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Macau’s Casino Boom

Andrew Rowat The Hotel Lisboa casino overlooking construction of the new Grand Lisboa in Macau.

Photo: Andrew Rowat

How can you be nostalgic about a place that you’ve only just gotten to know?This is the question I keep asking myself during a New Year’s Day lunch in Macau, the former Portuguese colony that is now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. I’m on one of Macau’s two islands, Coloane, in a splendid Macanese café on the Largo Eduardo Marques, a square paved in characteristic swirling patterns of black and white cobblestones. Nga Tim Café features open-air dining under an awning expediently constructed around a couple of giant banyan trees, and the whole setup is tucked away behind a Mediterranean colonnade painted creamy yellow, the signature hue of Portuguese colonial architecture here. A friend and I sit messily devouring jumbo crab and drinking Vinho Verde, the refreshing young Portuguese wine.

Perhaps the nostalgia is a direct result of the Vinho Verde, but I prefer to think it’s a product of what I know about Macau’s immediate future. My New Year’s Day field trip is actually my third quick visit in the space of three weeks. I’ve been staying in China’s bigger, better-known SAR, Hong Kong, an hour away by high-speed ferry. And on my two previous expeditions, I spent time with the developers who are determined to transform this once quiet cluster of peninsula and two islands, where the Pearl River Delta meets the South China Sea, into "Asia’s Las Vegas."

Coloane Village, like many sections of this outpost established by Portuguese traders in 1557 and handed back to China in 1999, is an intriguing fusion of European and Asian cultures. It follows the contours of the harbor, with the vivid red Tam Kung Temple (a Taoist shrine to the god of the seafarers) at one extreme, shops selling a curious array of dried salted fish at the other, and, somewhere in the middle, Lord Stow’s Bakery, home of exceptional egg tarts. But when I look past the fishing pier at the far end of the harbor, I can see the cluster of cranes that marks the Cotai Strip, which has been hailed by its developer, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, as "the biggest tourism project in world history."

"Cotai" is a coinage for the three-quarter-mile sliver of reclaimed swampland that connects Coloane to Taipa, the next island over. If there’s no traffic, it’s a swift five-minute drive from the Macau airport and roughly the same distance from the border from Zhuhai, China. The concept—which supposedly came to Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson in a dream—is simple: "We want to replicate the Vegas strip," Medardo "Mikki" Estrada, the Sands Corporation’s director of Cotai design, explains, "but with a more disciplined approach." Estrada’s office on Macau’s peninsula overlooks the posh 165,000-square-foot gold glass-clad Sands casino that the company opened in 2004 on Avenida da Amizade (Friendship Avenue), a wide boulevard lined with vintage 1960’s and 1970’s casinos that tourism boosters sometimes refer to as "the new Macau Strip."

Estrada uses a laser pointer to walk me through a wall-mounted plan of the Cotai Strip’s eight development sites. The flagship of the development is a new version of the Las Vegas Venetian Casino Resort, currently being built at a frenzied pace and scheduled to open in the summer. The Venetian complex alone will feature 600,000 square feet of gaming; a 15,000-seat sports arena; 1.2 million square feet of convention space; a 90-foot-tall "wow space" (casinospeak for "spectacle") involving tall, curving escalators; a rooftop 18-hole putting course ringed by lavish VIP suites; and a wave pool. There will be a Cirque de Soleil franchise and a Busby Berkeley-style aqua theater. One of the facility’s three indoor canals will have dragon boats instead of gondolas: "It will be like Chinatown in Venice, if you can picture that," Estrada says.

A model of the Cotai scheme, kept in a special media room adjacent to the Sands casino, suggests that the strip will be lined with extreme architecture of the sort that Rem Koolhaas might favor, but it’s more likely that the development will favor the established forms of Las Vegas-inspired design. The Venetian, of course, will look like Venice by way of Nevada, and other casinos on the strip, many built by the Sands, and hotels managed by the Four Seasons and Shangri-la, will be "Portuguese-contemporary-colonial" or "Tibetan-feel" or "Tuscany-maybe." More avant-garde, perhaps, will be the City of Dreams, a complex to be constructed by Melco—a company run by Lawrence Ho, son of local mogul Stanley Ho—that will include a "tropical underwater casino hall."

Although the current flood of international gaming money is a new development, gambling has been one of Macau’s attractions since the mid 19th century. As Hong Kong grew into a booming international trading post, Macau, a backwater run by a lesser colonial power, faded. But after World War II, its reputation for casinos (and related vices) grew. In his book Thrilling Cities, James Bond author Ian Fleming wrote of an evening he spent in the early 1960’s at what was then Macau’s premier nightspot: "The Central Hotel is not precisely a hotel. It is a nine-story skyscraper, by far the largest building in Macau...The higher up in the building you go, the more beautiful and expensive are the girls, the higher the stakes at the gambling tables, and the better the music."

There is still a Central Hotel, but it is now a seedy two-star lodging. In the 1970’s, the action shifted to Stanley Ho’s Hotel Lisboa, a complex marked by a round, neon-covered tower topped with what appears to be a giant roulette wheel. Inside, the décor is Morris Lapidus-meets-Louis XIV. Think excess and you’ve got it. It is an old-style Chinese casino, smoky and full of men, mainly, gambling with a quiet intensity, the low rollers playing a dice game called Big/Small, and the players in roped-off VIP rooms focusing on Bond’s game, baccarat. The girls, expensive and not-so-expensive, reputedly hang out in the lower-level arcade. This Lisboa, Macau’s premier tourist draw until the Sands opened its doors, will soon be superseded by the Grand Lisboa, a new 44-story tower shaped like a Las Vegas chorus girl’s headdress that Stanley Ho is building just across the street.

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