Our jet-powered ferry backs out of the dock at Hong Kong with a giant WHOOOOSH, then straightens out for the 40-mile run down the Chinese coast to Macau. I’d made the trip before, back in the 80s when the ferries still had shoulder-high poles on each side and scratch marks where barbed wire had once been stretched out on the deck.
There was a time – up to the late 40s – when the poles had been used to mount machine guns, which with the barbed wire helped fend off attacks by pirates. No wonder my first trip to Macau was a scene right out of Milton Caniff’s old-time Terry and the Pirates comic strip as we first skirted the hidden coves and towering, mist-shrouded peaks of Lantau Island. The perfect spot for an ambush by the Dragon Lady, Caniff’s arch villain. Or maybe she’s on one of those suspicious looking junks up ahead, waiting to pick us off on the 20-mile swing across the mouth of China’s Pearl River.
Fantasies of the Dragon Lady, American adventurer Terry Lee (the strip’s hero), his buddy Pat Ryan and the rest of Caniff’s characters fade into an earlier era as the peninsula of Macau comes into sight. Hilltop forts loom above us as we enter the harbor, their ancient cannons standing silent vigil over what was once the crown jewel of Portugal’s 16th century trading empire.
We made today’s trip in just under an hour (no pirate attacks... the buccaneers were chased out in 1949 when communist armies took over China). I’m among hundreds of passengers pouring off the ferry, itching to try my luck with another kind of brigand: one-armed bandits (slot machines). And at the fan-tan, blackjack, roulette, baccarat and the other gambling tables and wheels in the city’s four dozen hotel-casinos, many with familiar names such as Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons, Marriott, Hyatt, Wynn, MGM, Venetian and the Sands.
All told, the casinos’ cards, ivories and machines rake in a whopping $45 billion a year, said to be five times Las Vegas’ revenues.
Gambling – banned elsewhere in China – has been the big draw here ever since the local games of chance were legalized in the 1850s. Tourists from across the world, mostly from China, packed the Hong Kong-Macau ferries until 1995 when Macau’s international airport opened next to a close-by island. Many of the territory’s visitors still come here on water ferries, but a growing number fly in, mostly from airports across China and from terminals in Taiwan, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.
Outside the casinos, hordes of sightseers – together with the gamblers accounting for 30 million visitors a year – jam the city’s narrow lanes. Among must-see sights is the Macau Tower (about as high as New York’s Empire State Building), the iconic facade of St. Paul’s Cathedral (built by Italian Jesuits in 1602) and a slew of old-world Portuguese fortresses (from which sharp-eyed gunners fought off four Dutch invasion fleets).
Long gone are the days of the double-decker steamers poking along the Hong Kong-Macau run carrying passengers such as Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in the 1952 movie Macau.
Once known for the sleaze of its five original casinos – Macanese businessman Stanley Ho described them as “scenes from a bad Chinese gangster movie” – Macau’s early gambling dens have been replaced by some of the world’s most lavish hotel-casinos. One, named The 13, features 200 multi-level villas reportedly built at a cost of $7 million each. A stay at the ultra-luxury resort (including comped use of a chauffeured Rolls Royce Phantom) will set you back as much as $100,000 – that’s right, 100,000 U.S. smackers – a night.
A little history: The story of how Portugal wrangled control of the Chinese peninsula of Macau along with two nearby islands -- all told an area about a third the size of Manhattan – is a little fuzzy. Anyway, the deal, cut in 1557, wound up being good until 1999 when Macau went back to Chinese control, ending the last (and 442 years earlier, the first) European colony in Asia. Great Britain got into the act in 1842 when the Brits won a war with China over opium imports and among the spoils of victory gained control of Hong Kong, a much bigger and better trading port than Macau. As a result, Macau lost a great deal of its trading revenue – which the Portuguese offset by swinging a deal for China’s exclusive gambling rights. Hong Kong went back to Chinese control two years before the Portuguese flag came down over Macau.
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