The rise of a billionaire

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 May, 2012, 12:00am


Following the media frenzy triggered by the news that Joseph Lau Luen-hung faced bribery and money laundering charges in Macau, the 60-year-old property tycoon was, perhaps understandably, not available for comment yesterday.

The story broke on Wednesday night after Lau's company Chinese Estates Holdings informed the stock exchange shortly before 10pm that he would be facing charges of bribery and money laundering in Macau's Court of First Instance, an announcement that led to the suspension of trading in the conglomerate's shares yesterday.

The ensuing media scrutiny is inevitable, given the prominent role that Lau - ranked fifth on the Forbes Hong Kong Rich List with a US$6.5 billion fortune - has played in the region's commercial and business life.

Lau, and another Hong Kong businessman, Steven Lo Kit-sing, are alleged to have offered HK$20 million to convicted former Macau public works chief Ao Man-long in 2005 in connection with their bid for five sites opposite Macau airport. A luxury residential project called La Scala owned by Chinese Estates is being built there.

This is the only Macau project owned by Chinese Estates. Located on the Cotai Strip, La Scala has a gross floor area of more than 5.7 million sq ft and the company aims to make it the city's largest waterfront luxury development, at an estimated cost of more than HK$20 billion.

Lau has high hopes that the Macau project will strengthen the company's status as a prominent real estate developer, helping to overcome the image of the rash corporate raider that he acquired in the 1980s.

Born in 1951 in Hong Kong with family roots in Guangdong's Chaozhou, Lau graduated from a university in Canada in 1974, and joined his family's business, which made ceiling fans.

Lau built his wealth on the Hong Kong stock market in the 1980s, but analysts have pointed out that the tycoon, with his younger brother Thomas Lau Luen-hung, was better known for corporate takeovers than stock investors.

Their reputation as corporate raiders was created when their investment unit, Evergo International Holdings, made a hostile bid for the Kadoorie family's Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels in 1987.

Evergo, which listed in 1983 as a ceiling fan manufacturer, was subsequently delisted in 1993 to become a subsidiary of Chinese Estates.

During the 1980s, Chinese Estates became one of the most colourful second-tier developers, with a string of poorly received rights issues.

Lau had tried to improve his corporate image by strengthening relations with the investment community, broadening the company's shareholder base and attracting more medium- to long-term investors.

In 2006, Lau invited British hedge fund, The Children's Investment Fund Management, to be a strategic investor in Chinese Estates by selling it an 8.27 per cent stake for HK$1.44 billion.

The marriage between the two companies did not work out well. Lau had said at the time that he felt the company was restricted by the demands of fund managers who owned Chinese Estates shares. That triggered Lau into trying to take the company private in May 2007, but he later withdrew his HK$30 billion bid after objections from major shareholders. In 2008, the children's fund sold all of its holdings in Chinese Estates.

Analysts said Chinese Estates had been focusing on property, in development and investments, in the past decade. The Macau residential development - together with Hong Kong properties including Windsor House in Causeway Bay, The One and Silvercord in Tsim Sha Tsui - has successfully boosted the scale of the company, said a property analyst.

Lau is also known as a collector of artworks and wine. His passion for art was revealed when he snapped up Andy Warhol's famous painting of Mao Zedong for US$17.4 million and Paul Gauguin's 1892 painting Te Poipoi (The Morning) for US$39.2 million - the highest amount paid by a Hongkonger for an artwork.

In 2007, he ordered a private Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a jet normally configured to carry up to 300 passengers. But according to Bloomberg, Lau cancelled the order in 2009.

Lau also paid HK$129.5 million for two pairs of imperial crane statues at a Christie's International auction in Hong Kong in December 2010.

A flamboyant socialite, Lau's name has repeatedly graced the entertainment pages of newspapers for years, and he has often been linked to actresses such as former Miss Hong Kong winners Michele Reis and actress Rosamund Kwan Chi-lam.

Lau married Theresa Po Wing-kam in 1977 and they were divorced in 1992. She died in 2003. Their two children are Lau Ming-wai, now a non-executive director and vice-chairman of Chinese Estates, and Jade Lau Sau-yung.

Joseph Lau has a long-time partner, Yvonne Lui, who gave birth to two children with the tycoon. He has also publicly acknowledged a relationship with a former aide, Chan Hoi-wan, with whom he has a daughter named Josephine. In 2009, Lau bought a flawless blue diamond for a record US$9.5 million, and renamed the gem after his youngest daughter, as the 'Star of Josephine'.

The Macau development has boosted the scale of the company An analyst


The amount, in US dollars, Joseph Lau Luen-hung paid for Gauguin's 1892 painting Te Poipoi

The good life

Some of Lau??s luxury purchases

Flawless blue diamond


(world record for a fancy vivid blue diamond at auction)

Andy Warhol portrait of Mao Zedong


Boeing 787 Dreamliner (one of six private jets ordered)

US$153m (since cancelled)

Chinese cloisonne enamel quartet of sinuous, life-sized Qing dynasty imperial cranes


Sources: Bloomberg, Chinese Estates Group