Macau is a city that resonates with the sound of money. The nonstop rat-a-tat of millions of gambling chips tossed on blackjack and baccarat tables in its cavernous casinos, the constant thumping from the construction of five-star hotels and luxury apartments and the hubbub of the crowds of tourists who jam the narrow streets of this tiny Chinese enclave mix to create the roar of fortunes being made. This is the sound of one of the greatest gambling booms in history. The casinos in Macau take in more money than those of the Las Vegas Strip and Atlantic City combined.
But there is another Macau, one the high rollers never visit, that sounds plaintive rather than prosperous. Take a taxi from the dancing fountains in front of the Wynn Macau hotel to the working-class neighborhood of Hac Sa Wan, where you can meet Ng Iat-keong, one of the many poor Macanese for whom the casino boom has been a bust. Ng, 45, is a construction worker who helped build some of Macau's hotel-casinos, including the biggest of them all, Las Vegas Sands' giant Venetian. Yet the money sloshing around in their plush suites hasn't found its way into his pockets. "We are the ones building so many beautiful high rises, but we ourselves don't have our own homes," Ng says. The rent on his tiny, 300-sq.-ft. (28 sq m) apartment, which he shares with his wife and two sons, has tripled since 2004 to $150 a month. He's overpaying. Chunks of crumbling concrete fall from the ceiling onto his bed; a small room serves as both kitchen and toilet. But due to an influx of foreign construction laborers, Ng can't find enough work he reckons he's spending 50% fewer days on the job this year compared with a few years ago. There's an abundance of employment opportunities in the gaming industry but Ng lacks the skills to take advantage of them. "I can see all of the changes in Macau, and they are big," he says. "But I haven't kept up with the change. It makes me feel inadequate. It makes me feel ashamed."
Gambling was meant to bring development to this sleepy former Portuguese colony and it has. Between 2004 and 2006, $3.3 billion of foreign direct investment flowed into the territory, and the effect on this city of just 540,000 people can be likened to filling a teacup with a fire hose. Since 2003, GDP per capita has doubled, wages have risen by two-thirds and the unemployment rate has fallen by half. The economy grew 27% in 2007 alone.
But rapid growth has also placed unprecedented strains on Macau's society, in the form of soaring property prices, labor unrest, overburdened infrastructure and discontent among residents like Ng who feel their lives have been made worse, not better, by Macau's renaissance. Foreigners have flooded in with the boom and are competing with natives for plum jobs. Transportation systems have been taxed to breaking point by the 27 million tourists who visited last year. Calls for change have forced the government to scramble to appease a disgruntled public. "The gaming industry has been infiltrating into the community and creating a negative effect on the people," says Larry So, an associate professor of social work at the Macau Polytechnic Institute. "Now a lot of people in the lower middle class are saying, 'We are not satisfied.'"
Winners and Losers
Many in Macau have benefited from the flood tide of investment and tourism dollars, of course. But the gains haven't been spread evenly and some worry that Macau which once had a manufacturing sector to balance tourism as a source of jobs has become a one-trick economy that is dangerously reliant on the gaming industry. Gambling taxes now account for three-quarters of the government's revenues. The industry has grown so rapidly, it is even stunting the development of other sectors by vacuuming up the best talent. Says Lawrence Ho, CEO of Melco Crown Entertainment, one of Macau's casino operators: "When one sector grows so fast, the rest of the sectors can't catch up."
This imbalance is perhaps most evident in the city's strife-ridden labor market. The number of workers employed in the gaming and recreation sectors nearly tripled between 2003 and 2007 to 69,000, but many of the new jobs were filled by foreign workers from China, Hong Kong and the Philippines. In 2003, approximately one out of every 10 jobs was filled by a foreigner. By the first quarter of this year, that ratio rose to one in four. Although many of the choicest positions are reserved by regulation for locals all card dealers in casinos, for example, must be Macanese the surge of imported staff has led to complaints that outsiders are reaping a disproportionate amount of the benefits of Macau's boom. "We locals are losing our jobs and the government couldn't care less," gripes Chan Chi-wan, a 50-year-old construction worker. In many cases, moreover, wage increases are being offset by soaring inflation, currently running at an annual average rate of about 9%. Frustrated Macanese have taken to the streets in protest several times over the past few years. Although citizens have no history of civil disobedience, during a May Day labor march last year, workers scuffled with police, who fired into the air and accidentally wounded a passing motorcyclist.