House always wins: the dark side of life in Macau’s casino economy

The Chinese city is one of the world’s richest but the lowest-paid 10% struggle

She paid a smuggler and was tucked into the hold of a ship for the overnight boat ride away from extreme poverty and a dead-end life in rural China. But on her way to a brighter future, Auyeung Lai-sung never made it past the kitchen of one of the most profitable casinos in the world.

In Macau, known as the Las Vegas of the East and one of the richest places in the world, Auyeung wakes before dawn each day to make dim sum for a five-star restaurant in the 35-storey casino hotel of MGM Macau, while at home she dines on instant noodles to save money to support her family. “I see the people in the restaurant and wonder how did they make so much money,” Auyeung says. “I do complain, but there’s no use – nothing will change.”

On paper, Macau, about 40 miles west of Hong Kong, is the world’s third-wealthiest place, with a GDP per person more than double that of the UK, according to the International Monetary Fund. That puts it ahead of Singapore, Norway and Switzerland, and behind only Luxembourg and Qatar. The territory’s casinos raked in $28bn (£23bn) in revenue last year, and although that was a slight drop on 2015, more recent data suggests high rollers are returning to the tables.

Tax on gambling makes up roughly 70% of government revenue, and the public coffers have benefited as China’s booming economy minted more millionaires eager to travel to the only place on Chinese soil where casino gambling is legal.

Many of the city’s biggest casinos are outposts of popular Las Vegas brands.
Many of the city’s biggest casinos are outposts of popular Las Vegas brands. Photograph: Bobby Yip/Reuters

The former Portuguese colony was home to Kim Jong-nam – half-brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un – who died in a poison attack at Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia. It was also a favourite holiday destination for corrupt Chinese government officials, who came to wager some of their ill-gotten wealth, though this has seen a downturn amid a crackdown on political corruption in mainland China.

But alongside the very rich in Macau, there are the very poor. Government figures claim only about 2.3% of Macau’s population live in poverty. But that percentage is based on income, and does not take into account the spiralling cost of living that has accompanied the boom in the casino industry.

Caritas, one of the largest charities operating in the city, estimates that about 10% of the population live in poverty, with 7% struggling to meet basic food needs. “The government can’t do anything to help the poor because corruption is rampant,” says José Pereira Coutinho, a Macau politician and leader of a pro-democracy party in the autonomous territory. “Only the rich get heard by the government, while the poor are ignored and suffer. All the land is reserved for casinos, and instead of building housing for the poor, the government is giving out more allocations for gaming tables.”

Coutinho blames Macau’s political system, where the head of the government, known as the chief executive, is chosen by an unelected committee and more than half the legislature is appointed by professional organisations and the city’s leader.

With an overwhelming pro-Beijing majority in the legislature, and the chief executive Fernando Chui governing unopposed, Macau politics are dominated by politicians and tycoons loyal to China. The top priorities, inevitably, are growth and stability.

“The government gives each person 9,000 patacas a year to keep their mouth shut about politics,” he says, referring to an annual “wealth partaking scheme worth about £925 for each permanent resident. “But it’s not enough: it’s one paycheck per year. It offers temporary relief but real suffering is still there.”

Auyeung echoes that sentiment, lamenting that she does not qualify for most government assistance, and struggles to make ends meet.

During her first five years in Macau, she left the house where she worked as a maid only twice, fearing she would be sent back to her village in mainland China if she was stopped by police. When she finally emerged, it was to marry and move in with her husband.

He had purchased a small flat in an old walk-up building. He died six years ago, and Auyeung she still lives in the flat with her two sons. Although she does not need to pay rent, living costs take up her entire £1,000-a-month salary. The two sons are at medical school.

The contrast between her flat and the city’s opulent and cavernous casino halls is stark. Blackjack tables with a minimum bet of £50 are not uncommon: playing one hand would cost Auyeung 5% of her monthly salary.

“I envy the luxurious life of the people who eat at the restaurant where I work, but I know I’ll never reach that level,” she says. “I don’t have the ability to reach high society, but maybe my sons won’t have to work as hard.”

Macau’s Iao Hon neighbourhood
Apartments in Macau’s Iao Hon neighbourhood, where rundown buildings sit next to luxury developments rising in the background. Photograph: Benjamin Haas

Away from glitzy casinos such as the Venetian, which boasts faux Italian avenues, an indoor canal and singing gondoliers, Macau’s centuries-old neighbourhoods are densely packed labyrinths. In Iao Hon district, close to Macau’s border with China, about a third of the population earn their living in the casinos. The area has a gritty feel, and the drab concrete apartment blocks have none of the colonial charm or casino glamour most often associated with the city.

Paul Pun of Caritas Macau says the gap between rich and poor in Macau is wide: “The government is aware of the issue, but they need to have the courage to face the problem, and face the property developers.”

A decade ago, the government reclaimed 2.2 sq miles of land, increasing the city’s area by a fifth. But nearly the entire plot was reserved for casino development, despite the spiralling cost of housing.

Many of the city’s biggest casinos are outposts of popular Las Vegas brands: Sands, Wynn and MGM all have multiple properties in Macau. Australia’s Crown Resorts is also a major player, with three casinos.

“The gaming industry should be required to provide housing for migrant workers: that would greatly lessen the problem,” Pun says. In a city of 650,000, about a third are migrants.

Pun himself grew up poor in Macau: one of 13 siblings, he spent stints living in a boarding house above where dogs for the city’s greyhound track were kennelled. He would often only have one meal a day, and sometimes subsist on bread and water for days on end.

A couple sit on a bench near Cotai, home to Macau’s equivalent of the Las Vegas strip Photograph: Benjamin Haas

Today, rising living costs have forced some to leave Macau in search of a cheaper life across the border in China. “Many of my constituents worry that if they can’t afford to live here, by the time they get old and sick in China, they won’t receive the same level of care as in Macau,” Coutinho says.

Leung Kam-hoi grew up in Macau and worked for more than 40 years as a construction worker. The 83-year-old never managed to save enough to buy an apartment and four years ago was forced to decide between leaving the city or becoming homeless.

He now rents a small apartment in the neighbouring city of Zhuhai, in mainland China, a place he had only seen across the border growing up.

“I’m lonely here, all my friends are back in Macau and I have no one to talk to all day,” Leung says. “I worked hard all my life, but I never imagined Macau would change so much.”

Additional reporting by Wang Zhen


Benjamin Haas

The GuardianTramp

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