Five years after being returned to China on Dec. 20, 1999, the once-sleepy former Portuguese colony of Macau has awoken to transform itself into Asia's very own Las Vegas.
Behind a counter cluttered with exotic cocktails, scantily dressed girls sway their hips to the latest hit which is quickly taken up by a rapper who looks like he has come from Harlem. Under bright lights and a giant screen flashing images of a perfect world, thousands of gaming tables and machines crowd fashionable restaurants.
The era of smoky, dim dens that gave Macau its reputation as a gambling hell has long passed. Today the scene has an American flavor, such as at the Sands casino, that is straight out of Las Vegas.
"Macau has become Las Vegas. I have been down there and that is where I realized that this is what China wants to do with Macau," said Jose Rocha Dinis, editor of the Portuguese-language daily Jornal Tribuna Macau.
Dinis doesn't recognize "his" Macau, where he arrived 23 years ago.
"It was a small, very quiet town. Everything has changed in five years and especially in the past three years," he said.
The turning point was not Macau's return to China in 1999 but the end of a monopoly on gambling in 2001, Dinis said.
The handover ended 452 years of Portuguese presence in the last colony in Asia. The transfer was smooth, unlike that of Hong Kong across the Pearl River two years earlier, because "Macau was already Chinese," he said.
"The Portuguese only had the power to name the governor, the diplomacy and the security forces. Everything else was already done in Macau by the local government," Dinis said.
The real revolution only came in 2001. That year Macau's most prominent Chinese resident Stanley Ho lost the privilege of being the territory's one and only gambling baron -- a luxury he had had since 1962 because of a concession from the government. Today Ho's Oriental Palace casino, with its outdated Chinese kitsch, and the gaudy gold-covered Lisboa, look like dinosaurs in the new Macau.
"A new era has begun in 2001," said Glenn McCartney, a gambling expert at the Institute for Tourism Studies, unfolding a map of a Macau to come.
"By 2009, 60,000 hotel rooms and 20 casinos will be opened," he said. The newcomers will include a replica of Las Vegas' famous Venetian casino and hotel, complete with canals and gondolas, he said.
The investments are estimated to be worth more than 25 billion patacas (US$3.2 billion).
In 1999 the returns from gambling amounted to US$1.7 billion. This rose to US$3.6 billion dollars last year, putting Macau third in the world behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City, both in the US, McCartney said.
It should overtake Las Vegas next year, experts say.
Casinos already represent "more than 40 percent of the gross national product and more than 80 percent of the income" of the territory, said Albano Martins, the main economist in Macau.
"At the end of 2004, the taxes paid by the casinos will match the whole budget of the state [Macau], that is 15 billion patacas," he said.
While the city fought recession in 1999, its growth has since become one of the highest in the world: 46.7 percent in the second trimester of this year.
"The key is the flood of the Chinese," said Martins. Macau is one of a limited number of territories or countries which Chinese tourists are able to visit as individual travelers and not on organized tours.