“So, is he the terrible one?”, he asked when entered his small Chairman’s office, at the top of the spiral staircase, on the first floor just outside the main entrance of the Lisboa Hotel.
Stanley Ho’s legacy
Now that I remember these short episodes from my different meetings with Stanley Ho Hung-sun – he as the main interviewee of Macau Business and Business Intelligence (Chinese) magazines and I as a journalist – I can’t stop smiling. And I think his attack to my jugular was natural, the first of the three times he gave me an exclusive interview.
I confess that I don’t know if it was a tactic used only with journalists, or in business in general. But the truth is, it worked. He caught me off guard and threw me on the defensive, with him, the emperor of the Macau gaming in control of the interview. I looked at my friend and his assistant, Julie Senna Fernandes, and I could almost taste the sneer, the sly smile.
Over the next hour and a half I was allowed to recover and Stanley was master of his domain. He was not a difficult interviewee, on the contrary. His public relations services were the difficult part, as they needed to ‘defend’ him of his own rhetoric. The constant requests to “clarify” certain expressions and statements were a pain in the soul for any journalist always more interested in having big headlines. Stanley Ho, in return, seemed oblivious to these worldly issues. And the feeling I always had was that he was saying the things he felt, without any other concerns. In that, he was much more Latin than Chinese.
There are a number of common phrases that can be used now that Stanley Ho is gone, at 98. An excellent businessman who found and managed relationships like no one. Sometimes difficult, in a much more opaque Macau administrated by a foreign power before 1999, with certain local forces that wanted the gaming mogul’s downfall, and others that recognized his fair value and what he gave to this small town. But he gave back because he was never shy in stating that it was the city that gave him his good fortune and he would not turn his back on her. After the handover and the liberalization of the gaming industry, he felt he was in an enviable negotiating position and for that very reason he allowed himself to be “generous” with the future competition, as long as it did not “play dirty”.
“Me, terrible?”, I asked Julie. Did you tell him about my ‘history’ in Macau, about the quarrels at the newspaper I co-owned and that was considered by many as the opposing media of the last governor of Macau? Incorrectly considered, truth be told. Extremely critical of a centralist military management? Yes. General Rocha Vieira was indifferent to me. Not his actions, though. I criticized him in my opinion articles as I have not failed to do over the years to many others. And if he severed relations with me for my participation in the Jorge Álvares Foundation case, it was his problem, which should not have been created the way he did with the financial support of Stanley Ho and the endorsement of Edmund Ho, the first Chief Executive – which after the scandal broke in Lisbon would change his opinion.
None of this was Stanley’s doing. A shrewd man, with an elephant memory and with an iron will despite all the different needs – throughout his life – to find difficult points of conciliation.
I remember Julie – already in the phase when she was sick – having said once at her house that the apartment was not hers. It was from STDM (Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau). Like many others that Stanley Ho’s parent company at the time made available to its employees free of charge.
I confess that I never bothered to know if it was so. But I was not surprised if it was. Stanley Ho represented what Macau should still be today: a lucky city that knows that one shouldn’t spit against the wind and that despite the misunderstandings of the occasion, there is much more that unites us than what divides us.
And Stanley did it daily. If he had recovered the family’s reputation after his father lost his entire fortune, it was thanks to Macau. And he, a man from Hong Kong, was grateful and demonstrated it through the social works he sponsored and the many requests that the different Macao governments made to him. There will be few infrastructure works to which STDM has not contributed.
Stanley Ho gave more than he was asked for by the gaming monopoly that he signed with the fascist dictatorship that bent Portugal for almost half a century. He liked Portugal and Europe, almost as much as dancing in its Portas do Sol restaurant with so many good memories.
But like any powerful businessman, he had to make decisions that would ensure the good favor of politicians, most of the times from different sides of the political arena, both current and future, just in case of regime changes. And so it was at home too through some of his best affiliated men, to ensure social peace in a society of complex interests. There will be some who say that if the Triads – intrinsically linked to Chinese society, some considered by Beijing to be ‘patriotic’ – had always been under control, Macau could enjoy enviable security throughout the times (except when a director of the Portuguese Judicial Police in the second half of the 90s, decided to change the correlation of forces and triggered a war that took a couple of years to be stopped), it is thanks to complicated negotiations. For the common good in the most pragmatic reading of any Chinese history.
Stanley Ho has always denied any connection to the Triads. As a good businessman he was always in favor of social stability that would foster development and wealth. In addition to the family, Hong Kong – the city of his youth – and mainly Macau, were at the top of his priorities.
If there were police cases to resolve, it was the security forces that had that responsibility. If there were cases of justice, the courts would practice their justice. He – and his partners who managed to get their hands on the gambling monopoly, namely Henry Fok, an important name in the early years due to his political influence – managed the business and solved the problems that were arising daily. Sometimes with better tact than others.
Stanley Ho would make some less correct decisions, but I believe that was because he thought he had no other option. A consequence of momentary circumstances.
In the last interview I did with him, I suggested that a good photo would be to have him next to the avenue sign that had come to bear his name. I saw a smile in his eyes: “What are we waiting for”? And there we went, in his limousine, with a bodyguard van following us. He was in his element, on the top of the world.
If, when younger, Stanley Ho was more focused on business and the undeniable goal of making a fortune and name for himself, one that would create envy in generations to come, those older days were no longer what moved him. Or at least that was the impression he gave me. What he had to prove had done so long ago.
I think that even knowing what he knew, at the time of his last lucidity, Stanley Ho would have changed little of what he did throughout his life. He decided for himself, and not what he was forced to do due to the circumstances of the moment or consequence of confronted powers.
A few days ago, when Hong Kong television did a follow-up on the death of the “casino king”, I was waiting for a medical appointment at the hospital. The waiting room was full of people. A reverential silence filled the corridors with the eyes of Macau people on the screen. I know how they feel about Stanley Ho, and apart from journalist impartiality – or whatever you want to call it – I also feel it. That’s why when I launched the “Life Achievement Awards” in partnership with Reed Expo during the first years of G2E Asia, the first and biggest award that recognized the role of some of the main personalities in the industry, I insisted that the first recipient would have to be Stanley Ho. So it was, with the tycoon receiving deserved recognition from the Chief Executive, Edmund Ho.
Obituaries must, as a rule, highlight the best side of people, and that’s how it should be in the game of pros and cons. But also because it is correctly considered that in most cases mistakes and bad decisions are almost always inferior to good actions, and in the case of Stanley Ho, that was clearly it.
Macau will miss him. For him and for the good he did. I just hope that the family knows how to honor the enormous legacy he leaves.