In the name of the father....

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 May, 1999, 12:00am

MACAU'S late legendary community leader Ho Yin and his son, chief executive-elect Edmund Ho Hau-wah, have been described by local observers as two masters of consensus.

'I think Edmund inherited the charisma of his father, a man who was able to reach a consensus and hold a dialogue among divergent political interests,' Hermann Castilho, a retired information officer of the Macau Government, said this week.

He described the late Ho as a 'political messenger' between China and Portugal and a community leader who was 'fully dedicated to the welfare of Macau'.

Ho Yin was born in Panyu, in the Pearl River Delta about 100km north of Macau, in 1908, when China was still ruled by the Ching dynasty. His father, Ho Cheng-kai, owned a small shop.

When he was 13, Ho Yin became an apprentice in a grocer's shop in nearby Guangzhou. He moved to Shunde, a traditional trading centre in the Pearl River estuary, where he became a store manager when he was 16. He then opened a bureau de change in Guangzhou in 1930.

The Japanese invasion of Guangzhou in 1938 drove Ho Yin to Hong Kong, where he continued to run his foreign exchange business.

A half-brother, Ho Tim, had co-founded the Hang Seng ('ever growing') Bank in the British colony in 1933.

Japan's occupation of Hong Kong saw Ho Yin move to Macau in 1941, where he promptly set up his own bank, Banco Tai Fung ('great abundance'), which initially functioned as a bureau de change. Soon after his arrival in Macau, Portuguese government officials and bankers recognised that he was a wizard not only with numbers but also community affairs.

The government entrusted his company with the enclave's lucrative gold trade monopoly, which benefited from the fact that Macau was not part of the Bretton Woods international monetary pact signed by 44 nations in 1944.

Ho Yin made a name for himself as a well-connected, monetary pundit during World War II, namely after stabilising the pataca and advising the Macau government and Banco Nacional Ultramarino, which issued the local currency, on financial matters.

He rose to political dominance in Macau in the early 1950s, after the establishment of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949.

One main problem, however, was that Portugal, then ruled by a fascist regime, continued to recognise Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government in Taiwan until 1974.

'Ho Yin became a political messenger between Beijing and Lisbon, because the two countries had no official ties at that time,' said Mr Castilho, who knew Ho Yin personally.

Ho Yin solved a succession of political 'misunderstandings' between Portugal and China over Macau between the 1950s and '70s, including a border skirmish in 1952 and Cultural Revolution riots in December 1966, which brought the local Portuguese administration to its knees and nearly led to Portugal's abandonment of the enclave.

'[Ho Yin] saved Macau in 1966 when it was on the verge of collapse,' a senior Macau police officer said.

'Ho Yin managed to solve the problem because he could talk to everyone involved, the Portuguese officials here, the Red Guards and the Chinese authorities in Guangdong and Beijing. No one else could.' He was a regular guest in Beijing, where he held talks on Macau with chairman Mao Zedong, former prime minister Zhou Enlai and other top Communist Party officials between the late 1950s and early 1980s.

He was also a member of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, president of the Macau Chinese Chamber of Commerce and vice-president of Macau's legislature, as well as chairman of about 200 companies and community organisations.

His other businesses included a bus company and several cinemas. Ho Yin was at that time internationally known as Macau's 'red capitalist' who was on good terms with left-wing apparatchiks in Beijing and right-wing autocrats in Lisbon, a situation that clearly made it possible for the enclave to survive the vicissitudes of the Cold War, the Cultural Revolution and Portugal's abrupt decolonisation process.

Portugal relinquished all sovereignty claims over Macau in the wake of its anti-colonial Revolution of the Carnations in 1974.

Macau has since officially been a Chinese territory under Portuguese administration. It will become a Special Administrative Region of China at midnight on December 19, after 442 years of Portuguese rule.

While Ho Yin was generally popular among Macau's politically divergent political forces, he was the target of a grenade attack at the greyhound canidrome in May 1966, but escaped injury. The culprits were never caught.

While some sources believed the botched assassination was the work of Kuomintang agents unhappy with Ho Yin's close ties with Beijing, others say it was possibly committed by members of a disgruntled triad gang.

Ho Yin was famous for his ability not only to solve political conflicts but also to 'pacify' rival triad gangs engaged in turf wars.

'Ho Yin's network of community contacts included triads who would usually calm down after his mediation efforts,' a retired judicial police inspector said.

'At that time the triads functioned as brotherhoods engaged in activities on the fringes of the law rather than the brutal gangsters killing each other nowadays.' Johnny Un, a senior Macau government information officer and former radio reporter, said Ho Yin had a strong interest in public welfare. 'Many of his businesses lost money, but he did not mind because they served the community as a whole,' Mr Un said.

Ho Yin had five wives who bore him six sons and seven daughters. Edmund Ho is his fifth son. Edmund's mother, Chan Keng, now in her 70s, was a famous Chinese opera singer.

Ho Yin died in Macau in 1983 aged 75.

Sources close to the family say the father decided some time before his death that Edmund should take over the family business.

The son studied business administration at York University in Canada and picked up his business experience with Peat Marwick in Hong Kong.

But the Ho family's story is virtually limited to Ho Yin and his fifth son.

Mr Ho's wife, Lau Wai-ching, whom he claims was his childhood sweetheart, has so far shunned the public limelight.

The couple, who married when they were in their 20s, have a son, King-man, 16, and a daughter, Mei-ji, 13.

Contrary to some Hong Kong tabloid reports, Mr Ho has never admitted to marital infidelities.

Launching his election campaign last month, he said he might not have been truthful to his wife once or twice during their 20-year marriage.

He denied, however, reports that he has had a string of flings.

Mr Ho, a keen golfer, has also denied any links with triads but has acknowledged that as a banker and businessman he could not exclude the possibility of ever having met a suspected triad member in Macau, Hong Kong or elsewhere.

He gradually assumed his late father's political posts in the mid-1980s, when he was in his 30s. He became a member of the governor's top advisory board, the consultative council, before joining the legislature in Macau and the National People's Congress in Beijing.

He is now a member of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress and vice-president of the Macau Legislative Assembly, two posts also held by his father.

Mr Ho, born in March 1955, is also a board member of many of Macau's main business concerns, including Air Macau, the Macau International Airport Company and the enclave's only TV and radio station, Teledifusao de Macau (TDM).

He also chairs the Macau Olympic Committee, the Macau Martial Arts Association, the Macau Association of Banks and is vice-president of the Macau Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

Macau's future chief executive is a board member on about 100 community, business, sports and cultural associations. Many Macau residents affectionately call him by his first name, Va-koh (Brother Va).

One of his friends describes him as 'very generous, even towards people who hurt him financially'.

In 1994, Mr Ho told the Post that he was 'very stubborn' in matters of friendship, adding: 'Even if I know my friends have done something wrong, I will help them. This is my weakness.' Mr Ho has so far defied political typecasting. While some observers describe him as a consensus-style community leader and an enlightened conservative, he said last week he preferred to be known as a 'practical, efficient and pragmatic' politician.

He has pledged that he will relinquish all his business interests after assuming the post of chief executive on December 20, replacing Macau's Lisbon-appointed Governor, General Vasco Rocha Vieira. He has also promised that as chief executive he will not give any privileges to former business associates.

'Everyone will be treated equally,' he said before his election.