King of the big spenders

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2007, 12:00am

This being Hong Kong, it's no surprise that many of the biggest society stories of 2007 centred on who bought what and for how much. And no one bought more than Joseph Lau Luen-hung.

The 55-year-old property tycoon went on a shopping spree in 2007 (as in years past), snapping 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 ever paid by a Hongkonger for an artwork. It was a steal considering its presale estimate was US$60 million and Mr Lau had reportedly been prepared to spend US$70 million.

Of course he had to have a way of getting it home from the Sotheby's auction in New York and what better way than in a private Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a plane normally configured to carry up to 300 passengers. Mr Lau obviously wasn't put off by the US$153 million price tag - he's ordered four more 'for friends'. The May purchase was the sixth private jet he bought for himself this year.

In September Mr Lau spent HK$1.4 million for a licence plate - '1 LOVE U' - ostensibly for the car that drives him to his jet. Altogether he has spent HK$40 million on car tags for himself and those lucky friends of his.

Casino mogul Stanley Ho Hung-sun spent HK$2.57 million on his friends, buying a 1.5kg truffle for a dinner party he didn't even attend. The deal topped a fungus purchased for HK$1.25 million last year by Sir Gordon Wu Ying-sheung and his wife, Lady Ivy Wu Kwok Sau-ping. Mr Ho outbid the British artist Damien Hirst in the annual International Tuscan Truffle Auction held simultaneously in London, Florence and Macau.

September saw the uber-exclusive annual Argyle Pink Diamond Tender, but if you had to ask where it was held, you weren't invited. Individual viewings of the 65 diamonds were held in a secret location and the results of the auction - the world's only private auction of rare pink diamonds - likewise remained a closely guarded secret. The reason: pink diamonds often go for as much as 20 times more than boring old white diamonds, fetching up to US$400,000 per carat.

And it may have gone under the gavel in London, but Yue Minjun's Execution set a record for contemporary artwork from the mainland.

The controversial painting borrows a scene from a familiar Edouard Manet classic to depict the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Retired British investment banker Trevor Simon was in his mid-20s in 1996 when he used two-thirds of his annual salary to buy the work from Hong Kong dealer Manfred Schoeni. Simon gave away a half share of the painting to a jeweller in exchange for an engagement ring for his girlfriend (no, not a pink diamond). His fiancee later split with him and kept the ring, but Simon probably forgot his grudge after his old painting sold for #2.93 million (HK$45.5 million), 185 times what he paid for it in Hong Kong.

Other locals didn't need to open their pocketbook to get in the society pages. Jacky Cheung Hok-yau was left cleaning up his own mess in more ways than one. The popular singer was blacklisted from hiring any more Filipino domestic helpers. Cheung denied allegations made by the Philippine consulate that he had sacked 21 maids in the past three years, saying he was an 'ordinary employer'.

Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi and Nicholas Tse Ting-fung likely now need a bit more help around the house. The star couple gave birth in August to Lucas, who quickly became Hong Kong's most famous infant despite hardly being seen in public. The only reports an eager public heard came from his mum more than three months after the baby's birth: he was fatter than he should be, long for his age and looked like Tse's father.

Visiting stars Christian Bale and Morgan Freeman lit up the town figuratively and literally. The stars of the new Batman film, The Dark Knight, not only added star power to the city when they came here to film last month, its producers asked everyone on Hong Kong Island to keep their lights on all night to make the city look good for aerial shots.

The production buzzed overhead for a few nights but cancelled a planned dive into Victoria Harbour. Word got out that sickly bugs were found in the harbour water, but a production spokesman later denied the story.

Josh Hartnett likewise blew into town for I Come with the Rain - totally appropriate considering his August arrival coincided with Tropical Storm Pabuk. With Korean superstar Lee Byun-hun, Japanese idol Takuya Kimura and Hong Kong star Shawn Yue Man-lok also in the movie, there were lots of local lasses braving the wind and rain to catch a glimpse of the cast as they rode out the storm in local clubs.

But no film star shone more than Hong Kong's own Tony Leung Chiu-wai. After his turn as a spy chief in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, the 45-year-old screen star had a best actor Golden Horse award in the bag, so to speak. The role required Leung to bare all and Lee managed to frame his leading man's scrotum centre screen for several (cringe-inducing) seconds. Censors didn't blush but local theatres checked audience members' bags for recording devices in a futile attempt to keep Leung's private parts at least somewhat private.

Leung weighed in larger even than visits this year by the world's largest passenger cruise ship and commercial airliner. Tourism board members were embarrassed that the Queen Mary 2, on its maiden voyage in March, had to berth at the grimy container port of Kwai Chung. The 345-metre-long, 23-storey-high ocean liner was 50 per cent too large for the city's only cruise terminal, in Tsim Sha Tsui. Several late-arriving passengers, many of whom paid HK$50,000 or more for a ticket, caused other passengers to nearly miss the Symphony of Lights fireworks display - billed as the main attraction in Hong Kong outside shopping. Then, in September, a fly-by of the Airbus A380 brought back memories of the old Kai Tak airport by circling Hong Kong Island at just 304 metres over the harbour. Thousands of aircraft aficionados and onlookers turned out to snap photos of the giant and 150 lucky members of government were given a ride later that day. No word on whether Joseph Lau has one on order.

Art of investing

If you didn't know that there's money in art, one British investment banker showed the way this year

Percentage profit made from the sale of Yue Minjun painting Execution after 11 years: 18,500%