Stanley Ho spent nearly 50 years building one of the largest casino companies in the world and turning Macau into a gambling hub that now generates at least three times the revenue of Las Vegas.
Now aging and frail, Mr. Ho has become mired in a family feud over control of his empire, and his Canadian children, including eldest son Lawrence who grew up in Toronto, appear to be gaining the upper hand. Lawrence and his sister, Pansy Ho, are poised to win control of the family casino business and more than half of the total gambling operations in Macau through other companies they co-own.
Mr. Ho, 89, tried to resolve the power struggle during an unusual appearance Wednesday on a television station in Hong Kong, where he and most family members live. "I have been really unhappy recently because of the disputes, my family members were unhappy as well," Mr. Ho said in Chinese, reading from cue cards held off camera. "The big problem has been resolved."
Hours after the TV broadcast, a rival family faction issued a statement saying they didn't believe Mr. Ho's comments were sincere. "I cannot believe that my father would leave my mother's family with nothing at all," said daughter Angela Ho. "My father speaks to me often and has stated publicly about how he intends to divide his estate evenly amongst his children."
The stakes are high. Mr. Ho indirectly controls SJM Holdings Ltd., which owns 20 of Macau's 33 casinos. His interest is valued at nearly $2-billion (U.S.) and he is believed to be worth more than $3-billion based on other holdings, which include casinos in North Korea and Vietnam, department stores, luxury hotels across Asia and several real estate projects.
Macau, once a Portuguese colony, became a major gambling centre in the early 1960s, thanks largely to the efforts of Mr. Ho. Born in Hong Kong in 1921, Mr. Ho fled to Macau when the Japanese invaded during the Second World War. He cut his teeth in business by smuggling luxury goods into China and running a kerosene factory. In 1962 he hooked up with a fellow smuggler, Henry Fok, and they won a licence to run all of the territory's gambling operations. Mr. Ho lost the monopoly shortly after Macau returned to Chinese control in 1999, but the influx of U.S.-based gambling companies only boosted Mr. Ho's own business. By 2006, Macau outpaced Las Vegas as a gambling mecca and Mr. Ho's company has roughly one-third of the market.
Mr. Ho married four times and has 17 children. His first wife, Clementine Leitao, died in 2004.
His second, Lucina Laam King-Ying, a dancer, moved to Canada in the 1980s with Mr. Ho as he expanded his holdings into Toronto through investments in International Semi-Tech Microelectronics Ltd., real estate and a hotel,
and had five children, including Pansy and Lawrence. Pansy is co-owner of MGM Macau, one of the smaller players in the territory's casino business, and runs a family-owned real estate company. Lawrence co-owns Hong Kong-based Melco Crown Entertainment, which is slightly larger than MGM. Together, the two companies control about 25 per cent of Macau's gaming operations.
Mr. Ho's third wife, Ina Chan, a nurse, has kept a low profile while wife No. 4, Angela Leong, is an executive at an SJM affiliate. Mr. Ho handed Ms. Leong more power in 2009 after he had brain surgery.
The feuding started last month, when Mr. Ho allegedly handed control of his ownership stake to the families of wives No. 2 and 3. The exchange was announced publicly by SJM on Monday. A day later, Mr. Ho changed his tune and his lawyer issued a statement alleging the families had "hijacked" the stake and that Mr. Ho had planned to divide the interest among all four families.
The lawyer, Gordon Oldham, also released a letter allegedly from Mr. Ho backing up the statement and threatening to sue the other families. Caught in the middle, the company issued a second press release noting the change.
The others hit back, releasing letters signed by Mr. Ho allegedly showing that he had agreed to the division between the two families "so as to preserve harmony within the family and aggregate control over [SJM]"
Flanked by his third wife and one daughter, Mr. Ho confirmed that position during his television appearance. He also fired Mr. Oldham.
When local reporters asked Mr. Oldham about the next move in the saga, he replied: "I think you will be surprised."