Stanley Ho and the Making of Macau: Hong Kong’s Obedient Cousin Earns Beijing’s Gratitude

The death of Stanley Ho at the age of 98 has momentarily drawn attention away from Hong Kong to one of China’s other Special Administrative Regions, Macau. Returned to Beijing’s control in 1999, this former Portuguese colony shares the “one country, two systems” framework supposedly embedded in Hong Kong and which is the trigger for ongoing violent protests in the former British colony. Despite the furore to its near east, Macau has not been swept up in the disorder and looks likely to remain one of Beijing’s major success stories for the foreseeable future.

Ho, a Hong Kong native, made his name and fortune by turning Macau into one the of the gambling capitals of the world, it’s neon-emblazoned streets more than a little reminiscent of Las Vegas. When he was born in 1921, Macau was under the dominion of the Kingdom of Portugal, a status enshrined in the 1887 Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Peking. This gave the Portuguese perpetual colonial rights to Macau in exchange for its assistance in aiding the decaying Qing Dynasty in its campaign against opium smuggling, which had become the scourge of a weakened China in the 19th century.

Macau’s casinos would not look out of place in Las Vegas

The Portuguese had first made it to China by sea in 1513 and, after attempting to establish trading ports along the south China coast, eventually settled on Macau by the middle of the 16th century, agreeing an annual lease with the ruling Ming Dynasty. Becoming an important staging post in the maritime silk trade between China and Japan, Macau quickly grew in size and status under its European administrators, reaching its apogee towards the end of the century.

Competition from rival European maritime powers – especially the Dutch –  and the closing off of Japan in the early 17th century, in addition to similarly anti-foreign legislation enacted by the conquering Qing Dynasty, restricted Macau’s commercial ambitions.

The Portuguese retained nominal sovereignty, however, with their traditional light-tread colonial administration, based as it was on maritime and mercantile expertise rather than overwhelming military force and over-extended bureaucracy. With a small, impoverished home state under constant pressure from neighbouring Spain, this was the best recourse for Portuguese imperialism and was used to good effect across south and east Asia, not to mention Brazil, in the first two centuries of the Age of Discovery.

Macau depicted as a bustling trading port in the 18th century

China’s ‘century of humiliation’ allowed the Portuguese to re-assert themselves in the 19th century and Macau once more became an important commercial port, this time for the Canton trade. The 1887 treaty solidified Portuguese rule and, despite the upheaval in Chinese society and politics during the first half of the 20th century, Macau remained relatively stable.

Casinos began to appear in great numbers after the Chinese Civil War, with many former Kuomintang loyalists fleeing there. With only a threadbare administration retained, the Portuguese were happy to see this largely indigenous-driven expansion of the tourism industry that significantly raised incomes and living standards for many in the city. After the downfall of the authoritarian regime in Portugal in 1974, the new democratic government relinquished Macau as an overseas territory, whilst remaining in administrative control until its handover to China in 1999.

The formal handover ceremony in 1999

Since the reassertion of Beijing’s sovereignty Macau’s economy has continued to grow steadily, with the gambling industry right at its heart. With high per-capita GDP rates and a relatively free press, things look rosy for the world’s most densely populated city, and this seems to be reflected in the lack of public disgruntlement towards the mainland.

The growth in numbers of wealthy mainland Chinese tourists visiting Macau’s casinos has aided economic development

Whilst Hong Kong’s development accelerated under a British administration that championed democracy and democratic rights (if only in name on some occasions), Macau was not attuned to a similar outlook through the four-and-a-half centuries of Portuguese rule. Perhaps this absence of democratic tradition accounts for the silent majority in Macau as opposed to Hong Kong.

Whether things will change in lieu of the coronavirus pandemic, the currently ensuing economic downturn (particularly in relation to Macau’s casino industry) and Beijing’s supposed desire to turn more of its attention towards Macau (as opposed to Hong Kong) remains to be seen.

Either way, Stanley Ho is sure to have died both a wealthy and satisfied man, his pivotal role in dragging Macau from its status as a mercantile colonial backwater into a pioneering gambling and tourism hub a remarkable achievement amidst the upheaval that engulfed China, and much of the rest of the region, during the 20th century.

Riot police prepare for battle in Hong Kong: the protests there have not been mirrored by similar disorder in Macau

Additional reading

Crowley, R. Conquerors: How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire (2015)

Iran Plays Powerful with Control Over Hormuz Strait; 500 Years on from Afonso de Albuquerque

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most strategically important waterways in the world today.  Providing the only sea passage between the Persian Gulf and the open ocean, it is used to transport approximately 20% of international petroleum requirements from the Middle Eastern oil fields.

The Strait of Hormuz has great strategic and, by extension, military importance
The Strait of Hormuz has great strategic and, by extension, military importance

At its narrowest, the Strait flows between Iran to the north and the Omanian exclave of Musandam to the south.  It has been the scene of diplomatic incidents, military clashes and maritime collisions but to Tehran, in particular, it is a chokepoint of great potential.

The Iranians periodically threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz and have, indeed, made the potential for such a scenario central to their belligerent foreign policy.  It is the United States, unsurprisingly, that is typically the target of such threats and whilst Iran would suffer from halting oil shipments out of the Persian Gulf, its control over the Strait is an undoubted bargaining tool.

It is 500 years since the great Portuguese explorer, conqueror and administrator Afonso de Albuquerque perished in Goa, that strategic gateway to India whose capture secured a foothold for Lisbon in Asia. Eight years prior to his death, Albuquerque had sailed into the Strait of Hormuz on the orders of his patron, King Manuel I of the House of Aviz.

Ever since Vasco da Gama had landed at Calicut in 1498, the Portuguese had been in competition for dominance over the lucrative Indian Ocean trade with Muslim merchants, whose own commercial routes stretched all the way to Egypt and the Mamluk Sultanate, Manuel’s rival in the Mediterranean.  Capturing Ormuz Island on what is today Iran’s southern coast would be a major step in thwarting Muslim ambitions.

Da Gama's famed voyage initiated an era of worldwide European exploration and conquest
Da Gama’s famed voyage initiated an era of worldwide European exploration and conquest

With little effort, Albuquerque and his men captured their target in October 1507, only for their joy to be short-lived.  In a harsh climate without sufficient supplies, Albuquerque’s aim to build a garrison to hold the island led to resentment amongst his subordinate captains and provoked resistance from the local population.  A mutiny of the Portuguese ensued, whereby all bar Albuquerque’s ship returned to Portuguese India and Ormuz was lost.

Not to be deterred – and after securing Goa and Malacca in a series of brilliantly daring raids – Albuquerque returned to Ormuz again in 1515 with more than 1,000 men in 27 heavily-armed vessels.  This time the conquest led to the establishment of a permanent garrison, effectively cutting off the Indian Ocean to the Muslim merchants and securing the first overseas empire by a European power.  Indeed, it would not be until 1622 that the Portuguese presence at Ormuz was ended by the British.

Ormuz offered the Portuguese a grasp on both the Indian and Persian trade
Ormuz offered the Portuguese a grasp on both the Indian and Persian trade

There are few men as ‘great’ as Albuquerque today – and this term refers to his military and administrative achievements not his propensity to dispense brutal justice to those who dared cross him – nor as pioneering as his predecessors da Gama and Francisco da Almeida.  Indeed, we live in a world where such personalities are discouraged and any sense of individualism is often treated with noted scepticism.

Albuquerque was a formidable much so that he earned the sobriquet O Terrível (The Terrible)
Albuquerque was a formidable character…so much so that he earned the sobriquet O Terrível (The Terrible)

The 16th century was characterised by the disproportionate achievements of the few against the many.  Nowadays it often appears as if thousands upon thousands of faceless diplomats and bureaucrats are incapable of creating the slightest change.  The Iran nuclear deal took the involvement of hundreds of such characters and, whilst driven by a select few global ‘leaders’, time is likely to prove how ineffective this venture has been.

Iran’s threats ring hollow; closing the Strait of Hormuz would hurt its enemies but also itself.  Sometimes it is hard not to pine after the dashing era of Albuquerque and his bloody-minded cohorts, who could ride roughshod over the barricades and penetrate the enemy heartland, safe in the knowledge that their technological and martial superiority would grant them passage.

Alas; timid diplomacy, bureaucratic gridlock and unadventurous leaders are all we can hope for in our tormented world of scrutiny, cynicism and obstinacy.


Crowley, R (2015), Conquerors: How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire