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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

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.

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