Better to have loved and lost? Court rejects billionaire Eric Hotung’s bid to recoup 55-year-old debt from ex-lover

Businessman, 90, argued that he gave HK$2 million to Winnie Ho to invest on his behalf in 1961, but judge finds his evidence unacceptable

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2016, 1:19pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2016, 10:43pm

Billionaire Eric Hotung has failed in his bid to claim ownership of shares in a casino business worth an “unimaginable” sum half a century ago, after the High Court found his evidence inconsistent and unacceptable.

Hotung, 90, sued his secret lover Winnie Ho Yuen-ki over HK$2 million which he said he gave to her in trust to invest in her brother Stanley Ho Hung-sun’s then fledgling gambling business in Macau in 1961.

Michael Mak Shun-ming, the pair’s son, was also named as a co-defendant as he had been assisting Winnie Ho in managing some of the assets in question.

In a ruling handed down on Wednesday, Mr Justice Anderson Chow Ka-ming said the case was neither supported nor contradicted directly by any documentary evidence, and that Hotung was the only one who had given evidence at the trial.

Tycoon Eric Hotung inconsistent when giving evidence against secret lover, lawyer tells court

Winnie Ho, whom Hotung first met more than 70 years ago and began a relationship with in 1956, did not give oral evidence because she was said to be too ill. They last saw each other at the Police Club in Causeway Bay in 2009.

The court earlier heard Hotung had transferred HK$2 million to the businesswoman in 1961, but he denied it was a gift, as the sum was equivalent to two-thirds of his personal wealth at the time. Hylas Chung Yuen-foo, lawyer for Hotung, told the court that the money – roughly equal to HK$640 million in 2015 – could not have been a loan or a gift because it was an “unimaginable sum for anyone at that time”.

But Edward Chan King-sang SC, representing Winnie Ho, argued the dispute between the secret lovers over the nature of the transaction might be due to the fact that they had not thought it through before the transfer.

In his judgment, Chow said he was “unable” to accept Hotung’s evidence that the money was provided by him to Winnie Ho in trust for her to invest in the casino business in Macau on his behalf.

The judge found Hotung, who had given evidence for about three days during the trial, was affected by his old age. Hotung had trouble hearing and often had difficulty expressing himself clearly, Chow said. “At times, he appeared to be confused by questions put to him by counsel,” he said.

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While Hotung earlier claimed there was an express oral agreement between him and Winnie Ho, the 90 year old later accepted in his cross examination that “there was nothing actually said”.

His apparent lack of interest in the dividends from the investments in the casino business, which had been retained by Ho, was indicative that he did not consider that his long-time lover held the shares in trust for him, Chow added.

The judge asserted that he was unable to determine whether the payment of HK$2 million by Hotung to Ho was a loan, gift or something else, but he was not required to make a definitive finding on the true nature of the sum.

Chow found that the pair had kept a special and personal relationship, despite it turning sour in the 2000s. “I do not consider it beyond the realm of possibility that [Hotung] could lend HK$2 million to Winnie on an informal basis, or make a gift of HK$2 million to her in 1961,” he continued.

The judge dismissed Hotung’s legal claims against Ho and Mak. Hotung was ordered to foot Ho’s legal bills, but not their son’s.