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The battle of the Chans

A COUNSEL described it as ''an everyday story of Hongkong folk'' but the civil case which made headlines this week had all the ingredients of a soap opera.

The key figures - like those in all good soaps - included a befuddled but wealthy patriarch, a mistress tucked quietly away and nine squabbling siblings.

The Chan family saga began three years ago when retired businessman Mr Chan Man-yee made over a $24-million gift of a commercial property to his fifth child, Ms Chan Wai-chun.

A court battle ensued, with Wai-chun and the two youngest children, Arthur and Sylvia, on one side; eldest son Peter and the other five on the other.

Last Monday, the 82-year-old asked the High Court to declare the gift void and accused his daughter of fraud, deception and impropriety.

It was alleged that Mr Chan, who is said to be suffering from senile dementia, was induced to sign the deed by some form of ''down-right trickery and fraud''.

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However, Wai-chun maintained her father was not suffering from senile dementia, or at least was not when he signed the deed of gift.

The five-day hearing took a final unexpected twist when Mr Chan withdrew his allegations against his 43-year-old daughter in an out-of-court settlement.

As the week drew to a close, the family was able to take stock of the events which had split it in two and to give a little of the history of the man who had made its money.

''The case has been a painful experience,'' said King-keung, the seventh child of Mr Chan.

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''There has been a lot of strain on the family over the last couple of years. But I am glad that my father has got back what belongs to him.

''Also, if we had continued and won the lawsuit, the case might have turned into a criminal trial. We didn't want that to happen.'' The property or ''gift'' in question is a pre-war low rise with a boutique on the ground floor on Marble Road. It is said to be Mr Chan's principal asset generating a rental gross income of $130,000 a month.

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The North Point building, however, is not the only property owned by Mr Chan and his late wife Ms Cheng Pui-ying who came to Hongkong from the Guangdong district of Panyu before 1949.

King-keung, 37, who has always lived with his father, said the family also has property in Kowloon City, three flats in Tai Kok Tsui, one in Yau Ma Tei and another flat in Taiwan. The flats are now occupied by Mr Chan's offspring.

When still living in China, Mr Chan had married two women, both wives having equal status. After the death of Mr Chan's first wife and mother of three children, the poultry farmer and his second wife fled to the territory before the Communist take over.

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The couple both came from well-to-do families with Mr Chan belonging to the land-owning class.

Having sold the family land in China, Mr Chan, now the sole inheritor of his family fortune, started in business in Hongkong first as a restaurateur and then as a taxi and van owner. He did not retire until the mid-80s.

Mr Chan also invested in stocks and residential property before the boom in the 80s.

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But after the death of his wife, the patriarch was diagnosed as suffering from senile dementia in 1990. Evidence given of illness went from the hilarious to the absurd. It included mistaking his youngest daughter, Sylvia, for his mistress and accusing her of not making love to him. He also mistook a swimming pool for his bath and soaped himself down in it.

Mr Chan only attended court on the first day. He broke down and cried in the courtroom when he could not understand what was going on.

The court heard evidence of the circumstances leading to the signing of the deed. After the death of Mr Chan's wife in June 1989, the father was sent by his children to visit Peter in Australia in early 1990 for fear he might marry his long-standing mistress.

There, the court was told, Mr Chan's youngest daughter, Sylvia, had a row with Peter. She took the elderly man first to Malaysia and then on to Thailand where the deed was prepared and signed in May.

Despite having 13 children (three by his first wife, nine by Pui-ying and one by his mistress) the forgetful but healthy old man is now in the care of King-keung and second daughter Wai-fong, 46, who live with him.

In fact, the civil case has brought part of the family closer together as Wai-fong, once barred from returning to the territory after she entered communist China in the 50s, has returned to look after her father.

'' Three to four years after the Communist takeover I went back to the mainland with my grandmother. I was not allowed to come back to Hongkong to join my family,'' said Wai-fong.

''It was not until the mid-80s that I saw my family here again. But I was not able to remain in Hongkong until my papers were sorted out.'' Meanwhile, the rest of Pui-ying's children are getting back to their normal lives and trying to put the case behind them.

Peter, 51, and his Australian wife, Marina, plan to travel back to Australia to celebrate his father-in-law's 60th birthday.

So is this the final episode in the Chan family saga? Like all good soaps, the ending is left open.

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