Chinese triad rumours that sunk Packer

Lawrence Ho, the Macau-based casino operator and son of the flamboyant “godfather” of Asia’s largest gaming empire, and James Packer, the billionaire Australian businessman and investor.

Bound by the “stunning returns from their Asian casinos and their shared experience of being raised by a domineering father”, the men were friends, confidantes and business partners, so close they referred to each other as “brother”.

During a lucrative joint venture that lasted 11 years, Mr Packer’s Crown Resorts and Mr Ho’s Melco Resorts built a casino business in Macau and Manila that earned Crown roughly $4.5 billion.

For Mr Packer, it was a stunning return of almost six times his investment. But for Mr Ho, “getting out of working with my family and my father’s company was worth any price”, he said in an interview for Damon Kitney’s 2018 Packer biography, The Price of Fortune.

In 2019, when Mr Ho’s Melco Resorts group signed a $1.8 billion deal to buy 20 per cent of Crown, lightning should’ve struck twice for the duo’s Melco Crown.

Instead, the deal helped spark the inquiry that would forever tarnish Mr Packer’s credibility and could now force him to either sell his Crown stake or frantically make over his entire corporate entity.

RELATED: James Packer’s 20 years from hell


Long before Mr Packer and Mr Ho became pals, when the NSW Government first entertained the idea of building a casino back in the 1980s, there was one man black-listed from ever having any involvement.

Stanley Ho was the flamboyant “godfather” of Macau casinos, renowned for steering gaming in the autonomous Chinese region to eclipse Las Vegas and survived by the 14 children – one of them Lawrence Ho – he had fathered with four wives when he died last May.

Making his first fortune before the age of 24 smuggling goods into China while collaborating with the Japanese, Stanley was credited with transforming Macau into the world’s biggest casino centre.

For all his success, however, Stanley was plagued by reports of his ties to members of the 14K and Sun Yee On triads – the feared Chinese organised crime syndicates – and accusations of money laundering.

“There is no doubt that by virtue of the setups of the VIP rooms, Stanley has interacted with individuals that are members of triads,” MGM vice-president of corporate security, Kyle Edwards, stated in 2003.

In 2009, a damning assessment by New Jersey gaming authorities into his sister, Pansy Ho, reported that “numerous governmental and regulatory agencies have referenced Stanley Ho’s associations with criminal enterprises, including permitting organised crime to operate and thrive within his casinos”.

While Stanley was never arrested or convicted – and repeatedly denied his links to the triads – he did not deny the allegations that his casino’s VIP rooms were used by the syndicates to launder money when the claim was put to him in 2007 by The New York Times.

Instead, he said that during the 1980s and 1990s, “anyone involved in gaming was vulnerable to such accusations”.

RELATED: Crippling blow to Crown’s $2.2bn casino

Years later, when Mr Packer secured licensing for his casino in Sydney’s Barangaroo, he agreed to have nothing to do with his friend’s father due to his alleged crime links.

“To the extent to which it is within its power to do so, Crown will ensure it prevents any new business activities or transactions of a material nature between Stanley Huang Sun Ho or a Stanley Ho associate and Crown, any of Crown’s offices directors or employees or any Crown subsidiary,” the VIP Gaming Management Agreement stated.

Mr Packer also agreed to prevent “Stanley Huang Sun Ho or a Stanley Ho associate from acquiring any direct or beneficial interest in Crown, a subsidiary of Crown, Melco Crown or a subsidiary of Melco Crown”.

From the surface, it didn’t look to be an issue – Lawrence Ho had publicly distanced himself from his father and set himself up as the competition, and there was no suggestion he was himself involved in any criminal activity. Legally, at least, it was assumed that the two Ho men had severed all ties.

Yet Stanley never truly left the fold. A secret NSW Government banning list, released as part of the inquiry, revealed that Melco’s biggest shareholder was a trust in the Virgin Islands called Great Respect – of which he was a beneficiary until his death.

Last October, Mr Packer told the inquiry he was at one time aware that Melco was partially owned by a family trust called Great Respect, but that he “gave it no thought”.

RELATED: Mounting fallout at Packer’s Crown

The arrest of 19 Crown employees in China in October 2016 was followed by an explosive investigation by Nine Newspapers and 60 Minutes into Crown’s operations in China – that showed Crown was “prepared to get into bed with junket operators backed by Asian organised crime syndicates called ‘triads’”.

In early 2020, Melco announced that it would not pursue its planned investment in Australia as a result of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and its remaining stake in Crown was later sold to Blackstone.

And while the inquiry ruled that there had been no breach in the intended sale to Mr Ho, almost everything else about Crown’s operations – revelations of personal threats and accusations of negligence in policing to illegal or unlawful operations in China – were cause for alarm.

“Any applicant for a casino licence with the attributes of Crown’s stark realities of facilitating money laundering, exposing staff to the risk of detention in a foreign jurisdiction and pursuing commercial relationships with individuals with connections to triads and organised crime groups would not be confident of a positive outcome,” the report said.


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