Hong Kong's poster girl is not your average heiress
Josie Ho strayed from a privileged family into acting, a job her elders viewed as “lower class”
“MY FAMILY is a typical boring high-society family, very cliched. And if I’d gone into business, I’d have made a fool of myself. I’d have been put in an asylum,” giggles Hong Kong actor and rock star Josie Ho Chiu-yee.
Named one of the world’s most intriguing billionaire heiresses by Forbesmagazine, and a trendsetter in Asia, Josie Ho is more riot girl than classic heiress, and her cameo in Steven Soderbergh’s new film Contagionunderlies her serious acting credentials.
She is productive in the way that Hong Kong entertainers tend to be. She has four films opening in coming weeks, including Motorway by top Hong Kong director Johnnie To, while next year she will feature in Hany Abu Assad’s The Courier.She has made seven rock albums and her band, Josie Ho The Uni Boys, are touring all the time.
Sitting opposite Ho in a humid Causeway Bay cafe, thinking of the tales and intrigue that surround her family, one thing is certain – they are certainly not your average boring rich family.
One of the richest men in the world with a €2.3 billion fortune from casinos in the former Portuguese colony of Macau, Stanley Ho (89) is one-eighth Irish – and Josie Ho one-sixteenth Irish.
“The King of Macau” made his fortune smuggling goods between China and Macau during the second World War. His exploits are legendary – his boat was once captured by pirates, and the crew killed, but he managed to take a gun from his captors and seize back his vessel. Separating the myth from the man is difficult. I ask Josie Ho about her father’s religious beliefs – the story is that he is a daily communicant, but she insists he is an atheist.
Her father has transformed Macau into a bigger gambling venue than Las Vegas, and throughout his career he has been accused of having links with Triad gangs in Macau, though he denies the accusations.
But getting into the business was tough for her. Stanley Ho was a strict father and opposed to having a daughter on stage. Traditional Chinese families frown on performers.
“It’s not like they don’t respect art, but older Chinese people look at actors and performers, and think they are from a lower class, and don’t want their daughter doing it,” said Josie Ho.
However, when she was 17 years old, her father asked her to take part in the Miss Macau beauty pageant – he was short on competitors.
“I said no but I loved this opportunity. I weighed 130 pounds and was five foot three, and I don’t like to show myself in a bathing costume. But my sisters said, ‘turn this opportunity and ask dad if you can sing’.”
To escape the shadow of the family, she took off to Taiwan at an early age, and worked hard, but also played hard.
“I used to sneak out to party, there were no mobile phones and they used to get scared. But I had no money. Can you believe that? I had one credit card, and in those days Hong Kong Bank was a long way away. I had no money, I was loaning money from the company. They told me I wasn’t going out and I should catch a bus.”
Then she came back to Hong Kong and the volleyball captain from school landed a role playing a volleyball star in a movie.
“I didn’t even know where the camera was. But the market was good, anyone could be in movies,” she said. “I got more and more movies, then I got really serious about acting, it got more and more serious, and more and more people come looking for me,” she said.
“I’ve never used the family connection. When I was 18, my dad offered help and I said no. I was pretty mature, I’d seen high society and I’d seen through those people. It’s my wish, not his burden.”
The Ho family feud became public in January – and it was quite a row. Stanley Ho accused two of the four women he calls his “wives“ – his one legal wife, Clementina, died in 2004 – and some of his 16 children of trying to seize control of Lanceford, the family company that holds his stake in the massive Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau, which dominates commerce in Macau, controlling 20 of its 33 casinos.
Stanley Ho owns hotels, apartment buildings, and the ferries and buses that transport the punters to and fro.
He wanted an even split among his offspring but accused some of the families of trying to take a bigger stake, including his third “wife” Chan Un-chan and his second “wife” Lucina Laam King-ying, who is Josie’s mother and also mother of Pansy and Lawrence, who have gambling interests of their own in the city.
Asked about the family feud, Ho said: “I didn’t really care about it. I don’t care who’s got what, I’m just doing my thing. I’m a really selfish person. All I did was I went home to dinner a lot more to show some support for the family, but I really don’t know the details.
“Sometimes the newspaper knows more than I do. It doesn’t change the relationship, we’re still a family. I can make enough for myself. I’m proud of my independence.”