PLAYING GOOD COP, BAD COP AS CHINA'S BIG BANK OFFERINGS COME TO MARKET Rarely has a newly listed company research report employed as many question marks as full stops. But Merrill Lynch has just managed it. Writing on soon-to-be-listed China Construction Bank, Merrill opted to play journalist, posing 45 questions on regulation, strategy and management philosophy to its management. Merrill can afford to hang tough, as it is one of the few banks with no part in the offer. Even a finance veteran like Lai See felt shamed by the thoroughness of the inquisition. We, of course, trust the US investment bank is equally diligent in its interrogation when its sponsorship of the Bank of China offer comes up next year. THE ODD COUPLE Tycoons, senior government officials and financial heavyweights all gathered at the Shangri-La Hotel yesterday for the launch of Hong Kong's biggest ever initial public offering. New World Development chairman Cheng Yu-tung (pictured), Henderson Land vice-chairman Colin Lam Ko-yin and Cheung Kong (Holdings) director Edmund Ip Tak-chuen, along with senior bankers, joined the pre-marketing luncheon for China Construction Bank's US$6.7 billion offer. Coincidentally, Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen and Hong Kong Monetary Authority chief Joseph Yam Chi-kwong were also spotted close by, having apparently dined together at the Conrad. Our spies also spotted former financial secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung and DBS vice-chairman Frank Wong Kwong-shing leaving the premises. The only difference was that Mr Tang and Mr Yam made something of a meal of it, exiting separately as if they were perfect strangers. SOME MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS For the first time Sun Hung Kai Properties has been forced to reveal how much the brothers Kwok make and it seems all things are not equal among the sibling property triumvirate. Raymond leads the way with $1.92 million, followed by Walter with $1.86 million while poor Thomas trails with $1.76 million. They, of course, have the compensation of arguably not needing the money. Still, they did book a 4.7 per cent salary increase, which is some way ahead of local wage inflation. Yet compared to payouts made to top lieutenants Mike Wong Chik-wing and Michael Wong Yick-kam, the brothers look positively parsimonious. Mike Wong got a 61 per cent raise, to $12.29 million while Michael Wong's pay rose 67 per cent to $6.61 million last financial year. Another beneficiary was Henderson Land chairman Lee Shau-kee, who scooped a no doubt much-needed $50,000 director's fee. GIVE IT UP FOR HE GUANGBEI Bank of China (Hong Kong) chief executive He Guangbei knows a bit about charity. Yesterday, his bank donated $1 million to establish the world's biggest donation box for the Community Chest. 'The only way on earth to multiply happiness is to divide it,' Mr He said. Hopefully, squeezed net interest margins and a mortgage slowdown won't crimp his good cheer. TO VIP OR NOT TO VIP? A prestigious Harvey Nichols card - co-branded with HSBC - was launched yesterday with a tag line 'by invitation only'. A hotline listing two telephone numbers - so considerate - was listed. Unfortunately, Lai See could not get through on either one to find out if he qualifies as a VIP. SPLITTING HAIRS ON A DIFFICULT SKI SLOPE Apologies to France and the French. Reader Richard Beresford rightly points out that our reference to 'piste de la resistance' in yesterday's column was a linguistic Waterloo for Lai See. He tells us 'Dear Lai See, I love your column, [it's] second only to Jake's. I think you meant 'piece de resistance' in your story on the SFC today. If not, your subtlety (and French) is way too advanced for me!' Rest assured, there is little subtle about Lai See but we do plan on having Mr Beresford reading us first ahead of our hirsute neighbour on this page.