Rare happy ending to an inheritance dispute

March 13, 2018 11:53
Self-made tycoon Yu Pengnian, who died in May 2015, made a will in which he said he wished to donate all his wealth, worth about HK$10 billion, to charity. Photo: china.org.cn

Hong Kong people always read in the media of battles in local courts between members of a family fighting over the inheritance of a wealthy person who has died. The bitter intra-family fights prompt citizens to exclaim how greed has destroyed love and loyalty.

But last week the opposite happened – the family members of one of China's largest philanthropists agreed not to contest his will, allowing all the money – about HK$10 billion – to go to charity. It was a rare happy ending.

"This reflected the goodness in humanity," said High Court judge David Lok Kai-hong. "Unlike other cases, probate cases often unveil the ugliness of humanity. I often see relatives and families squabble over wealth. Siblings no longer talk to each other. Although I cannot really describe a person's death as something joyous, I am happy to deal with a case like this."

Yu Pengnian died of heart failure on May 2, 2015 in the Beijing University Hospital in Shenzhen, aged 93. On July 21, 2011, he made a will in which he said he wished to donate all his wealth to the Yu Pengnian Charitable Foundation, with his grandson Pang Chi-ping as the sole trustee. Yu had two sons and seven grandchildren; his elder son and wife had died before him.

Yu's second son and a male offspring of that son did not agree with the will and filed objections at the Probate Registry of the High Court in September and November 2015.

But the family differences were finally resolved and Judge Lok validated the will, citing a doctor’s report that, at the time he made it, Yu was in good health and spirits and fully understood the contents. The judge ordered HK$1.85 million to be deducted from Yu’s assets for legal expenses.

The money from his will would go through his foundation to education. "Some of the money is for poor students, some is for talented students whom I want to encourage, including foreign students who want to study in China," Yu said before his death. "Education is very important for a country, very closely related to its prosperity and standard of living."

Asked whether his descendants objected, he said: "If my children are competent, they do not need my money. If they are not, leaving them a lot is only doing them harm." Such an attitude is rare among wealthy entrepreneurs, especially Chinese ones.

Yu’s desire to donate may be the result of his own hardship. He was born in 1922 in a village in Hunan province; his family owned a small business. As a young man, he went to Shanghai to make his fortune. He sold trinkets and pulled rickshaws on the streets until 1954 when he was arrested, on the false accusation that he came from a family of wealthy landlords. He served three years in a center "for thought correction".

On his release in 1958, he fled to Hong Kong. He arrived speaking neither Cantonese nor English. He started work as a cleaner in a large firm, learnt Cantonese and worked his way into a junior management position. He saved everything he earned and often slept on the floor of his office.

In the 1960s, he and friends pooled their money and bought their first property. This was his road to wealth. He bought many buildings in Kowloon Tong; some were rented as 'love hotels', for renting by the hour by amorous couples who wanted to avoid parental control.

In 1975, Yu paid HK$850,000 for the former home of Bruce Lee. He wanted to give it to the Hong Kong government, for use as a museum.

In 2000, he developed cataracts and had a successful operation to repair his eyes. He found that 400,000 Chinese developed cataracts every year; many could not afford the surgery they needed. He decided to spend $10 million a year on mobile clinics to perform surgeries to remove cataracts in remote parts of China. Since 2003, these clinics have carried out more than 150,000 cataract operations around the country.

One principle of his philanthropy was to give directly to the recipients. He followed that path after discovering that many of his early donations had been stolen by corrupt officials. "In China, I do charity only with my own eyes and hands. I do not trust others," he said.

Yu spent his final years on the top floor of the Penglin Hotel he owned in Shenzhen. He ate most of his meals in its buffet restaurant. The Hurun Report rated him the top philanthropist in China for five years running.

In the "China Dream" of the future, Mr Yu is an example to follow.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.