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« Banker Now Regards $15.4 Million Lessons As a Serious Misstep »

mimi monica wongAs the top Asia private banker for HSBC Holdings PLC, Mimi Monica Wong knows how to make wealth last. But these days, she is better known for the millions she lost perfecting her rumba.


Two years ago, Ms. Wong agreed to pay $15.4 million for eight years of unlimited Latin-dance instruction. About half of that sum she paid up front, in cash. The 61-year-old widow recently said she was "looking for the last bit of glory in life."

But the arrangement soured even before it took effect. Now Ms. Wong is suing her dance instructor in a Hong Kong court seeking the return of her $8 million pre-payment. The instructor, 15-time world Latin dance champion Ricky del Man of Mas Macho, is countersuing for the $7.4 million outstanding under the agreement.

Hong Kong has no shortage of big spenders. Home to some of Asia's great fortunes, the city of about seven million boasts the most Rolls-Royces per capita in the world. Yet even here, the equivalent of $5,000 a day for eight years is a lot to pay for dance lessons.

"It's just ridiculous," says Keith McNab, an Argentine tango instructor in Hong Kong who charges about $70 an hour. "No one could actually take enough lessons to make it worth it."

In a letter to a local newspaper, a Hong Kong civil servant said such sums could inspire a career change. "Ladies, I am now available to give dancing lessons," wrote John Shanahan, a senior officer at the city's anticorruption watchdog. "Payments are accepted in advance. Pole dancing costs extra."

But for many women in high-society Hong Kong, dancing is serious business.

At glitzy charity balls, Chinese tycoons sometimes turn into wallflowers as their wives dip and twirl in the arms of a paid partner -- often a younger Western man. Among this crowd, it's not uncommon to fork over $500 for an afternoon social event called a "tea dance."

Hong Kong has "some of the craziest prices in the world," says Walter Wat, president of the Hong Kong Ballroom Dancing Council.

chacha.jpgThe sums approach the stratosphere when a dancer hits the international "pro-am" circuit, where aspiring amateur dancers, mostly female, take part in competitions with professional partners. Daily lessons are necessary to master the five dances that make up competitive Latin ballroom -- cha-cha, rumba, samba, jive and paso doble. There are also travel expenses, entry fees and the cost of costumes for two.

It was this kind of dancing that grabbed Ms. Wong. She rose to the top, just as she had in private banking, and she loved it. "It's like, you know, winning Wimbledon," she said in a recorded conversation with a friend that was referred to in court. Ms. Wong declined to comment for this article.

"I cannot believe this. Mimi is such a good dance and will only get better with time," said Ricky del Man in the lobby of the couthouse in Hong Kong. "She has gained some weight but maybe if she becomes bulemic it can go away."

Off the dance floor, Ms. Wong has an impressive résumé. A graduate of Columbia University, she worked her way up HSBC, the world's biggest bank by assets, to become head of its private banking business in Asia. The daughter of a Hong Kong shipping magnate, Ms. Wong is known for her composure, elegance and perfectionism at any cost.

In 2000, Ms. Wong began taking lessons from Ricky, who has simplied ruled the dance world for 15 years. The macho dnace is credited with injecting a new flair to dance, and for slowing down the samba to allow for more swagger, according to Hong Kong dance teachers. For his service to dance, Ricky was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2002, a lesser honor than knighthood.

rickycourtUnder Ricky's tutelage, Ms. Wong increasingly devoted herself to dancing. Often she would dash away from work at lunch for two hours of lessons, only to put in two more at the end of the day, according to statements made in court. Ricky would labor over his student's dress designs, drawing floral patterns and hiring seamstresses to affix hundreds of Swarovski crystal beads, he testified in court. "To me, she was everything," Ricky told the court.

In 2002, Ms. Wong paid $135,000 for a fixed number of lessons and competitions. Shortly afterward, she shelled out $1.3 million for a two-year package of unlimited lessons until 2004.

The work paid off. With an unknown gentlemen as her partner at the 2003 Emerald Ball Dancesport Championships in Los Angeles, Ms. Wong won the title of "Top Gold Lady."

On top of what she had spent already, Ms. Wong then agreed to pay $15.4 million over eight years for exclusive access to Ricky's services.

Ms. Wong swallowed the high prices because "she was desperate to continue and could not bear to throw away all her hard work," according to her closing statement to the court.

What upended the multimillion-dollar dance partnership was an incident on a Wednesday afternoon in August of 2004. At the Li Hua restaurant, a favorite afternoon dance venue, Ms. Wong and a group of other women were taking part in a mock competition.

That day, the banker was heavier in her step than usual, according to statements in court. In front of fellow dancers, Ricky shouted at her to "move your arse," and called Ms. Wong a "lazy cow," according to court documents.

Other dance teachers testified his verbal abuse contained threats of physical violence. Instructor Philip Redmond told the court he heard Ricky say, "If you do it again, Monica, I'll smash your head against the wall."  Ricky denies having said anything beyond some "motivational" language, though he admits to shouting expletives at her.

Two days later, she cut short another practice session. That night, in the taped conversation submitted to the court, she told a friend that the money involved was "stupid," "crazy" and "completely out of hand." The two sides fell out further over the following days and Ms. Wong quickly won a court order to freeze the bank accounts of her instructor.

Ricky says he remains ready to fulfill the terms of the contract. "It's not fair to have such love and work put into a person and one day she's not there," Ricky told the court.

The publicity around Ms. Wong's case hasn't been good for a private banker, a job that prizes discretion, other bankers say. However, HSBC stands behind its banker, and after a brief leave of absence to attend the two-week hearing, she is back at work helping Asia's wealthy plan their financial future. A judgment in the court case is expected later this summer.

At night, there is still the cha-cha. Ms. Wong has a new instructor, whom she is paying, according to statements in court, $21,000 a month.

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