But before Ho made Macao, he had to make himself.
Born in 1921, Ho hit hard times young when his father fled to Saigon, after his business collapsed in the late 1920s, leaving that side of the family penniless. Not long after, World War II broke out.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Britain and America declared war on Japan. The Japanese army invaded the British colony of Hong Kong where, despite fierce resistance, the city fell on Christmas Day.
Ho, who had worked as an air-raid warden, threw away his uniform for fear of being executed as Hong Kong came under Japanese domination, he recalled in Jill McGivering’s book, “Macao Remembers.”
But unlike the thousands who died from starvation, in battle or at the hands of the Japanese, Ho had options.
His great uncle was Sir Robert Hotung, the rich Eurasian comprador, who was the first Chinese man to live on Hong Kong’s Peak, a wealthy district where only Westerners had been allowed to reside.
By the 1940s, Sir Robert was living in Macao, and invited Ho, then 20 years old, to join him in the Portuguese colony where a wealth of opportunity awaited.
In the 1990s, Ho told historian Philip Snow, who wrote a book about the fall of Hong Kong and the Japanese occupation: “I made a lot of money out of the war.”
Here’s how he did it.
Macao: City of Peace
By the early 1940s, with most of China under Japanese control, Macao found itself in a unique position in the Asian theater.
Portugal remained neutral in the war, until 1944, and as such, Macao was also deemed neutral territory. The colony was administered by the Portuguese Gov. Gabriel Maurício Teixeira, and the enigmatic Dr. Pedro José Lobo, known simply as Dr. Lobo.
Japan, however, controlled the seas and ports around Macao. That meant Macao had to cooperate with the Japanese in order to allow food and supplies to enter the colony. For Teixeira and Lobo, it was a delicate balance between preserving the territory’s neutral integrity and avoiding overtly collaborating with the Japanese.
Wartime conditions were tough in Macao. Food supplies were short, inflation rampant and the colony had to deal with a growing number of Chinese and European refugees. Smuggling and the black market flourished.
To solve this problem Lobo created the Macao Co-operative Company (CCM), and Lobo asked Sir Robert Hotung if there was someone he could trust to work as the company Secretary.
Sir Robert recommended Ho.
The CCM was arguably the most important institution in Macao during the war – the organization that kept the colony fed. Its main role was to keep Macao both economically alive, able to feed itself, and balance the delicate relationship with the Japanese.
It was one-third owned by Lobo, one-third owned by of Macao’s wealthiest Portuguese families, and the final third was owned by the Japanese Army.
Ho knew the setup when he joined.
In an interview with Simon Holberton of the Financial Times over half a century later, Ho said: “I was in charge of a barter system, helping the Macao government to exchange machinery and equipment with the Japanese, in exchange for rice, sugar, beans.
“I was a semi-government official then. I was the middleman.”
The kerosene king
As Secretary of CMM, Ho was authorized by Lobo to keep Macao fed by bartering anything the island had to offer.
This was no office job. Ho had to regularly travel by boat with the payments to receive the goods and get them back to Macao. His job involved playing off the Portuguese authorities, the Japanese military, triads gangs, and the various factions of China.
In his memoirs, Ho recalled that his first and most urgent task was to learn Portuguese and Japanese because his job was to barter between the two.
There is an element of daring to Ho’s life in wartime Macao. Sailing rice, vegetables, beans, flour, sugar and other supplies between French Indo-China and Macao, along the southern Chinese coast and around Hainan Island, meant avoiding pirate gangs who would take your gold on the outbound voyage and your supplies on the inbound.
Nationalist Chinese or Communist guerrillas were equally keen to secure the supplies or cash for themselves, and many saw the CCM’s activities as collaboration with the enemy.
Japanese naval vessels were known to take potshots at all manner of civilian craft while, later in the war, according to historian Geoffrey Gunn, American and British submarines were liable to sink any vessel they thought were dealing with the Japanese.
Around this time, Ho opened a kerosene factory when public fuel supplies were running low, according to Joe Studwell, who conducted many interviews with Ho family associates for his book “Asian Godfathers.”
Towards the end of the war, America – concerned that Japan would completely take over Macao and use it as a base to defend southern China and Hong Kong – bombed Macao’s gasoline terminal in early 1945 to deny the supply to the Japanese navy and air force.
The attack, wiping out Macao’s only other source of kerosene, inadvertently made Ho both essential to the continued functioning of Macao and extremely rich.
After the war, Ho faced criticism that he had collaborated with the Japanese.