All In

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 July, 2008, 12:00am

Nina Wang, would-be casino empress

In a bizarre historical footnote to the battle-of-the-billionaires saga playing out in Macau, it seems that way back in 2001 Las Vegas Sands chairman Sheldon Adelson explored the idea of a casino joint venture in the enclave with none other than Asia's richest woman, the late Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum.

Mr Adelson made the revelation in a Las Vegas courtroom in April while giving testimony in a lawsuit filed against him by Hong Kong businessman Richard Suen Chi-tat. The jury ended up ordering Las Vegas Sands to pay Mr Suen US$43.8 million for helping the US casino firm secure a Macau gaming licence in 2002.

In his first day on the stand, Mr Adelson recalled a meeting in Macau in 2001 with Ms Wang, who introduced him to the chief executive Edmund Ho Hau-wah. 'There was a discussion of our doing business in Macau, being the operator in a joint venture with ... Mrs Wang. That's what the purpose of the meeting was,' Mr Adelson said, according to a court transcript made public last month. 'We were the operator, she was an extremely wealthy woman. She had billions of dollars and she wanted to buy some land and asked us would we operate a casino for her in a joint venture.'

Wang, who died last year leaving an estimated fortune of HK$100 billion that she amassed via her late husband's Chinachem real estate empire, apparently became acquainted with the US gaming mogul via a contact in Boston, Mr Adelson's hometown.

Apparently Nina Wang wasn't the only Hong Kong heavyweight to have floated the idea of a Macau partnership with Las Vegas Sands in those early days.

Billionaire Cheng Yu-tung's New World Development was also mentioned in correspondence between Mr Suen and Las Vegas Sands executives - submitted as court exhibits - as being on a list of potential candidates, albeit as a long shot. Mr Cheng and his family remain the controlling shareholders of Many Town Company, a firm that has a 9.6 per cent stake in Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau. STDM is the former casino monopoly company that today controls Stanley Ho Hung-sun's SJM Holdings, which recently raised HK$3.85 billion in an initial offering and hopes to list its shares on the stock market.

As an aside, the unsuccessful judicial review application filed this week by Mr Ho's estranged sister Winnie Ho Yuen-ki revealed that she too had expressed an interest in bidding for a Macau gaming licence.

Ms Ho worked for STDM for 25 years from 1977 until January 1, 2002, when she was fired by her older brother. She retains a 7.34 per cent stake in the company (according to SJM's prospectus) or slightly more than 8 per cent (according to her judicial review petition).

In 2005, STDM's administrative council launched legal action to remove Ms Ho as a shareholder, partly due to her intention to compete directly with the firm in bidding for a licence.

Ms Ho's legal team rejected the charge, countering that 'the letter of intent issued by Madam Ho to the Macau SAR Government for bidding for a gambling licence contained numerous qualifications (to the effect that her tender would be withdrawn if STDM submitted a tender itself)'.

But back to Mr Adelson's recollection of Wang, from the court transcript: 'She was a very lovely lady with pigtails. That was her trademark. She always had pigtails. She was very, very nice. Every time you saw her, she brought a gift for the children. She was a lovely lady.' The rest, they say, is history.