The Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho has died, his daughter Pansy Ho has said. He was 98.
The billionaire and bon vivant was considered the father of modern gambling in China. He had a four-decade monopoly on casinos in Macau and maintained his dominance after its industry opened to foreign companies.
He spent lavishly while wielding great influence both in Macau and in neighbouring Hong Kong while, according to US authorities, maintaining ties to organised crime.
He fathered 17 children with four wives, and his extended family engaged in high-profile squabbles over his empire during his later years.
Ho died at the Hong Kong Sanatorium hospital in Hong Kong.
“My father has passed away peacefully just now at around 1pm at Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital,” Pansy Ho told reporters. “As Stanley Ho’s family member, we are really sad to inform you of this.”
Ho was instrumental in turning the semi-autonomous city on China’s southern coastline into a gambling boomtown. Though Chinese authorities ended his Macau casino monopoly in 2002, SJM Holdings – the company he founded – now operates 21 casinos in Macau and several others elsewhere in Asia, including one in North Korea.
Over the years his casinos were widely believed to be linked to organised crime syndicates, specifically the 14K and Sun Yee On triad societies. The Ho family has always denied these accusations and they have never been proved. In 2010, after a long investigation, the New Jersey gaming authorities issued a report declaring a link between Stanley Ho and the triads and requiring that MGM Mirage Macau (a joint venture with Ho) divest its interest in an Atlantic City casino.
The 74-page report declared that Stanley Ho Hung-sun was an associate of known and suspected triads who had permitted “organised crime to operate and thrive within his casinos”. It found that the private VIP gambling rooms Ho introduced to his casinos beginning in the 1980s “provided organised crime the entry into the Macau gaming market that it had previously lacked”.
Ho, full name Ho Hung-sun, was born into the rogue branch of Hong Kong’s famed Ho Tung clan. He made an early fortune smuggling luxury goods across the border between China and Macau during the second world war and invested his profits in kerosene and construction businesses, before bidding for the gambling monopoly that was tendered by the Macanese government.
Ho’s great-grandfather, Charles Bosman (aka Ho Sze Man) was a successful Dutch-Jewish entrepreneur in mid-19th century Hong Kong, and his cousins included Bruce Lee.
China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, described Ho as a “patriotic entrepreneur”. Ho monopolised the gaming industry until 2002, when the government introduced foreign investors sparking a boom which saw casino takings contribute to about 80% of Macau’s annual revenue and overtake Las Vegas.
His Sociedade de Jogos de Macau Holdings (SJM) empire remains a major player in Macau, the only place in China where casinos are allowed. The company took a hit alongside its competitors after China’s president, Xi Jinping, launched a high-profile corruption crackdown in 2014, triggering a dramatic decline in high-rollers to Macau.
While many of Hong Kong’s tycoons have rags to riches backstories, Ho initially had a gilded start to life. He was the great-nephew of one of Asia’s first tycoons, Robert Hotung, an influential Eurasian businessman and philanthropist who was among Hong Kong’s wealthiest individuals at the turn of the 20th century.
Ho said he had never wagered a bet, even while his casinos continued to rake in billions in revenues annually. He also added to his wealth through a property and shipping empire.
A flamboyant entrepreneur, philanthropist and keen ballroom dancer, Ho first married in 1942 but subsequently had three other partners with whom he had children. Local media said it was unclear whether or not he had married all the women he called his “wives”.
Bloomberg estimates his family empire to be worth $14.9bn (£11.4bn) and a spat between rival factions in 2011 became front page news before it ended with an agreement.
Ho was reluctant to retire and only officially stepped down from SJM in 2018 at the age of 96, handing over the reins to his daughter Daisy and Angela Leong, his fourth wife.
Hong Kong boasts one of the highest concentrations of billionaires in the world, but the city is also shot through with inequality, fuelled by a lack of housing, sky-high rents and low wages for blue-collar jobs.
• Reporting by Anne Davies, AFP, AAP and Associated Press