It’s Saturday night in Macau. Jetfoils packed with Hong Kong Chinese are pulling into the ferry terminal every 15 minutes. One mile north, at the land border with China, new arrivals are elbowing their way toward customs checkpoints in a hall longer than a football field. By 9 p.m. visitors are coming at the rate of 16,000 an hour. They carry pockets full of cash and very little luggage. Most will stay a day or less. They will spend almost every minute in one of Macau’s 43 casinos.
Outside the Wynn Macau, an artificial lake is roiling with bursts of flame and “Luck Be A Lady Tonight” echoes through the porte-cochère. Inside, however, it’s clear this Wynn resort is no Vegas clone. There are no lounge singers or comedians, and refreshment consists mainly of mango nectar served by middle-aged women in brown pantsuits. In Macau, gambling alone rules.
Macau is the only entity on the Chinese mainland where gaming is legal.
“In 2007 Macau surpassed Las Vegas as the biggest gaming city in the world,” says Ian Coughlan, president of the Wynn Macau. “Every day Macau casinos have more than $10.4 billion in bets placed, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
In 1999, Portugal formally handed administration of Macau back to the Chinese, and the city became a Special Administrative Region. The designation is part of China’s policy of “one country, two systems,” under which it allowed the newly reunited entities autonomy over their own affairs except when it came to foreign policy and national defense. In 2002, the new Macau government allowed five outside concessionaires—three of them American—to build competing resorts and casinos that would reflect China’s growing wealth and power.
“China wanted Macau to have growth, stability, American management standards and an international appreciation of quality,” says the director of the city’s Gaming Inspection & Coordination Bureau, Manuel Joaquim das Neves.
Just 12 months after opening the Macau Sands, the Las Vegas Sands Corp. had recouped its entire $265 million investment and earned enough profit to start building a grander casino, the Venetian Casino and Resort Hotel. Completed in the summer of 2007 at a cost of $2.4 billion, the complex is 10.5 million square feet—the biggest building in Asia and the second-biggest building in the world. Its 550,000-square-foot casino is three times larger than the biggest one in Las Vegas.
Macau’s casino revenues for 2010 increased 26 percent over the year before to $30 billion—more than those for Atlantic City and the state of Nevada combined. With a population of just 566,300, Macau now has a GDP of more than $91,376 per capita making it the wealthiest city in Asia and an economy surpassing that of Switzerland. Says Philip Wang, MGM’s president for international marketing: “It took 50 years to build Las Vegas, and this little enclave surpassed it in four.”
The Portuguese once called Macau “The City of the Name of God in China, No Other More Loyal,” after the Ming Dynasty Emperor Shizong allowed them to set up an outpost here in 1557. Jesuit and Dominican missionaries arrived to spread the Gospel, and merchants and sailors followed.
The Jesuits opened the College of Madre de Deus in 1594 and attracted scholars from throughout Asia. By 1610, there were 150,000 Christians in China, and Macau was a city with Portuguese mansions in the hills and Chinese living below.
In 1630, the Portuguese completed St. Paul’s Church, a massive house of worship that became the grandest ecclesiastical structure in Asia. St. Paul’s accidentally burned in 1835 leaving little beyond its façade, but by then Macau was largely a Chinese city with concerns other than Catholicism.
“Every night Macau sets out to have fun,” French playwright Francis de Croisset observed after visiting the city in 1937. “Restaurants, gambling houses, dance halls, brothels and opium dens are crowded together, higgledy-piggledy.”
The Portuguese legacy is easily seen in Senate Square, the 400-year-old plaza where black and white cobblestones are arranged to resemble waves arriving onshore. Colonial-era buildings surround the square, but two of them are dominant: the two-story Loyal Senate, which was the seat of secular authority from 1585 to 1835, and the three-story Holy House of Mercy, an elaborate symbol of Catholic charity, with Ionic columns and airy balconies. “Prior to the transition [in 1999], I worried about the fate of Portugal’s patrimony, but it seems China intends to protect our old buildings,” says Macau historian Jorge Cavalheiro.
The city is growing not by clearing old buildings, but by reclaiming new land from the sea. This is most visible in the area called Cotai, which links Taipa with Coloane, the other former island that belongs to Macau. There three of the six gaming concessionaires are finishing $16 billion in construction on 16 mega resorts that will have 60,000 rooms.
“This is the largest development project in Asia,” says Matthew Pryor, the Las Vegas Sands Corp. senior vice president in charge of implementing the $13 billion worth of construction for the Sands. “By the end of this year, three of the world’s five largest buildings will stand alongside this road.”
Carlos Couto, who arrived in Macau in 1981 as the director of planning and public works and today runs the city’s leading architectural firm, CC Atelier de Arquitectura, Ida, has approved plans for nearly $9 billion worth of upcoming construction. “Portuguese here are working harder than ever before,” Couto says, “because China’s ‘one country, two systems’ model depends on Macau becoming an international city.”
Not all Macau residents are pleased with their city’s transformation. When Henrique da Senna Fernandez, an 84-year-old lawyer, looks out the window of his office building on what once was Macau’s Pria Grande, he sees a forest of casinos and banks, not the languid quayside. “The sea used to be here,” he sighs, looking at the sidewalk below. “Now all the fishing junks are gone, and Macau is just a big city where people only talk about money.”
Around midnight Macau’s streets are full of Chinese. They are the pampered products of one-child families raised under a capitalistic form of communism. Unlike their parents, they enjoy enough disposable income to travel, gamble and buy camera phones. Prosperity Tree at Wynn Casino attracts hundreds of spectators who OOOH in ecstasy when the gold-covered tree and gold boulders rise from beneath the floor.
In Macau glitz rules whether it’s the solid gold bars embedded into the acrylic lobby floor of Macau’s Grand Emperor Hotel or the Wynn Casino’s Tree of Prosperity. Covered in 24-karat gold and surrounded by gilded boulders, the 33-foot tree appears twice an hour on a pedestal that rises from beneath an atrium floor to bathe the gold in laser light.
Next to the Tree of Prosperity is a hallway lined with shops selling luxury goods. Those shops may be the most profitable commercial real estate in the world.
On Friday and Saturday nights lines form outside the Louis Vuitton store, which often records monthly sales in excess of $3 million. Says one foreign diplomat: “Westerners who come here cross into China to buy fakes, while the Chinese come here to buy the real stuff.”
David DeVoss is editor & senior correspondent of the East-West News Service.