This post has been updated to correct the Ho family’s status in a proposed National Harbor casino.
ORIGINAL POST: Eric Hotung is variously described as a Hong Kong tycoon, financier and philanthropist. His grandfather was called “the richest man in Hong Kong.” His father founded the Hong Kong gold and silver exchange. And Hotung himself has both made large sums of money and devoted himself to many charitable endeavors, including a $5 million donation for the Eric E. Hotung International Law Center at the Georgetown University law school in downtown Washington. Active at age 86, nearly all of his words and deeds remain big news in Hong Kong, as we shall soon see.
In the mid-1990s, Hotung purchased the home of Sen. Edward Kennedy, on Chain Bridge Road in McLean, for $5.88 million, and his American wife Patricia Shea Hotung lived there with some of their eight children. So when Eric Hotung, in December 2009, trashed one of his sons in a number of Hong Kong publications, his part-time residence in McLean enabled that son to file a defamation suit against his father in Fairfax County Circuit Court, USA.
And after a three-day trial, a Fairfax jury ordered Eric Hotung to pay his son $1.2 million for the comments made in Oriental Daily, Sudden Weekly, East magazine and other Chinese-language outlets. Comments such as, “He is not my son!” and “Judging by his habits, he can’t possibly be a relative of mine” and “These kinds of people cannot be members of the Hotung family.”
The verdict was just the latest chapter in a riotous, high-dollar soap opera of forbidden love, a casino empire, rival family dynasties, blackmail, lawsuits, secret love children and a nasty celebrity divorce. If this was on TV, you would watch. And the fact that this chapter played out in a mostly empty Fairfax courtroom, and wound up with a verdict that Eric Hotung can probably pay with the change in the console of his yacht, is our little part of Chinese history.
Eric Hotung is the grandson of Sir Robert Hotung, an influential figure in Hong Kong who was knighted not once but twice by the British. His family owns whole streets in Hong Kong, Eric Hotung said in his deposition in the Fairfax case. Streets in Hong Kong tend to be worth a great deal of money.
Sir Robert Hotung had a brother named Ho Fook, whose grandchildren include Stanley Ho and his sister Winnie Ho, who have run a dominant casino empire in Macau for decades.
(The Ho family is now trying to partner with MGM to run a casino at National Harbor. So we’ve hardly heard the last of the Hos.)
(UPDATE: MGM clarified Tuesday that the Hos, while partnering with MGM in Macau, are not partners in the National Harbor venture. The Macau partnership could still attract regulators’ attention, as The Post reported, but not because of any direct role in Maryland.)
The Hotung family evidently did not approve of the Ho family and their gambling, and made this clear to Eric, the family scion. But when Eric was 16 and first glimpsed his cousin Winnie Ho, “It was love at first sight,” he told an interviewer in 2001. “She’s quite a beauty. It was a sad romance because my family opposed it,” and Winnie Ho was forced to marry Mak Chi-wai instead.
Eric Hotung went off to America for college, and graduated from Georgetown in 1951. He then went to work for General Motors and the New York Stock Exchange, but in the mid-1950s, both his grandfather and father died within a year of each other. Eric returned to take over the family financial and real estate businesses. And to renew relations with his cousin, Winnie Ho.
In January 1959, Eric Hotung married Patricia Shea. In May 1959, Winnie Ho gave birth to a son, Michael, fathered by Eric Hotung. In his Fairfax deposition, Eric Hotung was asked when he learned that Michael was his son.
“On May the 4th of 1959,” Hotung answered.
“And how did you learn that he was your biological son on May 4th, 1959?” lawyer Timothy Hyland asked Hotung.
“That’s the day he was born,” Hotung said.
Winnie Ho later had a daughter, Barbara, by Eric Hotung as well. Winnie Ho raised them with her husband, and the children were not told who their father really was. But Winnie Ho’s brother, Stanley Ho, knew her secret. And the sister alleges her brother blackmailed her for many years, threatening to reveal her secret if she didn’t help him build and run his casino empire, which she did.
Winnie Ho has since sued her brother multiple times for a share of that empire, and that fight has gone on for a decade.
Her son, Michael Mak, was raised in America, schooled here and started a property management business in San Francisco. He returned to Hong Kong in the late 1980s and married a popular television actress named Katie Chan in 1989.
Then in 2001, perhaps in an attempt to end the blackmail of his beloved Winnie Ho, Eric Hotung publicly announced that Michael Mak was his son. “I think he knew it all along,” Hotung told Next magazine. Michael Mak changed his name to Michael Hotung, and joined the Hotung clan. His lawyers said his father introduced him to the upper echelons of Hong Kong society.
All good, right? Then, the soap opera heated way up.
First, Michael Hotung was accused by at least one Hong Kong tabloid of publicly cavorting with another television actress. In December 2009, Katie Chan filed for divorce, holding a tearful, heavily attended press conference. The divorce is ongoing.
And second, Eric Hotung revealed that in the 1960s he had secretly invested $2 million, through Winnie Ho, in the Macau casinos, using a fake name to avoid his family’s disapproval. He said his $2 million was now worth $600 million. He sued his former lover, and still cousin, to get his money back. That fight continues.
Not long after the tearful Katie Chan press conference, a reporter called Eric Hotung for his take on his son’s messy split. He did not side with his son, to put it mildly.
“He is not my son!” Eric Hotung thundered in the Oriental Daily in December 2009. “Go ask his mother whose son he is! I don’t know him!... I have never done a DNA test — he could be the president’s son for all you know!..I don’t know who this Michael Mak is...Judging by his habits, he can’t possibly be a relative of mine. None of my family members are like this...No one in my family treats his wife and children so badly...I am a gentleman, so I do not acknowledge him as my son.”
In his Fairfax deposition, Eric Hotung acknowledged making those statements, and more. Though Hotung may have only done that one interview, as his lawyer claims, it was widely quoted at length in other Chinese publications. It might safely be assumed that the broadcast media also picked up on this bombshell development in the Hotung saga. “The father disowns the (only recently acknowledged) (illegitimate) son! Tune in again tomorrow!”
Michael Hotung was fighting mad. At “New Dad”’s request, he had just shelled out $250,000 to Georgetown University to resolve some sort of dispute Georgetown had with New Dad. The result was an office suite named in Eric Hotung’s honor on the D.C. law school campus, with Michael’s name on the plaque. Michael’s lawyers also claim that he was trying to launch a new, Sotheby’s-style auction house in Hong Kong, but once his father publicly denounced him, he was denied the license.
So Michael Hotung engaged the American law firm of Akin Gump to exact the always satisfying “civil justice.” And he decided not to sue his father in Hong Kong, thereby throwing more gas on the high-profile Hotung saga there (“Tonight, the son sues the father for $5 Million! Winnie Ho cut off from speaking with her own family!” (An actual other tentacle. Don’t ask.) )
Instead, he sued in Washington, D.C. in May 2010. A federal judge dismissed it and said it was a case for China. Michael Hotung refiled, briefly, in federal court in Alexandria. And then he filed in Fairfax County in August 2011. Akin Gump brought in Timothy Hyland, a veteran Fairfax lawyer, to help navigate the local courthouse.
Eric Hotung’s view of all this was that he didn’t LITERALLY mean Michael wasn’t his son. Just that he strongly disapproved of his son’s shenanigans, whatever those were. His final lawyer, Lee Berlik of Reston, said the diatribe may have been “embarrassing, but I don’t think it rises to the level of defamation.”
Hotung’s first few sets of lawyers tried to fight off the suit by saying he didn’t live in McLean and the Fairfax court didn’t have jurisdiction. But on a day when Hotung was supposed to appear in Virginia for a deposition, he instead sent a letter to the court saying he didn’t contest jurisdiction and Michael was his son. Again. His pretrial deposition was taken in June by remote video hookup.
The trial really only lasted two days, July 9 and 10, with a third day for jury deliberations. Eric Hotung did not attend, but his testimony in the video deposition was used. Michael Hotung attended. The Hong Kong media were not present, but it was argued that the allegedly libelous comments they published were available to Chinese readers in Fairfax County, both on the Internet and in selected local stores here.
Michael Hotung’s lawyers presented him as an innocent victim. “He didn’t ask to be thrust into the spotlight as an heir to the Hotung dynasty,” said attorney Larry E. Tanenbaum of Akin Gump. “He finally feels like he’s a member of the family. Doors open. It does help your business. Then boom, the rug is pulled out from under him.”
Berlik, Eric Hotung’s lawyer, said, “As a matter of law, a father should be allowed to express disapproval of his son. In context, it’s clear he was saying he did not approve of the way his son treated his wife and children. He did say, ‘He’s not my son.’ But he didn’t mean that literally, and nobody did take him literally.”
Tanenbaum said Michael Hotung was genuinely hurt, and that comments like “Who knows who his father is?” go “way beyond just ‘I don’t like the way he treats his children.’”
Hyland, another of Michael Hotung’s lawyers, said Eric Hotung’s comments were “inextricably intertwined with the divorce proceedings being brought by Katie. It’s a divorce, people trash one another. This is just a trashing, and a trashing by a guy who’s a heavy hitter.”
Berlik, who specializes in defamation law, said, “I don’t think this is the type of case that should have ever gone to the jury,” and three of the six counts were dismissed before trial. He said Eric Hotung’s comments arose from one phone interview with one reporter, and didn’t rise to the level of defamation, which is generally defined as a false statement which harms a person’s reputation.
The jury wasn’t thrilled with the case, juror Daniel M. Dellinger of Vienna said, and they weren’t told much about Eric Hotung’s wealth. “I thought it was frivolous,” Dellinger said. “I have issues with how Michael came across in the whole thing. I think it would have been better suited in Hong Kong.”
But Dellinger said the jury had their instructions and they were bound to follow them. They found Eric Hotung had not committed intentional infliction of emotional distress, but did commit defamation and use of “insulting words,” a law Berlik said was passed some time ago to discourage dueling.
The jury awarded $300,000 on each of the final two counts, and $300,000 in punitive damages on each. There is a cap limit of $350,000 on punitive damages in Virginia, so if Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Charles Maxfield lets the verdict stand, he must reduce the punitive verdict by $250,000, to a grand total of $950,000.
“It’s the single craziest case I’ve ever been involved in,” Hyland said. Eric Hotung went through four sets of lawyers, a deposition in Hong Kong dissolved in chaos, and at one point Fairfax Chief Circuit Judge Dennis Smith ordered Eric Hotung to pay $55,000 in sanctions for his intransigence. “Mr. Hotung is just a piece of work,” Hyland said.
Berlik said Eric Hotung would appeal.