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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

When Life Exceeds Art

A family feuds over an opera star's wealth

By Angelica Cheung / Hong Kong


CANTONESE OPERA WAS NEVER like this. Consider the cast: a generous, enduring 81-year-old star who amasses $40 million before he dies. His wife, a former bar girl 30 years his junior, seeming at turns to be charming and scheming. And the couple's four children, who intensely distrust their mother and will stop at nothing to cut her out of the fortune. Add some underworld figures, allegations of mysterious lovers, incest, and drug-taking, and perform it all on television in serial installments. Welcome to the real world -- Hong Kong-style.

Known on stage as Sun Ma Sze Tsang, Tang Wing Cheung began his career as a mere child. By age 10, he was a well-known star performing daily. And by the time he was in his 30s he was appearing in comic Cantonese films. He often portrayed working-class figures -- a Chinese Charlie Chaplin, if you like.

Tang was 50 years old when he met Hung Jin Mui, then 19 and working in a nightclub. Says an old friend of Tang's who requests anonymity: "Hung was not a simple girl. She was tough and smart. Tang was known but not hugely rich because he gambled heavily. If not for his wife's shrewdness, he wouldn't have become so rich."

The couple had four children, though they didn't formally marry until 1992, 26 years after they met. Soon after the wedding, the children began to worry that under their mother's dominance they would not be able to sustain the Rolex and Versace lifestyles to which they had become accustomed.

Last year, the Hong Kong media became the battlefield upon which Hung and her children clashed. Mother was taken to task for paying one son only $2,000 a month to work in a restaurant of hers. And the children whined about having to make monthly payments on multi-million apartments for which they'd been given cash only for the down-payments. During one TV interview, Hung complained that she had "raised four Red Guards," a reference to the Chinese Cultural Revolution during which children were encouraged to turn on parents and teachers.

Tang's death in April brought this family saga to a climax. The children took possession of their father's body and, addressing their mother as "Miss Hung," refused to let her pay her respects unless she coughed up millions of dollars to cover hospital and funeral expenses. Hung countered by tearfully disclosing the family's deepest secrets. She said her late husband was an opium addict and slept with his daughter. Hung was eventually allowed in. She arrived in a traditional white mourning outfit -- in the company of eight bodyguards and two lawyers.

The media gladly cooperated in the war of words. Local television stations changed programming to run lengthy specials on Hung's daily encounters with her children. For a time, more than 200 reporters trailed in her wake. "Most people like to gossip, and this gave ordinary people a chance to look at the real life of celebrities," says Tsang Sing Ming, senior manager at TVB. "To an extent, the human interest story tells more about society than the boring political reports." So it was that less than three months from Hong Kong's handover to China, the territory was abuzz not over political rights or the arrival of a new sovereign, but over an ageless story of greed, infidelity and a domineering mother.


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