My thoughts are, most people are in one of two camps, those who bet…and those who don’t.
Me? I’m not a gambler per se, although I have been known to enjoy the odd flutter on the horses (truth be told, I owned a small share in a race horse once, possibly the most expensive thing I’ve ever owned)!!
Oh, and in a past life, it’s fair to say I was quite partial to bit of ‘pokie-action’ on the odd occasion!
But for the most part, I’ve never been one to pull up a chair and lay down a few chips. Actually I wouldn’t have the first clue about the process…do you even say that!?
Admittedly though, it’s a world that intrigues me.
The actual origin of gambling is unknown. The Chinese recorded the first official account of the practice back in 2300 BC, but it’s generally thought gambling in some form or another has been seen in almost every society in history.
These days, when you think about the gambling mecca of the globe, I’m guessing the glitzy, bright lights of the ‘Las Vegas Strip‘ spring to mind first, right?
Me too! That is…. until I came to Hong Kong.
It seems there’s another gambling ‘strip’ on the world map and last year, this tiny pocket in Asia’s South East generated no less than $45-billion in casino revenue!
Wait for it…..that’s SEVEN times more than Las Vegas’ earnings.
This oh-so-tiny speck on China’s south coast they call Macau or Macao (the english spelling which is rarely used) may be no bigger than 30 square kilometres, but its strip – the ‘Cotai Strip’ – an area of reclaimed land that connects the two “islands” of Macau – Taipa and Coloane, is well and truly cementing its status as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the gaming industry.
Now that my friends, is intriguing, yes?
I’ll preface this post by saying I’ve never actually gambled in this former Portuguese colony that sits at the mouth of the Pearl River. (No, I’ve been there on many a ‘kid friendly’ vacation – which, I’ll admit, is not so bad either.) If you’re interested, check out this post I wrote for Hong Kong site, Sassy Mama.
Anyway, as I was saying, Macau was, until 1999, the last remaining European colony in Asia, having been administered by Portugal since the mid-16th century.
Today, much like Hong Kong, it’s been granted special SAR permission from Beijing, which means it’s a Special Administrative Region. The ‘one country, two systems’ rule allows the city to run independently of its Motherland, China – with it’s own currency, police force, legal system and immigration policy. You can read more about what it means to be an SAR, here.
Here’s the thing, with a population of just 600,000, it’s the only city on the world’s most populous continent (China) where gambling is actually legal.
Actually, it’s been a legitimate activity in Macau for about 150 years. Centuries older than Las Vegas— it hosted legal gambling long before Nevada was even a state! It was the late 19th century when the government introduced a licensing system for the fan-tan houses (Chinese gambling houses).
In the past decade though, the city has majestically transformed itself from a colonial backwater with small-time gambling clubs, gangs and prostitution…. into the ‘Las Vegas of the East.’
The city now lays claim to 36 casinos — and that’s not the end of it.
When restrictions on foreign operators were lifted in 2002, new casinos opened in droves as international firms joined the gold rush for success.
Such rapid growth has of course attracted the industry’s biggest players, including Las Vegas Sands and Wynn — both listed in the Fortune 500 club.
In fact, buoyed by big-spending mainland tourists, the world’s largest gambling hub has just enjoyed its biggest and best ever year – propelling even more casino-owners up the rich lists.
This pint-sized pokie heaven is now home to Asia’s second-richest person Lui Che-Woo – owner of Macau’s biggest casino, Galaxy.
Even Australian tycoon, James Packer is being given a leg up the rich list, thanks to better than expected casino profits from his Macau investments.
Steve Wynn, who opened the $1.2 billion Wynn Macau in 2006, once called Macau “the most exciting growth story of the decade.”
Just last week it was announced, MGM China has won approval to build a major new casino in Macau. With a budget of around $2.5 billion, the 17.8 acre site will include 1600 hotel rooms, 500 gaming tables and 2500 slot machines (or pokies as we say Down Under), impressive to say the least, especially considering the growing emergence of competition from virtual sites like OnlineCasinoAustralia.com.au online casinos today.
Every month 2.5 million tourists flock to this glitzy playground to try their luck in a neon-lit shrine, that’s become a testament to China’s great passion for gambling.
Just a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, the government is currently scrambling to build a bridge from Hong Kong to Macau that will cross some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Currently it’s ‘boat only’ across to the casino hub, with jam-packed ferries running back and forth around the clock (including all through the night if you lose on BlackJack and need a quick escape)!
With Chinese New Year underway, it’s the busiest travel time in the world and this new ‘toast of the orient’ has been inundated with a flood of cashed-up Chinese (around 2.7 million to be exact)!
Inside these glittering casino walls, you’ll see Baccarat on display in all its card-dealing glory.
With little skill or strategy,
interestingly it’s the favored game of choice by Chinese punters over poker and blackjack…and brings in the lion’s share of Macau’s revenue. This old European card game based on chance, is played at lightening speed by those who don’t come to Macau for fun, but to win….and win big!
Don’t expect the music to be pumping, or for that matter, fist pumps and loud cheers of victory; all you’ll hear is the rustle of clothing, as tea is sipped and words spoken in hushed tones – perhaps the occasional thump on a table – subtle signs of fortunes made and lost.
It’s no secret, Chinese believe strongly in Feng Shui, Yin and Yang, ancient mythology and all things in between, and in gambling it’s no different. Luck plays a big part with most believing ‘winning’ is more a result of fate than skill.
Word is – punters have a way of peeling back the cards looking for clues as to what the cards might hold. If they think the number is an unwanted higher number, they will blow on the card to “blow the big numbers away.” Each time, this method purposefully creases the cards, rendering the cards unusable for another round!
High rollers in VIP rooms are known to bet up to 2-million Hong Kong dollars (US$257,000) on a single hand of baccarat.
But while Macau’s casinos are abuzz with the energy and abandon of the wildly wealthy, behind the permanently sparkling facades with decor dripping in gold and draped with diamond chandeliers, there are signs of something darker…an element of Russian Roulette.
The city has attracted some of those unsavory elements, naturally associated with the industry, including ‘money launderers’ looking to evade limits on moving cash out of China.
Beijing limits the amount of money Chinese can take out of the country to $50,000 per year. For those looking to skirt the rules, Macau provides an attractive alternative.
By working with a junket operator — which performs the basic functions of a tour company, bringing in high rolling punters to VIP rooms on extravagant package deals that see them loaded up with credit (based on the value of their property portfolios) – only to cash out their winnings in foreign currencies – the money can then be moved abroad and used to make purchases in Europe and the US.
While most Junkets are law-abiding, some are reportedly linked to Triads (Chinese gangs of organized crime).
As a result, this tiny tinseltown has seen several killings and kidnappings associated with debt collection, including one case a couple of years ago which saw two men stabbed to death in their hotel room.
Dirty laundry aside, the city’s unparalleled boom has also presented the peninsula with another problem – Macau is almost entirely dependent on gambling. At this moment in time, according to official statistics, gambling taxes form 70% of Macau’s government income.
It seems the government and mega moguls have taken note and are investing heavily in lavish resorts, high-end shopping malls and elaborate stage shows, as the region tries to reinvent itself and potentially replace high rollers with middle class families.
Just as it once turned itself from a colonial backwater into a den of organised crime, now Macau needs to become the quintessential family tourist destination.
Leading the transformation is the world-famous Venetian Macau. This impressive 40-story development houses the world’s largest casino, standing at a whopping 51,000 square metres….and wait…there’s more.
It also includes a shopping mall to rival any retail nirvana, complete with its own Venetian-like Grand Canal winding through the centre, Gondola rides and serenading Gondoliers, not to mention, fake blue skies and a typically Venetian landscape.
Venice is too far away for most Chinese holiday-makers, so it’s a handy substitute. If they can’t get to Venice, this will curb the appetite, for the moment at least.
(OK, so I’ve been to Venice and as one of my all time favorites, this is definitely not Italy, but the scene is surprisingly more realistic than you might imagine….)
Attached to the Casino and shopping mall is The Venetian hotel with its 3000 rooms, all of which are luxuriously spacious suites sporting lavish italian decor.
Across the road stands one of the world’s biggest hotels, the Sheraton, just shy of 4000 rooms! With seven restaurants to choose from, two fitness centres, a kids club, a spa and three outdoor swimming pools, it’s vibrant, busy and innovative. Arriving here is a little like stepping into an island paradise (complete with a surprising performance by island dancers upon check in).
Over the road, the mega-casino, City of Dreams has opened two regular shows: Taboo, a cabaret and the House of Dancing Water, an acrobatics spectacle that simply (without a word of a lie) is one of the best shows you’ll possibly ever see. Featuring extraordinary acrobatics, deep dive stunts into Olympic-sized pools, flying motorbikes and more, it is breath-taking… mind blowing.
Speaking of spectacles, this once sleepy fishing village has also made itself a name with several grand appearances in James Bond movies, including the latest, Skyfall and in the early seventies extravaganza, The man with the golden gun.
Stepping away from the all the glitz and glamour though, there’s another side to this City of Dreams, a more humble, unassuming side that boasts a unique fusion of the Mediterranean and the Oriental.
Last year marked the 500th anniversary since the arrival of the first Portuguese mariners to Macau. Predating Hong Kong by almost 300 years, Macau was the first European enclave in Asia. In a sure sign this little piece of Europe in China stands strong today – you’ll see all of the city street signs in Portuguese.
As a result of its mixed heritage (and in complete contrast to the gaudiness of the gambling district) you’ll see pretty pastel-colored neoclassical buildings that flank paved cobble-stoned piazzas; a warren of tiny alley ways with all the old world charm of a European city, infused with ancient Chinese temples and shrines; and food stalls wafting with the smell of Dim Sum and fish balls mixed in with the aroma of Portuguese spices and those famous custard tarts.
It’s possibly this distinct Macanese flavor that really showcases Macau’s multicultural identity – a unique blend of Chinese, European and Southeast Asian tastes.
They say Las Vegas is a monument to the American dream of endless possibility, Macau is without doubt a place where two worlds collide…both perhaps with endless possibilities.
Here’s hoping this cultural hybrid can remain unscathed on its pathway to reinvention.
The stakes for its future are high and getting the balance right is surely the key to success for this little pocket where razzle dazzle meets old world charm.
**And there’s more to Macau than meets the eye… check out how you can apply the game-play elements of Bingo to make the most of a Macau vacation here.