Football: Yeung a Hong Kong barber who went from scissors to soccer

Birmingham City owner Carson Yeung arriving at the Wanchai district court in Hong Kong on May 3, 2013. Hong Kong's Carson Yeung went from humble hairdresser to owning a top-tier English football club, but his rags-to-riches tale raised questions
Birmingham City owner Carson Yeung arriving at the Wanchai district court in Hong Kong on May 3, 2013. Hong Kong's Carson Yeung went from humble hairdresser to owning a top-tier English football club, but his rags-to-riches tale raised questions that eventually landed him in court. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - Hong Kong's Carson Yeung went from humble hairdresser to owning a top-tier English football club, but his rags-to-riches tale raised questions that eventually landed him in court.

Too poor to attend games as a child, the dapper businessman, now 53, became the proud owner of Birmingham City in 2009 and watched from the stands wearing an expensive fur-trimmed coat.

However, the dream soured both on and off the pitch after just two years as Birmingham were relegated from the English Premier League and he was arrested on money-laundering charges in 2011.

On Friday, at the culmination of his high-profile trial, Yeung could be confirmed as another of Hong Kong's entrepreneurial success stories, or besmirched as involved in the city's notorious organised crime.

Either way, the outcome has been poor for Birmingham City, whose fans have protested against Birmingham International Holdings Limited (BIHL), the Cayman Islands-registered company whose acquisition of the club was spearheaded by Yeung.

Yeung says he is innocent of the five money-laundering charges totalling US$93 million (S$117.6 million) between 2001 and 2007, and has tried to have the proceedings halted, complaining of irregularities.

As the long-running case neared a verdict, Yeung stepped down as a BIHL executive director and chairman this month.

Yeung, whose Cantonese name is Yeung Ka Sing, was an unknown when he emerged in 2007 with a bid for Birmingham. The takeover attempt failed when he missed the deadline to hand over money.

He quietly acquired a 29.9 per cent stake and in 2009, his Grandtop International Holdings - which later became BIHL - bought the club for 81 million pounds (S$171 million) from David Sullivan and David Gold, now owners of West Ham.

Despite his new public role, Yeung and his glamorous wife maintained a low profile, an approach which did little to douse speculation about his business dealings.

Much of his story - details of which are disputed by the prosecution - has emerged as his oft-delayed trial slowly unfolded at the Hong Kong District Court.

According to Yeung, he first made money with a chain of upmarket hair salons in Hong Kong which catered to rich businessmen and movie stars such as Jackie Chan.

After taking a hit in the 1998 Asian market crash, he said he built up a portfolio worth tens of millions of dollars trading penny stocks in dozens of margin accounts.

He set up fertiliser and real estate businesses in Inner Mongolia, and invested in property in South-east Asia and China, the Hong Kong court heard. He also said he made millions gambling in nearby Macau, where he co-founded the Greek Mythology casino in 2004. His other interests include Hong Kong's Sing Pao newspaper.

In a rare interview in 2009, Yeung told Britain's The Independent: "The football club is part of the entertainment sector of my businesses.

"We also have a newspaper (Sing Pao) and magazine as part of a media company... an interest in a casino, and investments in energy, water and property."

The court also heard that Yeung spent lavishly, blowing nearly US$800,000 on a luxury Maybach car, US$6 million on a yacht, and buying an US$8 million home in London.

Prosecutors said he had money problems as recently as the 2000s. They said he opened a hair salon, Vanity, in Kowloon in 1997, but it suffered losses and closed in 1999. They added that Yeung's father Yeung Chung, who died in 2012, was a caretaker who lived in public housing and ran an unsuccessful vegetable stall in a wet market in the early 2000s.

And they alleged that hundreds of cash payments, many of them unexplained, totalling more than US$12 million were made to Yeung and his father's bank accounts from 2001.

Among the facts not in dispute is that Yeung was once chairman of Hong Kong's Rangers Football Club, and has a son called Ryan, named after Manchester United's Ryan Giggs.

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