Macau’s Dark Secret: The Truth Behind Asia’s Las Vegas

Macau cotai strip photo from above

The polarisation between the rich and the poor has been a huge talking point in Western culture recently but it is a discussion that is also going on in Eastern regions. No more so than in the Chinese enclave of Macau where the divide between the rich and the poor is larger than almost anywhere in the world.

The Great Divide

On 14th June, 2017, at least 79 people lost their lives when a fire engulfed a 24-storey, 220-feet high tower block called Grenfell Tower in London. It was a block of apartments housing some of the poorest citizens in the city.

An investigation into the fire soon found that cost-cutting measures resulted in flammable cladding being used to renovate the tower as opposed to non-flammable materials.

The public reaction was one that questioned how the poor could receive such unfair treatment in an area that was surrounded by some of the wealthiest individuals in the city living in the most privileged conditions.

Meanwhile, as that story continues to rage wild within the UK media, in the Far East, a similar controversy simmers.

outside of slum home in Macau
Typical local housing in Macau

Macau, located just 40 miles to the west of Hong Kong, is officially the world’s third wealthiest territory with a gross domestic product per person that is almost double that of people living in the UK, according to the IMF.

However, all is not as glittery as it would appear on the surface. Beneath the headlines and below the glamorous lights of the casinos there lies a darker world where the poor are made to labour to simply survive and the bottom 10% of earners in Macau are ignored.

A Thriving Economy

There can be no denying that Macau is a thriving economy. The casinos situated within the region generated revenues worth $28 billion in 2016.

That might be a lower figure than in 2015 but after a crackdown by the Chinese government on high roller players appeared to scare off big spenders, the politicians are now adopting a more relaxed approach and the whales are returning to the tables on the casino floor.

Tax on gambling equates to a staggering 70% of gambling revenues in Macau. That shows the region’s reliance on the casino industry.

Due to gambling being illegal on the Chinese mainland, Macau offers the opportunity for Chinese nationals to travel and gamble legally. This money all goes back into the Macau economy and that benefits the region as a whole.

There Is A Darkness In Amongst The Light

block of flats in Macau
An apartment block in Macau

Unfortunately, it is not all razzmatazz and showmanship in Macau. The shiny lights of the casinos such as the Venetian Macao, Casino Lisboa, and Sands Macao give the illusion that the whole of Macau is alive with prosperity and wealth. The reality could not be more depressing.

For every high roller that is gambling big at the blackjack table, there is a croupier who is earning low wages and eating ready-made noodles when they get home just to keep their head above the water in financial terms.

For every Macanese pataca that a rich businessman throws a worker as a tip, that Macanese pataca will go in that worker’s pocket to help them pay their next electricity bill.

One charity working within Macau, called Caritas, estimates that 7% of the Macau population are struggling to even be able to afford basic food rations.

It is a situation that has been blamed on government officials being hand-picked and not voted for by the members of the public. Legislative decisions are confined to those that own big businesses and have influence across the city.

Poverty Propping Up Prosperity

Away from the lavishness of the Cotai Strip are numerous districts that house those living on the bread line.

Areas such as the Iao Hon neighbourhood have almost 33% of its residents working in the casino industry. Whether it’s a waiter, croupier, receptionist, entertainer, or bell person. The individuals that are slumming it in these districts are the very people that are keeping the casinos alive with their hard work.

Iao Han neighborhood Macau
A third of the residents in the Iao Han area of Macau work at casinos Image Credit:

It defies belief that an industry that relies so heavily on people power to keep things ticking over, is actually run by people living on the precipice of survival.

Without the croupiers, or bar staff, or valets, what is the casino industry in Macau? It would be dead. Yet the casinos just hide these people away. Similar to the way Mayor Rudy Giuliani dealt with homelessness in New York during the 1990s. Out of sight, out of mind.

Sadly, it may be too late before anything is done to address this extreme unfairness in the balance of Macau society. It took the deaths of almost one hundred people at Grenfell Tower to make the polarisation of wealth a front-page topic of discussion in the UK.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take death to wake up the authorities in Macau to the travesty that is unfolding in front of their very eyes. Those living in poverty are the heartbeat of the casino industry in Macau. Take that away and, well, everyone knows what happens when a heart stops beating.