HONG KONG — Stanley Ho, the opportunistic casino tycoon who led the transformation of the tiny territory of Macao, off the coast of China, into the world’s most lucrative gambling destination, died Tuesday in Hong Kong, his family said. He was 98.
In building his multibillion-dollar empire, Mr. Ho sometimes fought and more often negotiated and collaborated with the powers who threatened to defeat him, including the Japanese who occupied his homeland during World War II, the Chinese criminal gangs known as triads, the communist government on mainland China, and the US gambling entrepreneurs who sought to turn Macao into “Asia’s Las Vegas.”
Ho, who exploited China’s reputation for producing the world’s most passionate gamblers, amassed a family fortune that Bloomberg estimated at more than $12 billion in 2017.
Operating or owning 20 casinos and related businesses, he employed a quarter of the labor force in Macao, a small city a short ferry ride from Hong Kong. For years, his enterprises accounted for over 70 percent of Macao’s tax revenue, and even financed a fleet of hydrofoils to carry gamblers to the former Portuguese colony.
Like many Chinese entrepreneurs, Mr. Ho, a father of 17, also personified the potential pitfalls faced by lucrative family-controlled businesses toward the end of their founders’ lives. His final years were marked by bitter, public bickering among his 14 surviving children from four wives, many of whom tried to push him aside and claim stakes in his empire.
In early 2011, while Mr. Ho was recovering from brain surgery, the families of his second and third wives fought for control of his business. His lawyer asserted that the ailing patriarch’s relatives had duped him into signing over his remaining shares.
When Mr. Ho regained his strength, his relatives backed off and made public amends.
Throughout his life, Mr. Ho proved resilient.
“He’s the kind of guy who won’t accept defeat,” Ricardo Pinto, publisher of Macau Closer magazine, told The New York Times in a 2007 interview.
In a rare interview with The Closer in 2007, Mr. Ho asserted: “I love challenges and never accept the answer ‘no’ easily.”
Stanley Ho Hung Sun was born on Nov. 25, 1921, into a prominent Hong Kong family whose fortune collapsed during the global depression. His grandfather was a comprador, or business intermediary, for Jardine Matheson, the British trading house, in its dealings between China and colonial Hong Kong.
His father, a comprador for Sassoon, another powerful British trading house, went broke during the 1930s and moved to Southeast Asia, leaving his family behind in poverty.
Then, in 1941, the Japanese occupied Hong Kong, forcing young Stanley to drop out of college and flee with other refugees to Macao.
In Macao, Mr. Ho was hired as a clerk by a Japanese-owned import-export firm.
His employers were so impressed by his business instincts that they made him a partner in 1943 at age 22.
According to “Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia,” a 2007 book by Joe Studwell, Mr. Ho made his first fortune smuggling luxury goods into the Chinese mainland during World War II while collaborating with the Japanese.
Mr. Ho used much of the proceeds to start a construction company, which reaped a fortune when Hong Kong experienced a building boom after the war.
Mr. Ho began to make his mark as a gambling industry giant in the early 1960s. He formed part of an investor group that won the exclusive right to run casinos in Macao by promising the Portuguese colonial authorities that gambling would promote tourism and improve infrastructure. In 1961, the monopoly was named Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macao. Its flagship, the Lisboa Casino Hotel, soon gained international renown.
STDM’s fortunes rocketed in the 1980s when a new capitalist class emerged in mainland China, eager to spend its wealth in Mr. Ho’s growing casinos. He devised a profitable strategy that involved subcontracting VIP rooms; Mr. Ho and the subcontractors, who lured Asian high rollers to Macao, shared the revenues.
But his hotels and casinos also gained a reputation for sleaze, attracting members of notorious triads, or gangs, along with prostitutes. Law enforcement officials and gambling analysts around the world alleged that Mr. Ho’s casinos, especially the VIP rooms, were used by triads to launder their earnings from illegal enterprises.
In a written statement to The New York Times in 2007, Mr. Ho did not deny those allegations, and he pointed out that during the 1980s and 1990s “anyone involved in gaming was vulnerable to such accusations.”
But as Portugal’s 442-year colonial rule over Macao neared an end in 1999, there was a surge of triad gunfights and stabbings over control of the island’s casinos, threatening Mr. Ho’s empire and Macao’s ability to continue drawing gamblers and tourists. The violence ended with the arrival of mainland Chinese government security forces.
Mr. Ho’s gambling monopoly came to a close in 2002, as Beijing authorities ordered an opening of Macao to competition from foreign casino companies.
Powerful operators from the United States like Steve Wynn and Sheldon G. Adelson opened billion-dollar gambling palaces with cabarets, restaurants, and five-star hotels.
“Stanley Ho’s not going to do very well,” Adelson, chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., vowed in a 2007 interview with the Times. “He’s never had to compete in a real market.”
In fact, the competition spurred Mr. Ho to modernize his operations and build new luxury casino hotels.
His profits soared as hordes of newly wealthy mainland Chinese turned Macao into the world’s biggest gambling destination, surpassing Las Vegas by 2006.
Mr. Ho said he avoided the gambling floor.
“I don’t gamble at all. I don’t have the patience,” Mr. Ho told the Associated Press in a rare interview in 2001. “Don’t expect to make money in gambling. It’s a house game. It’s for the house.”