Gambling in Macau: A Reversal of Fortune ... And Values : Parallels From a quiet backwater, the former Portuguese colony of Macau has developed a sparkling skyline and 35 casinos with revenue six times that of Las Vegas — and more on the way.
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Gambling in Macau: A Reversal of Fortune ... And Values

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Gambling in Macau: A Reversal of Fortune ... And Values

Gambling in Macau: A Reversal of Fortune ... And Values

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Well, casinos may be floundering in Atlantic City, but halfway around the world in South China they are booming. The city of Macau already has 35 casinos in the next several years it will add multibillion-dollar gambling resorts modeled on Versailles and Paris. I didn't know Versailles was a gambling casino.

NPR's Frank Langfitt's last trip to Macau was more than a decade and half ago and recently, he returned to see what's been gained and what's been lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF VENETIAN CASINO MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Italian).

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It's hard to exaggerate how much Macau has changed over the years. The last time I was here, the late 1990s, there was one main casino and it was seedy and run-down. I think I walked in and spent about five minutes. Now I'm in the Venetian and listening to a gondolier taking some young Chinese tourists along a fake canal in a would-be Venice.

BEN LEE: The revenue story has been one of phenomenal growth.

LANGFITT: Ben Lee is managing partner at IGamiX, a gaming management and consulting company.

LEE: We've grown from a very usual stereotype - a sleepy, shady fishing village to a gaming jurisdiction that is the largest in the world.

LANGFITT: Last year casino revenue here grew by nearly 20 percent, hitting $45 billion. That's nearly seven times the take on the Vegas strip and 15 times the revenue in Atlantic City. Tony Tong, a casino consultant, says that growth has a growth has affected everything, including the minimum table bets.

TONY TONG: In the old days, in '06, '07, I remember there were $20 Hong Kong Baccarat games or $50 - Hong Kong dollar - Baccarat games.

LANGFITT: That's about two-and-a-half to five U.S. dollars.

TONG: But nowadays, most of the casinos - it's like a 500 to 1,000 per bet.

LANGFITT: Or between 60 and nearly 130 bucks. Macau opened up its gambling market to competition in 2002. Major companies like Las Vegas Sands built dazzling hotel casinos on reclaimed land, where before there'd been nothing but water. Two islands were joined and the so-called Cotai Strip was born. Macau succeeded by tapping many mainlanders' passion for gambling and their rocketing incomes. Casinos have created tens of thousands of jobs here. Kelvin Leong studied computer programming in college but earns much more supervising Baccarat tables.

KELVIN LEONG: (Through translator) If I work in computers, I can only earn around $1,500 a month. But now working in casinos, I can earn at least $2,500 a month. Actually, computer jobs in Macau are mainly doing maintenance instead of writing programs. And for me, that's not very meaningful.

LANGFITT: The casino boom though has also brought a staggering rise in housing costs. Leong, now 32, can't afford his own place and still lives with his parents.

LEONG: (Through translator) For example, 10 years ago, an old 400-square-foot apartment cost $25,000. Now it can be more than $375,000.

LANGFITT: How many of your friends own their apartments?

Maybe around 30 percent, he says.

LARRY SO: The psychology of the people around Macau, we can see the change.

LANGFITT: Larry So is a retired professor at Macau Polytechnic Institute. He says the expansion in gambling has changed Macau from a small city where people cared for each other to one where many young people seem consumed by financial status. He cites a former student who'd planned to become a social worker but then took a job in a casino.

LEONG: And right now he simply didn't care about the community. All he cares about is that, you know how, much you can make and then can he buy himself a better apartment. What will happen to our young people if they follow the same track? What will happen in Macau?

LANGFITT: When So first moved to Macau 13 years ago, he planned to retire here but gambling has brought so much traffic, construction and social change, he's now thinking of looking somewhere else.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VENETIAN CASINO MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Italian).

SIMON: Bravo. You're listening to NPR News.

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