The Venetian Macau. Photo by maikcol.
Another stellar piece of reporting by Evan Osnos of The New Yorker. This week, he looks at the growth of gambling in Macau and tells us why Las Vegas is moving there:
The ferry to Macau is greeted by a crowd of touts. When I arrived not long ago, I encountered a figure in a rotund cartoon-dog suit, waving strenuously in the heat. He was a mascot from Macau’s Venetian resort—a cousin of the Las Vegas resort of the same name—and the dog suit was adorned with the striped shirt and straw hat of a gondolier. Beyond, the city rose in layers of steep hillsides jammed with high-rise apartment blocks, the remnants of a Portuguese fort, and lush groves of Chinese banyan trees. In the crowd, a young woman handed out a Chinese advertisement for “USA Direct,” which offers a toll-free number for Mandarin speakers to buy American real estate at cut-rate prices.
Macau, whose population is half a million, feels like China amplified and miniaturized. It is animated by the same formula of ambition and speed and risk, but the sheer volume of money and people passing through has distilled the mixture into an extract so potent that it can seem to be either the city’s greatest strength or its greatest liability. A generation ago, Macau made fireworks, toys, and plastic flowers. Today, the factories are gone, the average citizen earns more than the average European, and the gap between the rich and the poor is vast and widening. Construction is ceaseless, and at night welders’ torches flare from scaffolding overhead. Underfoot, the sidewalks are littered with faces on discarded handbills that promise the companionship of “girls from every continent.”
American casino companies have raced to move in. In 2006, Steve Wynn, who led a revival of Las Vegas in the nineteen-nineties, opened a casino in Macau; he makes more than two-thirds of his global profits there. He is learning to speak Chinese, and he talks about moving his corporate headquarters to Macau. “We’re really a Chinese company now, not an American company,” he has said. Macau has become especially attractive to American corporations in the last few years. In Nevada, after tourism sank in 2008, gaming revenue plunged by nearly twenty per cent in two years, the largest decline in the state’s history. It later improved, but Nevada still has the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the country. Gary Loveman, the chairman of Caesars Entertainment, was one of the few casino bosses who passed up a chance to build in Macau. “Big mistake,” he said later. “I was wrong, I was really wrong.” Even by China’s standards, the speed of Macau’s growth is breathtaking; for a decade, the economy has ballooned, on average, nineteen per cent a year—nearly twice as fast as mainland China’s. In 2010, high rollers in Macau wagered about six hundred billion dollars, roughly the amount of cash withdrawn from all the A.T.M.s in America in a year.