Glittery Las Vegas gambling has arrived in seedy Macau, promising new charms for China's inveterate players, and this former Portuguese colony may never be the same.
The first Las Vegas invasion, the Sands, has risen bronze-tinted and modernistic on the edge of Macau's little harbor, where fast ferries from Hong Kong deliver thousands of gamblers every day. With more than 300 tables and 500 slot machines in 165,000 square feet of luxury casino, the sleek new entry scooped up almost $36 million in the first 10 weeks after it opened in mid-May.
Venetian Macau Ltd., the Las Vegas Sands Inc., subsidiary that built the Sands, has started construction on a second high-end casino near Macau International Airport. Wynn Resorts, another Las Vegas firm elbowing into Macau gambling, has launched two similarly grandiose projects, one of which includes a golf course along with its 110,000-square-foot casino.
The competition from Las Vegas has pushed the traditional Macau gambling empire, created by the legendary Stanley Ho, to refurbish frayed facilities and erect new ones.
At the same time, Galaxy, a Hong Kong-owned firm that initially partnered with Venetian and then split off, has broken ground on a casino described by the government's Tourism Office as "a large-scale resort and entertainment center." It has also announced plans for a new 600-room establishment in the crowded city center.
The new construction is only part of the picture. The deepest changes may be in the personality of this 10.5-square-mile territory on the South China Sea, which has a long tradition of laissez faire, allowing prostitutes, loan sharks and gangsters to prosper alongside the croupiers. But the Las Vegas gaming industry has made it clear it intends to market gambling in Macau as wholesome entertainment.
"Macau can no longer be just a gambling den," said an industry source aware of marketing strategies. The Las Vegas gambling companies, the source added, "are bringing a sense of entertainment for the family as well as the man."
Ho's Macau Gaming Co., which grew up in Macau's smoky tradition and helped it grow, has also begun seeking a broader clientele.
"The focus has been widened from that of economic stimulus and spinoff benefits for social and infrastructure projects to the wish to improve Macau's international image," said a statement issued in response to questions put to the office of Ambrose So, Macau Gaming Co.'s director, about the arrival of Las Vegas-style casinos.
Macau has undergone several changes since it reverted to Chinese control in 1999, including the granting of new licenses into a formerly closed gambling market. But none has been as far-reaching as this challenge to the anything-goes credo that has made Macau notorious.
"It's going to change our way of life," predicted the Rev. Lancelot M. Rodrigues, who arrived in Macau to study for the priesthood in 1935 and has watched the territory evolve ever since with benign cynicism.
As things stand, no one seems to care when Schubert's "Ave Maria" segues into "Unchained Melody" in the music for sidewalk diners enjoying Portuguese cuisine in Macau's tepid evening air. Those drinking vinho verde and eating the ersatz Portuguese fish stew coexist just as easily with neighbors slurping Chinese noodles across the alley.
Traditionally, gamblers of all kinds find a warm welcome. Macau's homegrown casinos cater with indiscriminate zeal to Hong Kong high rollers who fly in by helicopter to bet millions in VIP rooms and to crowds of bused-in Chinese who fritter away their salaries chip by chip a few stories below.
The do-as-you-like jumble has proved an irresistible draw for people from mainland China, where casinos are illegal. By the millions -- 11.8 million in 2003 -- they have poured into Macau since the turnover to China, aided by increasingly lax border controls.
Mao Hang, a court reporter who came with a tour group from his native Anhui province in eastern China, tried his luck last week at the Lisboa, one of Ho's premier properties now undergoing a facelift by painters scaling bamboo scaffolding. For him the experience, his first shot at the tables, was exhilarating.
"It's a lot of fun," he said. "But it really is nerve-racking."
Another group of stylelessly dressed men from Gansu province in western China, stickers on their lapels identifying them as group tourists, laughed nervously when asked whether they enjoyed their try at gambling. One pointed mischievously at his friends and said: "I only like to watch. But they love to gamble."
Chiefly because of visitors like Mao and the others, the amount of taxes paid by Macau's 15 operating casinos rose more than 50 percent in the first eight months of this year, according to Macau government statistics. These taxes -- which account for 70 percent of government revenue -- when combined with the construction boom helped generate second-quarter economic growth of 47 percent.
Although most Chinese visit on bus tours, officials sometimes pull up in limousines and bet embezzled public money. Wuhua Li, the public security chief of Huizhou in neighboring Guangdong province, was removed from his post last month and put under investigation on charges he gambled away more than $1 million obtained by extorting money from Chinese women seeking passage into Hong Kong, the controlled Chinese press reported.
The question for the Macau gambling industry is whether the new concepts and new level of luxury being introduced by Las Vegas gambling firms will appeal to Chinese visitors. Executives have predicted they can also draw visitors from elsewhere in Asia with opulence, conventions and golfing. But China, with its 1.3 billion inhabitants, has remained the main target.
Ambrose So, the director of Ho's company, said he believes Macau's traditional casinos should learn from the Las Vegas entrants but also stick to the territory's own traditions. "The Las Vegas model is unique because of its geographical, historical and sociocultural characteristics, from which Macau is totally different," he said.
Ho, the 84-year-old gambling patriarch, has not spoken much in public of the end to his long-held monopoly. At the opening of the Sands on May 18, he proclaimed himself ready to learn from his rivals. Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported that at a Macau Gaming Co. function in September, he vowed, "We are Chinese and we will not be disgraced. We will not lose to the intruders."