MACAU/HONG KONG: Stanley Ho, a onetime kerosene trader who built a casino empire in Macau that propelled the Chinese island past Las Vegas as the world’s biggest gambling hub, has died at age 98, his daughter Pansy said.
Known as the King of Gambling, Ho dominated gaming in the former Portuguese colony after winning a monopoly license in 1961.
His SJM Holdings Ltd flourished as China’s economic opening created a flood of new wealth in a country with a passion for gambling. SJM now controls 20 casinos on an island of about 10 square miles.
Ho’s rise transformed Macau from a commercial backwater into the "Las Vegas of Asia” by exploiting its big advantage over the rest of China -- casinos were legal.
As his fortune swelled, he expanded beyond the island, building residential and office buildings in Hong Kong. In 1984, he won a license to operate a casino in Portugal and spent $30 million to open the Casino Pyongyang in North Korea in 2000.
Ho’s Macau monopoly expired in 2001, two years after China regained control of the island from Portugal.
China then granted licenses to competitors, including Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts Ltd.
Rather than hurting Ho, the increased competition coupled with China’s booming economy accelerated Macau’s growth into the world’s biggest gaming hub and Ho’s fortunes ballooned.
The city’s gaming revenue has become a barometer of the economy of China, where two thirds of its gamblers are from. While casino takings have usually grown with China’s GDP, it plummeted in 2014 when China launched an anti-corruption campaign and again in 2020, after the coronavirus pandemic triggered a 97% drop in revenue as Chinese gamblers were prevented from travel into the enclave.
Ho fathered 17 children with four women and when he retired around mid-2018, he passed some of the top roles at SJM to his heirs. Daisy Ho, his daughter, became chairman and executive director.
Angela Leong, SJM’s second-largest shareholder whom Ho referred to as his fourth wife, became co-chair with another executive director.
Still, the succession reopened long-simmering family rivalries.
In January 2019, Pansy, his eldest daughter with his second wife, joined forces with some siblings in an alliance that holds sway over a controlling stake in SJM, giving her the upper hand over Leong in the fight for the jewel in the crown of Ho’s US$14.9 billion empire.
Pansy, one of Hong Kong’s richest people, is also executive chairman of Shun Tak Holdings Ltd., which runs most of the ferries between Hong Kong and Macau.
Ho was born Nov 25, 1921, into a wealthy Hong Kong family of Chinese and European descent and attended university in the city. His family’s circumstances deteriorated during World War II, when the Japanese invaded the British colony.
At age 21, he fled to neutral Macau where he got his start trading everything from kerosene to airplanes, at a time when the island was best known for fishing and producing fireworks and incense.
Ho was an avid ballroom dancer and a former Hong Kong tennis champion. He won the Chinese Recreation Club doubles competition for older players for several years running into his 80s. Ho also carried the Olympic torch in 2008.
US regulators once said Ho was linked to triads, or criminal gangs, which he denied. However, Ho earned the adoration of many Hong Kong and Macau residents for his swashbuckling business style and his philanthropic work.
He spearheaded what is known in Macau as the junket VIP system, whereby middlemen act on behalf of casinos by extending credit to gamblers and taking responsibility for collecting debts.
Flitting between Hong Kong and Macau by helicopter, the dapper Ho loved tennis and ballroom dancing - his fourth wife was a dance teacher - well into his 80s. He courted the limelight and frequently graced the celebrity gossip columns.
His life was also as colourful. Ho was always determined to succeed and even earned a place at the University of Hong Kong. Though World War Two intervened, his luck held. He left school and worked for seven days for the Air Raid Service Department before the Japanese captured Hong Kong.
"I earned HK$10 out of the seven days ... then I went to Macau," he once told Reuters in an interview.
"I was a very poor man," he said. "I started with only HK$10. That was my capital."
He got a job with the Macau government, bartering goods with the Japanese. The experience led to his own trading company and he became a millionaire.
Despite troubles in the family, Ho was also very proud of their achievements.
Leong, his fourth wife and a co-chairperson at SJM, has seen her net worth jump to US$4.1 billion, according to Forbes.
Some of Ho's children have become successful gaming operators in their own right.
Daughter Pansy is the co-chairperson of MGM Resorts' Macau unit <2282.HK>, while son Lawrence runs Melco Resorts & Entertainment .
Among his other children, Josie, born to Ho's second wife, has forged a career as a movie star, appearing in the 2011 thriller "Contagion".
SJM's most lavish casino, the 12-year-old Grand Lisboa, a 48-story building shaped like a lotus flower, remains one of Macau's most prominent destinations.
But, ironically, the casino king did not gamble.
"I have always told my children and my good friends: 'For God's sake, never gamble heavily and if you can avoid it, don't ever gamble'," he told the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1999. - Agencies
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