From a new migrant in state housing to becoming a "super businesswoman' amid claims she owed associates millions of dollars, murder victim Elizabeth Zhong had a colourful life that ended after she was killed in her home last week. Lincoln Tan reports.
Elizabeth Zhong rose from humble beginnings.
She lived for a time in a Housing New Zealand property before, friends say, she amassed significant wealth.
She moved to the country from China in 1997 with her young daughter and husband Frank Fu.
But last week, the 55-year-old grandmother, born Ying Zhong, was brutally killed in her East Auckland house and her body placed in the boot of her car. At the time of her death, she faced court action amid claims she owed associates millions of dollars.
Zhong and Fu settled in Auckland with their 9-year-old daughter. At first, Zhong worked in an English language school.
But Zhong had an entrepreneurial spirit and started to look at attracting wealthy mainland Chinese to invest in businesses here from about 2010.
Between 2011 and 2012, she worked with former immigration minister Tuariki Delamere running investment seminars mainly in Guangzhou.
The audience was told of investment opportunities in New Zealand, and learned how it was possible to gain residency through investor migrant pathways.
"I found Elizabeth very engaging, friendly and entrepreneurial," Delamere, now a licensed immigration adviser, told the Weekend Herald.
"When we were in China, we stayed with friends and would occasionally meet to discuss immigration policy changes."
Delamere said their views differed on migration pathways for wealthy investors, and their co-operation ceased.
An Immigration New Zealand spokeswoman this week said the agency had not granted any visas to individuals linked to Zhong's company.
A friend of Zhong said, who did not want to be named, said the Chinese woman then met accountant Sam Chan, which marked her turning point from "businesswoman to super businesswoman".
"He helped structure her finances and businesses, and this allowed her to work with investors and also buy into big companies."
Zhong went on to own several residential properties, including one on Pomona Rd in Kumeu where she had been living until about last year and the Sunnyhills house near where her body was found.
In the lead-up to her death, Zhong had bought a variety of firms, from film to winemaking.
In her heyday, Zhong sponsored Chinese film festivals and ethnic events, including the 2017 Asia Pacific Film festival. A friend said Zhong was respected among many in the community.
In the past few years she appeared to have fallen into financial trouble.
A mystery foreign backer paid millions to help with her purchase of visual effects company Digipost Entertainment in 2017.
The company offers computer animation and graphics, film post production, sound mixing and visual effects.
Credits the company had been involved with include Mosely, Ash versus Evil Dad, Mt Zion, Spartacus, Love Birds and 30 Days of Night.
The company was sold recently in a mortgagee sale.
Matthew Bellingham, an accountant who managed the sale, said it had various unusual aspects, from a lack of due diligence by the buyer to the huge sum of financing from a mystery foreign backer.
On Friday, a person familiar with the Digipost deal rejected claims there was a lack of due diligence.
Instead, the person described detailed, drawn-out negotiations and said Zhong was sincere and ambitious about making movies.
Zhong was also the sole director and shareholder of two wine-making companies, Waiheke Island's Kennedy Point Group Ltd and Central Otago's Carrick Wines Ltd. Both are in receivership.
Another company Zhong had, Sunbow Ltd, is also in receivership.
But a friend of Zhong's said some of the businesses were put into receivership as part of a plan, and not because Zhong was a bad businesswoman.
"She was facing numerous claims from people wanting money from her, and she had been advised that the best way was to put her businesses into receivership," the friend said.
Her property in Kumeu also had creditors placing caveats across it from July last year.
Around the time Zhong bought Digipost, her marriage crumbled and she separated from Fu shortly after they celebrated their daughter's 29th birthday.
Zhong met her new partner David Zheng, and according to the friend had planned for him to take over her film production ventures after Digipost was sold.
Also known as Kaigui Zheng, he is one of two directors of Passion Pictures Group Ltd, a company formed and registered at the same Epsom address as Digipost on July 15 last year.
A friend said Zhong was looking forward to life with Zheng.
"The last time we met, she introduced me to her new partner and we also talked about her daughter and grandchild in Wellington, and she was looking forward to living her new life."
When approached at his Beach Haven home on Auckland's North Shore this week, Zheng refused to answer any questions.
Late in 2017, Zhong had talks with Jihong Lu - the controversial backer of one of New Zealand's most expensive musical theatre productions, City of 100 Lovers - to be part of the $12 million production. A formal partnership did not eventuate.
The musical ran for about six months to near-empty houses at the SkyCity theatre. It was pulled in February 2019.
Lu died of cancer in January this year.
Just before flying to Beijing for the Sino-European Producers Forum on October 12 last year, Zhong emailed her accountant Sam Chan to say she was "still fighting" with a business associate.
That fight involved an amount of more than $10 million that associate Fang Sun claimed he was owed by Zhong. The High Court at Auckland confirmed this week a case between Sun's company Sunbow and Ying Zhong was scheduled to for 10am on December 15.
A source with intimate knowledge of the case said this associate was one of several people said to be owed money by Zhong. Amounts ranged from a few thousands to tens of millions.
"In the December 15 case, they were going to go after Elizabeth personally for the debt and not just the company," the source said.
Sun was contacted by the Weekend Herald through his accountant who said he did not want to comment.
Zhong was last seen alive at 4.30pm on November 27 at her $2m Suzetta Place home in Sunnyhills, east Auckland.
She had been reported missing the following morning by a "close associate". Police were called to her address about 10am. A body believed to be Zhong's was found in the boot of her black Land Rover on Roadley Ave, about 500m from her home that evening.
Detective Inspector Shaun Vickers, of Counties Manukau Police, said yesterday investigators believed she was killed in her home.
Her body was placed in the car and covered by items from the house.
A scene examination was still underway and police were combing CCTV.
Neighbours have reported seeing a Chinese man regularly parked outside the Suzetta Place home in the months leading up to her killing.
Vickers said police were aware of the information and were "keeping an open mind".
A neighbour said an incident at Zhong's home about a month ago led to her going to hospital.
Vickers said the Chinese consulate had been informed and police expected to make contact with a number of Chinese-based agencies.
Zhong's daughter, who lives in Wellington, could not be reached for comment.
Her social media accounts, including Linkedin and Instagram, have been removed.
• Can you help? Anyone with information has been asked to contact 105, quoting file number 201128/1909.