Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Ho’s Old Ship Attracts Winds Of Controversy

Is it a floating restaurant or a casino in disguise? The $600-million Jumbo Kingdom holds its grand opening Thursday and its owners hope it would soon be one of the featured attractions in the Manila Bay area. The Jumbo Kingdom is a pagoda-shaped ship moored near the Folk Arts Theater in the Cultural Center Complex. It is being promoted as a floating restaurant, continuing the tradition it had enjoyed in Hong Kong’s Aberdeen Harbor as a dining establishment offering Chinese cuisine and Western dishes. But the ship has run into a storm of controversy since it was towed from Hong Kong, and that storm is showing signs of intensifying again. Critics smell something fishy about the Jumbo Kingdom. They suspect the ship, besides serving food, will also cater to the unsatiable appetite of gamblers. Fr. Robert Reyes, the priest who has challenged authorities on a number of national issues, accuses the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (PAGCOR) of secretly striking a deal with the gambling mogul Stanley Ho in reviving the moribund Jumbo Kingdom. Reyes said he would not be surprised if the floating restaurant would soon be converted into a full-blown casino. He said Ho’s name cannot be traced to the revival of the Jumbo Palace but Ho’s partner will run the restaurant. The management of Jumbo Palace insists the restaurant has no gaming tables or slot machines and that Ho is no longer connected with its operations. It said the company behind Jumbo Kingdom has no license from PAGCOR to operate a casino. Reyes said, however, Ho can easily get around that requirement. Ho regularly makes it to the list of Asia’s richest businessmen, having made his wealth on the gambling monopoly he has held for more than 40 years in the former Portuguese enclave of Macau. Annual revenue for the Hong Kong-based tycoon’s private company, Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau, is believed to be about $3.2 billion. It runs nine casinos in Macau as well as a jockey club and several lotteries. Ho also has business interests in Australia, with his $4.2 million for a 20-percent stake in Consolidated Gaming Group, which provides both hardware and software for the local gambling industry. Militant groups said Ho might resort to dummy investors to run Jumbo Kingdom because his former investments in the Philippines had gone sour. Ho had bought a 10-percent stake in the Philippine gambling company BW Resources Corp., the then darling of the Manila stock market. BW Resources had been a struggling small-time textile firm until it got the backing of the US-based Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide to buy out a major hotel and shopping mall development near Manila Bay. Two months later BW Resources’ majority owner, Dante Tan, a crony of deposed President Joseph Estrada, secured the license for what has become a widely popular televised bingo game show. BW Resources shares went through the roof. The stock, which started the year at P1.98, hit P93 the day before Ho’s purchase of a 10-percent stake in the company was revealed. But rumors quickly surfaced of improper trading in the company’s stock, prompting investigations by both the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission and the Philippine Stock Exchange. The House of Representatives inquired into the rumors, but Ho has refused to appear before the House Committee on Public Order and Security.

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