Magazine article The Spectator

In Awe of Miss Aw

Magazine article The Spectator

In Awe of Miss Aw

Article excerpt

Hong Kong

WHEN it comes to their domestic arrangements many newspaper magnates live in glass houses of one description or another. Only one, however, can literally be said to make her home among mythological beasts. Sally Aw may not exactly fit the bill of an Asian William Randolph Hearst, but she certainly rivals him in architectural eccentricity. Her oriental San Simeon is a stuffy old Chinese mansion in the middle of one of the former colony's most peculiar tourist attractions, the Tiger Balm Gardens, where fantastic carved animals caper and prance among pagodas and temples.

This Gerrard Street chic run riot was the creation of her father, Aw Boon Par, who patented the ointment known as Tiger Balm, then built a newspaper empire on the proceeds. His was one of the first great Asian business dynasties of the century. Miss Aw, 67, who was adopted from a Burmese offshoot of the Aw clan, inherited the lot in the Fifties, displacing the numerous progeny of the patriarch's four wives and several concubines. For four decades she basked in the deference accorded to the rich and influential in this part of the world. Now it looks as if she is about to lose the lot.

All of this would amount to not much more than another daily tale of newspaper folk were it not that Miss Aw's exceedingly complex financial troubles have coincided with a first-rate legal scandal. For in attempting to boost the fortunes of one of her less successful newspaper titles, the Hong Kong Standard, three of her executives played fast and loose with circulation figures and advertising rates. As a result of the attentions of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (catchy slogan: `If everyone takes a cut, what will be left for Hong Kong?') these individuals now languish in jail. Unfortunately for Miss Aw, quite a few people in Hong Kong think she should have joined them.

But things do not happen quite like that when one is a multimillionairess and a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. For those unfamiliar with that body, it is the forum in which the Communist party pretends to canvass public opinion in the wholehearted exercise of what is officially known as the people's democratic dictatorship. It exerts as much influence as a tea-drinking and mahjong session, but it is a good place to make guangxi, or connections, in high places.

Miss Aw was certainly useful to Peking during the sunset years of the Patten democratic dictatorship. Her main Chineselanguage title, Sing Tao, made a fortune, and the Standard, where columnists railed against British colonialism and Western democracy, in no particular order, was a tool that might have come in useful had Peking needed a tame voice in the English media. It was entirely par for the course among the local plutocracy that Miss Aw should have on her board at Sing Tao the shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa, who went on to become the first Chief Executive of liberated Hong Kong. This, as we shall see, was a prudent appointment.

When Asia was booming it was quite easy for Miss Aw to make billions. The newspapers raked in advertising revenues, but what really intoxicated her was real estate, lots of it, promiscuously acquired on one continent after another. The family long ago lost control of Tiger Balm itself that healing unguent was first acquired by Slater Walker and is now owned by hardheaded Singaporeans - but there were more than enough fiefdoms in the corporate archipelago to keep Miss Aw busily buying buildings and counting paperclips. …

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