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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

FALL OF THE HOUSE OF AW

Sing Tao proprietor Sally Aw Sian was once one of Asia's most
powerful women. How she lost her grip on a publishing empire

By Susan Berfield


SALLY AW SIAN LIVES alone in the house her father built, a two-story traditional Chinese mansion in the middle of Hong Kong's most garish tourist attraction, Tiger Balm Gardens. It is a warm, sunny Saturday afternoo n in January, but it seems she might not have noticed. The doors are shut tight, the windows are covered in green frosted glass, and the only room that gets any natural light, a rooftop shrine to her ancestors, is empty. The place looks lifeless, more mau soleum than home.

Aw has at least two reasons not to open the windows. For starters, a couple of hundred visitors are clambering around her backyard with cameras. Tiger Balm Gardens is Chinese kitsch at its most spirited, and Aw is surrounded by it: wild scenes from histor y and mythology carved into a hillside that is supposedly cursed. A seven-tier white pagoda stands at the top of a cliff. The gardens are supposed to teach people to be compassionate and charitable and mend their ways. Admission is free. That was how Sall y's father, Aw Boon Haw, the Gentle Tiger from Burma, gave thanks for the fortune he made selling Tiger Balm, the famous cure-all in the little red tin.

Aw, 67, has another good reason to hole up in the Haw Par mansion. She's in trouble. Once she was one of Asia's wealthiest and most powerful women, a publishing proprietor with a global reach and a miser's touch. For four decades she has run the Sing Tao newspaper group her father founded. For years it made Aw rich and respected. Beijing courted Aw for her Chinese readers in America, Canada, Australia. At one time her international board of advisers included Joseph Pulitzer, whose father founded the famou s journalism prize. In 1997, she helped fund a journalism school at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She has won international press awards.

Those days are done. Now Aw is deep in debt, verging on bankruptcy. Circumstances (property crashes, the Crisis) worked against her. Some say the Aw family is cursed - the seven-story pagoda in the Gardens is supposed to be inauspicious. But Aw made plent y of her own bad luck, too. She didn't suffer one spectacular failure or one ill-fated decision. She made lots of them, almost from the start and consistently throughout the years. She was distracted by any chance to make money, especially in property. No w she has had to sell Tiger Balm Gardens and the publishing business. Maybe an heir could have saved the firm for the family, or Sally from herself. But she never married, she has no children. There is no one to rebuild the business or restore the family pride.

Sally Aw's main preoccupation these days is finding a way to divest herself, without losing face. In December, she sold Tiger Balm Gardens to property developer Li Ka-shing for $13 million. The fabled gardens will likely be torn down next year and replace d with apartment towers. For the past half-year, Aw has been quietly trying to sell her 50% stake in Sing Tao Holdings. But she wants to keep her chairman-and-CEO title. A Hong Kong property company (Mingly) backed away from an agreement in June. Hong Kon g Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa made the introductions, the deal had seemed certain. A company spokesman will only say the due diligence was "unsatisfactory."

Aw walked away from an international investment group (Lazard Asia Investment Management) in early December. They offered to buy her stake for $34 million, pay her a consultant's fee of $1.16 million a year, give her a $8-million loan that she didn't have to start repaying for six years, even share profits if Lazard sold the company at a high enough price within six years. Everything she might have wanted, that is, but the title of chairman. Aw was to sign the agreement Dec. 8 but rescheduled the meeting for three days later. She never showed up. Instead, she announced that she was selling half of her shares for just $15 million to an investment fund (Sunrise Holdings) that few have ever heard of. The deal made little sense to most people; the selling poi nt for Aw was that she could remain chairman.

Within a week, Aw was foiled by an old family friend. Ho Ying-chie, head of Hong Kong Tobacco, sued Aw for not paying back loans worth $35 million and asked the courts to prevent Aw from selling her shares to Sunrise Holdings. That's because Ho knew Lazar d was willing to pay more for Aw's shares than Sunrise Holdings. In other words, he figured he was more likely to get his money back if she sold her shares to Lazard. On Feb. 2, a judge decided that Aw cannot sell her shares to Sunrise Holdings because sh e is facing bankruptcy. Aw has already revealed that she owes $14 million to several banks; she hasn't said how much she has borrowed from other friends and associates. If she is declared bankrupt, she will lose control of her shares (which is almost all she has left). For Aw, that would probably be the worst possible way to lose the family fortune.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Aw has been linked to another very public, very controversial court case. In November, three executives of her ailing English-language Hong Kong Standard were charged with inflating circulation figures between 1994 and 1997 - a ruse intended to convince advertisers to pay higher rates. Aw was named a co-conspirator but not charged - a decision that sparked protests and charges of favoritism. Tung Chee-hwa is an old family friend, and Aw is a member of the Beijing-appointed Ch inese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Last month, Aw's three executives were fined a total of $61,000 and sentenced to jail terms of four to six months. Amid mounting criticism, Justice Secretary Elsie Leung Oi-Sie said she would review her decision not to prosecute Aw this month. Most people expect Aw to escape judgment, however, and certainly jail. But then the woman has been seriously humiliated.

However she is feeling these days, Aw isn't talking. Never comfortable in public, she is pretty much in hiding. The old phone number at her office has been disconnected. She hasn't appeared for the bankruptcy hearings; she seems to avoid the Sing Tao buil ding. Her most recent public appearance was in September, at Sing Tao's annual meeting. When asked why she wanted to sell her stake, she said: "It's not about rumors that I have personal financial problems. It's more about my retirement."

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