The founder of a Hong Kong herbal products chain suing a partner-turned-rival for defamation has admitted in court that he did not know whether his staff would indeed rinse off mould-covered turtle jelly in order to sell it – the main allegation in the news report at the heart of his HK$130 million (US$16.77 million) libel suit.
Ng Yiu-ming, of the retail chain Hoi Tin Tong, also conceded that the company did not have any written instructions telling staff how they should handle mouldy jelly prior to a video being filmed by Apple Daily showing a Hong Kong shop assistant rinsing what appeared to be spoiled tubs of jelly in August of 2013.
But he stressed that the company had given staff – whose pay was linked to store revenue – oral instructions to dispose of spoiled jelly, saying he had never agreed to the alleged practice of rinsing off mould that developed during the jelly’s transport to the outlets.
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“It’s about conscience,” Ng told the High Court on Wednesday. “If we let customers eat spoiled jelly, they could complain and create problems for staff. It’s not like we have no goods to sell. Spoiled ones have to be thrown away.”
The company founder was testifying against his former business partner, Choy Kwok-keung, whom he accused of conspiring with the shop assistant and Apple Daily to stage the video and maliciously smear the brand.
Counsel Osmond Lam Kwok-fai, for the plaintiff, said Choy had intended to destroy the company as early as July 2013, when he was recorded saying that he would “press the button” and “burn the brand” after he resigned the month before to start a competing business.
At the time, Hoi Tin Tong boasted more than 200 stores in Hong Kong and mainland China, with its factory producing 40,000 to 50,000 tubs of its signature jelly each day.
A year later, the company reported HK$4 million in losses, which ballooned to HK$13 million in 2015, before returning to HK$4 million in 2016.
Ng said fake videos of the alleged practice first surfaced in the mainland after Choy made a report – in his own name – to a Guangzhou TV station on September 10, 2013.
Two days later, Apple Daily ran the story, along with the video from August showing a shop assistant transferring multiple tubs of jelly from plastic containers into pottery cups and rinsing them in tap water while explaining how mould could be washed away or hidden from customers.
But defence counsel Paul Lam Ting-kwok SC observed that Ng had no evidence to support his claim of a conspiracy given that the shop assistant and Apple Daily had no grudge against the company. Furthermore, Choy did not say at the time what he meant by “press the button”, Lam added.
“To destroy Hoi Tin Tong,” Ng said. “There’s no way that ‘button’ meant the one on the telephone.”
Ng reported the case to Hong Kong police on September 19, but admitted that he did not mention his suspicions about the shop assistant’s role to the investigators.
The court heard the shop assistant could not be reached since her resignation on September 14, a day after she allegedly claimed that she was ready to speak up for the company and clarify that the incident was the result of her own “negligence”.
“I [did it] for the sake of convenience,” she reportedly said, according to a conversation with a senior staff that was later recounted to Ng.
“So it’s true then?” Mr Justice David Lok Kai-hong asked Ng upon hearing the claim. “Someone rinsed the jelly in your store?”
But Ng sidestepped the question, explaining instead that the assistant’s purported “convenience” remark referred to the practice of transferring the jelly from plastic containers to pottery cups.
“You wouldn’t actually know whether she had rinsed the jelly or not,” the judge said – an observation with which Ng agreed.
His evidence continues on Thursday.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Hong Kong herbal products chain Hoi Tin Tong sues former shareholder for HK$130 million over news report claims of mould on turtle jelly
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- Stanley Ho’s daughter Angela asks Hong Kong court to name administrators for casino tycoon’s estate, with fees of up to HK$6,600 per hour