Sun, Dec 29, 2002 - Page 17 News List

A big ugly crapshoot

The nasty climate doesn't draw tourists, 20 percent of the population has fled, and the economy is on the skids, so Penghu residents are ready to bet on gambling, but the central government is holding all the cards

By David Frazier  /  STAFF REPORTER

Yan Chin-tsai and Fengkuei, the location that is one of the proposed sites for Penghu's casino.

PHOTO: DAVID FRAZIER, TAIPEI TIMES

Flying to Penghu in late November, I read in a government tourist brochure that the island group got its first McDonald's as recently as Jan. 28, this year. The restaurant is located in Penghu's largest city, Makung, and on its first day of business it recorded an all-time record for a McDonald's in Taiwan: more than 6,000

customers on opening day. Given Penghu's current population, about 83,000, and that of Makung, about 53,000, more than one in ten Makungers or more than one in 15 residents of the entire archipelago flocked to this McDonald's the day it opened. Here is a place that wants something new so bad it finds McDonald's exciting. Here is a place that wants to change.

Penghu is a cluster of 64 sand-soiled and wind-scoured islands in the middle of the Taiwan Strait. Government tourism agencies have attempted at various times to bill it as "the Hawaii of Taiwan," but the seven-month-long windstorms that arrive every October have pretty much blown that effort to dust.

More recently, the "Las Vegas of Taiwan" has seemed a better possibility. A legislative movement to legalize organized gambling on Taiwan's outlying islands has been building since 1988 and has gradually come to target Penghu specifically. The chance has reportedly grabbed the attention of everyone from Donald Trump to the casino managers at Las Vegas Sands Inc, and investment proposals have pushed towards US$1 billion.

In June, a non-binding referendum on the issue saw 80 percent of 33,000 Penghu residents vote in favor of bringing in casinos. Immediately afterwards, President Chen's Cabinet and several legislators contested the results, calling the referendum "illegal" and citing an October 2000 poll of 783 residents showing 45 percent for and 38 percent against. On Nov. 4, Chen's government declared a lack of consensus and placed the gambling proposal on indefinite hold.

nothing to lose

What was never explained was why Penghu residents want gambling so badly. The politicians didn't do it and neither did the media, which tends to only interview politicians anyway. To take, for example, the Taipei Times, in the last six months it has only quoted one Penghu resident.

So on my trip to Penghu I wanted to talk to people about what gambling liberalization would mean to them. I discussed the issue with 20 people, and in small-town Penghu that involved drinking a lot of tea. By the end of my interviews I only found four people against gambling, and they were all women under the age of 19.

What does that demographic mean? In my unscientific survey, probably not much. But this survey wasn't so much about producing reliable statistics as getting a glimpse of Penghu's biggest problems. Driving around on a 125cc scooter, which was sometimes almost blown over by Penghu's famous gale-force winds, I heard from fishermen, storekeepers, kids and government officials that the islands are in decline. The fishing industry has withered. Tourism isn't working. And the population is leaving -- 20 percent in the last 10 years. These are the problems that don't pop up in the news but have brought residents to think of gambling (which is a cultural habit anyway) as a panacea. What's more, they told me, gambling is the only oasis they can see on the horizon. Maybe that was why so few questioned whether or not it was a mirage.

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