Mon, Sep 10, 2012 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: Taiwanese isles face US$2 billion makeover

By Peter Enav  /  AP, BEIGAN

Visitors look down from the summit of Bonshan on the island’s single runway, jutting out into the sea on Beigan in the Matsu island group, off the coast of northern Taiwan on Aug. 20.

Photo: Wally Santana, AFP

Cheng Yu-lan, an elfin-looking woman of 55, surveys the terraced courtyard outside her deserted Matsu tea shop and considers the US$2 billion bonanza about to wash over the offshore Taiwanese archipelago, a bonanza that seems set to change the lives of its 7,000 people beyond all recognition. In early July, about 3,000 Matsu residents voted 57 to 43 to permit casino gambling in this onetime Cold War flashpoint, immortalized during the 1960 US presidential campaign when John Kennedy and Richard Nixon traded barbs over possible US aid in the event of an attack from China, just 16km to the west.

Their votes were clearly influenced by the promises of US businessman Bill Weidner, who pledged not only to build a new casino, but also a world-class tourist resort, a vastly expanded airport, a 3km-wide bridge linking Matsu’s two main islands, a university designed to train some of the 5,000 people needed to run the facilities, and perhaps most alluring of all, a monthly payment of NT$80,000 for every Matsu resident five years after the casino opened.

For a place with just the barest patina of industry and agriculture, a place with just the barest patina of anything at all in fact, except for heart-stopping natural beauty and the presence of tens of millions of increasingly prosperous Chinese consumers just across the waters of the East China Sea, the choice might have seemed clear.

“Of course I voted in favor,” said a wizened-looking woman who identified herself only by her surname, Lin (林), as she lazily prepared hong dzao, a sorghum-based sauce that is a staple of local cooking. “With all this money how could I not?”

However, to Cheng and other Matsu natives — even people who voted “yes” — the issue is anything but simple, complicated by serious concerns over the environment, and the possible introduction of drugs and organized crime into their placid island home.

“To say whether this project is either good or bad is very difficult,” said Cheng, proudly showing a visitor the traditional southern Chinese furniture she has painstakingly assembled in her dimly lit tea shop. “There are both pros and cons, good points and bad.”

Weidner’s head of Asian operations, Hong Kong-born Eric Chiu, acknowledges Cheng’s worries, but says that he and the company he represents will safeguard Matsu’s traditional culture even as they develop a world-class casino and resort complex that are expected to attract visitors from all over Asia.

“The key to this project is good management,” he says. “And we will provide that management.”

Weidner’s Matsu development is part of an overall effort by international gaming moguls to take advantage of the seemingly insatiable demand of Chinese nationals with increasing amounts of disposable income to try their luck at casino gambling. The practice is banned within China itself, but in places like the former Portuguese colony of Macau, Chinese high rollers and slot-machine addicts alike are betting billions of dollars annually.

Matsu’s proximity to 40 million people in northern Fujian and southern Zhejiang provinces — to say nothing of the 23 million in Taiwan itself — make it a natural to join the list, Chiu says. He says he expects the project will draw a million visitors during its first year of operations — still four years off, based on the year-and-a-half needed for the legislature to iron out oversight details, and the additional three years required to complete construction.

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