For more than a year in the late 1990s, the most eye-catching feature of Casino Lisboa, Stanley Ho’s flagship gambling joint in Macau, was not its VIP gaming halls for million-dollar high rollers, its gleaming rows of slot machines, or its scantily clad girls. It was the dirty carpet.
Worn, pitted by cigarette burns and stained all over with spilled coffee, tea, liquor and — this being Asia — an occasional spit or two, the carpet was a personal affront to Ho, a dapper Eurasian, widely considered as one of the best-dressed men in Asia.
Yet Ho refrained from doing anything for most of 1998 and 1999. It was only after he had managed to smooth over the volcanic quarrel between his second and fourth wives over who had the right to undertake the lucrative renovation for Lisboa that a new carpet was put in.Everyone in Lisboa heaved a sigh of relief, but all knew the peace would not last.
They were right. In the last few years, fights between Ho’s three surviving wives (his first wife, Clementina Angela Leitao, died last year) — Lucille Lam King-ying, Chan Yuen-chun and Angela Leong On-kei — had escalated from snide remarks and catty comments to gossip columnists, to the boardroom of Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau (STDM), the holding company for Ho’s gambling empire.
Things came to a head on April 8 this year when Ho quietly passed a sizeable stake of STDM each to Chan (wife No. 3) and Angela (wife No. 4) for a nominal sum of HK$1 million. He also appointed Angela to the board of STDM.
The move caused a stir among the society tai-tais in Hong Kong and Macau, who had been betting which of Ho’s 17 children will end up inheriting the lion’s share of his wealth, estimated to worth $1.4 billion.
Some small shareholders of Sun Tak Holdings also complained that Ho had eroded the value of Sun Tak by selling STDM shares to his wives way below market value. Sun Tak, Ho’s Hong Kong-listed flagship, owns about 11% of privately held STDM.
Confronted by reporters, Ho dismissed the comments of the Sun Tak minorities. But he took pains to explain the rationale of the share transfer. “Of course I am paving the way (for my kids). After all, I have to think of my third and fourth wives. Their kids have all grown up."
Well, not exactly. Turning 84 in November, Stanley Ho still has two pre-teen kids. But it is clear what he is trying to do. After years of favouring Lucille’s children — her eldest, Pansy, is a director of STDM and CEO of Sun Tak; while her only son, Lawrence, runs another of Ho’s Hong Kong-listed company, Melco International — the casino king has decided it is time to pass some of the goods to the children of his other wives.
This is bad news for Pansy, who has long considered herself as the heir apparent. Pressed for comments after Leong’s appointment, she icily told reporters, "I told you I am not going to say anything," and walked away.
The stage is thus set for a fight amongst the Ho children; with Lucille's five kids on the one side, and Chan's three and Angela's five on the other. The four children of the first wife, being much older and less high-profile, have seldom involved themselves in the family business, preferring to spend their not inconsiderable wealth buying properties in Hong Kong.
No one, perhaps not even Ho himself, can predict who will win the battle. But there is little doubt the fight will be prolonged, fierce and will not end until Ho’s assets have been clearly divided. Perhaps not even then, as bequests and gifts are often open to challenge in the courts of Hong Kong and Macau.
Clementina, Ho's first wife, was from a prominent Portuguese family, but his other wives all led a hard life before they became Mrs Hos. In a television interview, Pansy revealed that, until she was 10, she was told to address her mother as "Ms Lam". It was only after much urging from Lucille and the birth of her son that Ho relented and made public their relationship.
Lucille's ascendance worried Clementina, who was of ill health. Non-Chinese herself, she resorted to the age-old remedy of Chinese wives when their men are found besotted with another woman — she got him a new woman.
Entered Chan, stage left. Once nurse and confidante to Clementina, Chan was "introduced" by the first wife to the man who would become their common husband. If Clementina's intention was to dilute Lucille’s influence, she succeeded. Chan bore Ho a daughter and his only pair of twins (a boy and a girl), and was eventually recognised as the third Mrs Ho.
Given Ho’s wealth, good looks and disposition, three wives hardly seemed enough. An accomplished dancer, Ho was introduced in 1989 to a part-time dance instructor (and sometimes croupier of Casino Lisboa) from the mainland called Angela Leong by his late brother, another dance enthusiast. It was a match made on the dance floor, if not in heaven. Angela soon became his constant companion. She also bore him four daughters and a son (Ho’s genes seem to favour daughters. It was only with Clementina that he has equal number of sons and daughter.) But, as he did with Lucille, Ho kept the relationship a secret. It was not until 1998, at the wedding of Angela’s brother, that Ho acknowledged he had "yet another wife, now No. 4".
Many have envied Ho’s ability to negotiate his way among his wives. Angela and Chan certainly contributed to that reputation. The two — who are friendly and consider the more established Laam as their common enemy — sometimes accompany Ho to social functions together. On such occasions, Ho is always beaming with pride while his two wives, one on each side, smile sweetly for the cameras.
But sometimes peace in the Ho households has to be bought. After the carpet incident, Lucille and Angela erupted into an open verbal fight that left much of Hong Kong enthralled. In one famous exchange, they called each other monkeys. To cool tempers, Ho was said to have given Lucille HK$200 million to renovate her house. Angela, on the other hand, secured the right to run many concessions in Casino Lisboa.
As Ho ages, the stake has grown beyond a mere few hundred million dollars or lucrative concession stands. The wives are now fighting for nothing short of the control of STDM itself.
For more than 40 years, STDM had held the gambling monopoly in Macau. It has amassed a huge cash hoard, said to be nearly HK$10 billion. Today, even after the incursion of two other casino operators, K Wah group of Hong Kong and Wynn Resorts of Las Vegas, STDM remains the main cash cow for the Ho clan.
In an earlier interview, Manuel Joaquim das Neves, who runs the Gaming Control Board in Macau, revealed that Casino Lisboa took in about HK$50 million of gaming revenue daily this year. In contrast, Sands, a partner of K Wah, which has 30% more gaming tables and four times as many slot machines, averages only HK$20 million a day.
Foreign media like to show pictures of huge crowds in Sands’ gaming rooms. But these are small-time gamblers. The high rollers — some 4,000 of them, mostly from China, with each plonking down an average of $1 million per visit — tend to gather in Lisboa, where they are treated like kings. Macau takes in some $5 billion in revenue a year. Das Neves of the Gaming Board estimates that 70% of that comes from the high rollers.
The future of Lisboa, and that of the Ho family fortune, does not lie in how many glitzy casinos STDM is building (it is planning a huge one at the waterfront), or how many punters it can cram into the premise. It lies in its ability to hold onto the high rollers and increase their number. It also relies heavily on maintaining a good relationship with China, Macau’s overlord since 1999. Pansy is well connected in the political arena of China — she is close to many movers and shakers in Beijing, and has been appointed a delegate of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the CPPCC. But Angela, being a mainlander herself, is closer to the ground and intimate with the big-time gamblers. Both are indispensable to Ho. But only one will eventually emerge victor. It will be an interesting fight.
The secret to his success: time management
Stanley Ho, whose schedule is so tight it could wear out a man half his age, is busiest on November 25, his birthday. That is the day he has to visit all his three wives. But he manages to lighten his burden by placing two of them in houses that are just two doors apart.
In 2003, Ho turned 82. He started his birthday by seeing his fourth wife, Angela Leong On-kei, at her house at 4 Repulse Bay, at 11am. Two hours later, he left to go "home" to his third wife, Chan Yuen-chun, on The Peak.
After another two hours were up (Ho is a fair man), he went to his Shun Tak Centre for a meeting, before flying, as he has regularly done, to his empire in Macau via helicopter, for yet another meeting.
Upon his return, Ho went "home" yet again — to that of his fourth wife, Angela, for a 45-minute rest. Then his driver took him up the road, to 1 Repulse Bay, for dinner with his second wife, Lucille Laam King-ying, and her children, Pansy, Josie (the actress/singer), Maisy, Daisy and Lawrence.
Ho had a first wife, a famed Portuguese beauty named Clementina Angela Leitao, who helped him to secure the casino franchise in then-Portugal-controlled Macau in 1962. But Clementina was bedridden for many years – the result of a traffic accident – and passed away last year at a ripe old age of 80.