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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)

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

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Carlos Couto 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, Lda. Couto has approved plans for nearly $9 billion worth of construction over the next four years. "Portuguese here are working harder than ever before," he says, "because China's ‘one country, two systems' model depends on Macau becoming an international city."

Not everyone is pleased with the city's transformation. When Henrique de Senna Fernandes, an 84-year-old lawyer, looks out the window of his office building on what once was Macau Pria Grande, he sees not the languid quayside and bat-winged fishing junks of his youth but a forest of casinos and banks. "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 talk only about money."

Perhaps that is inevitable when so much of it changes hands in such a confined space. U.S. investors are making more than enough in Macau to compensate for declines in Las Vegas. But Stanley Ho, now 86, has bested them. Last year his company, Sociedade de Jogos de Macau, led Macau gambling concessionaires with profits of $230 million. And his daughter Pansy, managing director of his company, Shun Tak Holdings, is a partner in the MGM Grand Macau.

Pansy Ho was born 45 years ago to the second of Ho's four wives. She attended prep school in California and received a degree in marketing and international business management from Santa Clara University. She then moved to Hong Kong, where she started a public relations firm and the local tabloids dubbed her "Party Girl Pansy."

Ho says her Las Vegas colleagues wanted to build a mass-market casino, skeptical that China was rich enough for VIP play. "So four years ago I took MGM's CEO to Shanghai, which was just beginning to show its glamour," Ho says. "I took him to galleries and restaurants and introduced him to billionaires in the making. Now MGM understands what the high-net-worth lifestyle is about."

Foreign investment has changed the character of development, but Macau owes most of its new prosperity to China. The economy of the People's Republic has grown more than 11 percent a year for more than a decade—in Guangdong, the province next to Macau, it's growing 25 percent a year. Shenzhen, across the Pearl River estuary north of Hong Kong, had 230,000 residents in 1980. Now it has 12 million.

Few of today's Chinese visitors are old enough to remember the decade of crushing conformity that came with Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966. They are largely the pampered products of one-child families raised under a capitalistic form of communism, and they seem to revel in such touches as the solid gold bars embedded in the lobby floor of Macau Grand Emperor Hotel and the 33-foot-tall, 24-karat gold Tree of Prosperity that rises on the half-hour from beneath an atrium floor at the Wynn casino. Next to the Tree of Prosperity a hallway is lined with deluxe shops. On weekends, lines form outside the Louis Vuitton store, which routinely records monthly sales of $3 million. Watch and jewelry stores regularly achieve daily sales over $250,000. Says a foreign diplomat: "Westerners who come here cross into China to buy fakes, while the Chinese come here to buy the real stuff."

Macau airport is operating at nearly double its capacity, but with 2.2 billion people living within five hours' flying time, it's a good bet that the number will soon double again. Construction on a bridge linking Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai in southern China is scheduled to begin soon. Work has begun to expand Macau's northern border gate to accommodate 500,000 visitors a day.

For foreign gambling executives, the biggest challenge would seem to be matching Macau profits back home. "We just have to get more Chinese tourists into the U.S.," jokes Sands Corp. President William Weidner. "This way we can increase our revenues and balance the U.S. trade deficit by winning all the money back at the baccarat tables."

David Devoss has covered Asia for Time and the Los Angeles Times.

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