What a difference a day makes in Macau, where fortunes are made and lost overnight. Gamblers turn their cards and waves of excitement build and fall throughout the hall. Smiles creep across players' faces and laughter erupts at a winning hand. Their bodies slump when the chips are raked in toward the bank.
Hundreds of eyes, lights and digital surveillance cameras are trained on the tables as the uniformed dealers, pit bosses and managers survey the action. Outside the main betting arena heavily made-up women dressed in revealing gowns or tight jeans glide by, whispering enticements. In the malls and on the street pawn shops, jewelry stores and currency are doing steady business.
Hawkers hand out flyers to introduce their cafes, massage parlors, KTVs and bars -- catering to the thirsty, hungry and lonely. Taxis circle for the next ride, and it goes on into the morning and through the next day. The gamblers move from table to table in galleries that have never seen natural light. It is dizzying 24-seven action, all-year round.
But when the sun rises the city changes its complexion and is bathed in an orange-tinted light. Children with bright backpacks groaning under the weight of their books walk to school, the bakeries sell fresh bread and Danish pastries. The resident Portuguese sip their first coffee of the day. Breakfast shops in the residential areas are open for congee, soya milk drinks and youtiao. Shops' shutters are raised, office workers get down to business.
And the first busload of tourists flock to view the sights of the city, the UNESCO heritage-listed town center with its crazy paving and European colonial-style buildings, in pastel yellow, light blue and pink. They come across the Ruins of St Paul's, wander round the history museum and learn Macau was the earliest European settlement in China when the Portuguese established a trading post in 1557.
Gambling was introduced in 1847 to offset the growing influence of Hong Kong and was monopolized in 1937, when Macau was known as the "Monte Carlo of the Orient." Stanley Ho and his associates in the organization Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau have effectively run things since they took over the monopoly in 1962, barely disturbed until recently by the hand over from the Portuguese enclave to China in December 1999.
In 2002, however, gaming concessions were handed to three companies, that included Ho, but also a group with US interests. Venetian Macau opened The Sands last year and has a Las Vegas-style operation. It focuses more on part-time or small-time players than Ho's flagship operation at the Lisboa which fishes principally for big-time players, or "whales."
"We're a US-run company and we don't take shit. There are no gangsters, and we don't encourage prostitutes," said a Romanian pit boss at Sands, who asked not to be named. "They [the Ho organization] used to be able to pretty much do what they wanted, but things have changed a lot."
At the Sands, where the value of chips hitting the green baize table doubled to US$2 billion in the second quarter, it is bright and there is a buzz as thousands of people are entertained while they gamble. Civil servants, who are banned from going to casinos except on one holiday a year, go to the Sands for its famed buffet.
At the Lisboa, there are hundreds rather than thousands of punters. Prostitutes prowl outside the gaming halls. They can't stop walking. If they stand still and procure they will be arrested. Transactions are done on the run and the couples disappear in an elevator to one of the hotel's rooms. In the main gambling hall there is a yellow pallor and the betting is serious and relentless.