Sunday, 25 June 2017

Quick and Dirty: Macau (Night's Black Agents)

I enjoyed the Kabul piece, so I thought I'd return to the theme and talk about a city that has fascinated me for years: Macau.

Macau (also Macao)

The first European settlement in the Far East, former Portuguese colony Macau has been an autonomous territory under China's one territory, two systems policy since 20 December 1999.

Macau is famous - or possibly notorious - as a gambler's paradise. Over 40% of its GDP comes from casinos and games of chance, and close to 70% of government tax revenue. Macau is the preeminent gambling center in the world, with its 33 casinos bringing in somewhere near $30 billion annually. Vegas, by contrast, earns closer to $10 billion annually from over 120 casinos.

Its gaming history goes back to the 1850s, when the Portuguese legalized gambling. Macau's colonial masters needed a source of revenue; its preeminence as a trading port had declined considerably since the Portuguese took over in the 1500s. Chinese gamers flocked to Macau's fantan houses, but Macau's popularity as a gaming destination didn't really take off until the 1960s when the government, always a little leery of gambling and the crime that went with it, finally embraced gaming as a source of revenue and began promoting Macau as the Monte Carlo of the East.

In the 1960s casinos were operated by a monopoly, the Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau (STDM), not unlike Monte Carlo's Societe des bains de mer de Monaco. However unlike Monaco's state-owned Societe, the STDM is owned by one family headed by Stanley Ho, or Ho Hung Sen, the 95-year-old King of Gambling. Stanley, with his financial backers Henry Fok and gambler Yip Hon, bid for Macau franchises when they were put out to public tender, and won the bid for Macau's gambling monopoly for a little under half a million dollars. Stanley Ho parlayed his stake into political power, and had an important role in the handover negotiations in the 1990s. It has also been alleged that he has links with the Kung Lok (Mutual Happiness) Triad.

In 2002 this monopoly system was broken up and Macau's casinos are now run by a handful of concession and subconcession syndicates, though the STDM still has 16 casinos of its own. Stanley Ho has made few public appearances since a fall at his home in 2009, and has fallen out with members of his family over business concerns.

In recent years Macau's economy, though still booming, hasn't been as robust as formerly. In part this is due to changes in China. Chinese anti-corruption laws are having an effect, but the larger issue is a change in tourism. Previously Macau was the preeminent destination for Chinese tourists, but with the expanding Chinese economy people have more options, and travel world-wide. This hasn't broken Macau by any means, but its gambling revenue has flattened since 2014, and the government has said it is looking for other sources of revenue.

Image sourced from Wikipedia under Creative Commons.

Macau is 60 kilometers southwest of Hong Kong. It has 41 km of coastline, and a vanishingly small land border with mainland China. It consists of the Macau Peninsula, the islands of Taipa and Coloane, and the recently constructed landfill Cotai that connects the islands.

The entirety of Macau is only 30 sq km.

There are eight parishes in total, and a significant portion of Macau's land mass is reclaimed from the ocean. The northernmost parish Nossa Senhora de Fatima, for example, which borders the Chinese city of Zuhai to the north, is made of land reclaimed in the 1960s and 70s. The Cotai Strip, where many of Macau's casinos are located, is reclaimed, as is Santo Antonio on the western portion of the peninsula.

Local currency is the MOP or Macanese pataca, but Chinese renmibi and the Hong Kong dollar is accepted everywhere.


Just shy of 600,000 people, or about the size of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The median age is 39, and over 50% of the population is between the age of 25 and 50. Unemployment is very low, at about 5% for those between 15 to 24 years old, and in addition the government pays a subsidy to its citizens, amounting to a little over a month's minimum wage income. Literacy is over 95%.

The official languages are Portuguese and Chinese; only a little over 2% of the population speak English. Cantonese is by far the most wide spread language, but there's a good sampling of all the Chinese dialects as well as other regional languages such as the Philippines dialect Tagalog.  Portuguese is spoken by less than 1% of the population.

Formerly Catholic during Portuguese rule, and boasting the first Western Christian school in the far east, Macau is majority Buddhist.


As a special administrative region Macau is overshadowed by China, but the relationship is complex.

Traditionally Macau has been a hub; goods, services and people flow to and from China via Macau. Today what this means is Macau supplies opiates, amphetamines and other narcotics to China, while at the same time stripping Chinese tourists of their cash at the casinos. Meanwhile poor Chinese flee the mainland via Macau, and often find themselves stuck in dead-end jobs cleaning, cooking and otherwise serving the rich who flock to Macau.

About a third of the population are migrants, and close to 10% live in poverty. The working poor find it all but impossible to live in modern, hyper-expensive Macau, and many have chosen to relocate to the mainland and commute to work. This leads to an odd situation where Macau natives have to move to China for economic reasons, while China's poor move to Macau, also for economic reasons.

In China, gambling is illegal. While Macau is tolerated, China sometimes lashes out. China believes gambling leads to or facilitates government corruption, particularly by local government officials who ought not to have the kind of cash Macau demands. Clearly they could only afford their gambling habits thanks to bribes or embezzlement.

These crackdowns cause a serious problem for Macau's economy, which is one of the reasons why Macau's government is traditionally very pro-Beijing. Macau is often thought of as China's filial child, while Hong Kong is considered more rebellious and wayward. Macau believes the best defense is to cause no offence.

Where Monaco, which relies on France for its external security, still has several hundred troops and police, Macau, which relies on China, has no troops of its own. It does have a police force, the Public Security Police, armed with Smith & Wesson Model 10 handguns, shotguns, MP5s and gas launchers.

China has an armed presence in Macau, the People's Liberation Army Macau Garrison, a little under 2,000 strong, about 600 of which are actually in Macau while the rest are just across the border in Zuhai. Its main base in Macau is on the Cotai Strip, among all the glittering casinos. Its soldiers tend to keep a low profile, and wear civilian clothes when off-base.

This may be part of the reason why, unlike Hong Kong, there is almost no pro-Democracy or independence movement in Macau.

Because Macau enjoys a unique relationship with China, foreign intelligence services have used it as a base point for operations. Bejing has long suspected that agencies like the CIA use US-owned casinos to tempt wealthy Chinese into foolish behavior, which the CIA then uses to blackmail them.

Triad crime is a significant concern. However as a result of the breakup of the casino monopoly, allowing foreign interests to invest in Macau, triads in the present day tend to work more cooperatively together and to spread their influence beyond Macau's borders, to China in particular. This requires diplomatic skills the triads never needed before. In the past, competition was dealt with directly. Now, in order to avoid anti-corruption purges and official displeasure, the triads adopt a softly-softly approach.

Beijing's concern about Macau corruption is not misplaced:

According to a member of the 14K Triad also interviewed for the study, most VIP-room contractors 'are triads or businessmen with a triad background ... The casino management would select the most powerful triads, based on a couple of factors including money, triad, reputation and ability to mobilize manpower.' ... VIP rooms are described in the study as 'bank-like' business enterprises. A junket must provide hotels, transport, loans and sex services. High rollers are expected to spend at least HK$500,000 per trip in a room.

That half-million dollars has to come from somewhere; bribes and embezzlement's probably the least of it.

Triads are also involved in casino security. In 2010 four men were arrested on conspiracy to commit bodily harm charges and a fifth on murder charges, as part of a retributive strike on a Macau casino employee suspected of cheating. Initially the men were supposed to break his arms and legs but, when the order came down to kill the dealer instead, one of the thugs balked and talked to the cops.

It turned out that the one who ordered the hit was a Wo Hop To triad boss, the person in charge of the casino's VIP rooms. Not only that, his company Jumbo Boom owned the junket concession; he got his both from those booking the holidays, and later from their expenditure while at the casino.

Most VIP gambling in Macau is leveraged, Reuters points out. Gamblers usually bet more than their cash on hand. This is particularly true of mainland Chinese high-rollers who, because of Beijing's strict capital  controls, aer limited to carrying the equivalent of US$5,000 in renminbi per trip when they leave China. Macau's six publicly listed casino operators lend to only a small minority of their patrons, according to company filings. This is because collection of gambling debt is illegal in China and Macau forbids casinos from writing off their bad or uncollectable debts.

Which begs the obvious question: if you can't legally collect on gambling debts in China, who do you turn to when a debtor in China refuses to pay?

This has proved a problem for US casino owners who can't or won't do business the Macau way. Either they get in bed with the triads - the only people who can collect on debts - or they don't do business at all.


Hac Sa Beach in Coalone, a black sand or volcanic beach. Due to erosion the government has shored up the beach with yellow sand. This is the largest natural beach in Macau, and is part of Hac Sa Bay Park. The Park includes a large barbecue area, mini golf, tennis courts, basketball and baseball fields, and there are many fast food stands if you don't care to make your own BBQ. The Beach is a popular spot for young lovers.

Mong-Ha Fort, built in the mid-19th Century to defend against Chinese attack after the First Opium War. The Fort was deactivated in the 1960s when the Portuguese military moved out, and this hilly area has since become one of Macau's green lungs. It's a public space with good views of Macau, though there isn't much left of the fort itself, and there are several walking trails. Mong Ha Hill also is home to the Lin Fung Temple, a restaurant and an art gallery.

Altira Macau Casino, formerly known as Crown Macau, opened in 2007 and boasts 216 guest rooms in its 38 floor complex. It's one of the tallest buildings in Macau, owned by a joint partnership between Hong Kong's Melco International and Australia's Crown Limited. There are 220 gaming tables, over 500 slot machines, a spa, fitness center, indoor pool, and seven different restaurants and bars. Its Yi Pavilion 5 star dining area overlooks all of Macau, and has only one table, seating up to 15. Rooms start at HK$1,500, or just a touch over US$192/night. Its website mentions its casino in the most tactful way possible, without even a picture of the gaming tables. 'Unlock a dazzling world of privileges! ... Terms and conditions apply. Participants must be 21 years or above. Gamble responsibly.' 

Three Hooks

The CIA has lost an asset. China, in another of its reprisals, arrested a half-dozen Western employees working in mainland China as publicists/junket bookers for a Macau casino, alleging that they are part of a criminal syndicate. However one of them is actually a CIA asset, though it's not clear whether the Chinese have figured this out yet. The CIA can't afford to make the snatch; if the agents do it, they can name their own price. What nobody's yet realized is that the whole thing's the brainchild of a Chinese government official who doesn't want to pay his gambling debts, and has engineered this crisis to bully the casino into backing off.

One of the People's Liberation Army non-coms enjoys a modest fortune acting as a broker for mid-ranking Chinese officials. He can arrange for pretty much anything, up to and including money laundering and lending at modest rates. As he's PLA the officials feel comfortable dealing with him, but in the grand scheme of things he's a bit player in a much larger, Triad dominated drama. Now he's provoked some very serious people, and wants out of Macau. He's willing to trade his contact list for safe passage - and he knows some very interesting people.

A would-be God of Gamblers has come from mainland China to strike it lucky. He wears red underwear, yells Deng! (eight, lucky numerology) at every turn of the card, and obeys all of the folklore rules except one: he deliberately cultivates bad feng shui. This is because he's actually a necromantic corpse, revived by a Jin-Gui who can't resist Macau's tables but who dares not come down to play in person. The Jin-Gui stays in the gambler's room; he says 'she's' his hot date, but you can't have sex before you play - it would drain the luck right out of him. The Jin-Gui controls the corpse telepathically and gets its thrills second-hand, but if anyone gets a good look at its dead pawn in an octagonal mirror, the truth will be revealed.

Thrilling Elements

These are unique to Macau:
  • Street vendors serving up Macau's signature chee par pau, or pork bun; hungry customers cluster, and the delicious smells tempt the most jaded palate.
  • Taipa, formerly a fishing village, now a laid-back tangle of shops and restaurants. Easy to get lost in its maze of streets.
  • A flock of scooters breeze past, narrowly missing someone's expensive limo.
  • Tourists cluster round the ruins of St Paul in the historical district, snapping photos.
  • Glittering casinos with all the fakery and glamor you'd expect of a high profile resort, from Vegas-style Venetian mashups to T-Rex displays.
  • Security guards on call at all times, ensuring that the gaming rooms are kept private; only guests of the hotel and gamblers allowed in.
  • The Macau-Hong Kong Turbo Jet ferry shooting back and forth from the two former colonies, packed with tourists and workers.
  • Night scene with neon signs and lights aplenty, dazzling the eye and screaming for attention: shop here, gamble here, come here and spend!
  • Street signs on every corner, in both Chinese and Portuguese.
  • Yet another extravagant fireworks display or huge event at one or more of the casinos.
  • Police on an anti-subversion raid forcibly clear out a house or business, hauling away the occupants for vigorous interrogation.
  • Hotel staff fawn over a visiting Chinese high-roller.
  • Long queues, everywhere, for everything. Crowds everywhere, particularly on weekends and holidays.


No comments:

Post a Comment