Macau Baroness Offers Advice for Surviving the Gambling Downturn

  • Lawmaker-executive reveals her approach to adversity
  • City must respond to rut with faster infrastructure approval

The Las Vegas Strip has characters like billionaire tycoons Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn. In the world’s largest gambling market of Macau, there’s Angela Leong.

A lawmaker, business executive and mother-of-five, Leong has been a prominent figure in the former Portuguese colony since meeting her spouse, 94-year-old casino baron Stanley Ho, about three decades ago. In a recent interview, the 54-year-old shared her approach to adversities, the most recent of which is a 18-month-long slump in Macau’s gaming revenue that, she says, must be met by the government with faster infrastructure completion.

Angela Leong

Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

Her motto, which she learned from Ho: "pee with eyes wide open.”

Speaking in her native Cantonese, Leong repeats a saying that’s not in regular use in the southern Chinese dialect, let alone easily translated into English. “It means, you know someone is going to trip you up, and you pretend you don’t notice and let it go,” says Leong, who is executive director of SJM Holdings Ltd., Asia’s largest casino company.

“Let’s be very direct,” she continues, her voice raspy from a respiratory infection. “You come and interview me today. If your article isn’t in line with my views, I’ll let it go.” But there won’t be another interview, she said on Oct. 26.

Family Fight

Success for Leong, the mother of the youngest five of Ho’s 17 children, hasn’t come easily. The former dancer successfully fended off a messy family dispute in 2011 that was mounted by women Ho also regards as wives, and his children.

“She can be quite feisty,” says Allan Zeman, a Hong Kong-based businessman and vice chairman of Wynn Macau Ltd., who has known Leong socially for 20 years. “She absolutely says what’s on her mind, no matter who she’s with, no matter where she is. That’s what gains her respect from most people. She’s not afraid.”

That forthrightness comes through when outlining the changes Leong says Macau’s government needs to make to facilitate the city’s economic recovery: faster decision-making and better infrastructure planning.

‘Not Afraid’

“I’m not afraid of criticism,” she said. “I do what I believe is right.”

Leong joined a dance troupe in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong and traveled in 1982 to Macau, where she met Ho four years later through his brother, then taking a dance class she was teaching at the time. By then, the daughter of a Chinese army officer already owned several apartments, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal in April 2011. And by the early 1990s, Leong was spearheading property deals for Ho’s business in Guangdong, according to the report.

‘Very Good Entrepreneur’

“Ho got her started, but she was able to take it to another level,” Zeman said. “She’s a very good entrepreneur. She’s done a lot of things on her own.”

Today, she owns more than 30 apartments in Macau, according to a document filed in 2013 by Leong, who reported her assets as required as a legislator there.

In Hong Kong, Leong is chairwoman of Master Land (HK) Ltd., owner of the 21-story BOC Group Life Assurance Tower whose value more than doubled to HK$2 billion since its purchase seven years ago, according to data from Centaline Property Agency Ltd. Local newspaper Ming Pao reported that Leong also owns the retail and office development Entertainment Building in the heart of the city’s financial district whose value has appreciated more than five-fold to as much as HK$14 billion since it was bought in 2005, Centaline said. Leong’s office declined to comment on her assets.

Her investments also span from a local canidrome operator to massage services. She’s also a vice chairwoman of Macau Jockey Club, head of a gaming promoter association, chairs a local dance and sports association, and is involved in local charities.

Stanley Ho with Angela Leong in 2004

Photographer: Grischa Rueschendorf/Bloomberg

Leong, whom Ho called his “fourth wife,” emerged as a winner when the elderly Ho split his fortune among his family members. Today, she controls a $315 million interest with a 8.1 percent stake in SJM Holdings, which owns 20 out of Macau’s 36 casinos, the most for one company in the city.

SJM shares have fallen 57 percent in Hong Kong trading this year, compared with the 7.8 percent decline in benchmark Hang Seng Index.

China Advisory Body

A member of China’s top political advisory body, she also owns a 6.86 percent stake in SJM’s unlisted parent, Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau SA, a company whose assets include hotels, real estate, financial services and infrastructure development.

That fortune is being shaken by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown and a slowing Chinese economy, which are keeping away the high rollers whose wagers generate more than half Macau’s casino revenue. It’s the city’s worst downturn since authorities in the Special Administrative Region ended Ho’s four decade-old gambling monopoly in 2001 by opening up the market to competitors such as Wynn Resorts Ltd. and Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp. 

Not Dismayed

Not dismayed, Leong says she continues to enjoy the support and advice of wheelchair-bound Ho, whom she describes as an “enlightener, friend and a mentor” and who has said that Macau’s casinos have been developing too fast. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without his help,” she said.

Before dashing to her next appointment, Leong reflects on her busy schedule that she says has meant wearing the same pair of dark blue, loose-fitting trousers two days in a row.

“You have to manage your time well, you have to work hard,” Leong says.

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