The power struggle erupted in public on Jan. 24 with a company statement that Mr. Ho had given his SJM stake to the families of his second and third wives. A flurry of claims and counterclaims by family factions ensued.
At one point, Mr. Ho was wheeled out in a chair by his third wife, Ms. Chan, to read a halting statement on Hong Kong television declaring the dispute had been settled.
Mr. Ho’s lawyer, who says the casino magnate was pressured into the statement and wants to divide his estate equally, filed suit to reclaim the assets, likely leading to a protracted legal tussle.
As the high-stakes drama plays out, it has highlighted the dilemma faced by a generation of aging Hong Kong tycoons who, reluctant to relinquish power, are beset by competing claims to their fortunes.
The family of Nan Fung Group founder Chen Din-hwa has been squabbling over his company, which has interests in property, textiles and shipping. Mr. Chen, 87, is Hong Kong’s 11th richest person, according to Forbes, which puts his wealth at $3.8 billion.
The sons of Kam Shui-fai, the late founder of the Hong Kong restaurant chain Yung Kee, renowned for roast goose, are battling for control of his estate. In 2008, the chief executive of Sun Hung Kai Properties, a major developer, was ousted by his two younger brothers after he accused them of plotting to remove him by portraying him as mentally ill.
Such disputes are “to a certain extent quite common in Chinese family businesses, particularly if the patriarch has a number of wives and concubines,” said Victor Zheng, an assistant professor at Hong Kong University who has written a book on the Chinese inheritance system.
Tradition dictates that Mr. Ho give the family of his first wife a greater share of the estate, said Mr. Zheng, who added that it appeared as if the families of the second and third wives were plotting to claim a bigger share.
Elsewhere in Asia, the handover of family wealth between generations is now largely choreographed in advance.
Under the longtime dictatorship of Indonesia’s Suharto, whose lucrative family-run businesses dominated the economy, sibling rivalry over multimillion-dollar deals burst into the public arena.
But today, disputes in most family-run conglomerates - the Salim Group, for instance, headed by Liem Sioe Liong - tend to be handled discretely. One generation quietly passes on control to the next.
Likewise in South Korea, where family-controlled conglomerates, known as chaebol, have long been the drivers of the country’s economy. Control of the two most prominent chaebol - respectively anchored by Samsung Electronics Co. and Hyundai Motor Co. - is widely expected in coming years to pass smoothly to a third generation.