Stanley Ho: the man who made Asia’s Las Vegas

Stanley Ho, who died last month, arrived in a dying fishing port as a young man with just ten dollars to his name. He transformed his new home into a global gambling colossus.

Stanley Ho, the gambling patriarch who died last month of a stroke aged 98, had “a sharp wit, a hustler’s instinct” and “a knack for showmanship”, but he himself stayed away from casino floors, says Asia Tatler – a magazine whose pages he frequently graced. “I don’t gamble at all. I don’t have the patience,” he once said. 

Ho much preferred making deals. His career as a betting tycoon began in 1961 when he won a monopoly to run casinos on Macau, then a dying fishing port off the coast of China, which he continued to hold for more than four decades at a time when casinos were banned on the mainland. Ho led the transformation of that territory into the world’s most lucrative gambling destination, eclipsing Las Vegas. 

How he made his first million

Stanley Ho Hung-sun was born in Hong Kong in 1921 into one of the territory’s four “big families”, which also included the Li, Hui and Lo business dynasties, says The Daily Telegraph. His paternal great-grandfather, Charles Bosman, was a Dutch-Jewish merchant who co-owned Hong Kong’s first hotel. Bosman’s two sons by a Chinese mistress – Ho’s grandfather and great-uncle – went on to achieve huge wealth and influence as “compradores” (local agents) for the trading house of Jardine Matheson and became celebrated civic leaders. 

Ho’s teenage years were spent in relative poverty after his own father lost heavily speculating on the Hong Kong exchange in 1934 and fled in disgrace to Vietnam. “That reversal of fortune,” Ho later said, “turned him from an unpromising student” into an “ambitious young wheeler-dealer”. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in 1941, he arrived in “neutral” Macau as a refugee with just HK$10 to his name. Ho found secretarial work with the biggest company in Macau – a Japanese-owned import-export firm – and his employers were so impressed with his prowess that they made him a partner in 1943, when he was just 22, says The New York Times. The territory was “a hive of vice, espionage and smuggling in and out of mainland China”, and Ho later claimed to have made his first million by the end of World War II, dealing (some would say “smuggling”) kerosene, rice and luxury goods. He channelled this wealth into a construction company that rode Hong Kong’s post-war building boom. When Macau’s long-term gambling kingpins, the Fu family, fell into decline, he was perfectly placed to grab the monopoly. 

A thoroughly productive life

Through his flagship firm, SJM Holdings, Ho eventually owned and operated 20 casinos in Macau, says The Times. He employed nearly a fifth of the island’s workers and accounted for more than half of its economic activity. “If Macau prospers, I prosper,” he said. Indeed, Ho was adept at keeping the authorities – in Macau, Hong Kong and Beijing – onside. His “stranglehold” often led to accusations of links with local triads – strenuously denied. Nonetheless ,the taint of “organised crime” hobbled SJM’s international expansion: it was refused gambling licences in Nevada and Sydney.   

Ho was famously as productive in his private life as in business, fathering at least 17 children with different partners, three of whom now lead his companies. He was also generous and charismatic, says Asia Tatler. “My father,” his daughter Pansy once said, “is the king for friendship.”

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