Macau’s Casino Boom
Published: May 2009
By Karrie Jacobs
In Macau—fast on its way to becoming the Las Vegas of the Far East—spectacular, over-the-top casinos are rising amid surprisingly well-preserved colonial sites. <em>Karrie Jacobs</em> reports.
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.
From 1961 until 2002—the years when he had a monopoly on gaming—Macau was Stanley Ho’s town. He and some of his 17 children (from four wives) and his various companies and subsidiaries still own 16 Macau casinos, plus the high-speed ferries and terminal, part of the airport, and the landmark Macau tower. In 2002, the Macau government decided to offer opportunities to several other casino operators, including Las Vegas’s Sands and Steve Wynn as well as the Hong Kong-based Galaxy. The Nevada operators brought with them the newfound respectability and over-the-top showmanship that they had used to reinvent the Las Vegas strip in the 1990’s.
This past September, Wynn Resorts opened its casino and 600-room hotel across Avenida da Amizade from the Lisboa. It’s a bronzed-glass wedge much like the new Wynn Las Vegas, but surrounded by a two-story liner of faux Portuguese-colonial architecture. Grant Bowie, president and general manager of Wynn Resorts Macau insists, "We are not creating a new Las Vegas in Macau. What we’re creating is a new Macau." Steve Wynn, collector of works by Van Gogh, Picasso, and Gauguin, is, in relative terms, a sensitive casino developer. The faux-Portuguese element, Bowie tells me, gives the building "a level of sympathy and harmony."
Personally, I don’t mind Wynn’s semi-Modernist tower; my real problem is with the pseudo-Portuguese trim. In fact, it was in Bowie’s office, drinking nothing stronger than coffee, that I experienced my first twinge of nostalgia. Macau is a wonderfully complex, very real place with a rich, 450-year history, which is quickly being overrun by the purveyors of faux places and fake history. Granted, the historic core of Macau’s peninsula, named a unesco World Heritage site in 2005, is home to a remarkable collection of meticulously restored Catholic churches, houses, and public buildings, plus a handful of Chinese temples. There is the iconic St. Paul’s Church, now just a stone façade—the wooden church itself was destroyed by fire—and St. Dominic’s, a 16th-century church with a genuinely ethereal sanctuary and a bell tower housing an impressive multistory display of sacred art. Senado Square, the center of non-gambling life in Macau, has perhaps been gussied up a bit too much, but it genuinely feels like a lost corner of Europe.
For me, the real pleasure in Macau is in roaming the backstreets, stumbling on enclaves of antique houses—some restored and others crumbling—or the hilltop Guia Fortress, a 19th-century lighthouse abutting a 17th-century fresco-decorated chapel. That this all still exists can be attributed to a massive preservation effort begun by the Portuguese in the decades before the handover, something that the English in Hong Kong never thought to do. Sadly, the UNESCO designation has not proven to be as big a draw as expected, and the heritage tourists are a mere trickle compared with the gamblers.
In 2003, a year before the Sands opened its doors, China changed its tourism policy and, for the first time, allowed individuals to travel unescorted across the border to Macau. In 2005, well over half of Macau’s 18.7 million visitors came from the mainland. The general assumption here is that Chinese tourists, besides having a keen interest in gambling—currently not permitted on the mainland—are suckers for themed attractions. Witness the near-riots at the gates of Hong Kong’s Disneyland during the 2006 Lunar New Year weekend. Much of the development in Macau is elaborate stagecraft, intended to lure the masses from Zhuhai and beyond. After all, there are 1.3 billion potential tourists and gamblers just across Macau’s inner harbor.
After New Year’s Day lunch and a stop at the beguiling 19th-century Lou Lim Ieoc Garden, in central Macau, I make my way to the city’s newest attraction: Fisherman’s Wharf, nearly 30 acres of waterfront shopping mall, developed, in part, by Stanley Ho. As the afternoon light fades, I blend into the opening-day mob of tourists and locals and meander past gift shops and restaurants set in fragments of ancient Rome, South Beach Miami, New Orleans, Amsterdam, and Lisbon, and wind up standing in front of a Tang Dynasty gate. Fisherman’s Wharf also boasts a fake volcano, like the one at the Mirage in Las Vegas, except this one houses a roller coaster and a Victorian-style hotel. Eventually, there will be a Babylon-themed casino and an African village. I walk back to the Macau-Hong Kong ferry terminal, half-believing Fisherman’s Wharf was conjured up not by Ho but by some French theorist eager to prove a point about simulation and the Society of the Spectacle.
Change happens so fast in Macau that it makes my head spin. There is no telling what will occur when the planned bridge linking Macau, Zhuhai, and Hong Kong is completed (2010 is the optimistic projection). In the coming 12 months, the casinos and hotels in Cotai will begin to open, as will a new MGM Grand (developed in partnership with Ho’s daughter, Pansy) and an adjacent hotel managed by Mandarin Oriental. Dozens of new casinos have debuted or are scheduled to along the old "new Macau strip"—including the Wynn, the Galaxy, and the Grand Lisboa. And then there is a development (in which Ho has a controlling interest) called Ponte 16. Another mixed-use spectacle zone, this one designed by Jon Jerde—known for, among other things, his work on Wynn’s Bellagio—promises to be "rich in the spirit of European urban hubs."
I guess it can be argued that the Portuguese-colonial architecture is just faux-place-making from an earlier era, and that casinos are the 21st-century answer to cathedrals. But on the very first day of the Western year, I find that I am nostalgic for the old Macau...Macau as it used to be, back in the final weeks of December.
WHEN TO GO
October, November, and December are the best months to visit subtropical Macau, when the weather is cool and relatively dry. Think twice about going in September, when typhoon season is at its peak.
American offers direct flights from New York to Hong Kong, and Continental flies there out of Newark. From Hong Kong, take a ferry to Macau (or a helicopter—a much speedier alternative). The Macau International Airport has daily connections with Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities in China.
WHERE TO STAY
Wynn Macau Rua Cidade de Sintra, NAPE; 011-853/986-9966; www.wynnmacau.com; doubles from $321.
Hotel Lisboa 2–4 Avda. de Lisboa; 011-853/2888-3888; www.hotelisboa.com; doubles from $110.
Mandarin Oriental 956–1110 Avda. da Amizade; 011-853/567-888; www.mandarinoriental.com; doubles from $424.
WHAT TO DO
St. Paul's Church The original façade is all that's left of the derelict 17th-century church, an all-important historic monument near Senado Square.
Mount Fortress The incredible views from this fort take in the ruins of St. Paul's Church and the outlying city and the coast beyond.