Portuguese for 442 years, Macau prepares for Chinese rule
Farewell to Asia's last colony
Portuguese for 442 years, Macau prepares for Chinese rule
It is 10 a.m. in the Va Koc teahouse in the Portuguese enclave of Macau on China’s south coast. The shrill notes of dozens of songbirds in bamboo cages echo through the austere tiled room. Cheung Yu Lung, a 49-year-old bus driver who regularly brings his pet here to enjoy the company of other birds, is chatting with fellow owners. He reflects: “Soon we’ll be part of China. That will be good because it’s the motherland and a mother always takes care of her children. You know, Portugal was never our real father, just a stepfather.” Fishmonger Leong Kam San, 32, agrees: “Things will be better because there’ll be more security. China knows how to handle bad elements.” Those views are common among Macau’s 427,000 inhabitants, most of whom are ethnic Chinese, as they prepare for a Hong Kongstyle handover in just under a year. The tiny 22-square-kilometre territory reverts to Chinese administration at midnight on Dec. 19, after 442 years of unbroken Portuguese rule.
Compared with Hong Kong—just an hour away by ferry across the muddy Pearl River— the transition period of Asia’s last colony has gone relatively smoothly. But it has been marred by a vicious squabble among the “bad elements”—rival criminal triads fighting, as the clock ticks down, for a share of the rich proceeds from the territory’s main industry: nine gambling casinos. In addition, Beijing has been flexing its muscles. It angered some residents with surprise announcements that, after the handover, People’s liberation Army troops will be stationed in Macau and that Portuguese public holidays will be abolished. Soon, too, Beijing’s choice of leader of the new Macau will be announced, and he will almost surely be a 43-year-old Canadian passportholder named Edmond Ho.
The enclave he will take over is notorious for its seamier side, but that is an aspect the casual visitor may miss entirely. Delightful old colonial buildings, open-air restaurants and a relaxed tempo give the city and its two small
islands a Mediterranean charm. Immigrants from former Portuguese colonies in Africa and India add a colourful racial mix. In Lisbon-style cafés, the Portuguese—fast diminishing in number as civil servants are repatriated—gather to gossip over sweet pastries and bicas (cups of strong black coffee).
But an elevator ride to the 18th-floor Gambling Inspectorate office provides a glimpse of Macau’s other self. The building shelters a bizarre cross-section of businesses, including the Golden Time Nightclub, the Sauna Mona lisa and the Karaoke Top One. Triad tentacles reach into everything, but especially into gambling and loan-sharking. There is big money at stake. Although Asia’s financial crisis sent casino earnings into a 16-per-cent slump in 1998, about $3 billion still flowed in, and the 31.8 per cent creamed off by the government contributed about 60 per cent of the local budget.
As director of the gambling watchdog, Manuel Neves, 40, oversees 130 inspectors
who try to keep a tight check on staff in the ever-crowded casinos. “It’s a question of people watching people watching people,” he says. Neves also has to watch his back. His predecessor narrowly escaped with his life in a shooting attack and last March a respected senior official was murdered.
The massive Sociedade de Turismo e Diversöes (STDM), the company controlling the gaming monopoly, has a finger in every Macau pie, from hotels to horse racing. Its chief executive, Stanley Ho (no relation to Edmond) , is one of the world’s richest men. Still lean and elegant at 77, he has a reputation as a ladies’ man. His global business interests include investments in the Sutton Place Hotels in Toronto and Vancouver, Calgary’s Rocky Ridge Ranch and Scenic Acres residential developments, and Numac Energy Inc., a Calgary-based oil and gas producing company.
The gambling has led to at least some of the triad strife. Casino VIP rooms are leased out to tour operators who receive chips at a discount and sell them to the high rollers. When outside groups tried to muscle into this lucrative business, vicious gang battles broke out in the streets. Among those ar-
rested was Wan Kuok Koi, nicknamed Broken Tooth, who claims to have a criminal “army” of 10,000 in his 14K triad.
Worried about the upsurge in violence, Beijing has pressed Macau for tougher action, and recently beefed up security across the frontier in the special economic zone of Zhuhai with an extra 500 soldiers to combat cross-border crime. A task force of judges, prosecutors and judicial police flew in from Portugal. The overall crime rate has dropped. But, points out Lt.-Col. Manuel Geraldes, adviser to Macau’s security chief, “it’s hard to fight organized crime by legal means. These are professionals who know how to protect themselves.”
Although China prohibits gambling on the mainland, it has made clear that it is not about
to kill Macau’s golden goose. Even so, when the STDM licence runs out in 2001, changes are likely, according to most analysts. One suggestion is that a nonprofit charity could run the casinos, in the same way the Britishdescended Hong Kong Jockey Club runs horse racing to fund good works.
There will be other changes, as Edmond Ho hinted in an interview, gazing out over modern highrise developments from his elegantly panelled office. “In two to three years, we can improve Macau,” he said. “But if we try to please everybody and are subject to a constant glare of international attention, as has occurred with Hong Kong, it will be difficult.” Ho, a congenial banker, is the frontrunner for the role of first chief executive of the Macau Special Administrative Region. Regarded as dynamic and conservative, Ho has the rightguanxi (connections) in Beijing and is a member of the high-level standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress. If picked by a 200-member, Beijingapproved selection committee, he will have to relinquish his Canadian passport—in the 1970s he studied at Toronto’s York University and obtained a bachelor of business ad-
ministration degree. His son and daughter are currently studying in Victoria.
The new government will be guided by Macau’s Basic Law, a mini-constitution that, like Hong Kong’s, guarantees a high degree of autonomy and continuance of the present system and way of life for 50 years. Expanding today’s limited democratic rights is not on the agenda. Portugal will hand over a territory with accumulated budget surpluses of $560 million and per capita annual income of $25,500, but experiencing rising unemployment—now more than five per cent—and an economic decline of three per cent in 1998. More than 30,000 apartments stand empty following frenzied speculation in the early 1990s. Asia’s recession has not helped. However, since Gen. Vasco Rocha Vieira, 59, was
appointed governor in 1991, he has pursued the dream of making Macau a gateway to China, sparing no expense. Monuments and museums have mushroomed. An international airport and a cultural centre have been built on reclaimed land. A new bridge to China is under construction.
This is in stark contrast to the past, when Macau was a largely forgotten backwater. The last Portuguese naval vessel to visit, claimed to be the world’s oldest serving warship, steamed out in 1964. After Portugal’s 1974 military coup, Lisbon tried to hand back the territory, but China, distracted by the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, rejected the offer. Portugal prides itself on its “special relationship” with China. “We did not acquire this place by conquest, like the British in Hong Kong. We came here in the 16th century as traders and missionaries,” notes Antonio Salavessa, secretary for communication, tourism and culture. Even so, serious questions have still to be resolved with Beijing, such as the independence of the judiciary and the rights of non-Chinese. Following a rushed, and belated, move to replace Portuguese civil servants with locals, some of Macau’s new administrators are sadly lacking in experience.
Among those most worried about the future are the Macanese—10,000 residents, mostly of mixed Chinese-Portuguese descent, with strong ties to Portugal, who have traditionally acted as intermediaries between the European and Chinese communities (less than two per cent of the population speaks Portuguese). Relics of a dismantled empire, the Macanese worry about their survival as a group. “If we Macanese don’t fight for our history and culture,” says senior civil servant Jorge Rangel, “after one generation the culture will be gone.”
Gambling inspector Neves, who has a Portuguese father and a Chinese mother, says he was optimistic previously, “but now I see China creating problems over nationality and language. I was born Portuguese and will be so until the end of my days. Rather than change nationality, I would go to Portugal.” That option is open to 110,000 Macau residents who have accepted Lisbon’s offer of full Portuguese citizenship. If they wish to leave, they can live and work anywhere in Europe, unlike Hong Kong citizens to whom a fearful Britain would concede only second-class British passports that allow travel but no right of residence.
As for Stanley Ho, the gambling boss whose writ may end in two years, he is concentrating on the present—by boosting security amid the crime wave. The ornate, but down-at-heels, Floating Casino—a 58-metrelong craft—is to be towed to a new berth, closer to the other, land-based casinos. Then Ho intends to hire 300 Gurkhas—tough Nepalese ex-soldiers—to police his domain. With billions of dollars coming in, you can’t be too careful—whether under a Portuguese stepfather or mother China.
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