When Typhoon Hato swept into Macau it exposed a very different side to a territory best known for ostentatious casinos and wealthy high rollers.
Images of people desperately trying to cope with shoulder-high flood waters, torn up roads and smashed buildings gave a window into the lives of the ordinary residents of Macau, a world away from chandeliered gambling halls.
The storm late last month left 10 dead, and businesses and homes washed out in the territory’s worst typhoon for more than 50 years, sparking angry criticism by some residents who said authorities had failed to protect them.
A corruption probe is looking into whether the territory’s weather bureau failed to raise severe storm warning signals for fear of damaging casino trade.
Macau is listed by Global Finance Magazine as the world’s third-richest territory, based on data from the IMF.
However, between 8 and 10 percent of the local population — about 50,000 people — live in poverty, global charity Caritas says.
Those who were already struggling in the territory say they are worse off after Hato.
Wong Siu-yee is thankful her family escaped unhurt, but the loss of the family motorbike and car, which were washed away, left her with a bill of 200,000 Macau patacas (US$24,800).
It is another setback for Wong who relies on her eldest son’s salary and charity donations to supplement her monthly wage of between 1,000 to 5,000 patacas, which she earns working part-time as a cleaner and caterer.
“We hustle for our two meals each day ... it’s hard when you are a single mother,” said Wong, in her late 40s.
Since the storm, anxious Wong rations the family’s diet of canned foods and cheap dried-out vegetables even more carefully as she lives in fear of another typhoon.
“Maybe this disaster is a warning for Macau to plan its city better,” she said.
Paul Pun(潘志明), who heads the Macau branch of Caritas, said while the local government has improved its poverty relief efforts in recent years — including setting up food banks — the wealth gap remains too wide.
Tourism, rising property values and an economy dominated by the gambling industry have buoyed the rich while disposable income for the poor has dwindled due to higher prices, despite casinos providing new jobs, he told reporters.
Pun said many of the enclave’s decisionmakers are businesspeople with an eye on profit rather than looking at what he calls “the health of Macau” and its long-term development.
While the government has a number of measures to help those in need, including subsistence allowances, Pun believes it does not go far enough.
Those who are able to afford to buy a house have little hope of ever paying off the mortgage, however hard they work, and local businesses lack support.
“The procedures for tackling the urgent needs of small and medium-sized enterprises are slow and subject to long waits,” Pun said. “But [the government] is very efficient when it comes to the gambling industry.”
Shopkeeper Song Wai-ho’s store, stacked with delicate household goods, from porcelain bowls to expensive Japanese knives, was awash with sludge after being flooded out by the typhoon, with the repair bill estimated at 500,000 patacas.
Although the government has offered to lend money to battered stores like his, Song, 45, said he would rather authorities made long-term practical improvements that would safeguard ordinary residents.
“If the government could build a floodgate, that would be better than lending me money,” he said.
Song dismissed government promises to upgrade Macau’s outdated infrastructure — from building storm drains to completing a much delayed light rail network — as “useless talk.”
“They have to actually do it, not just say it,” he said.
For some, the challenge of starting again after Hato seems insurmountable.
The storm washed away the Chung family store’s valuable stock of Chinese medicines in which they had invested their entire fortune, believing they would only appreciate in value.
“All our medicines were here. Now all my savings are wiped out,” said Mrs Chung, 63.
She hoped they would be granted emergency funds by the government, but doubted they would cover the family’s losses.
As the casinos recover swiftly and tourists return, Pun said Hato exposed the reality of government priorities.
“They didn’t put the safety of Macau’s people first,” he said.
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