From 1970 to 1999

From 1970 to 1999, Hotel Lisboa remained the ex-libris of Macau gambling, 20 or 30 years after its inauguration. STDM seems to have fallen asleep, but Stanley Ho resisted the change as best he could.

MB Feb 2020 Special Report | Casino Lisboa – 50 Years

It is said that Sheldon Adelson wanted to replicate the model of Las Vegas casinos in Macau when he opened Sands in 2004. That would entail laying down brightly colored carpets, but what his coworkers saw at SJM casinos, mainly Lisboa and Jai-Alai, were only black rugs. Was there any Chinese superstition, they questioned.

The Las Vegas Sands (LVS) eventually used the reds and blues and only later realized that at SJM they were black because no one stopped to sweep or wash them!

This story – told years later by LVS employees – is intended as a metaphor for describing how STDM prepared for the arrival of the competition.

For some reason Casino Lisboa was the landmark of Macau in 1970, but also 20 or 30 years later (even though there had been several refurbishments in the building, as we have seen).

Is it fair to say that Stanley Ho only woke up when the end of monopoly became inevitable?

Whether he thought this scenario could come sooner or later or just because he could, the truth is that Stanley Ho tried to occupy every available space on the Peninsula, either by buying land whenever it was offered for sale or by renting it.

And as Singapore University researcher Lee Kah-Wee tells, the new concessionaires “quickly realized that much of the existing land was owned or controlled by Stanley Ho.” So, “despite the spectacular buildings promised in their proposals, the winners of the concessions were not keen at all about building at Cotai or Taipa, since these sites were too far removed from the Hong Kong and Chinese customers who entered Macau at the Peninsula.”

Stanley had the land, but did not bother to build casinos that would rival Lisboa and be more suited to modern times. Of course, while it had a monopoly, the number of casinos that it directly or indirectly controlled increased, but in most cases these were facilities with few tables. “In the year of the handover, the Casino Lisboa already looked like a relic from the past compared with the newly completed museum and bank buildings,” state Hong Kong based-scholar Hendrik Tieben.

When he finally realized that the monopoly was coming to an end, Ho did his best to stop the ideas of the first Chief Executive, “expressing his displeasure and reservations,” confided researcher and political commentator Sonny Lo. “Nevertheless, Stanley Ho eventually had to adapt to the imminent cessation of his previous casino monopoly.”

Contributing to this was the triad war that broke out within his casinos from 1998 onwards, which he could not control. “In the context of postcolonial Macau, Stanley Ho’s monopoly was suddenly seen as a legacy of weak Portuguese rule, triad violence, and bureaucratic corruption,” still according to Sonny Lo.

Despite this there was no doubt that he would be one of the three new operators, since it was in the interest of the “stability” of Macau to keep SJM. “To dismiss Stanley Ho might create social chaos, as his casinos employed many locals and were linked to many businesses and politicians.”

Professor Jorge Godinho, in his book “Os Casinos de Macau” (2019), recalls that the fact that STDM / SJM was last in the 2001 competition, “not an excellent position,” can be explained “by overconfidence.”

Grand Lisboa

Stanley Ho was slow to respond to new entrants and only cared about the Peninsula.

In answer, the SJM leader attacked on two fronts: with Ponte 16, in the Inner Harbour and Grand Lisboa, partially opened in 2007.

Without surprise, “for both projects, they were able to secure the most strategic locations,” state Mr. Tieben.

The architect and Associate Professor at the School of Architecture of The Chinese University of Hong Kong points out that, “like the Casino Lisboa, the new Grand Lisboa was positioned on the Praça de Ferreira do Amaral. It grows from a site opposite the Bank of China building, and with its 58-storey tower, significantly overarches the bank. The casino is visible from most places on the peninsula and the north of Taipa Island. Despite the visual impact on Macau’s World Heritage area, Stanley Ho presented his project as a symbol of continuity and himself as a protector of the community against foreign casino capitalists.”

“In the year of the handover, the Casino Lisboa already looked like a relic from the past compared with the newly completed museum and bank buildings” – Hendrik Tieben

Stanley Ho’s “influence and his understanding of his role in Macau are reflected in the position, size and symbolism of his new projects.” Asked why the Grand Lisboa should become a landmark in its own right, he answered, “[a]s you can see, the appearance of the hotel tower resembles that of a lotus flower, a symbol shown on the Macau SAR flag. There you have the symbolism.”

Ambrose So, Stanley Ho’s right-hand man, explained after the opening of Grand Lisboa, “we still think that the Hotel Lisboa has the best geographic location and the most thriving business atmosphere. By combining an American-style consideration of hotel service, as well as an oriental cultural flavour, the new wing of the casino complex [the Grand Lisboa itself] will provide a variety of choices to customers of different tastes.”

What about Cotai?