Carson Yeung says he is a celebrity hairdresser, property developer, casino high-roller and millionaire stock picker. But Hong Kong prosecutors say the owner of Birmingham City Football Club is a money launderer who grossly inflated his income.
The competing portrayals emerged from Yeung’s testimony over the past two weeks in his money laundering trial in the Asian financial centre.
Yeung was a little-known Hong Kong businessman until he bought the English football team for £81.5 million in 2009. Fans have since fallen out of love with Yeung, blaming him for failing to help the team, which dropped out of the Premier League in 2011, since his legal troubles began that same year.
His case comes amid growing concern about corruption in Hong Kong, where a number of high-profile scandals have chipped away at the city’s reputation for clean government and its high esteem for tycoons.
Prosecutors said the equivalent of £57m flowed through bank accounts registered to Yeung, 53, and his father from January 2001 to December 2007 even though both reported limited incomes until then. Money from the accounts was used to buy an initial stake in Birmingham City, they said.
Prosecutors also highlighted links to an alleged organised crime boss, suspicious share transactions, and nearly £5m in winnings from a Macau casino within two months.
Yeung’s lawyers have sought to portray him as a legitimately successful businessman able to afford an 88-ft yacht and £5m London house.
Prosecutor John Reading questioned Yeung about why £4.7m was paid by a Macau casino into his accounts from December 2004 to January 2005, yet he didn’t receive money this way in the following few years.
“This money was my winnings at the casinos. I gambled as if it was a business,” said Yeung, who told the court he travelled frequently to nearby Macau to play baccarat with an £80,000 stake in private VIP rooms.
Yeung was also quizzed about his links to Cheung Chi-tai, an alleged leader of one of the Chinese criminal gangs known as triads. Cheung was a shareholder of a Macau gambling company that Yeung invested in.
“Did you know Cheung Chi-tai was believed by police to be a member of a triad society?” Reading asked. Yeung said he didn’t.
Yeung told the court he left school at 15, apprenticed as a hairdresser and trained in London and Paris before opening the first of five salons in 1989 aimed at upmarket Hong Kong customers. He said his services were sought by Hong Kong stars on film sets and responded to questions about the first salon’s earnings by saying he charged the highest prices in Hong Kong.
Yeung also dabbled in property, earning £1.2m selling villas at a development. Reading said the figure was “grossly exaggerated”.
He focused on stock trading in the late 1990s. By 2006-7, his stock portfolio was worth about £24m. Prosecutors examined a 2001 trade in which he sold about 30 million shares in a small company to an acquaintance at less than half the market price. Yeung said the stock wasn’t liquid enough to sell on the open market in one block.
“I don’t understand why you would give HK$50m [£4m] to a friend of a friend,” Reading said to Yeung, who frequently avoided directly answering questions under cross-examination.
A verdict is expected next year. It could lift the cloud hanging over Birmingham City FC – or further darken it.