May 23, 2023
SINGAPORE – The puzzling death earlier in May of a Taiwanese high school student, who inherited a property portfolio worth NT$500 million (S$21.9 million), remains shrouded in questions, even as details of the case play out on the island.
The death was brought to light by Taiwanese media last Friday when the 18-year-old student’s mother surnamed Chen, accompanied by her lawyer, held a press conference in Taichung City in central Taiwan.
Her son, surnamed Lai, was discovered dead at the foot of a residential building on May 4, just one day after the cremation and funeral of his father, who had died in late April.
Lai and his mother were meant to deposit the elder Lai’s ashes at a columbarium that day, but he had been asked out under the guise of managing his portfolio by an escrow agent surnamed Hsia, alleged Ms Chen. The agent was persistent in his invitation, arriving at their doorstep at around 7am, she added.
Ms Chen, a Chinese national, said she tried looking for her son later in the day, only to be informed by the police that he had died after falling off the 10th floor of a building in the Beitun district, later revealed to be the floor where Mr Hsia lived.
Compounding her shock was news that Mr Lai had legally registered his marriage to Mr Hsia, 26, just two hours before his death. Taiwan in 2019 became the first territory in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage.
Ms Chen’s lawyer told reporters that her family believed Mr Lai, who has been dubbed the “$500 million high schooler” by Taiwanese media, had been murdered for his wealth, comprising around 30 properties worth NT$500 million.
Ms Chen told reporters she “would never accept” that her son had committed suicide, adding he had no reason to, describing him as an obedient boy set to read philosophy at a local university. He had just obtained a motorcycle licence and a new scooter, which he had intended to use to take his mother out, she said.
She also denied that he was gay, claiming he had unsuccessfully confessed to a female classmate in school and that he had met Mr Hsia just twice.
One of those meetings was soon after the death of Mr Lai’s father, when Mr Hsia turned up to pay respects at the wake, Ms Chen’s lawyer said.
Mr Hsia had a longstanding relationship with the elder Mr Lai, and as the escrow agent holding on to the title deeds of the elder Mr Lai’s real estate, he would have been familiar with the value of the properties, which the lawyer said was mostly land.
Speaking to Taiwanese media on Saturday, Mr Hsia said Ms Chen’s views were “one-sided” and not the full picture. But he stopped short of revealing more, on his lawyer’s advice.
Taichung district prosecutors said last week that they had questioned Mr Hsia on May 5 under suspicion of homicide, but allowed him to be released on NT$300,000 bail.
On Monday, Mr Hsia and his father were questioned by investigators at the city prosecutors’ office for a marathon five hours, Taiwanese media reported.
Both men were silent when asked by the media questions such as “Did you love him?”, and whether they would apologise to Mr Lai’s family.
No details on the interrogation were revealed, but Taichung’s chief prosecutor clarified that the elder Mr Hsia was assisting as a witness. He added that an autopsy was performed on dead teen’s body on May 9, and that investigations into his death were still ongoing. An official autopsy report was being prepared.
At the invitation of Ms Chen’s legal team, distinguished Taiwanese forensic expert Kao Ta-cheng examined Mr Lai’s body on Sunday and the site where he was found dead.
He told reporters that the injuries Mr Lai suffered showed he was unlikely to have fallen from the 10th floor, noting there were no haemorrhages in his head or abdominal cavities, with just his right elbow fractured.
“Normally, injuries caused by falling (from a building’s 10th floor) could not be so slight,” Taiwan’s CNA News cited him saying. Dr Kao said he suspected Mr Lai had been poisoned before his fall, pointing at a bald patch of grass where he may have vomited.
Complicated family ties
While investigations continue, some details have emerged, uncovering the complicated ties within Mr Lai’s family.
Taiwan’s United Daily News reported that Mr Lai’s mother had arrived in Taiwan in 2002 for an arranged marriage with a physically disabled man. After the man’s death in 2008, she bore a child with her father-in-law, a boy who would grow up to be the 18-year-old Lai.
The father-in-law also legally “adopted” his biological son to facilitate his property inheritance.
Ms Chen’s lawyer said his legal team has been working on preventing Mr Hsia from inheriting Mr Lai’s considerable real estate portfolio as his partner, building a case on dissolving their marriage while also strengthening Ms Chen’s Taiwan residency status.
The two individuals who acted as witnesses required for Mr Lai and Mr Hsia to register their marriage were two men the latter found in a convenience store and outside the Household Registration Office, The Liberty Times reported.
According to the witnesses, they did not know either men but agreed to Mr Hsia’s plea for assistance, after he claimed their same-sex union “did not receive the blessings” of their loved ones.