Benjamin Carlson recaps how the Chinese government reeled in the triad gangs and cleaned up post-colonial Macau, where one former criminal leader emerged from prison recently to find “a city utterly transformed.” From Foreign Policy:
In the years leading up to Macau’s handover to China, triad violence surged as gangs vied for a bigger share of the pie that would be left after Portuguese power receded. The high point was 1999, the year of the handover, when 42 people died in gang-related attacks. Broken Tooth’s triad torched cars and was believed to have killed a Portuguese gambling official near the Casino Lisboa. At Wan’s disco, Heavy Club, a mannequin dressed in a police uniform reportedly dangled from a noose tied to the ceiling.
Under Portugal, a somewhat reluctant colonial power, the city had a sleepy air and a sluggish economy to match: a combination of triad violence and the Asian financial crisis caused Macau’s gross domestic product to contract by 6.8 percent in 1998. Portugal repeatedly tried to return Macau to China as part of its 1970s decolonization push, but Beijing refused to retake sovereignty until 1999. At the time of the handover, textile manufacturing dominated Macau’s economy, and the relatively small casino industry was controlled entirely by Stanley Ho. Seen in Macau as a sort of roguish, eccentric patriarch — part Howard Hughes, part Donald Trump — Ho allegedly earned the money to start his first business as a reward for single-handedly defeating pirates who attacked an employer’s ship during World War II.
Nowhere is the contrast between then and now more apparent than in the Lisboa, Ho’s landmark property and one of the city’s oldest and most iconic casinos. It was also Broken Tooth’s old haunt. Wan allegedly had a $50 million stake in a VIP room at the Casino Lisboa and was arrested in a suite at its hotel back in 1998. Then, the casino — a tacky structure resembling a multicolored onion — was guarded by a battalion of cops wielding automatic weapons. Today, the automatic weapons are gone, the casino has expanded with an enormous, glitzy addition shaped like a golden lotus flower, and the lobby is filled with tourists elbowing each other to pose in front of a life-sized gingerbread house. (The seamier side remains: A basement hallway below the Lisboa has a parade of prostitutes perpetually cat-walking between a restaurant and a fruit stand.)