Slide open the drawer beside your hotel bed and, in many cities, you will find a Gideon’s bible. In Macau you discover a small, neat, plastic-wrapped totem of another faith: a brand new deck of cards. Even when you have closed your curtains to the blazing neon, the casinos are with you in spirit. Each year, millions of visitors, rich and poor, make the pilgrimage from Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. The wealthy elite are helicoptered in. Factory workers arrive on cramped coaches. Their temples have names such as the City of Dreams and Babylon; the congregations are growing.
They used to call it Asia’s Monte Carlo, or the Las Vegas of the East, but this small territory — barely known to many in the West — is the new giant of the casino industry. For centuries, Macau was a Portuguese colony; since 1999 it has belonged to China as a Special Administrative Region. Thanks to the relative freedoms it enjoys under this “one country, two systems” formula, it has leapfrogged its rivals, embracing the glitz and kitsch of gambling, and above all, the cash.
These days Macau is bigger than Vegas: four times bigger, to be precise. Last year, gaming revenues from its 33 casinos hit a record high of US$23.8 billion. Last month, they surged to a new monthly record of US$2.5 billion — well above the entire annual takings for 2001.
Accountancy firm Pricewaterhouse-Coopers estimates that the yearly take could hit US$44.5 billion by 2014.
Yet some of the shine has come off the industry recently. The government has vowed to rein in casino development and US and Hong Kong regulators have launched inquiries into one of the big operators. Could the sector’s long streak of luck be running out at last?
The overnight success of Macau’s casino industry was more than a century-and-a-half in the making. In the 1840s, Portuguese administrators searched for new sources of revenue as foreign merchants and traders decamped to fast-developing Hong Kong.
“They effectively took up all the marginal jobs and trades,” explains historian Jason Wordie: selling indentured laborers to Latin American mines and plantations; licensing brothels; and regulating gaming houses.
Camilo Pessanha, a Portuguese poet who lived in Macau for many years, described it as “a material and moral rubbish heap.”
However, for the residents of Hong Kong and southern China, the appeal was simple.
“It was close enough to be accessible — and far enough away from prying eyes,” says Wordie, whose book Macau: An Exploration is out next year. “It was the same as today: for people keeping mistresses or gambling.”
Gaming tourism got a kickstart in the 1920s from an energetic new monopoly; and another boost in the 1960s, when the government granted the rights to a syndicate dominated by Stanley Ho (何鴻燊). Until March, the 89-year-old “casino king” held about one-third of the industry. Now, after a very public feud that saw him threatening to sue two of his 17 children (by four wives), he has announced he is handing over most of his stake to his family. His empire includes perhaps Macau’s best-known casino, the Lisboa, which these days has the seedy air of a down-at-heel nightclub. Its neon displays have a retro feel and saxophone jazz eases from the speakers.
“No singlets, no slippers, no shorts” reads a sign at the entrance.