That might have appeared to be the end of an unseemly battle, but Nina then brought suit to attempt to discover who had loaned Wang Din-shin the money to pursue the probate case against her after the court awarded an estimated HK$560 million in costs against him. Although the court ordered the nonagenarian to reveal all, he promised to go to jail rather than reveal his sources.
That leaves the mystery of Chinachem itself – how it metamorphosed from a middling pharmaceutical company into one of Asia’s largest property companies, who put up the money behind it, and what will become of it now. The questions involving Teddy’s disappearance lie somewhere inside all this mess and may now be buried with his widow.
Her death leaves behind the most expensive residential tower in Hong Kong history, an unnamed building occupying a lot in Repulse Bay which Chinachem bought just prior to the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the collapse of the real estate market. The lot was the most expensive ever sold in the city but the building has never been occupied despite being finished for years and having gone through a series of rezonings.
Nina was in control of Chinachem at the start of the project but her estranged father-in-law would have nominally been in charge between mid-2004 and September 2005, when court battles temporarily delivered control of the company to him. The investment probably went as high as HK$10 billion. Teddy’s estate was only valued at around HK$1 billion when he died, and even if that has now grown fourfold it is still a small part of the total value of the Repulse Bay project, plus the other properties scattered around Hong Kong.