Macau–Macau is a special administrative district located 40 miles from the coast of Hong Kong. It’s a former Portuguese colony, currently controlled by the Chinese. Like Hong Kong, it enjoys considerable independence. There is no gambling on the Chinese mainland, but there are 18 casinos in Macau. There is more gambling than any city in the world, including Las Vegas.
I went there to play Texas Hold Em. I’d yet to cash in on the American Dream, so I figured I’d give it a whirl on the other side of the globe. The slogan for Macau, as advertised on countless tourist buses and signs, is The City of Dreams. But what sort of dream is Macau trying to realize?
The peninsula–where most of the population resides–is a schizophrenic place, with two different identities wrestling each other for control. You can experience the contrast most vividly at dawn. My first morning, I woke up freakishly early and took a jaunt to a park above my hotel. A number of newly paved running trails weaved through the woods. There were fountains and park benches alongside congregations of sage-looking Chinese men performing Tai Chi.
As I navigated my way upwards in elevation, I reached Guia lighthouse, formerly used by the Portuguese to defend the city from invaders. From there, I could see the whole peninsula; it looked like two worlds smashed into one. In the foreground sat rows of narrow avenues crowded with dilapidated apartments, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, laundrymats, spice stores and other local businesses. In the distance, towering casinos shot into the air like gilded geysers and brandished huge, illuminated signs beckoning patrons.
A dawn later, as the first rays of sunshine began to illuminate the city, I was inside the gambling maw, seated at the poker table at the Grand Lisboa Casino. I had intended to leave hours earlier, but around three a.m. two Chinese men wearing outlandish sunglasses and designer shirts had plopped down at my table with a 50,000 Hong Kong Dollar marker.
“Those guys are junket,” a British expat said to me.
“What’s the junket?”
“Most Chinese high rollers take out a loan with loan sharks in Macau. If they lose it, guys like that track them down in the mainland and either collect or machete their heads off. “
He added that the Junket were notorious for being extremely aggressive poker players. Sure enough, within five minutes of arriving at the table, they were stacking off with marginal hands and immediately reloading. They bet with the body language of men who use money as power. They didn’t slide their chips into pots; they picked them up in a single column and slammed them on the felt.
The other players at the table became unnerved by their presence. They were either intimidated by their strong bets, or induced into calling with terrible hands by the allure of breaking them for a big pot. Soon, the junket duo was rolling up big stacks. Then, a man sat down at the table, who I will never forget.
He was broad-shouldered with sandy, brown hair and a looseness in his movements that signaled a modest, yet intimidating confidence. He was silent and issued no greetings upon arriving, but simply bought in for the maximum. Then, from a plastic bag sitting next to him, he pulled out a pair of sunglasses and a large straw Vietnamese peasant hat. There was a chorus of laughter at the table, but the stranger’s lips didn’t even crack a smile.
Two hours later, I trailed him out of the casino into the brutal heat of the early morning sun. He had broken the junket–taken all their money with shocking ease– and sent them fleeing to the Baccarat table. He had not spoken a word the entire time. He was an enigma–a silent assassin–and as he left, his arms weighed down with chips, I dashed after him, only to watch him tip his hat to me as he peeled away on the back of a silver Kawasaki.