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Stanley Ho, Casino Kingpin of Gambling Capital Macau, Dies at 98

Stanley Ho, who became virtually synonymous with Macau’s casino industry as he drove its rise to become the world’s gambling capital, has died. He was 98 years old.

Mr. Ho built the former Portuguese colony into a gambling powerhouse that easily surpassed Las Vegas and ran a casino monopoly there for four decades until the territory’s new Chinese rulers ended it in 2002.

His gambling company, Hong Kong-listed SJM Holdings Ltd., runs 20—or about half—of the casinos in Macau’s $37 billion gambling market. Its flagship property, the Grand Lisboa, is a glittery, lotus-shaped skyscraper towering over everything in sight. Not far away, the major boulevard Avenida Dr. Stanley Ho is named after him. He also developed myriad property projects, built a ferry service and helped fund Macau’s airport.

Mr. Ho died peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by family members, one of his daughters said Tuesday afternoon outside Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital. He was known to have been ill.

The casino magnate was a controversial figure, with some in Macau praising him as a benevolent benefactor, always willing to finance projects and donate to charity. Others found the scope of his wealth and influence troubling.

For years he attracted the attention of the U.S. government for his business dealings in Macau and beyond, including a stake in a basement casino in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Mr. Ho never faced charges and disputed allegations that he had ties to organized crime.

The casino mogul retired in 2018, leaving daughter Daisy Ho as chairman of SJM. Angela Leong, whom Mr. Ho called his fourth wife, is one of the company’s executive directors.

He leaves behind a complicated family tree, with 17 known children by four women. The family, riven by internal disputes, holds a significant position in Macau beyond SJM. Another daughter, Pansy Ho, leads a real-estate developer founded by her father, and has been a major shareholder and executive at Macau casino operator MGM China Holdings Ltd. Lawrence Ho, his eldest living son, is the chairman of Melco International Development Ltd., another casino firm operating in the Chinese territory.

“Our four families…stand united in our grief and respect for his legendary accomplishments and everything he has done in life for Hong Kong and Macau, and all his charitable donations,” said Angela Ho, Mr. Ho’s eldest surviving daughter.

Gambling revenue in Macau, which overtook the Las Vegas Strip as the world’s biggest casino market in 2006, has swung up and down in recent years amid China’s anticorruption campaign, capital controls and slowing growth, as well as increasing competition around the region.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic cut deeply into gambling revenue in Macau.

Born to one of Hong Kong’s most influential families, the Ho Tung clan, the young Mr. Ho left the Japanese-occupied city during World War II with HK$10 in his pocket and built a trading business in nearby neutral Macau. He earned his first million by the end of the war. In the 1960s, he won monopoly rights to run casinos in Macau. As China’s economy grew and Macau became the gambling Mecca for a billion people, the monopoly became highly lucrative.

When Portugal ceded control of Macau back to China in 1999, few predicted that Mr. Ho’s raucous, smoke-filled casinos would survive the territory’s strict new Communist rulers. Beijing ended his monopoly, and many people in the industry assumed he would be pushed aside by the American casino companies sweeping in, such as Wynn Resorts Ltd., then run by Steve Wynn, and Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp.

His market share inevitably eroded, but Mr. Ho skillfully navigated the transition and managed to expand his empire by redoubling his focus on his core clientele of mainland Chinese gamblers. He capitalized on the junket system he pioneered, under which middlemen would extend credit to high rollers and then collect the debts in China.

Mr. Ho was a dashing character in Hong Kong and Macau’s social scenes. He owned race horses and multiple estates and was a high-profile philanthropist, with his name on sports facilities, schools and libraries.

All the while, Mr. Ho remained cautious with his finances. He emerged relatively unscathed from the global economic recession and China-imposed visa restrictions on mainland visitors to Macau that hit casino operators hard, starting in 2008.

At the beginning of 2011, a feud among the Ho clan burst into the open and made international headlines when Mr. Ho, who was already in poor health, accused the children of his second wife of colluding with his third wife to steal the holding company that held the bulk of his assets. They denied his accusations.

Over the following weeks, competing camps produced apparently contradictory statements signed by the ailing then-89-year-old, who appeared before cameras to read prepared statements, stirring a frenzy among Hong Kong’s tabloids. Dozens of reporters shadowed Mr. Ho as he shuttled between his four households on a daily basis.

Eventually, the family said it had resolved the two-month dispute.

Mr. Ho, who was eventually appointed to China’s highest political advisory body, never forgot the importance of burnishing his credentials as a Chinese citizen. Most famously, he spent $8.9 million in 2007 for a bronze horse head, part of a fountain in a Beijing imperial palace that was destroyed by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860. The sculpture, which the Chinese government has long considered a national treasure, was put on display in the lobby of the Grand Lisboa, alongside a smiling bust of Mr. Ho.

On the Chinese mainland, Mr. Ho was hailed by state media as a “patriotic casino magnate.” “He made great contributions to his motherland in terms of economic development, culture and charity,” the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper said in an obituary published Tuesday.

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