Downtown Macau casinos

In downtown Macau it never gets dark at night. Photo by David DeVoss

By David DeVoss

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.

Beyond immigration stands a modest arc de triumph built by the Portuguese in 1870 that once served as the main border crossing. But few Chinese glance at the colonial remnant, now dwarfed by China’s massive new facilities. Their eyes are focused on dozens of hospitality buses that stand by around the clock to whisk them to one of the city’s 29 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 scantily attired waitresses serving drinks here. Refreshment mainly consists of mango nectar and lemon squash served off a trolley by middle-aged women in brown pantsuits. Neither can you find lounge singers or comedians. At the Wynn the main attraction is gambling.

Macau is the only entity on the Chinese mainland where gaming is legal.

That Chinese coming to Macau prefer gambling to golf, cocktail lounges or stage shows is just fine with Wynn casino president Ian Coughlan. “Last year Macau surpassed Las Vegas as the biggest gaming city in the world,” he says midway through his nightly inspection of the casino.  “More than $10.7 billion was wagered and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Venetian Casino, Macau

The Venetian Casino, hotel, shopping center and exhibition halls is on the Cotai Strip, a 2-sq mi piece of reclaimed land between Taipa and Coloane islands

“Here’s our Chairman’s Salon,” he says, as we walk past five guarded rooms set apart from the main casino. “The minimum bet here is $3,000 so it’s very exclusive gaming. But the Sky Casino on the top floor is my favorite,” he confides with a smile. “It’s for people who can afford to win or lose $1,000,000 over a 24-hour period and continue to play for a number of days, win or lose. God bless them all.”

It’s almost midnight when I leave the casino, but outside the night sky glows in neon twilight. In the distance high above dozens of buses crawl slowly across three massive suspension bridges to entertainment hotspots on islands that were largely rural a decade before. Below a subterranean expressway, pedestrian tunnels and parking garages, all recently carved out of land reclaimed from the South China Sea, hum with activity.

The streets are full of Chinese, few of them old enough to remember Mao’s decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966. These are the grandchildren of Mao, pampered products of one-child families raised under a capitalistic form of communism. Unlike their parents, they enjoy a booming economy, upward mobility and enough disposable income to buy camera phones, all of which at the moment seem aimed at smiling friends standing in front of a garish casino shaped like a giant lotus.

Across the street at the Galaxy casino, statuesque Asian models in cheongsam mini skirts hired for their flawless beauty and abnormal height greet gamblers walking through the door. Nearby, a knot of revelers flush with winnings from the MGM Casino throw strings of firecrackers in celebration. Ahead looms the Bank of China. Clad in granite and guarded by two snarling stone lions, the bank symbolizes the communist party of China’s rigid central planning. Yet here the Bank of China stands right in the middle of Party Central next to the giant lotus casino, just one of Macau’s many ironies.

Galaxy Casino greeters

Everybody feels welcome after a Galaxy Casino greeting. Photo by David DeVoss

I first came to Macau 40 years ago to report a story about organized criminals called triads, who were responsible for much of the city’s violent crime and loan sharking. Macau was tiny, consisting of a peninsula one could walk across in ten minutes plus two small islands called Taipa and Coloane. The city was built on seven hills, each topped by a church or fortress, all of them connected to a colonial town square by cobbled sidewalks inlaid with images of cathedrals and caravels. Unlike Hong Kong, where development trumped history, Macau seemed dipped in amber. Brightly painted shops that once served as brothels ran the length of Rua da Felicidade. Around the corner on Travessa do Ópio stood an abandoned factory that once processed opium for China. The early 19th century mansion built by British merchants of the East India Company was still there, as was the rocky grotto where Portuguese poet Luis Camões in 1556 began composing Os Lusiadas, an epic tale of Vasco da Gama’s explorations of the East told in a manner similar to Virgil’s Aeneid.

Macau's Rua da Felicidade

Brightly painted shops that once served as brothels ran The brothels are closed on Macau’s Rua da Felicidade, but the red doors and windows remain in a nod to the city’s storied history. Photo by David DeVoss

Macau usually was described as “a decaying bastion of Portuguese colonialism.” Residents charitably described it as “sleepy.” The colony’s only exports were fish and firecrackers. Four years earlier, Lisbon had walked away from its territories in Angola, Mozambique and East Timor. Portugal also tried to give Macau back to China as well, but was rebuffed by Beijing, which declined to accept it. In theory, Portugal still remained in control of Macau, but the Portuguese priests, civil servants and army officers living there seemed content to take long lunches and allow their colonial enclave to drift aimlessly.

A-Ma Temple in Macau, China

Incense swirls throughout the day at the A-Ma Temple in Macau. Photo by David DeVoss

Most of what I knew about the place came from the movie Macao, a campy knockoff of Casablanca starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell that I’d seen on a vintage film night in college. The Europeans wore white suits; the Chinese threw knives; Jane Russell breathed deeply and depended on the kindness of strangers. I remembered the movie only because of its tagline: “A sultry chanteuse, a hunk on the lam and a fortune in stolen gems.”

Macau’s Portuguese police, who wore trench coats, rolled their own cigarettes and acted a lot like Robert Mitchum, allowed me to tag along on what was described as “a major triad sweep.” But after several desultory brothel inspections they grew tired of the game and headed for the Lisboa Casino, a reburbished but still seedy place where hawking men in stained singlets placed bets alongside chain smoking prostitutes from China.

The Lisboa belonged to Stanley Ho, the richest man in town thanks to his government-sanctioned gaming monopoly and his control of the ferries linking Macau with the outside world. According to British authorities, Ho’s rise to power was aided by a Hong Kong gangster named Yip Hon. Macau’s triads even had a nickname for Ho, Sun Goh, which translated as New Brother. But Macau’s police had no interest in pursuing Ho, who had used his wealth to become the city’s leading benefactor.

Two decades later, on the eve of the territory’s 1999 return to China after 443 years of Portuguese administration, the city remained much the same. Despite the presence of 11 casinos, annual arrivals numbered only seven million. Hotel occupancy barely exceeded 50%. Gangland murders occurred with numbing regularity. Macau had a GDP lower than Malawi.

In 2002, the dynamics of Macau finally began to change when China ended the 40-year old gaming monopoly and allowed five outside concessionaires, three of them American, to compete with Ho to build mega resorts and casinos reflective of China’s new wealth and power. Beijing also made it easier for increasingly affluent Mainland Chinese to enter Macau and other special administrative regions and economic zones operating under the “one country, two systems” philosophy.

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.

Holy Hopuse of Mercy on Senate Square in Macau

Religion is discouraged throughout most of China, but in Macau Catholicism is allowed to exist. The Holy House of Mercy flanks Senate Square, the obvious location for a political rally were any ever held. But having watched recent events in nearby Hong Kong , Macanese know to keep their opinions private.  Photo by David DeVoss

So many Mainland Chinese flocked to Macau to see the opulent American casino that 12 months after its opening, the Las Vegas Sands Corp. had recouped its entire $245 million investment and earned enough profit to start building an even grander structure on two sq-miles of landfill linking the islands of Coloane and Taipa. Completed last summer at a cost of $2.4 billion, the Venetian Casino and Resort Hotel is the biggest building in Asia and the second largest in the world (behind the Boeing factory in Everett, WA) with a 550,000 sq. ft casino that’s three times larger than the biggest one in Las Vegas. When it comes to sheer elegance, however, the Venetian has a rival in the MGM Grand Macau, a $1.25 billion casino hotel that has marble floors inlaid with jade, $12 million worth of Salvador Dali sculptures and an airy conservatory that resembles a 16th century Portuguese plaza anchored by a replica of Lisbon’s Rossio train station.

Thanks to these and other new attractions, Macau is on track to draw 39 million tourists in 2008. More people travel to Macau today than to Hong Kong. So many mainland Chinese are exchanging money that earlier this year the banks ran out of change and had to place an emergency order with Britain’s Royal Mint for more coins.

In less than a decade Macau has gone from a crime-plagued backwater to one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Casino revenues, up 62% over last year, should exceed $15 billion by the end of the year, which is more money than Atlantic City and the entire state of Nevada together will collect. Gaming revenues are so enormous that Macau, with a population of just 530,000, now has a per capita GDP of $36,357 making it the wealthiest city in Asia and the world’s 20th richest economy. Says MGM president for international marketing Philip Wang:  “It took 50 years to build Las Vegas and this little enclave surpassed it in four.”

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.”

Chinese Madonna and Child

Chinese Madonna and Child. Jesuits won early converts in Macau by changing traditional Christian iconography into more identifiable images. Photo by David DeVoss

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.”

“Everybody at Macao gambles,” he noted. “The painted flapper who is not a school girl but a prostitute, and who, between two brief spells of dalliance, wagers as much as she can earn in a night; the beggar who has just managed to cadge a coin and now, no longer cringing, stakes it with a lordly air; and finally, the old woman who, with nothing left to wager, to my astonishment took out three gold teeth, which, with a gaping smile, she staked and lost.”

Macau’s economy still is dominated by gambling, but the casinos have no claim on the city’s soul. “Once this was the most beautiful building in Asia says Macau historian Jorge Cavalheiro, as he guides me past the remains of St. Paul’s church. “It had relics and treasures, but most were removed over the centuries because of typhoons and fires.”

St. Paul Church facade

Facade of St. Paul’s church. Photo by David DeVoss

It’s Saturday afternoon and we’re surrounded by thousands of tourists as we stroll through the middle of Portuguese Macau. At St. Dominick’s Church we veer to the right and enter Senate Square where black and white cobblestones are arranged to resemble waves arriving onshore. Located in the center of Macau and dating back over 400 years, the square is surrounded by colonial buildings only two of which dominate: the Loyal Senate, which was the seat of secular authority, and the taller, more elaborate symbol of Catholic charity, the Holy House of Mercy. “Prior to the transition I worried about the fate of Portugal’s patrimony, but it seems China intends to protect our old buildings,” Cavalheiro smiles.

But as we walk toward St. Joseph’s Church, where a fragment of St. Francis humerus is enshrined, it’s apparent Portugal’s real patrimony can be found in the Macanese people, who have faces reflecting a diverse Asian heritage and surnames like Gomes, Lourenco and Oliveira. Indeed, Macau retains the spirit of the past in ways not seen in Saigon or Batavia (now Jakarta), where one searches in vain for signs of France’s mission civilisatrice or Amsterdam’s burgher mentality. St. Francis never got to China, but his spirit lives on in Macau.

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.

Weekend shoppers in Macau

Macanese shoppers near Senate Square shop for Chinese New Year gifts. Photo by David DeVoss

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.

Tree of Prosperity

The Tree of Prosperity at the Wynn Casino embodies the average citizens hope for wealth and security. Photo by David DeVoss

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.”

Today the bulk of Macau’s revenue comes directly from China’s nouveau riche, who expect opulence and get it at the Grand Emperor Hotel where dozens of solid gold bars are embedded in the acrylic lobby floor. But no attraction has more appeal than the Wynn Casino’s Tree of Prosperity, a shrine to money that evokes more prayer than any temple or pagoda. Covered in 24-karat gold and surrounded by gilded boulders, it rises from beneath an atrium floor twice every hour when an overhead cupola composed of Chinese zodiac animals twists open like an iris of an eye allowing a laser-infused chandelier to drop through the pupil and give life to the gold.

After almost a century of war starvation Red Guards and communal farms, China finally has stood up. And companies that bow are richly rewarded. Adjacent to the Tree of Prosperity is a hallway lined with shops not unlike those found in Las Vegas. But the Wynn shops arguably 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 of $3,000,000 giving it the company’s highest sales per square foot in Asia, and the second highest in the world. Watch and jewelry stores, like Bulgari, Van Cleef and Rolex regularly achieve daily sales over $250,000. Says one foreign diplomat: “Westerners who come here cross into China to buy fakes while the Chinese come here to buy the real stuff.”

With its airport now operating at near double its capacity, Macau is improving its infrastructure to make it easier for visitor arrivals. Construction on an elevated bridge linking Hong Kong, Macau and Zuhai in southern China will begin soon. Macau has set aside $525 million to build a monorail to move people around once they arrive. Work already has begun to expand the northern border gate so that immigration there can process 500,000 people a day. And with 2.2 billion people living within five hours’ flying time of Macau it’s a certainty that people will continue to come. Says Correia da Silva: “Macau should sell itself like the Muslims sell Mecca: a city that must be visited at least once in a lifetime.”



 David DeVoss is editor & senior correspondent of the East-West News Service.