Sabrina Ho Chiu-yeng is doing what she can to help Macau diversify. The 26-year-old daughter of Stanley Ho Hung-sun may be better known for gracing society and entertainment pages, but in January she organised the first Macau sales by China’s state-owned Poly Auction and then in November held her own annual hotel art fair, having already launched an exhibition to promote the work of young art graduates in September.
“Macau is changing,” she tells The Collector. “We don’t want to rely just on the gaming industry. We want more families to come here for holidays, we want to boost our cultural and creative industries.”
This is a politically correct view for the daughter of a casino magnate. Macau is in the cross hairs of Beijing’s war on corruption and capital outflow. The central government started urging the city to quit its addiction to the gaming sector, the taxes from which pay for most public expenditures, back during the boom years, when the “build it and they will come” mentality ruled the casino industry. Today, mainland policies to discourage high rollers combined with a slowing economy have increased the pressure to find new revenues.
Fundamental change has been slow to come. Five casinos have opened since 2012 and more are on the way, including two from branches of the Ho empire – the Grand Lisboa Palace, led by Ho’s mother, Angela Leong On-kei (Stanley’s so-called “fourth wife”), and MGM Cotai, headed by Sabrina Ho’s half-sister Pansy Ho Chiu-king.
So are Sabrina’s cultural endeavours all just a bit of soft public relations for the clan?
Well, China’s biggest auction house is treating her seriously, and hopes her youthful energy and family connections can help it break into a new and wealthy market where no international house has a presence. In return, Ho says, she wants the auctions to help attract tourists and perhaps encourage the city’s 600,000 residents to develop more of an interest in culture. The partnership, called Poly Auction Macau, is 51 per cent owned by Poly and the rest by Ho’s company, Chiu Yeng Culture.
Ho grew up surrounded by art and other collectables owned by her parents but she is fairly new to the auctions business. After graduating with an arts degree from the University of Hong Kong, in 2013, she worked on the branding and marketing side of the family’s hotel and property businesses. “But I like art and I asked Poly if I could work part time at their Hong Kong office, to learn about the auction world,” she says.
The former intern is now chief executive of Poly Auction Macau, and charged with forging a new path for a large, state-owned Chinese company in a dreary economy.
The results of the second sales, at the end of last month, were mixed. About HK$170 million of sales were made in four separate auctions of 200 lots. There were highlights, such as the HK$29 million hammer price for Wu Guanzhong’s Snowscape in Beijing (1975), but only a quarter of the lots in the Chinese ceramics and works of art sale on November 25 found buyers. Modern and contemporary Asian art did better, with 73 per cent of the lots sold; however, those sales achieved only 39 per cent of the value of the auction’s presale estimates. Remarkably, all the whisky, jewellery, watches and handbags were snatched up.
“Macau buyers tend to be more interested in contemporary art and jewellery,” Ho says. “There are collectors of traditional Chinese paintings but there is probably more potential in seeking out new collectors of contemporary and modern art here.”
In any case, it’s not just about the money, she says. “My company has started an annual showcase, called the Y Show, to promote new Macau artists and designers. We invite major international companies like Facebook and Tencent to come and see if they want to hire some of them. I also see myself as a culture ambassador. Yes, running auctions is a business but if you add lots of elements around them, you can raise them to a different level that can influence many more people,” she says.
La Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau, founded by Ho’s father, has always had a portfolio covering many aspects of tourism – hotels, a stake in Macau’s airport and Air Macau, hydrofoils from Hong Kong and even a tourist landmark, Macau Tower. But, historically, these are seen as subsidiaries that help to bring gamblers to the company’s casinos.
No longer, Ho says. In an era when the gaming industry is hobbled by overcapacity, she is turning a family-owned hotel into a mini art hub instead of a casino resort.
“I am helping my mother reposition the Regency Hotel, which we have renamed the Regency Art Hotel,” Ho says. “This is where we have the hotel art fair and the auctions. This is the new way of doing things.”