Friday, March 21, 2008

Oh, abhorrent gambling!

The amount of tourists who travel to Macau blows my expectations. Ferry tickets at Sheung Wan sell out by the minute, and there are ferries every five minutes. Nearby tourist agencies offer ferry tickets for immediate departure in a system that can only be described as legalised scalping. No wonder tickets sell out so quickly at the counter: the agencies buy out chunks of tickets for resale at inflated prices. This leads to the ‘waiting line’ extravaganza at the ferry terminal: you can depart on any ferry earlier than your ticketed ferry, so long as there are seats available. So, for the next departing ferry, there are two lines: one for legitimate ticket holders, another a ‘waiting line’ for those who want an earlier ride. Once that ferry is full, the waiting line immediately dissipates to queue up for the next ferry. It’s certainly a game, and an easy game to get sucked into by the crowd. Although the terminal in HK was packed, the city of Macau was not overflowing with tourists. This in itself indicates how many people travel to Macau purely for casino gambling and entertainment. During the day, mind you, not just at night.

The old town square is a tourist hub, and it has clearly been renovated and polished like a gem. What is more interesting, however, is the fusion of Portuguese and Chinese architecture on ordinary streets, culture, food, and the vibe from the locals. The stately Senado square leads off into narrow alleys reminiscent of HK in the 50s. Residential apartment buildings with precariously overhanging steel balconies line both sides of the alleys; street-level space is home to mom-and-pop small shops. Amongst the shops selling Macau's famous almond cookies on big bamboo trays, attendants juggle sales with at least two currencies: HKD and MOP, if not the Chinese Yuan as well. The visual and cultural contrasts are certainly unique to Macau: streets and alleys lined with old-HK-style residential buildings boast streetlamps with hanging flower-pots and footpath flower-boxes distinctly European in style and grace.

The locals are friendly, laid-back, and admirably tolerant and helpful towards tourists running amok in their quiet, hilly city. It is an odd experience for me, as I am used to the Cantonese-speaking people of HK being fast-paced, impatient, and often crudely spoken. It would appear that the Macanese are proud of their city, and proud of how famous it has become over the last few years since its return to China. The growth, economical and geographical (through land reclamation), has been phenomenal yet typical of China.

Then, a visit to a few casinos leaves me rattled at the sheer scale of the gambling: the size of the casinos, the number of casinos, and how much people gamble away. The Chinese word for gambling is a word play on ‘dumping money’, but I wonder many gamblers care to make the linguistic connection. The casino security is tight (no water, no bags, and security screens) and they are clever: you must walk through the casino floor to reach more worthwhile attractions and the hotel rooms. This I cannot take, being forced to witness people throwing hundreds of dollars on games of chance with odds stacked against them, multiplied by the number of people on a table, multiplied by hundreds of tables, plus pokies. The casino hotel rooms may be grandiose, but whose money paid for your luxury? Not to mention how much of the tourist dollar actually trickles down to the locals, versus how much is gobbled up by government and foreign investment in grand projects for land reclamation and/or to build new casinos. Oh, Cotai Strip, what will you inflict on the future of Macau and its people?

The locals are presumably profiting somewhat from the tourist dollars (and the local government even more so), but the problems associated with such an open city rife for abuse through the abundant casino gambling are hidden well, or have yet to surface. What if the casino bubbles burst, will the Macanese be left to pick up the pieces of a promised fortune from gambling tourism? Money is transient, particularly in this city, where the gamblers come in from HK, China, and beyond, whilst the phenomenal casino profits float back overseas to their laughing investors.

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