Macau Hits the Jackpot

In just four years, this 11-square-mile outpost on the coast of China eclipsed Las Vegas as gambling’s world capital

A view of Macau at night and the tail of the Dragon's bridge show a skyline full of potential and color as buildings continue to arise on reclaimed land (Justin Guariglia)
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It's Saturday night and jet foils are pulling into Macau's ferry terminal every 15 minutes, bearing crowds from Hong Kong and the Chinese city of Shenzhen, each about 40 miles distant. A mile to the north, arrivals by land elbow their way toward customs checkpoints in a hall longer than two football fields. By 9 o'clock, visitors will arrive at the rate of some 16,000 an hour. They carry pockets full of cash and very little luggage. Most will stay one day or less. They will spend almost every minute in one of Macau's 29 casinos.

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On their way to the hospitality buses that provide round-the-clock transit to the casinos, few of the land travelers will give more than a glance to a modest stone arch built in 1870 by the Portuguese, who administered Macau for almost 450 years.

Outside the two-year-old Wynn Macau casino, a bus pulls up by an artificial lake roiling with bursts of flame and spouting fountains. The passengers exit to the strains of "Luck Be a Lady Tonight." But inside, the Vegas influence wanes. There are no lounge singers or comedians, and the refreshment consists mainly of mango nectar and lemonade served by middle-aged women in brown pantsuits. Here, gambling rules.

This 11-square-mile outpost on the Pearl River Delta is the only entity on the Chinese mainland where gambling is legal. And now, almost ten years after shedding its status as a vestige of Portugal's colonial past and re-entering China's orbit, Macau is winning big. "In 2006 Macau surpassed Las Vegas as the biggest gaming city in the world," says Ian Coughlan, Wynn Macau president. "More than $10.5 billion was wagered [last year], and that's just the tip of the iceberg."

Coughlan is guiding me past rooms with silk damask wallcoverings, hand-tufted carpets and taciturn guards. "Here's our Chairman's Salon," he says. "The minimum bet here is 10,000 Hong Kong dollars [about $1,300 U.S.], so it's very exclusive gaming." But the 25th-floor Sky Casino is his favorite. "It's for people who can afford to lose a million dollars over a 24-hour period," he confides. "God bless them all."

I first visited Macau 30 years ago to report on criminal gangs called triads, then responsible for much of the city's violent crime and loan-sharking. Brightly painted shops that once served as brothels ran the length of Rua da Felicidade in the old port district. Around the corner, on Travessa do Ópio, stood an abandoned factory that had processed opium for China. A mansion built by British merchants early in the 19th century was still standing, as was the grotto where in 1556 Portuguese poet Luis de Camões is said to have begun Os Lusiadas, an epic tale of Vasco da Gama's explorations of the East.

In 1978, residents described the place as "sleepy"; its only exports were fish and firecrackers. Four years earlier, Portugal had walked away from its territories in Angola, Mozambique and East Timor and by 1978, was trying to extricate itself from Macau as well. Secret negotiations concluded in 1979 with an agreement stipulating that Macau was a Chinese territory "under Portuguese administration"—meaning that Portugal relinquished the sovereignty it seized after the Opium War in the 1840s but would run the city for 20 more years. The Portuguese civil servants, army officers and clergy then living there seemed content to take long lunches and allow their enclave to drift.

The police, who wore trench coats and rolled their own cigarettes, allowed me to tag along on what was described as a major triad sweep. But after several desultory inspections of brothels (more discreetly run than their Rua da Felicidade forerunners), they grew tired of the game and headed for the Lisboa Casino, a seedy, threadbare place where men in stained singlets placed bets alongside chain-smoking Chinese prostitutes.

The Lisboa belonged to Stanley Ho, the richest man in town thanks to a government-sanctioned gambling monopoly and his control of the ferries linking Macau to the outside world. But the Macau police showed little interest in Ho, and police officers were barred from frequenting his 11 casinos. So after a quick look around, Macau chief of security Capitão Antonio Manuel Salavessa da Costa and I headed for a drink at a nightclub.

"We can't do anything here," he sighed, looking about the room. "In Macau today the triads are out of control because they're getting into legal businesses. That guy over there is here to protect the place. Those four near the band are his soldiers."


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