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A Man of Luck and Steel

Thu, 17th Jan 2013
The Gambling King who won a fortune but lost his ear. (January 2013)

He was born into a poor farming family in Guangdong province and went to Hong Kong in search of a better life. In 1937, along with a partner, he obtained the gambling concession in Macao, which made him one of the richest men in South China and enabled him to build a business empire.

Fu Tak-iong is one of the best-known people in Macao’s history. He is famous as a gambling king, a leader of the business community, a philanthropist to thousands of refugees during World War Two, and for being kidnapped at a monastery in February 1945. During the dramatic negotiations for his release, the kidnappers cut off part of his right ear.

After his family lost the gambling concession in 1961 to a consortium led by Stanley Ho, it moved to Hong Kong where it developed its business in hotels and real estate. Nothing remains of Fu in Macao except for two tablets dedicated to his parents that he had engraved in their memory; they stand in the garden of the spacious home he once lived in, close to the old Belavista Hotel.

He is remembered as a man of power, wealth and influence more than as a person who made a great contribution to the city.

Rising from poverty

Fu was born in 1894 in a village in Nanhai county, Foshan city, in Guangdong province. The family was very poor; the young man cut grass on the hills around his village to earn a few pennies. His first business venture was to boil peanuts in salted water and take them to the neighbouring city of Guangzhou to sell.

From an early age, he enjoyed gambling. When a drought aggravated the poverty of his family, he and his father went to Hong Kong in search of a better life. There he did whatever work he could find; he securedfound a post as an apprentice in a ship machinery yard. In his spare time, he walked around the streets and gambled when he had the opportunity.

One day he got into a fight and was arrested by the police. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison. 

When he was released, he decided to try his luck away from Hong Kong; he went into business in Guangdong and the neighbouring province of Guangxi.

His first business was money-lending; he lent cash to customers in exchange for their goods. He prospered in trading in Guangdong and Guangxi and met many officials and wealthy people. By 1927, he had earned enough to build a large garden in his home village in honour of his ancestors.

Attracted by gambling

He returned to Hong Kong with the money he had made and looked for greater opportunities. With his interest in gambling, he was intrigued by the gambling concession in Macao. In 1930, he made a bid but was defeated by Hou Heng, a consortium of powerful Hong Kong and Macao businessmen. They included Huo Zhi-ting, a wealthy businessman with gambling interests in Guangdong and large savings in the foreign banks of Hong Kong. The consortium had backing from two banks and bid 1.4 million patacas a year. Its casinos were on the fifth and sixth floor of the President Hotel. 

Fu became a friend of Huo and in 1935 the two set up gambling companies in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. In Shenzhen, he opened a casino in Baoan county, which, because of its location between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, attracted many gamblers. This badly affected the business in Macao.

The next opportunity to win the Macao gambling contract came at the end of 1936, when the franchise held by Hou Heng would expire. At the same time, Japan was preparing its all-out invasion of China. It was a good moment for Fu to move his business operations away from Guangdong to Macao.

This time, he prepared his bid with great care. He chose as his partner Kou Ho-ning, one of the richest and most powerful people in Macao.

Kou had a similar background to that of Fu. Born in 1878 into a poor family in Panyu, close to Guangzhou, he lost his father at the age of five and left home at the age of 14 in search of work; he became a servant and then went into business. In 1911, he moved to Macao where he leased a fantan parlour in the city’s entertainment district. Under his management, it achieved the highest turnover of any fantan parlour in the city.

From this, he diversified into opium, shipping and pawn-broking; he created the largest pawnshop business in the city. In 1916, he bought a sprawling three-storey mansion on Rua do Campo, built with a mixture of Chinese and Western styles. When Clark Gable came to Macao to make a film, he stayed in the mansion, in a room on the second floor.       

Fu and Kuo set up a company named Tai Heng, which made a bid of 1.8 million patacas and promised to employ 700–800 people. The government selected Tai Heng in January 1937; Tai Heng bought the President Hotel, renamed it the Central and put its casinos on the fifth and sixth floors. It was the flagship of the company, offering a night club, coffee shops, restaurants and other entertainments as well as the casinos.

Kou only put capital into Tai Heng; he left the gambling operations in the capable hands of his partner, Mr Fu.  

Perfect timing

Fu’s timing was perfect. Six months later, the Japanese army attacked the Marco Polo Bridge in Beijing and later took occupation of Guangdong province; he had left just in time. The war drove many wealthy people, Chinese and non-Chinese, to take refuge in Macao; they became clients of his hotels, restaurants and casinos.

Fu branched out into shipping and warehousing; he owned Port 16 and the shipping company that brought visitors from Hong Kong. He purchased a large house close to that of the Governor in the most desirable area of Macao. 

Business became even better after the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. More rich people moved to Macao – the only neutral place in the Far East. The war also provoked a flood of refugees from Hong Kong and Guangdong. The population of Macao tripled from its pre-war level to 450,000; it had never accommodated such a large number of people.

Thousands lived on the streets or in makeshift camps set up by the government, the churches and other charitable organisations. Like other rich people, Fu donated money to buy food and daily necessities for the refugees. 

Fu was also active as a contributor to Tong Sin Tong – the biggest Chinese charity in Macao – the Kiang Wu hospital and the Red Cross.

Kidnapping

On 10 February 1945 Fu was resting in the Kun Ian temple in Macao, when armed men broke in and kidnapped him. Because it was a Buddhist temple open to the general public, he was less well protected than usual. The kidnappers demanded a ransom of nine million patacas – an indication of Fu’s wealth. The family called in Ho Yin – the most influential Chinese man in Macao – as a mediator. He succeeded in negotiating the ransom amount down to 500,000 patacas. But one of Fu’s children tipped off the police; they went to the site where the handover was to take place.

Enraged, the kidnappers called off the handover, cut off a piece of Fu’s right ear and returned to their original demand of nine million. This time, another mediator was called in – Deng Wing-cheung, one of the most famous Cantonese opera stars, better known by his stage name San Ma Jai. He was able to negotiate the figure back down to 500,000 and arrange Fu’s release.

Undeterred

Such a trauma would have knocked out most men but not Mr Fu. He resumed his business career and diversified after the war into Hong Kong.

In 1952, he obtained land in Central on which his family would build the Furama Hotel. Four years later, he bought the Swire Pacific Bank Far East Building, also in Central. His interests included property, trade, shipping and cinemas. In addition, he was a senior member of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Macao.

Kou, his partner in the Tai Heng franchise, died at his home in Hong Kong in 1955. Fu also died at his home in Hong Kong, in 1960, at the age of 66. He had 16 children.

The following year, Tai Heng lost the Macao gambling franchise to a newcomer, Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau. It offered the government an annual payment of 3.167 million patacas, compared to the 3.15 million by Tai Heng.

After the loss of its major business in Macao, the Fu family withdrew to Hong Kong and concentrated on its interests there.

Fu’s eldest son founded the Furama Hotel in Connaught Road Central, which opened in 1973 as one of the premier hotels in the colony. The hotel was later demolished; the site now houses the AIA Building.

In Macao today, there is almost no trace of the extraordinary life of Fu Tak-Iong. There are no statues or museums in his honour. In the garden of his former home stand two stone tablets with engravings on them; he commissioned a calligrapher to carve them in 1952, in honour of his father and mother. The family sold the house, which now belongs to an owner from Hong Kong.

 

By Mark O’Neill in Macao

(Issue N. 14, January 2013)