The Highs and Lows of China’s High Rollers

Al Jazeera’s Witness this week features a documentary about gambling addicts in Hong Kong. High/Low follows two Hong Kong locals who have lost money, pride, and the trust of loved ones around them.  Michael, an older man, lost tens of thousands of dollars speculating on the stock exchange. Ji, a young man, still struggles with his addiction:

Ji worked in a kitchen but spent most of his restless energy gambling or talking about gambling. It seemed to be his only dream, his only idea of how to escape the limits of his life. Wu tried to reason with Ji and told him to find meaning in his life away from gambling. But for Ji, like so many others in Hong Kong and Macau, the allure of gambling is in the fantasy it offers – the chance to reach for a life tantalisingly out of reach, the opportunity to be one of the lucky few. [Source]

The documentary is compelling. A very personal piece that offers a different, unexpected take on a city obsessed with money, wealth and consumption.

An AP report in The Washington Post looks at the bigger forces at play in China’s gambling scene in Leaving Las Vegas: How a tiny Chinese enclave is remaking the gambling world and Sin City. The report explains just how much more profitable Macau’s gaming industry is than the faltering casinos in the USA. Many US casino operators are focusing their attention on expanding their operations in Macau, but sometimes this means dealing with a seedier, scarier gambling culture:

Macau now powers three of the four largest American casino companies. Sands, Wynn Resorts Ltd and MGM Resorts International rode out the recession thanks to the gambling appetite of a region where notions of luck and fate are baked into the culture, and there is no religious taboo on games of chance.

But as U.S. corporations have remade Macau, Macau has remade them.

[…] When China reassumed sovereignty of Macau from Portugal in 1999 and abolished a longstanding gambling monopoly, U.S. companies rushed in to try their luck. Since then, annual revenue in the former backwater has grown tenfold, stacking up to $38 billion; four times that of Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined. […] Macau is in the midst of one of the greatest gambling booms the world has ever known. To rival it, Las Vegas would have to attract six times as many visitors; essentially every man, woman and child in America.

But like early Las Vegas, Macau has a long history of ties to crime syndicates, in this case sinister brotherhoods that first came into being on the mainland more than a century ago called triads. […] Sleepy town squares became incongruous backdrops for machine-gun shoot-outs, bombings and even assassinations of top-level government officials. In the late 1990s, a senior police official tried to reassure tourists by saying that Macau had “professional killers who don’t miss their targets.” [Source]

The article examines dodgy dealing with junket operators and informal banking which results from strict monetary policies that do not allow Chinese citizens to get their big bucks out of China to gamble. And some of this casino crime culture is starting to spring up in the USA as well. Junket operators are under the scrutiny of the Treasury, and triad violence has been seen in Las Vegas.

Recently, Hong Kong’s Wynn casino was cleared of wrongdoing in an investigation of a US$135  million donation to a university in Macau. The federal investigation lasted six months, and considered whether of not the donation had violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act – a law that bars US companies from paying off officials to win business overseas.

A recent piece in The Global Times shifts the focus to the Philipines, which is also becoming a popular gambling destination for Chinese high rollers. And the crooked gambling culture has made its way there as well:

Casinos attracted Chinese businesspeople to the country via agents on the Chinese mainland. Brokers then offered credit to Chinese visitors to gamble, and when large debts were accrued, they told them to ask their family to pay.

[…]The masterminds behind the schemes are not necessarily Filipinos however. A network of Chinese agents is also active on the Chinese mainland. They track down customers and offer them the chance to gamble in places such as the Philippines, even if they don’t have the money to do so. [Source]



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