With its growing mainland Chinese population and a traditional Macanese community in decline, Macau is shaping a new identity for itself as an integral part of the Chinese nation - while almost 450 years of Portuguese colonial rule begins to fade in the city’s collective memory
It's hard to believe that not so many years ago - and for a long time before that - Macau was a bucolic, picture-postcard out-post of the once grand Portuguese empire. Today, almost 16 years after China resumed sovereignty, the once sleepy city at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta is barely recognisable from that which Lisbon lowered its flag on after almost half a millennia in charge in 1999.
The garish shop-fronts of 21st century consumerism have replaced quiet alleyways, while traditional neighbourhoods and old businesses have been swamped by a casino revolution that has swept away almost everything before it.
As this transformation - now in the grip of its first reality check as casino revenues fall amid political uncertainty and economic restructuring - took place, Macau saw an influx of people from mainland China and witnessed a steadily shrinking Macanese community.
The city where East meets West is changing fast and its people are trying to keep up.
Restaurant Riquexo is a rare survivor of the upheavals of recent times. The streets beyond the little alley where it now sits bear little resemblance to the day it opened more than 35 years ago.
But inside, the spirit and soul of old Macau lives on thanks to the special culinary mix of Macanese and Portuguese food.
Chicken curry, Portuguese bean stew, egg pudding, coconut cakes and other dishes lie in tempting wait behind the windows of the restaurant. On a Sunday afternoon, the high-pitched sound of a Cantonese opera blares from a little radio in Riquexo’s kitchen, while the Chinese cook puts the finishing touches to dishes. Three young Portuguese women laugh loudly, eating bean stew and codfish in the main dining room, while an old Macanese man sips an espresso as he flicks through a local newspaper.
Riquexo's traditionally tiled walls are festooned with old photos of Macau and the sense of time travel strengthens as the sound of several languages fill the pungent cooking-infused air.
“Our clients are a mix, like our food is. We have Portuguese, Macanese, Chinese people coming every day. But over the past few years, I noticed an increasing number of Chinese,” says Sonia Palmer, 72, the Macanese owner of the eatery.
Outside is no different: The diverse communities which make up this city where 600,000 people are crammed into 35 square kilometres - only the Gaza Strip is more densely populated - face a struggle to redefine themselves.
As growing numbers from mainland China make Macau their home, the local Chinese are striving to reshape their own identity, while the Macanese community - known for their interracial heritage, typically a mix of Portuguese and Chinese - is fading.
“My main concern is the obvious erosion of the community. I feel there is a serious risk of extinction,” says Miguel de Senna Fernandes, lawyer and president of the Macanese Association.
Fernandes, 54, is one of the most active and highest-profile members of the community, a role he inherited from his father, the late Henrique de Senna Fernandes, a lawyer who wrote about early 20th-century Macau. His father’s books chart the complex - and highly controversial at the time - love affairs between Chinese, Portuguese and Macanese.
Place of birth does not always adequately define what makes a Macanese. For instance, while the Fernandes family has been settled in Macau for some two centuries, their ethnic roots don’t lie in a single place, theirs is a blood running thick with cultures.
Despite the absence of an absolute and universal definition, Fernandes says the essence of Macanese is “attitude”, memories and a tradition of East meeting West.
Macanese families tend to be Catholic, but most celebrate Portuguese and Chinese festivals. As for food, the Macanese follow the Portuguese cooking method but mix local ingredients and other Asian condiments. The ability to speak several languages is also one of the most obvious traits of Macanese culture.
But this widely accepted depiction of what it is to be Macanese might not hold for long to come, the community is going through a drastic and unpredictable metamorphosis.
Unlike in the old days, many Macanese today no longer master both Portuguese and Chinese, and many communicate in English. “Bilingualism is a fundamental characteristic of our community, but people are not taking advantage of that,” Fernandes says. “Now people tend not to speak Portuguese, which is after all an important reference for us. It’s in our umbilical cord.”
Under colonial administration, the bilingualism of the Macanese allowed them to become intermediaries between the Portuguese and Chinese ruling elite. Many played crucial roles in the political evolution of the city before the handover and dozens are still public servants today.
The decline of the Macanese community is more to do with mentality than a lack of government support, says Fernandes.
If young people don’t embrace and cherish their uniqueness, their culture’s odds of survival are very low, Fernandes says in a bitter tone. “There’s a real chance of the community members not knowing in a few years what make us different from other Chinese citizens, because the old people, those who know the meaning of it, are dying.”
For a Portuguese speaker, patuá sounds like an old form of the language spoken with a Cantonese accent. It is indeed a creole language based in Portuguese, but meshing influences from Malay, Sinhalese (spoken by an ethnic group in Sri Lanka), Spanish and, at a later stage, Cantonese.
Patuá used to be a “home dialect spoken mostly by Macanese women”, says Miguel de Senna Fernandes, president of the Macanese Association.
Its expressions often embody the sense of humour of a community that flourished within the limbo of several cultures. However, very few master the language these days.
In the latest edition of Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, patuá was classified as a “critically endangered” language. As of the year 2000, there were some 50 speakers, according to the Unesco document.
The group of people familiar with the language hasn’t increased since then.
“Macanese little by little started to give up on their language,” says Fernandes, who is the director of a theatre troupe that performs in patuá.
“Those who spoke patuá used to be looked down [upon], because it was not proper Portuguese,” he says. “And, now, the language is not useful.”
Patuá has not only lost speakers, but it has also changed over the years. The patuá used on stage by the troupe Dóci Papiaçám’s (literally, “sweet speech”) is a modern patuá, which includes more Cantonese expressions and less old Portuguese sayings.
The amateur troupe, which was founded in 1993, usually once a year performs humorous plays written by Fernandes. “The intention is to help us to [keep] our language and culture alive,” he says.
Theatre in patuá was classified by the local government as an intangible heritage of Macau in 2012 along with Macanese food. But besides academic research and occasional efforts by the community, there is no official strategy to effectively preserve the dying language.
While the singularity of the Macanese community is vanishing in the bustling city, one community that has grown in both size and influence since the 1999 handover is the Fujianese. According to the territory’s latest census, in 2011, more than half of Macau residents were originally from mainland China and about one-quarter (35,578 people) that number hailed from Fujian province, on the southeast coast of the mainland.
“They [Fujianese] are very strong, first of all because of their number, and also because of one of their main characteristics, which is very strong solidarity among community members,” social affairs commentator Larry So Man-yum says.
Farmers and fishermen from Fujian began migrating to Macau before the 16th century, and historically Macau has always been an attractive option for mainland Chinese seeking a better life.
Si Ka-long, 38, born in Jinjiang, a city in the Fujian province, arrived in Macau in the early 1980s, when he was about six years old. He is now a lawmaker. “Most Fujian immigrants left home to make a better living, because, back then, people were really impoverished in coastal areas like Fujian,” he says.
His family’s story is similar to many other migrant families in Macau. “My parents first worked for others … They started as small vendors on the street, then began to do trading,” he recalls. “And now they run their own supermarket.”
Si still speaks Hakka, one of the dialects of his province, and maintains some Fujianese traditions. “My father started the Si Clan community here in Macau, which has regular activities like honouring our ancestors. There are more than 4,000 people who are of the Si Clan here in Macau,” he says.
The preservation of links with his home province notwithstanding, Si is in no doubt that Macau is home. “My living habits are mainly Macau ones … My wife is originally from Guangdong, and in my nuclear family we speak Cantonese.”
These days, the Fujianese community works in various sectors, although they still tend to live mostly in the northern part of Macau, and are renowned for the tight-knit nature of their community.
The growing power of the community was visible in the 2013 legislative elections. Their aggressive street-level political campaign saw Fujianese businessman and casino owner Chan Meng-kam elected along with Si and another member of the Fujianese community. They garnered 26,385 votes - 18.2 per cent of the total. It was the first time in the history of Macau that a single list captured three legislative seats.
Unlike Hong Kong, Macau does not allow political parties. It has only political associations. For each election, lists are formed. In order to be accepted by the electoral commission, each list has to collect 300 to 500 signatures of local residents eligible to vote. One list is usually only able to elect one to two lawmakers.
Chan Meng-kam, who was a metalsmith, migrated to Macau in the 80s. Within two decades, he became one of the most influential men in the region. A member of the top national advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, he was even tipped as a potential chief executive candidate for Macau in leaked US diplomatic cables released in 2011.
“Well, if there was ‘one man, one vote’ he would probably be elected,” says social commentator So, referring to Chan’s ability to gather votes.
Following the 1999 return of sovereignty, hundreds of Portuguese and Macanese, who were worried about the changes Chinese rule might bring, left the city. At the time there were reportedly some 25,000 Portuguese and Macanese residents.
According to the Consul General of Portugal to Macau and Hong Kong, Vítor Sereno, about 5,000 people originally from Portugal now reside in Macau, whereas Fernandes estimates that the Macanese community in the region numbers about 10,000.
But over the past few years, a new wave of Portuguese arrived, in large part thanks to the European financial crisis.
Lawyer, Maria Ines Gomes, 32, is one of them. Her initial intention was to stay for a half-year internship. That was back in 2012, but the professional opportunities she found and the debt crisis in Portugal made her stay longer.
“I really liked Macau and, more than that, I appreciated the professional opportunities that it has given to me. The fact that the Macau law is based on the Portuguese legal system was obviously one of the reasons why I have had such a rich professional experience,” she says.
Cantonese rules and Putonghua have gained a foothold, becoming the main language in many local schools. Although it is barely spoken in the streets, Portuguese is one of the two official languages under the Basic Law, Macau’s mini-constitution. Street signs and public announcements, for instance, are still written both in traditional Chinese characters and Portuguese.
Gomes says the language remains a barrier between the Portuguese and the Chinese communities in Macau. “I have mostly Portuguese friends, and only a few local friends, mostly work colleagues. I think there might be many explanations for that, but the language is probably one of them.”
She says that the Portuguese presence is visible through “the architecture, the signs in the street, the courts and the television.” However, she notes that in Macau the space for the Portuguese community is increasingly limited.
“Of course there’s a legacy of hundreds of years, but now Macau is China and it has changed incredibly fast ... I think it’s important for the community to make their voice heard and felt. But if that will happen in the future, it’s hard to tell,” she says.
Agnes Lam Iok-fong, 43, assistant professor at the University of Macau and a former journalist who covered the handover, says the Portuguese community has helped the Chinese residents originally from Macau maintain their own identity, and set them apart from Hong Kong Chinese.
“The Portuguese are part of Macau history and identity, and they help us to keep our difference, even through things that may look like minor details,” says Lam, who was born and raised in Macau.
She says traces and memories of Portuguese culture distinguish Macau from mainland China and neighbouring Hong Kong. “We can see that in our daily habits. We eat ‘bacalhau’ [codfish] and pork chops, for instance. Coffee here is not a middle-class thing,” she says.
Lam ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the legislative assembly twice. In the 2013 race, she championed heritage protection and urban planning.
Her eyes have a hard time adjusting to the immense buildings, with their thousands of windows, which sprout up like mushrooms in the area where she grew up. Northern Macau, near the border with mainland China, is the densest residential area in the former Portuguese enclave. “When I was a child, there used to be vegetable fields. After the 80s, they started building these buildings and in the past few years they built some luxury towers,” she says.
In downtown Macau, about 20 minutes away by car with little traffic, the disappearance of traditional sites and businesses over the past decade has sparked complaints among residents. Even if many old buildings have maintained their original facades, most of the interiors have been engulfed by modern trappings. Traditional barbershops, yum cha restaurants and other time-honoured businesses have been completely wiped out by voguish displays and chain stores.
The loss of remembrances from this collective past “is making many people unhappy ... There’s this feeling of nostalgia,” Lam notes. “A 100-year-old coffee shop is also part of our identity.”
Along with the city’s fast and furious development, how Macau’s citizens perceive themselves is also changing. “Traditionally there’s this idea that Macau identity is about a harmonious society and being silent,” Lam says. “Nowadays, I would not say that people are trying to break that tradition, but I would say there are people who are not afraid of the government and they will speak out,” she notes.
“We are in a time [when] our identity is being evaluated. Macau people are looking for a new identity.”
Ever wondered how Macau became the world's biggest gaming hub? Here, we trace the history of an industry that has come to dominate a city now boasting more than 35 casinos, and, despite a recent decline in fortunes, still takes in more at the tables than Las Vegas
The history of Macau's casinos dates back to the 16th century, and is, as you might expect, not short of intrigue and flamboyant characters. Five hundred years ago, there were no fancy casinos, marble floors, crystal chandeliers in gambling rooms, or variety shows performed on opulent stages. In early Macau, games of chance started out on wooden tables laid out across narrow streets and cul-de-sacs. Back in the day, the core gambling population were more likely to be harbour coolies, construction workers from the mainland and domestic helpers than millionaires and high-rollers.
Fast forward in time and it’s hard to recognise, but the former Portuguese enclave still has an appeal like no other. Dazzling and increasingly more sophisticated, it’s the only city in China where gambling is legal.
After Hong Kong became a British colony, Macau’s role as an important trading port declined. In the face of financial problems, the Portuguese government attempted to diversify its economy, legalising gaming for the first time. By the 1850s, Macau operated more than 200 stalls of “Fantan”, a Chinese game akin to roulette.
Horse races appeared long before 1842, but it was only after 1927 that there were organised events. In the late 1920s and 30s, races were held in the newly built horse racing grounds in Areia Preta and hosted by Club Internacional de Recreio e Corridas de Macau Limitada, which owned the monopoly concession for horse racing.
The Hou Heng Company, headed by Fok Chi-ting, won the monopoly concession for operating all forms of approved casino games. “Hou Heng” was considered a pioneer in the gaming business. It renovated and refurbished casinos, and started offering patrons creative perks, such as complimentary Chinese opera shows, fruit, cigarettes and snacks, also purchasing ferry tickets on their behalf.
The Macau gaming industry underwent a revolutionary change. The casino monopoly concession was granted to the Tai Heng Company, headed by Fu Tak-iong and Kou Ho-neng. They introduced baccarat, which until today is the most popular casino game in the world.
As Macau followed Portugal’s policy of remaining neutral in the second world war, a huge number of people from mainland China fled to the Portuguese colony. Its population soared, according to official figures, to an unprecedented high of some 375,000. “Gambling houses were filled with people at almost all times,” describes the book Gambling Dynamism: The Macao Miracle.
The 119th Portuguese governor of Macau, Jaime Silvério Marques, designated Macau a “permanent gaming region”. He officially positioned it as a low-taxation region and regarded gaming and tourism as its major economic activities.
- Tai Heng’s licence expired on December 31, 1961. Before that, the government decided to put the gaming concession up for public bidding. Two companies joined the tender: Tai Heng, which used to be the only player in the market; and a newly formed company called Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau (STDM), set up by Stanley Ho Hung-sun, who would become Macau’s gaming magnate, along with Yip Hon (known as the “god of gambling”), Teddy Yip Tak-lei (Ho’s brother-in-law and father of Macau grand prix racing), and Hong Kong tycoon Henry Fok Ying-tung.
- STDM won the bid, landing the monopoly concession to operate games of fortune as well as selling lottery tickets.
STDM’s first casino, the Casino Estoril, which was mostly known by its hospitality facilities, opened in 1962, while the flagship Casino and Hotel Lisboa, which still exists today, only started fully operating in 1970. STDM controlled the gaming industry for more than 40 years.
Yip Hon formed the Macau Trotting Club in an attempt to introduce harness racing - in which horses usually pull a two-wheeled cart - in Macau, but it was not a popular sporting event.
All the races were halted, since the amount of bets significantly decreased. In the same year, a Taiwanese company bought the business, refurbished the racecourse and organised its first race in September 1989. In spite of these efforts, it was not a profitable move.
Races were restored, following STDM’s acquisition of the business at 1 billion patacas. STDM also took over the Macau Jockey Club in 1990. The 90s were marked by a wave of violence, in which 14k-leader Wan Kuok-koi, better known as “Broken Tooth” (Pang Nga-koi), played a prominent role. (To read more about it, click here)
The government granted approval to the Macau SLOT Company Limited to accept football bets.
On December 19, a sumptuous ceremony marked Macau’s return to China after more than 400 years of Portuguese rule.
Upon the expiry of STDM’s concession on December 31, the Macau government granted three gaming concessions to winning bidders, liberalising the industry. The tender ended on December 7, 2001. There were a total of 21 bids from investors coming from Macau, Hong Kong, the US, Malaysia, Australia, the UK and Taiwan.
The results of the tender were announced. The big winners were Sociedade de Jogos de Macau (SJM), a subsidiary of STDM; Galaxy Casino, owned by Hong Kong magnate Lui Che-woo; and Wynn Resorts, headed by American Steve Wynn.
In December of that year, the Macau government allowed a sub-concession relationship between Galaxy and Venetian, belonging to American businessman Sheldon Adelson.
Sands, the first casino by Venetian, opened in May. It was the first-ever gaming investment project developed by an American company in Asia.
Other sub-concessions followed. On April 20, SJM signed a sub-concession with MGM, co-chaired by Pansy Ho Chiu-king, Hong Kong’s richest woman and Stanley Ho’s daughter.
On September 8, Wynn signed a sub-concession with Melco Crown Entertainment Limited, whose co-chairman and chief executive is Lawrence Ho Yau-lung, a son of Stanley Ho.
June of this year will be remembered as the start of a gaming slump that has already changed the face of the city and promises more change to come.
- In September, hundreds of staff working in Macau magnate Stanley Ho Hung-sun's casinos took to the streets, demanding better salaries and more benefits.
- In December, President Xi Jinping who was in Macau to lead celebrations for the 15th anniversary of the handover, called on Macau in no uncertain terms to diversify its economy and clean up its casino sector, which has become a major target of Beijing's unprecedented anti-corruption drive.
As of the end of the year, there were a total of 35 casinos in Macau, 23 of them on the Macau peninsula and 12 on the Cotai strip, a stretch of reclaimed land between Taipa and Coloane especially developed for gaming and entertainment. Among the total, SJM had 20; Galaxy had six; the Venetian had four; Melco Crown had three; while Wynn and MGM had one casino each.
- In January, shortly after Judiciary Police chief Wong Sio-chak became Secretary for Security in Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on's new-look ruling cabinet, Alan Ho, a nephew of gaming kingpin Stanley Ho Hung-sun, was arrested in The Lisboa Hotel for allegedly running a prostitution ring.
- VIP rooms, which have always exceeded mass-market revenue, started closing down in significant numbers as China’s anti-corruption crackdown scared off high rollers.
- In May, Galaxy Macau’s second phase, including three hotels, two casinos and other entertainment facilities, opened its doors. It was the first major grand opening of a casino since gaming revenues began to fall.
- In early September, Macau government announced budget control measures. As it emerged that casino revenues for August were down 35.5 per cent year-on-year, public departments were told to hold back part of their budgets to save about 1.4 billion patacas by the end of 2015.
- The same month, investors in junket operator Dore Holdings staged a series of public protests calling for the return of millions of dollars they invested in the company, after it emerged that between HK$200 million and HK$2 billion had been "stolen" by a former employee from a VIP room in Wynn Macau.
- Within days, the Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau announced it would revise the rules for issuing licences to junket operators in order to enhance transparency.
- Melco Crown’s HK$3.2 billion Studio City development went live in October with the promise of tinseltown-tinged entertainment and – in a first for the world’s premier gaming hub – a casino floor with no VIP tables in sight. This represented Macau’s most significant push towards a mass-market casino model.
- Macau’s top casino regulator, Manuel Joaquim das Neves, stepped down, his tenure ending effective November 25.
Sources: Macau Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau’s website and the book Gambling Dynamism: The Macao Miracle by Victor Zheng, Po-san Wan.
If you want to be accepted, share a slice of your wealth. This thought might have been Stanley Ho Hung-sun’s trump card during his ascendancy in Macau’s gambling industry.
Born to a reputable and wealthy family, Ho carved his own path to conquering a huge industry in Macau. He had a monopoly of the gaming industry for 40 years, and even after he lost full control, Ho managed to keep his firm – Sociedade de Jogos de Macau (SJM), created in 2001 and a subsidiary of one-time gaming monopoly STDM – on top of the game.
SJM is currently the largest casino operator in Asia by number of casinos.
Ho’s four-decade monopoly was possible due to external and internal economic factors, SJM executive director Rui Cunha notes. Among those factors are “his personality; dialogue capability; understanding of the objectives and needs of the successive administrations and the Macau people; long-term vision; as well as fidelity to the commitments assumed”, Cunha says.
As Ho got wealthier, and became known as the gambling kingpin of Macau, he also played an important role as philanthropist. “He seized the opportunities and shared well-being and experience,” Cunha says.
Ho financially supported some of Macau’s main infrastructure projects, namely the airport, the first public housing developments and the Macau Cultural Centre. In March 1964, STDM launched the first hydrofoil connections between Hong Kong and Macau.
There are endless and juicy stories about Ho, his business and his colourful personal life: he is thrice divorced and fathered 17 children. Ho’s prolific dancing skills, for instance, are legendary and apparently led him to waltz his way into marrying his fourth and current wife, Angela Leong On-kei.
Some American reports suggested that Ho had links to triads. But no connections were ever proved. According to information provided by Forbes, as of 2011, Ho had an estimated net worth of US$3.1 billion.
This year, Alan Ho, Stanley Ho’s nephew, was arrested at Hotel Lisboa for allegedly running a prostitution racket. Alan was an executive director of the hotel. The prostitution syndicate, which was allegedly controlling 100 rooms in the hotel since 2013, made a profit of 400 million patacas (HK$379.5 million) a year, according to Macau police.
At the age of 94, Stanley Ho is no longer at the helm of his empire. Since a fall sent him to hospital in late 2009, he has made very few public appearances. Ho’s fortune was at the centre of a heated dispute among his family members. He ended up transferring most of his shares to relatives back in 2011 to halt the conflict. According to media reports, the family agreement stated that his fourth wife Leong, managing director of SJM and a lawmaker in Macau, would run the gaming business until 2017.
Two of Ho’s children, Pansy Ho Chiu-king and Lawrence Ho Yau-lung, followed him into the gaming industry.
Pansy, who is Hong Kong’s richest woman according to Forbes, is co-chairwoman of casino operator MGM China and managing director of property, transport and investments company Shun Tak, which runs the ferries between Macau and Hong Kong. She is also the chairman of the budget airline Jetstar Hong Kong.
Lawrence is co-chairman and chief executive of casino operator Melco Crown, with properties like City of Dreams and Macau Studio City.
“There's no one left in Macau worth being afraid of,” said Wan Kuok-koi, better known as “Broken Tooth” (Pang Nga-koi), in a 1998 interview with Newsweek magazine. He was the highest-profile gangster in Macau history, and, before his arrest that year, he made no effort to steer clear of public attention.
Hard-boiled Broken Tooth clawed his way up the triad hierarchy and became the top leader of the city's 14K - reputedly the second largest triad in the world, with about 25,000 members. Under his leadership, 14K started being challenged by the smaller Shui Fong triad, also known as Wo On Lok (literally meaning “water room gang”).
The triad battles were sparked by a competition for lucrative VIP rooms in Casino Lisboa, operated by Stanley Ho’s STDM.
“The conflicts arose because STDM had VIP rooms run by people who didn’t belong to the operator. Since the market was short at the time, conflicts between different groups [who wanted to control the rooms] emerged,” says Rui Afonso, who was a lawmaker until 1997 and was involved in drafting the law penalising organised crime.
The power struggle and confrontation between 14K and Shui Fong triggered unprecedented levels of violence in Macau. Motorbikes running amok, daylight assassinations, physical confrontations, and arson attacks became commonplace in Macau’s previously quiet, labyrinthine streets.
On November 26, 1996, Antonio Apolinario, the second-ranking official in the Gambling Inspectorate, somehow survived after a motorcycle gunman pumped two bullets into his neck and head as Apolinario stepped out of his car in central Macau in broad daylight.
“Although people knew these conflicts had specific targets, the nature of the crimes and the way they were committed triggered a general feeling of insecurity among residents, because the government and the police were not under control,” Afonso recalls.
In May 1997, two men on a motorcycle riding alongside a car at high speed, shot dead three alleged 14K triad society members in a busy street.
A few months later, a gambling inspector was shot twice in the face outside the Macau Palace floating casino. He survived, although he was left with major facial scars.
In the same year, three business premises linked to gambling inspectors were firebombed.
The weak intervention of the government was heavily criticised at the time. “The Portuguese government can’t control anything in Chinese society, so how do you expect them to control 14K and Soi Fong?” said Ng Kuok-Cheong, who was then and still is a lawmaker, in an interview with British newspaper The Independent, published on May 25, 1997.
“The basic problem is that the Portuguese government does not really want to run this city,” he said.
In March 1998, another gambling official was shot dead at lunchtime near the Lisboa Hotel.
The spiral of violence culminated in May, when police chief Antonio Baptista, nicknamed “Rambo”, was the target of an attempted car-bomb assassination. His car, parked on Guia Hill, exploded while he was walking his dog nearby.
A direct connection between the car bombing and 14K was never formally established. But on that same day, May 1, Broken Tooth would enjoy his last hours of freedom.
Baptista, who was unscathed after the explosion, arrested Broken Tooth at the Lisboa Hotel, while he was watching Casino, a film the gangster himself funded, which depicted his own illegal activities.
According to reports at the time, more than 40 people died in gang-related attacks in Macau at the end of the 90s.
In 1999, Broken Tooth was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison on triad gang membership, money laundering and loan sharking, among other crimes. A special prison annex was built to hold him and his associates given his notoriety and apparent influence.
After the handover, a peace of sorts returned to Macau, although recent times have seen an upsurge in crime.
Broken Tooth was released on December 1, 2012, after more than a decade behind bars. At the time, he promised he would not do anything to harm Macau’s stability.
In 2013, he told Next magazine that he would return to junket operations, although he said he would not manage the business directly.
Despite rumours about his personal life and links to gaming-related businesses, Broken Tooth has kept a low profile.
Observers say triad members play an important role in the junket industry in Macau. Junkets, also called “gaming promoters”, are middlemen who recruit high-rollers and usually lend money. There were 183 licensed gaming promoters in Macau as of January this year.
Carlos Siu-lam, an associate professor with the Gaming Teaching and Research Centre at Macau Polytechnic Institute who has studied junket operators, said that although junket operators must apply for licences their backgrounds could not be vouched for. “Between them and their clients there are collaborators, and some might be triad members, although we don’t have solid proof,” he said.
Only shareholders and administrators are currently subject to a "suitability check" by gaming regulators. But the government recently announced that rules for issuing licences to junket operators would soon become stricter.
Amid the decline in casino revenues, looming greater regulation and a push to vie for the mass-market gaming dollar, the days of the junkets are numbered.
Dozens of VIP tables have folded over the past year and losses in the millions have been reported. As profits continue to fall, an increasing number of gamblers unable to pay their debts are being deprived of their freedom and even lives.
In the first half of this year, gaming-related crimes soared 34.5 per cent year-on-year, with 679 cases between January and June.
“The drop in gambling revenue might generate more competition between gaming promoters and cause more crimes,” Secretary for Security Wong Sio-chak warned earlier this year.
But, in Professor Siu’s opinion, the bloodshed and violence of the 90s would not likely be repeated. “I don’t think it is possible to go back to the situation in the 90s because the atmosphere is different, and, if Macau needs help, it can ask the central government.”
Despite years of rampant growth, Macau faces an array of social problems as well as fresh challenges posed by plunging casino revenues
When the Portuguese flag was replaced by the Chinese one in Macau in December 1999, Isana Leong had just started primary school and the significance of the ceremony certainly wasn’t part of her concerns.
A decade and a half later, the 22-year-old recent graduate of the University of Macau with a degree in English, is facing many issues, including the high cost of rent, increasing traffic, crowded shopping areas and growing levels of pollution, all brought on by the city’s dizzying, casino-led economic growth.
When Leong was born a declining textile industry was the main source of the region’s revenue.
Casino liberalisation in 2003 was the unavoidable option for a city lacking the tax revenues to support it. Stanley Ho Hung-sun's monopolistic grip on the casino industry, which he had held for several decades, was over and the competition that brought sparked phenomenal growth.
From 2002 until 2015, the annual growth rate in gross domestic produce in Macau averaged 12.01 per cent. But the robust financial health of Macau hasn’t come without a price.
Although residents praise the city’s economic development, which created jobs and increased salaries, 16 years after the handover there are many who whine about a deep loss in quality of life.
Public transport and traffic, the cost of living as well as the quality of the living environment top the list of complaints, fuelling dissatisfaction, particularly among the younger generation.
Despite knowing most of her neighbours, Leong says when she looks beyond her building, she finds few similarities between the Macau of today and the city of her childhood. “There are so many people in Macau now. It’s horrible,” she says, recalling the days when she didn’t have to queue in any shop.
“Before, when I saw my mum driving, the road was so clear … Now that I’m driving it’s very hard to find car lots,” says Leong, who also complains about increasing levels of pollution.
Housing, however, is the issue that concerns her the most. “My family, my mum, me and my cousins, we are all living in the same apartment … Everyone is squeezing in one little area.”
Leong, who just landed her first job in the events industry, doesn’t dream of owning a big house, but she would like to have a two-storey flat of her own, with two to three rooms in a quiet district.
She is well aware that it is an ambition that is hard to fulfil. “I’ll have to save a lot, like 90 per cent of my salary to buy a house,” she says.
For now, Leong says it’s acceptable to live with her family, but the pressure to move out, marry and have children of her own will grow stronger as the years go by.
Laurence Lou, 26, who was also born in Macau, shares Leong’s angst. Despite his stable salary as a public servant, buying his own place sometime in the next decade seems like a pipe dream. “We just cannot afford to buy a private house,” he says.
He no longer lives with his parents, but he can’t think of renting a place by himself. Like many other young adults, Lou is sharing a flat with a friend.
Although the government promised to enhance the public housing scheme – which is mainly intended for families – the plan offers little hope to Lou. “That doesn’t solve the problem of single people like me and of the middle class … People are desperate to get a house,” he says.
But being able to afford housing gets harder and harder for many residents, with property prices having increased by more than 400 per cent in the past decade.
Bruno Oliveira, a 35-year-old sound engineer, arrived in Macau from Portugal in 2010. He and his Chinese wife gave up on finding affordable housing in the city. They moved to neighbouring Zhuhai last year.
Oliveira works in the former Portuguese colony and crosses the border every day, a trip that may take 40 minutes or more. But the effort is worthwhile, he says.
“In Macau, I was paying for a very mediocre two-bedroom place, about 6,500 patacas (HK$6,200),” Oliveira says. “Now I live in a much better and new house, a three-bedroom flat in a building with a swimming pool, and I pay 3,500 [renminbi (HK$4,440)]. It’s a big difference in terms of quality of life.”
Both local residents and the newly arrived are increasingly choosing Zhuhai – a city that until a decade ago would only attract Macau day-trippers looking for bargains in its underground shopping mall right across the border. These days, when the sun goes down, thousands flock from Macau to Zhuhai, attracted by affordable and spacious houses as well as emptier avenues.
Hengqin – Zhuhai’s new special economic zone, where the new campus of the University of Macau is located – is also gaining popularity among Macau residents, with many buying flats on the developing island, according to real estate agents.
Before moving to Zhuhai, Oliveira said he used to spend most of his weekends there, because Macau streets were too congested. “Macau is completely packed,” he says.
An over-reliance on the gambling industry, which generates more than 80 per cent of Macau’s government revenues, has created a real estate bubble, labour strains and skyrocketing prices, says economist Albano Martins.
At the same time, the city’s infrastructure – namely roads and public transportation – is strained to a breaking point. The Light Rapid System railway now under construction won’t be fully operational until 2022.
“The government didn’t anticipate the problems, and the impact that the development of the gambling industry would have,” Martins notes. “It didn’t take timely measures, and it lacked both imagination and planning.”
Martins says the government should regulate and supervise the market. “The government has to speed up its decisions and be pragmatic, trying to find solutions within Macau and not sending locals to find a house in the neighbouring regions,” he says.
Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on said housing, transport and environmental protection were top priorities for the year.
In his policy address for 2015, he said that a new public housing concept and scheme would be considered, because many residents are not able either to acquire a house within the private market or to meet the requirements to qualify for a public house.
Chui also pledged to accelerate the grants process for public housing units, to recover unused land and to redevelop old neighbourhoods.
According to the government, some 28,000 public housing units and 4,000 private housing units will be provided in the newly reclaimed areas.
The reclaimed Zone A, which will link Macau to the artificial island of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge currently under construction, should be ready next year. But the first batch of flats will only be completed between 2022 and 2023.
The world's biggest gaming hub is also now dealing with a dramatic slump. Last year, gambling revenue in Macau was estimated at 351.5 billion patacas, 2.6 per cent less than in 2013. In October this year, a 28.4 per cent slump in gross gaming revenue marked the 17th successive monthly decline, which represented the industry’s longest slump on record.
As President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign continues to drive wealthy mainland Chinese gamblers away as they avoid scrutiny, many believe that the junket system - responsible for bringing in high rollers - might be about to collapse. The VIP market comprised about 80 per cent of gambling revenue in the past two years. Within a few months, it has sharply dropped, now accounting for about 50 per cent.
In this year’s policy address, Macau’s chief executive addressed Beijing’s concerns over the overwhelming dominance of gambling. Chui promised to tighten gambling industry regulations and to urge the concessionaires to diversify their offerings. He said operators might have to regularly report their diversification progress to the government, and new applications for gambling tables would be strictly assessed.
As for the gaming industry’s prospects, Chui played safe in his policy address: the government “will remain cautiously optimistic.”
With declining revenues, how can Macau meet the housing and lifestyle needs of young singles, such as Leong and Lou, as well as of those of couples like the Oliveiras?
“We will not be moving away from tourism – let’s be realistic,” says Glenn McCartney, assistant professor of hospitality and gaming management at the University of Macau. “But there is a broad range of tourism and leisure products we can offer and that may be beneficial for the region.”
There are several new mega-resorts set to open doors this year and next, with the aim of attracting more families.
In May, Galaxy Macau opened a recreation of New York’s Broadway theatre district, featuring the largest theatre in Macau.
In October, Melco Crown, another of the six gaming operators in the city, launched a Hollywood-inspired Macau Studio City. The first mega-resort in Cotai without VIP tables is considered the most serious attempt to attract the Chinese middle class, instead of targeting high rollers.
Sands China’s new project, The Parisian, which includes a half-size replica of the Eiffel Tower, is scheduled to open in 2016.
As the revenue records have ceased, at least for now, growing less is not necessarily bad for the region as long as the government is able to solve its current challenges in a short period of time, economist Martins says.
If it doesn’t, “both residents and tourists, will look for more welcoming places to go”, he says.
The democratic movement in Macau is still incipient and lacking leadership. But in recent years the voice of the youth in the former Portuguese enclave has become louder. Observers and experts say Macau’s political evolution will depend a lot on the path Hong Kong takes
Macau and Hong Kong are special places, quite literally. As the country's only Special Administrative Regions, both are political constructs of the late paramount leader of China, Deng Xiaoping, the man credited with popping the cork on capitalism in the world's last, nominally Communist behemoth, the People's Republic of China.
But the similarity ends there.
Quiet and slow, but with a touch of mystery, Macau was traditionally seen as a sleepy backwater in the shadow of a sophisticated and fast-paced Hong Kong.
While Deng’s “one country, two systems” produced strikingly similar mini-constitutions or “Basic Laws” for Macau and Hong Kong, political development has followed very different paths.
Following the handover - in 1997 for Hong Hong and two years later for Macau - the dissatisfaction against the central government has been louder in Hong Kong, and its echoes are increasingly reverberating in its sister SAR.
2014 was an eventful year for both regions in the Pearl River Delta. In May, the biggest demonstration in Macau since the handover took place. About 20,000 people staged a protest against a bill that would have given the city’s top officials lavish retirement packages. Under public pressure, the government withdrew the plan.
In October, the Occupy movement took over Hong Kong’s streets, and acts of solidarity were held in Macau. The protests in the former British colony lasted three months.
The pro-democracy movement in Macau has involved a growing number of youths eager to speak out, but it has had little impact. Shy and traditional compared to Hong Kong, Macau is often dubbed the “well-behaved SAR”, or special administrative region, and dependent on its elder sister’s decisions to plot its own course.
Sonny Lo Shiu-hing, professor and head of the department of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, notes the “Macau population has been influenced by Hong Kong-style of political criticism and discourse” both through traditional media and the internet.
In general, “Hong Kong people are far more politically active and aware”, he says. “But in recent years, the youth of both regions are increasingly more assertive.”
Lately, Macau citizens have taken to the streets more often than in previous decades, with many of the protests fuelled by social media and filled with young faces. Over the past few years, several new civil organisations – championing universal suffrage and freedom of speech – have been launched.
Compared to Hong Kong, Lo notes that Macau lags behind in terms of political engagement because its “political system is more conservative and far less democratic – it’s still very monolithic”.
“The big forces and pro-government forces remain very dominant” in Macau, he notes.
Weng Kei-to, 23, who works as a tutor at a social service agency, is one of those who have taken to the streets. She says that she started taking an interest in politics and social issues as a secondary student, after reading the articles of the Chinese journalist Xu Zhiyuan, author of the essays’ book Paper Tiger.
Weng disagrees with the idea that people in Macau are unaware of the region’s political challenges.
“I don’t think that Macau residents do not care about politics. However, we have less media outlets than Hong Kong,” she says. “And Macau residents are also less outspoken. We prefer to discuss issues privately. That's why we seem less engaged.”
Although technology has helped people share ideas and organise protests, she doesn’t believe that democracy will come any time soon. “The structure of government is very static and the legislative council does not work as a representative of Macau residents,” Weng says. “I hope this situation changes as soon as possible, but I have no idea when that will be possible.”
A mild political reform, which included an increase from 300 to 400 members of the chief executive’s electoral college, as well as two additional seats for directly and indirectly elected lawmakers, was approved in June 2012.
In the 2013 legislative elections, Macau residents voted for 14 out of the 33 lawmakers. Twelve, who represent different professional sectors, were indirectly elected by associations. Seven other lawmakers were appointed by the chief executive.
The Executive Council members were chosen by Fernando Chui Sai-on, who was re-elected for another five-year term last year by a 400-member committee, which is in turn elected by representatives of associations.
Lo, author of the book Political Change in Macau, says Macau will not be seen as a threat to Beijing as long as the current system remains in place. “Its atmosphere is relatively tighter,” he says. “Even though Macau’s civil society is growing, and there are similar characteristics to Hong Kong’s counterparts – they don’t have enough power to reduce the Macau government’s influence.”
The swift neutralisation by security forces of an attempt to organise an Occupy-style referendum in Macau in August 2014 is a proof of that, Lo notes. Jason Chao Teng-hei, who has been one of the most vocal activists in Macau over the past few years, was arrested with four others.
Chao is suspected of aggravated disobedience for failing to comply with a government order to stop the referendum. He has yet to be charged. According to the government, Chao also allegedly violated the personal data protection legislation, as voters were asked to provide their phone and ID card numbers.
Among 8,688 people, who cast votes in the 2014 ballot organised by three pro-democracy groups, 7,762 Macau residents (89 per cent) said they had no confidence in the sole candidate Fernando Chui Sai-on for chief executive, and 8,259 voters (95 per cent) were in favour of universal suffrage for the 2019 election.
Eilo Yu Wing-yat, an associate professor in the University of Macau’s department of government and public administration, says the lack of political engagement in the city compared to Hong Kong also has to do with the region’s financial growth. “Macau is still enjoying the economical miracle, so people are not interested in pushing the political reform,” he notes.
However, elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017 could change Macau’s political equation. “When the ‘big brother’ gets direct elections, it will stimulate the younger brother,” says Lo. “Macau will have to catch up. Otherwise the discrepancy within the principle ‘one country, two systems’ is too big.”
The next elections for the chief executive in Macau are scheduled for 2019.
Political reform in Macau could go in two directions, says Yu: the extension of the current election committee that chooses the chief executive, or the style previously proposed by Beijing to Hong Kong, which involves two or three candidates being selected by a nominating committee and only afterwards being voted on by the people.
That recommendation by Beijing, enshrined in a Hong Kong political reform proposal, was rejected by the territory’s legislature on June 18 this year. The method of election for the chief executive in 2017 remains unchanged, as the Legislative Council did not approve the proposal put forth by the Hong Kong government, which probably means that direct elections for the chief executives of both regions could be a long way off.
In Macau, the discussion has been rather mild in comparison. The longest serving pro-democracy lawmakers, Ng Kuok-cheong and Au Kam-san, who have called for political reform, said they would accept a government proposal similar to the one that was suggested for Hong Kong.
Observers say that in spite of the increasing number of dissonant voices, the democratic movement in Macau is still less assertive than Hong Kong’s. “The democrats have run for the legislative assembly for two decades, but the strategy doesn’t seem to be too aggressive,” Yu notes.
Although he says “the movement is emerging”, pro-democracy lawmakers were the biggest losers in the 2013 legislative elections. They gained only two seats, failing to keep three lawmakers in the legislative assembly. The poor showing was probably a result of fragmentation of the biggest pan-democratic organisation, the New Macau Association.
Although both factions aspire to see Macau have universal suffrage, a conservative fringe has strongly advocated the protection of local labourers, directing harsh words against imported ones, while a younger and more tolerant faction has mostly championed human rights and gender equality.
“Macau’s young people are not as radical as Hong Kong youths. But both have a different and stronger political culture compared with the older generations,” says Hong Kong professor Lo.
Scholar Yu also notes Macau’s youth are “quite progressive”. He says that although they lack theoretical knowledge about democracy, they have shown interest in political reform and in scrutinising the government’s wrongdoings.
Weng is an example of that. “I think there are more young people in Macau discussing politics. We want a change and we don't want to be labelled politically apathetic,” she says.
If the government makes any political mistakes, Yu warns, more protests will take place in Macau. “The trust between the government and the population is weak. If there’s a mistake, the mobilisation we’ve seen before will come back quickly.”
Dour and uncomfortable in the public glare, current Macau chief executive Fernando Chui Sai-on cuts a considerably less charismatic figure than Edmund Ho Hau-wah, his hard-nosed predecessor and the banker son of trusted Chinese government ally Ho Yin.
As political animals they may be poles apart, but their backgrounds meant their paths were bound to cross. Both are members of two of the most powerful families in Macau. And both Ho and Chui were carefully prepared to lead Macau.
Political commentator Larry So Man-yum says "Chui Sai-on was groomed" for a top political position. "His brother was too old, while his cousin too young,” So says.
The brother, Chui Sai-cheong, is an indirectly elected lawmaker and an auditor with several commercial interests in the city. Their cousin, Jose Chui Sai-peng, who is a civil engineer, also has a seat in the legislative assembly as an indirectly elected lawmaker.
After returning from his studies in the United States, Fernando Chui spent time as a lawmaker and school principal in the 1990s. He became secretary for social affairs and culture in Macau's first post-colonial administration in 1999.
As the SAR's first chief executive, Ho drove efforts to reposition the city's economy after the flight of manufacturing to Guangdong and spearheaded the opening up of the gaming industry.
Fernando Chui was left to address the social issues during a period of significant change. "Perhaps Ho ran the government more like a company, and [Fernando] Chui like a welfare state," said lawmaker and businessman Chan Chak-mo.
Their public images mirror their divergent attitudes as leaders. Chui is described by allies and opponents alike as a man with a good heart, who "studies the problems and seeks to listen to the population's needs", says lawmaker and Executive Council member Leonel Alves.
Lawmaker José Pereira Coutinho, one of the most critical voices against the government said: "There's no doubt that he is a good and simple person". The problem, he said, lies in Chui's ability to lead.
"He has been a weak leader," Coutinho said, referring to Chui’s first term.
Chui began his second and last term on December 20 last year, having decided to replace all his top officials. With a fresh team of secretaries, great expectations have been thrust upon the new faces that will have to deal with plunging gaming revenues, the review of the gaming licensees, increasing social tensions as well as the central government’s expectations.
In his policy address, delivered in March, Chui promised stricter control over the gambling industry. He also said government’s efforts would focus on housing, public transportation and environmental issues, acknowledging that such livelihood issues “are critical for maintaining social harmony and stability”.
Edited and expanded version of the article Fernando Chui Sai-on was groomed for a top political job, published on August 31, 2014.